I have always made the argument that when it comes to video games, top quality gameplay can overcome shoddy storytelling. Whether it be the borderline pointless simplicity of a Mario or the overwrought nonsense of a Bayonetta, the storytelling in these games is essentially rendered inconsequential by the magnificent core gameplay that fundamentally drives the experience. Sure, it’s great when the two worlds collide successfully ala Portal 2 or The Last of Us, but whether it be an in-depth story being fundamentally at odds with the gameplay or the story in question simply being a bit, well, rubbish, a video game experience can almost always overcome these shortcomings with stellar gameplay and solid mechanics.
Does it work the other way around though? Can poor or mediocre gameplay be overlooked if the storytelling and narrative is of an exceptionally high standard? While Telltale’s collection of mostly brilliant licensed releases from the past few years would certainly suggest so, those games were not what anyone would call, ‘traditional’ video game experiences. Sure, you control a character and interact with your surroundings, but above all else, they really are interactive storybooks at heart. The Fall however, that’s a much more ‘gamey’ experience – the fundamental gameplay rests upon easily recognisable tropes and mechanics with the core gameplay a familiar blend of actions and controls that gamers will be immediately accustomed to. It looks like a video game and it plays like a video game……or to be more precise – it looks and plays like a decidedly average video game.
On a purely technical level, The Fall is just, ok. A 2D action puzzler that feels like a cross between Limbo (your ‘awakening’ at the start feels all but ripped directly from Playdead’s relentlessly oppressive puzzle platformer) and the equally dark, if not quite as oppressive, The Swapper. The combat is fine and the puzzles are decent, even if they can be a tad obtuse at times. Nothing is wrong with any of this, but equally, there is very little that you won’t have seen done better elsewhere. The story though, the delivery, the themes, that’s all top-notch. Again, the tale of quietly evolving A.I. is nothing new, but the way it is dealt with here is consistently interesting, unique and thought-provoking.
As a video game, The Fall is mediocre, but thanks to the characters, themes and storytelling, the overall experience is elevated to within inches of being downright essential. The mediocre mechanics do ultimately hold it back from greatness, but make no mistake, this is a video game that deserves to be played regardless of its underlying issues. Rich in atmosphere and characterisation, The Fall is an experience that looks to challenge your mind rather than your thumbs by encouraging you to consider deep, interesting questions on morality, A.I. and the nature of consciousness.
Opening on an alien world with Colonel Josephs left in a critical condition, it is left to ARID, an assistant A.I. capable of controlling the wearer’s space suit to get the colonel to safety before he dies from his injuries by taking control of the suit and essentially dragging him to safety. While that initially feels like an excuse for slightly stilted character animations (which, The Fall has), it soon becomes clear that this is instead used as an excuse to follow an A.I as it gradually moves towards a sense of emotional connection and genuine humanity.
With your progression hindered by the ‘Caretaker’ of the alien android facility that you find yourself trapped in, The Fall essentially becomes an intriguing character study that balances between the rigid, process-driven and often mechanically ruthless, Caretaker and the much more humanised and optimistic mainframe of the facility. ARID subsequently falls somewhere in the middle with the A.I.’s complex and consistently interesting progression culminating in a genuinely compelling story with a truly unforgettable finale.
Planned as the first part of a trilogy, The Fall does an exceptional job of providing plenty of closure while simultaneously leaving you wanting more from future instalments. Yes, the mechanics are functional rather than genuinely compelling and the puzzles are solid rather than exceptional, but the mood created, the atmosphere, characters and storytelling, it’s all top-notch. I asked at the top of this review whether mediocre gameplay can be overlooked if the storytelling and narrative is of an exceptionally high standard – the answer it seems, at least in the case of, The Fall, is a resounding yes. This is storytelling of the highest order and well worth experiencing despite the games’ relatively mediocre gameplay.
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