This will mark the second time that the Square Enix Collective has surprised me with a title that seemingly came from no where. I was first blown away by the amazing experience that was The Turing Test last year, and now they have done it again with the incredible and highly satisfying Black the Fall. I really had no expectations when I fired this game up on my PS4 but it did not take very long to realise this game had me hooked, and what proceeded was a thought provoking and powerfully moving experience that left me with more to think about afterwards then I had going into the game.
Black the Fall puts you in the role of a worker who has suffered under this regime for decades. At the start of his next shift, he takes the opportunity to try and escape the factory he is captive in with the task of navigating through the building whilst trying to avoid the security made up of tyrannical guards and lethally armed security bots. It was made abundantly clear by the ferocity of the opening puzzle alone, that failure, any failure, resulted in death. Each security camera is equipped with a gun, if they spot you they will shoot you. If you miss time a jump you may fall to your death. The harsh penalty for failing can be a driving force to do better, with the trial and error method to find a solution to the problem pushing you to explore different options with a quick instant death to let you know how far away from the real solution you are. It does bring a level of frustration at times but I will come to this a little later on.
Puzzles can rage from the simplistic find a switch to activate this exit to a multi step process of manipulating the environment and people in it in order to create a route out to the next screen. What struck me most is that the main hero character Black, does not start off as a hero. Instead he is really rather quite selfish with the single minded sole purpose of gaining his freedom. This became more apparent once Black obtains the control gauntlet from one of the guards, which acts as a laser pointer of sorts capable of issuing commands and controlling access panels. It both adds a level of character depth the player must come to grips with, but adds a new layer to problem solving. The gauntlet can be used to instruct workers to change position or to activate various switches and devices. The dilemma is that at times, giving commands to workers can put them in mortal peril at times either by making them change position that will trigger a security camera or just by manipulating them to open an exit route for black to take.
It all helps build this dystopia world around Black, helped along with the impact of the beautifully drawn visuals. Everything serves a purpose in Black the Fall and the design of the different rooms and environments in this game help tell the story without the use of blocks of text on screen or the spoken word. Understanding that the environment itself can be used to create puzzles and obstacles to overcome will help when they become more devious in the later stages of the game. Soon Black will find a friend of sorts in the form of a robotic dog who can be instructed to activate panels or deactivated which turns it into a metal block enabling Black to reach higher vantage points. The longer you play the more all these gameplay elements start to feel natural and solutions become more visible based on your earlier experiences which the game will react to by making you think more outside the box for solutions, some of which will have you questioning Black’ selfishness to a degree.
The themes and symbolism within this game are tough to see at times. Seeing the effects on the people of severe oppression and imagery of brutality and slavery whilst seeing the courage of Black as he continues to resist and fight back against the regime in order to gain his own freedom which ultimately, by making a stand starts to inspire others to also rise up but still coming down to Black himself just fighting for his own survival and right to be free. Such imagery and themes are powerful storytelling elements and are at the soul of this game with the audio, music and visuals coming together to compliment the puzzle solving and journey of Black as a character.
I also loved the very minimal loading screens this game featured when traversing to new areas and environments. Even re-spawning after failing a puzzle takes a couple of seconds and puts you where you fell; removing the grind of having to replay multiple puzzles should you die. This is a very high polished game for what is the debut title for developer Sand Sailor Studio. Their attention the smallest detail whether is a visual or audio moment or just a background animation scene that you may miss on your first time through the story shows the passion and drive to deliver a solid and fluid experience in the gameplay and storytelling. There are so many nice touches that you will need to play this game a good few times in order to experience it all, especially with the clever little secrets dotted around for the keen eyed players to find giving it a replay factor in just that alone. I first completed this game at the three to four hour mark. Upon learning the puzzles and their solutions I was able to speed run through at just under 90 minutes. That is not a criticism of the game but instead shows the natural fluidity it has that even by speeding through it still gave me a satisfying experience when discovering new things each time I played.
Sadly my only real bugbear with this game has to be the precision jumping often required in the platforming element to the gameplay. This was my only source of frustration ass the controls felt clumsy and fiddly when a jump missed by millimeters would result in an instant death and having to redo that puzzle again and at times I never felt it was my mistake over the controls just being annoying which luckily the super fast respawns helped take the edge of that grumble. This game will also make you work hard for those precious trophies and achievement pops, with most seemingly saved for finding secrets within the game which again adds a level to the re-playability considering that once you know the puzzles and solutions, the challenge really only becomes in finding those secrets.
Black the Fall has been a genuine highlight of this gaming year so far and a surprising one. I did not expect to be so gripped by its puzzles but equally how effective the story telling would be as well. It has powerful and evocative themes and imagery with a truly somber tone to the harsh reality which highlights that in the real world, thousands of people who are suffering from oppressive regimes must be experiencing to a degree. It does not glorify the actions of Black, who for me at the very least, is less the traditional hero main character as his motives are largely selfish although his quest for freedom can still be seen as a call to resist and stand up.
I have avoided talking about the key moments in the story to avoid spoilers, this is definitely a game to experience for yourself and with a very manageable completion time, this is a very satisfying experience for one or two gaming sessions leaving the player with the opportunity to explore further in finding the secrets making replaying this game a must after completion. I am so impressed with the quality of this game from Sand Sailor Studio and really happy with Square Enix Collective once again bringing a very different gaming experience for such a small price tag of £11.99 that is remarkable value for money right now.
To put it simply, you owe it to yourself and your console to play this game, it really is that special and stands up well against the big blockbuster titles available now and shows exactly what can be achieved with a passion for good game development and an even stronger passion for delivering great story telling and challenging gameplay.