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Developer: Tomas Sala Publisher: Wired Productions Format: PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One Released: 11th of October, 2020 Time played: 8 hours, 42 minutes Copy received free, courtesy of SassyGamers.com
Amidst this July, I’ve had the opportunity to play a wide array of games, both old and new. My fiancée and I have set aside the time to play through the entire Metal Gear Solid series (spin-offs included), hot off the heels of our marathon of the entire Resident Evil franchise. Alongside these series, we’ve been making our way through the wonderful new JRPG Scarlet Nexus, whilst my personal time has included second playthroughs of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order.
As phenomenal as these games may be, they’re all quite traditional games within their respective genres. So you have Tactical Espionage Action games, survival horror games, role-playing games, a Souls-like game… But Falconeer doesn’t really fit into any distinct genre or category. Whilst it may take inspiration from a number of other genres, it remains unique and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in recent memory. Thus, when I was approached with the opportunity to play through it and put my thoughts out into the world: I leaped at the chance.
Graphics & Aesthetics
The first thing that struck me as I began exploring the world of The Falconeer was its unusually clean art style, something that I suspect would grab most people’s attention upon initially seeing the game. It has somewhat of a low poly aesthetic but with enough stylish effects for it to still stand out amongst the highly detailed games that the current generation has to offer. The developer himself, Tomas Sala, describes the game as being “textureless,” with a fascinating design technique that focuses on shading, color, and atmosphere rather than actual detail. As a result, the game feels quite minimalistic in terms of graphical fidelity, but it was clearly the correct choice for The Falconeer as it has resulted in a thematically coherent and immersive world with buckets full of tonal consistency.
Vast towers, statues, and structures function as settlements in the game and are scattered around the ocean, climbing far into the clouds above. Just about every settlement I came across resulted in a beautiful yet melancholic vista, juxtaposing greatly with the temperamental sea beneath me: Calm one moment and ferocious the next as I find myself deliberately flying through tempestuous clouds in order to drain them of their lightning and recharge my weaponry. These captivating visuals result in an incredibly immersive experience (stylistically speaking), which is accompanied by an exquisite ambient soundtrack. Whilst I did hear some of the combat music tracks repeat a few times too many, the haunting dulcet tones playing quietly in the background when traversing from one island to another added much to my experience. It wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Unfortunately, though, I often found myself distracted from the quality of the visuals and soundtrack due to a number of issues, not least of which is some extremely mixed quality voice acting. Almost every time I found myself finally getting intrigued by the wordy, overcomplicated lore-based storyline (thanks to a small handful of phenomenally talented voice actors), the immersion was quickly torn away from me by a large number of the cast either mispronouncing the game’s own terminology, blowing out their microphones due to a lack of a pop filter, or hamming up eccentric accents in ways that didn’t suit the game’s tone even slightly…
An even worse offender for immersion-breaking moments is the severity of the bugs that taint the experience. There may not be all that many bugs in terms of quantity, but they are consistently present, ranging from a vast amount of idle and essential mission dialogue remaining completely silent rather than playing their voice acting to a large number of invisible walls blocking your path and affecting your maneuverability during main mission sequences. There were even a couple of moments during the main story where I somehow sequence broke the game by completing an objective before it was triggered, causing the game to become soft-locked until I restarted the mission. Not to mention that there was one moment towards the end of the game’s first chapter wherein I somehow managed to die during a cutscene after beating the campaign, only to have to replay the entire final mission of said campaign again. The bugs are frustrating and severely damaged my immersion at any given moment; A real shame considering the amount of effort put into making the visuals and soundtrack so appealing.
Setting all that aside for the moment, though, let’s talk about the actual content of the game. At its core, The Falconeer is an open-world aerial dogfighting game with a simplistic stat-based level-up system, some minor customization options, a few complex trading mechanics, and a large number of main missions to complete. Alongside this is an infinite number of procedurally generated side missions for the sake of farming currency and six short-time trials for the racing gamer in all of us. In terms of structure, the game is divided into a prologue, 5 campaigns, and an epilogue, totaling out 42 main missions.
