Monday 2 August 2021

The Falconeer Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas Sharpe

It’s hard not to be impressed by a solo developer who attempts to furnish the player with a multiple-perspective story, aerial combat, open-world, falcon straddlin’ experience. This is, however, thusly and therefore, a tall, tall order.

The story is introduced by a sort of shaman as a delving into the past, asking what memories will be discovered through your choice of falconeer, the titular role you play. You discover an ocean world that is charmingly and capably realised; outposts sit atop atolls, volcanic islands seep, lightning ripples among storms, and fluid dynamics are cleverly subverted in watery valleys. The world itself oozes atmosphere, sitting somewhere between Magic Carpet and Windwaker. The palette is undeniably reminiscent of Sea of Thieves (the previously joyful breath of salty sea air, but now full-blown wallet-centric pirating jaunt) with rich, vivid colours and stylised touches abound. The character portraits are not quite as impressive, but just about hold up. The world does feel special, but I couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed by the rather generic lore that populates it.

The player is presented with a jostling miasma of factions that are quite familiar to us, but this is not enough to dull the experience alone. The player engagement with them was the mood-killer for me. The primary loop is exactly that. A loop. You have a briefing for a mission, travel across the wonderful world, pick-up an item/destroy a target/escort/meet a character (or a blend of one or two of these), and then return. You can often skip the travel to get to the key mission “beats”, but the aerial combat is only just compelling enough.

There are several elements to the combat, balancing stamina of your bird with positioning, evasion and aggression. This is an arcadey, fantasy experience, not Il-Sturmovik 2, or even the equally repetitive Star Wars: Squadrons, and so it has this Panzer Dragoon and Magic Carpet feeling to it. There is nothing really very wrong with it, but it is just shy of being exciting. Most weapons lack impact and guts, and there is little sense of tension during the falcon equivalent of dog-fighting. This sense of a lack of excitement can carry to general travel, as there is a distinct lack of speed. It favours this, admittedly nice, sense of soaring, wheeling and swooping. I was eager to feel speedy dives and screeching hard turns. It is nice being like that irritating kid from The Neverending Story on that weird dog-worm atrocity, calmly breezing through the air, but you also want to be Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, screaming and flapping to victory.

There is so much heart in The Falconeer. The spirited voice acting is naive yet joyful, puncturing any sense of over-seriousness. This is fun, wide-eyed and wondrous stuff, but invested in the wrong areas to keep my interest. It is crass to suggest what the developer should have done, but to have this world uncoupled from a main mission as a sandbox with some quests to achieve, a-la Sunless Sea or even Mount & Blade, may well have served the strength of the world better than a rather unconvincing story-mode. I ached to be able to trade, swoop about, encounter pirates, discover fantastic scenery, but I could only really access any life in this wonderfully realised world through the main quest.

I played The Falconeer with a controller on a PC, and I feel it would also be an effective diversion on the Switch. This title is proof that developer Tomas Sala has real potential as a top-class indie developer, even if I wasn’t fully swept away. A studio to watch.

Overall 7/10

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