The first game from Bucharest-based developer Sand Sailor Studios, Black The Fall tells the story of a single worker's journey through a dilapidated country to free himself from the tyrannical and oppressive ruling party. It's a simple premise coupled with simple puzzle-based gameplay that tells a fairly straightforward story.
This simplicity extends into the graphical style, and a lot of the early color scheme is restricted to the use of black, white, and red. There's a simple but effective color theory at play here - white represents the main character, freedom, and resistance. Black is for hiding and confusion and provides heavy contrast against the white. Red is for threats. The trick works, as you're rarely confused as to whether something is a threat or an ally, and entering into a white-lit area tends to signify a break from the crushing repression of the regime. Later in the game, this rigid structure relaxes, and you're introduced into areas with a more varied color palette, introducing a more complex series of emotions that reflect your character's journey through the world.
While the visual fidelity may not be up to the current AAA standard, the art itself is incredible, and it's obvious a lot of work went into Black The Fall's visual design. The early design of levels is industrial and clean, in an oppressive sort of way. It contrasts heavily with the run-down appearance of later, less populous areas. It's a simple way of telling you the priorities of the ruling elite, and it works extremely well.
However, we need to address the elephant in the room. Black The Fall has more than a few similarities to Playdead's Inside. With similar approaches to gameplay and visual design, you could easily be forgiven for mistakenly assuming one for the other. Look closer, and there are enough differences here that it's clearly not a copy-paste job. Both games use strong contrasts between colors to denote the differences between danger and safety, but Black The Fall has a more downtrodden and miserable feel to it. Inside has character designs that emphasize certain features on humanoid models - such as the largeness of the protagonist's head - and Inside used that to invoke the grotesqueness that we've come to expect from Playdead. Black The Fall is meant to be miserable and more relatable, and the more realistic character designs emphasize those feelings, instead relying on the strangeness of the surroundings and enemies to invoke unease in the player.
It's also worth mentioning the game's use of sound. A lack of background music really helps to emphasize the nature of the world the player finds themselves in. The soundscape is often composed purely of diegetic sounds from the environment itself; you can often hear the next room before you see it, and that creates its own sense of tension. Later, the use of sound mellows a little, and the game introduces some haunting background tracks to fit each change of scene, and one of the later sequences has a short but exceptionally fun section that has you navigate and dodge hazards by the use of sound alone. If it had gone on any longer it might have become frustrating, but it's perfectly timed and works as a great change of pace.
Black The Fall's gameplay offers the standard experience you can expect from a modern 2.5D adventure-puzzle game. If you're not familiar with games like Inside or Limbo, you'll find that gameplay centers around moving your character from one screen to another while avoiding enemies and solving puzzles. It's a simple explanation, but the game is often anything but. You come across an arm-mounted laser pointer early on that lets the main character interact with machinery and command other slaves. Many of the early puzzles make a lot of these interactions, and there are some fun little puzzles involving line of sight, and ensuring your slaves aren't put back to work by the enemy overseers. However, it's far from a defining gimmick, and it doesn't add enough depth to the gameplay to make it truly special.
The same can be said for the robot dog you meet later in the game. It's an interesting addition to the puzzles and something you have to remember to use properly, but you're not going to find anything as groundbreaking as Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun, or Portal's Portal Gun. The controls are tight, and there was rarely a moment when I felt I wasn't in control, but there were moments where the model "settling" after movement appeared to move the player character into a new position. That's admittedly minor, but it did sometimes mean the difference between staying on a ledge and falling off.
There's a definite political stance in Black The Fall, and it doesn't take a degree in Political Studies to find it. The developers at Sand Sailor Studios definitely wear their opinions on their sleeve, and while it's no big secret, I certainly think that you should go into the game not knowing their views. Annoyingly, it's all over their Steam page - but try to avoid it if you can. For what it's worth, it's an angle that's rarely explored in video games, and it's pretty neat. While it doesn't contribute much to the gameplay, it's a large part of the implied narrative of the game, and the game's big reveal moment should come as a nice "ohhh" moment for anyone who didn't see it coming.
This political element is clearly the part that Sand Sailor Studios were hoping would resonate with the players of the game, and while the impact is somewhat tempered by the fantastical art choices and presentation, it's clear that they were hoping this would be the part of the game that would keep people talking long after they finished the game. Unfortunately, the game stops short of actually saying much about the politics in itself -- there are definite references to political dystopias like George Orwell's 1984, but those references tend to dilute the experience, making Black The Fall more of a typical, run-of-the-mill dystopia, rather than something unique in itself. That, coupled with the fantastical elements that divorce the game from reality, waters down the political message into something quite bland.
All-in-all, Black The Fall is good. It does some fun things with sound, the art is jaw-droppingly beautiful at times, and the way the game's various elements have been constructed is worth thinking about if you're interested in that sort of thing. However, Black The Fall isn't a game that's going to change the world, and it's entirely probable you'll forget about it as soon as you finish it. There are no massive WTF questions that will hang over you for weeks, or invite you to think about the essential nature of man. But if you're a fan of this sort of game, then Black The Fall's puzzles, fun little robot, and use of various elements are a fun way to spend a few hours. Just don't expect anything ground-breaking, and revel in the world that Sand Sailor Studios has created.
Black The Fall is a decent way to spend a few hours, with good puzzles, fun world-building, and great design that's all let down by a lack of any real depth.
- Great Art & Sound Design
- Engaging World
- Interesting Political Ideas
- Occasional Janky Animations
- Unoriginal Gameplay
- May Not Appeal To Players Unfamiliar With The Genre