Completing the main missions only takes 5 to 10 minutes each, whilst side missions tend to fall on the shorter side due to their lack of story. I will take a moment to mention that it’s quite a nice change of pace to play a game with such easily digestible small pieces of content. It allows you to drop in and out of the game at a moment’s notice, and thanks to the fact that The Falconeer autosaves after just about every action you take with more or less non-existent loading times: Abruptly quitting and loading back in amounts to no hassle whatsoever.
Nevertheless, it’s confession time: I must say that I found the campaign layout and class system to be excessively confusing at first. In terms of campaign selection, any campaign (besides the epilogue) can be played in any order, even though they chronologically all take place in a linear fashion. I can certainly imagine somebody stating that they find the concept of the Mancer Order campaign to be the most interesting and therefore opting to play through it first, only to end up deeply confused by the fact that it is the fifth chapter chronologically, with no prior warning whatsoever.
This confusion is not helped by the fact that, upon selecting a campaign, you are hastily swept into a character creator mechanic with no real explanation of what most of your options will do. The reality is that the majority of this mechanic is cosmetic: First, you select an avatar for your character (which you never really see outside of the menus), then you select a gender presentation between masculine and feminine avatars. Following this, you select a class that determines your Falconeer’s stats and (depending on whether you own the Hunter DLC class) whether your mount is a Falcon or an Ormir Dragon.
The reason this is so overwhelming is that none of this is truly explained to you as the player… There’s no notation to state “select your avatar!” for example. Instead, you are merely given a confusing panel of randomly selected character names and titles to scroll through, implying this choice will associate you with a specific faction or house when it will actually do no such thing. There is no toggle labeled “gender presentation” either; Merely a couple of arrows that appear to either side of your procedurally generated name, which you can swap between without any clear indication of what’s being altered. Perhaps this is just a personal issue, but I found it to be remarkably unclear, despite being such a basic aspect of the game. Disappointingly though, confusion abounds in the gameplay itself…
The first campaign opens to a collection of menus with very little context. One tab of the menu accosts me with vast amounts of lore for this Falconeer’s home settlement of Dunkle, overwhelming me with new terminology and the names of several factions and houses that I cannot comprehend this early on in the game. Another menu tab starts to voice the story of my first main objective whilst supplying an eye-watering amount of detail across the center of the screen, including the mission’s name, difficulty rating, a map of its objectives, a mission bio being read aloud, and the rewards for victory. A third tab offers a list of side missions with a similar amount of quest details whilst the fourth tab is a shop filled with various ammo pots, mutagens, and primary weapons to equip, along with a collection of permits I must buy before I’m allowed to trade at other settlements. The fifth and final tab features a man who offers to sell me a young Warbird if I can find and finish the Dunkle Time Trial hidden within the open world.
A few hours in, and I understand clearly that this is just how the settlement system works. By that point, it all makes perfect sense to me, and I recognize what each section of the menu’s UI means. Yet, without any clear and concise tutorials to spell things out as an introduction to the mechanic, it becomes very easy to feel completely and utterly lost in the vast and complex world of the Ursee. I certainly don’t expect or want to go through an entire hand-holding section at the beginning of any game, but when it comes to tutorials getting in the way of content: Moderation is key. If given that choice, I would personally always opt for a small (skippable) pop-up explaining how each tab functions, as opposed to a half an hour-long tutorial or having no tutorial at all. That middle ground would have gone a long way to smoothing out the opening hours of The Falconeer.
Finally, the time has come for me to ascend to the skies and begin my first mission on behalf of the people of Dunkle. Right off the bat, I feel like I’m getting whiplash from the inconsistent quality of the controls. On the one hand, soaring through the sky feels intuitive and satisfying in every single way. The controls are smooth and well defined, allowing the player to perform a variety of maneuvers. I gently redirect myself throughout the sky, I turn sharply by utilizing gratifying barrel rolls, I creep cautiously higher into the clouds above, and I dive gracefully towards the ocean below with momentum increasing plunge.
