If I took a tequila shot for every atmospheric puzzle-platformer I’ve played since LIMBO first blessed us in 2010, I would’ve died three years ago.
The arty puzzle-platformer is a dime a dozen nowadays, ever since Braid graced us with it’s unique gameplay premise and unorthodox storytelling that might’ve been about a nuclear bomb, or something. So, from there, everyone had their own knock at it, with varying results of success. From the brilliance of The Turing Test and Thomas Was Alone, to the misplaced efforts of Lumo and The Witness, here we have Black The Fall trying to have a piece of the pie.
Black The Fall is a game about communism, coming to us from Sand Sailor Studio, a Romanian team whose main goal is to spread the stories of the Communist regime in Romania through their releases, starting with Black The Fall, a game which starts with you watching a number make it’s way towards zero. Ironic then, that it’s published by Square Enix.
So, you’re “Worker #9289”, whose day consists of being guided by a laser pointer to ride a bike, which in turn powers a mine and then you sleep. Rinse and repeat for the rest of your life, OR risk escape for an ambiguous future. Armed with a laser pointer designed for cats, and your technical know-how of knowing gravitational workings, you’re on the run, evading fat Commies and bullets for the hopes of a better tomorrow.
Real quick, before we get into this, I’m just going to put out the fact that you’ve probably already played this type of game before. Twice, in fact, as the game isn’t just heavily reminiscent of Playdead’s seminal LIMBO and Inside, but it practically feels like a fan-mod, with none of the weight behind it. I’ve seen paint dry with more emotion. I’ve watched grass grow with more anticipation. Wondering whether the sun will rise tomorrow is a more exciting prospect than guessing the upcoming events of Black The Fall.
I’m not going to mince words; I didn’t like Black The Fall. In one way, it was because of it’s sheer absence of stakes. We’re just a guy who wants to leave, and that’s it. Who are we? What happened? Why did Communism win? HOW did Communism win? It’s not like LIMBO where’s there’s the “clear” goal of trying to rescue your sister from hell, or The Turing Test where you have to reunite with your squad that you’ve known for six years or so, no, this is just a guy that we ASSUME can make a living afterwards with all his freed comrades? The comrades he uses like the antagonists?
That’s another thing as well, for a message about being free in the world, your protagonist doesn’t take that to heart that often, with him showing no remorse or emotion, in order to save his fellow slaves. You can’t do an Oddworld where you can lead people out with some contrived Macguffin, you just move on. Apparently, you get some sort of ED-E rip-off later in the game which hopefully blasts lasers into Lenin’s face, but I’ll never find out, as we’ll come to later.
And because communism never worked, it only makes sense for Sand Sailor Studio to continue that theme in terms of gameplay, which is just stealthy side-scrolling. And boy, is it dull. The unique gameplay gimmick for this title is a laser pointer, which you use to activate switches and the slaves around you, who have these weird backpacks on them, full of, I don’t know, the brain slugs from Futurama. This isn’t that bad, and the puzzles do make you think sometimes, but for the most part, it’s just redirecting lasers and sneaking past guards, which is rather token.
Your guy has to dodge cameras, and guards with an awful weight problem, in order to progress to the end. Cameras and guards which have a bipolar range and sense of hearing, as you can spend your time on your hands and knees and be spotted because a guard spotted your fingernail in the reflection of a mirror on Venus, but you can also sprint past them, making enough noise to wake up somebody who’s asleep on Venus, and they will continue shuffling their fat legs, wondering what’s for tea.
But that wasn’t enough to break me. Oh no, sir. That was when I reached a part dodging air vents blowing out steam, which seems easy enough, but then the game grew dimmer, until you had to dodge them in the dark, which was perplexing, considering I have a goddamn backpack flashlight on me from the beginning. Six hours. I spent SIX. HOURS. DODGING. DARKNESS. But then, I saw it. A sight so beautiful, I wept from it’s possible existence. Light.
I was close to bliss. I was steps away from finishing this awful blind faith test. And as I ran to the exit, my character froze. Confused and bewildered, I stared at the screen, wondering what had happened. And that’s when the game crashed, booting me back to the Xbox One Home Screen. I quickly booted the game back up, only for me to have my save file corrupted. I bent down to look at anything but the screen. Nothing could escape my mouth but a breathless laugh.
Anger is what defines Black The Fall for me. Nothing in this game has any sort of originality to it, except the new-found rage that came out of me. From the aesthetic, to the gameplay, to the story, you’ve seen it all before, told in better ways and in a shorter package. It’s LIMBO Inside The Turing Test of 1984, made by someone who just watched THX 1138 and The Matrix for the first time.
I understand what Sand Sailor Studio are trying to do with this, and it’s always inspiring to see people try to bring the awful events of their country to mainstream media, but the way they’ve attempted to show it here is so dull and one-note that it’s a wonder the developers stayed awake to make it. If you really wanted to show how bad the Communist Party was in those times, the finished project should have been more grounded in reality, a la This War of Mine, especially since the topic on display would be much more interesting.
Here’s to Sand Sailor, and hoping that they can create a game that has its own skin, rather than the skin of others, with the blood still dripping off of it.
A platformer as lifeless as the political regime it's based on, it splutters with inspiration before conking out with its bad gameplay choices and a lack of its own spark.