On the other hand, even the slightest tilt of the camera causes an awkward, jarring movement that could only be described as being both finicky and slippery at the same time. The camera rotates all the way around your mount to observe the corners behind you with even the slightest adjustment before snapping back to its original forward-facing position the moment you take your thumb away from the analog stick. Throughout the game, I found myself frequently losing focus of my surroundings, my allies, and my enemies thanks to this extreme degree of sensitivity. It almost feels like the fluidity of the movement and the rigidity of the camera controls are constantly battling it out with each other.
Combat is, of course, the mechanic most affected by these camera issues. Keeping track of your enemies amidst the throes of a fast-paced aerial dogfight is remarkably difficult in The Falconeer, especially when you discover that the game’s targeting system continuously locks onto your allies by mistake. Whilst the issue is somewhat remedied by the alternate chase camera (which you can use to force your camera into automatically focusing on your currently locked on target), this is far from perfect. The alternate chase camera still swings to the target with the same speed and intensity as the standard camera’s motion, disorientating you further by changing the movement controls of your mount in relation to the camera’s new position. Sounds hard to get to grips with, right? Well, it very much is.
Outside of these camera issues, the combat still manages to feel somewhat lacking. Not bad by any means but certainly not fleshed out, as primary weapons never manage to feel impactful when striving to defeat your opponents. Their sound effects are weak, and the visual effects they create when hitting an opponent are more comparable to a quickly expanding puff of smoke than any form of explosion or zapping effect. Whilst variety can be found amongst the game’s eight different primary weapon types. This shortcoming always seemed to be present; A problem which only got worse as the enemies gained more and more health, disproportionately so when compared with the amount of damage I was taking even with a seemingly maxed out health stat. To put it simply: As the enemies became more and more like bullet sponges, I felt more and more outclassed.
The mounts are also armed with a secondary weapon in the form of Pyro Pots, which break up into several missile projectiles that home in on their nearest target. They feel significantly more impactful than any of the primary weapons provided but cannot be customized or swapped out for any secondary weapon variant beyond a few minor upgrades to the number of missiles fired. All in all, that’s the full extent of the game’s combat. It’s perfectly serviceable, it certainly functions, but you’ll always find yourself lacking impact in terms of both responsiveness and damage numbers, all whilst waging an uphill battle against the camera controls.
So what’s left to be said about The Falconeer? Well, outside of combat: Not much. Besides gaining currency to trade with settlements for minor weapon tier upgrades or mutagens that increase your stats by trivial amounts, there isn’t much to do in the open world. The time trials are small in number, incredibly brief, and fraught with the previously mentioned invisible walls. The main missions provide an interesting and intriguing story, but there is very little pay-off to any of the game’s core events besides learning some more of the Great Ursee’s lore. It’s an empty feeling world when you’re just exploring, but I wouldn’t classify that as a bad thing, given that it helps set a very lonely tone for the life of a Falconeer. Honestly, a part of me feels that it’s a nice change of pace to have an open-world game that prioritizes the main story as being the bulk of the content.
When all is said and done, if you know exactly what you are getting into and are not put off by the £24.99 / $29.99 price tag, then The Falconeer may well be worth your time. The combat can be clunky and unsatisfying at times, the menus may well be confusing to new players, and if you go in expecting a thriving world filled to the brim with side content, then you’re going to be disappointed. But if you just want to relax, fly about, look at gorgeous vistas for a while, and get somewhat invested in some convoluted but absorbing lore, then you should definitely look up some footage of The Falconeer to see if it piques your interest.
It is a massively impressive game to have been created by a single developer (Tomas Sala should be proud regardless of its perceived flaws), and it is a very stylistically unique experience even if it isn’t the most competent aerial dogfighter in the world. Perhaps its upcoming expansion, “Edge of the World,” will flesh it out a tad more and smooth out some of those camera issues, but as it stands, only time will tell…