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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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Preview: Black The Fall (Steam)

Another day, another preview. Black The Fall strikes home in the most literal way imaginable, since I don’t get to write very often about Romanian indie games. This particular title is sufficient proof that Romanians can create self-sustaining projects and not just provide textures or quality assurance for big gaming companies. Debutante developer Sand Sailor Studio has been working on Black The Fall since 2014 and the game has changed drastically over the years. It witnessed a successful Kickstarter campaign and the support of Square Enix, during the final phase of development. Right now, it’s less than a month away from the retail release on Steam along with PS4 and Xbox One versions as well.

The press build I had the opportunity to test out, offered 14 short chapters that could be regarded more as elaborate scenes, connected to one another. Black The Fall focuses on a dystopian scenario in which communism somehow managed to survive and thrive in Romania even after 1989. The game tells the story of an aging machinist that has had enough of his miserable life and wishes to escape the clutches of a totalitarian regime which has turned his home country into an industrially repressive hellscape.

Black The Fall is filled with more or less obvious metaphors and symbols. Malnourished workers supervised by obese overseers and security cameras equipped with machineguns, are noteworthy examples. It’s all very bleak, inside the factories as well as outside of them. The land and water seem contaminated while the goods produced by the laborers are going straight to export, lining the pockets of their “masters”. Living and working in such conditions is no more than a painfully slow death sentence.

It might appear far-fetched but the truth is that the Socialist Republic of Romania was a regional economic power while also managing to pay-off its entire foreign debt at the expense of internal prosperity. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s few and fixed ideas were increasingly depriving Romanians of even the most basic necessities or commodities, near the end of his 24-year long rule. And it’s always the upper class (or “nomenklatura” as it was called in the Eastern Bloc) which doesn’t suffer from any austerity measures. This ain’t exactly the idyllic picture envisioned by the several European philosophers who never lived long enough to get a taste of their own “medicine”. So much for class struggle…

Unity Engine assets may have been used since the project’s inception, yet the 2014 visuals are a far cry from what you’ll get to play in 2017’s Black The Fall. Pure black & white has since then been replaced by a much wider selection of shades and colors along with increased complexity of the game world and objects within it. You may compare this title’s visual style to that of Deadlight, This War Of Mine or the more recent INSIDE. I’m pleased Black The Fall departed from the far too simplistic looks which were closer to LIMBO (a game which has far too many clones, as it is).

Performance-wise, I had no trouble running the game in my monitor’s native resolution (3840×2160) and constant 60 frames per second. Standard Unity Engine behavior and I could hardly complain about the results. The in-game Settings tab shall hopefully contain sufficient options, for most players to maintain a preferred ratio between stability and level of detail. Even with the relatively limited time frame and number of accessible levels, I still managed to take 50 screenshots through the Steam Overlay.

Black The Fall features a lot of set pieces along with propaganda material and direct references to local or international symbols of communism. No matter how you perceive this political ideology, you can’t deny that it has left a profound mark (or scar, if you will) upon humanity and its ever shifting history. “A lie told enough becomes the truth”, right, Lenin? Well, the game I’m previewing today is most certainly not lying about its looks in the Steam Store Page. What you see in those official screenshots, is also what you’ll be playing.

The soundtrack is decent enough, but there’s always room for improvement and the sound effects are in ample supply. Not exactly voice acting, yet the seemingly indistinct grumbles emitted by the fat guards are in fact, a handful of words in Romanian. Overall, the OST is neither mind-blowing nor as dull as in countless other side scrollers found on Steam. They are certainly not the kind of repetitive sounds that might force players to mute them and listen to their own songs.

Black The Fall is first and foremost an atmospheric side scroller. The silent protagonist shall have to use his wits, if he ever wishes to survive his escape attempts. The State has many weapons at its disposal, from the already mentioned guards and turrets and even cleverly masked traps along with giant AI-controlled robots. How do I know that we’re dealing with “Artificial Intelligence”? Well, after you’ll notice far too many human guards that have passed out drunk, you’ll understand that the massive machinery that’s hunting you, is basically shooting at almost anything that moves. In a certain case, crows, which you’ll be using as a distraction to pass by one such robotic menace.

Using the environment to your advantage, is just one way of advancing through the game. Another involves platforming (no side scroller without this feature, right?) and the last but definitely not least, represents the use of a laser beam which reminded me of the visible signal triangulation within Rocketbirds 2. With the help of this laser, you shall manipulate fellow workers, distract guards and also control a small friendly robot, in later stages. So if you felt that the journey ahead will be both dangerous and you’ll long for company, at least half of your worries can be laid to rest.

From the puzzle sections I could already experience, Black The Fall is not difficult to understand or play, but you will have to be cautious during the segments that require stealth and finesse. Subtitles need to be included in some capacity (or at least closed captions), since there is a level through which players must travel across a corridor in total darkness and also pay close attention to the steam pipe noises. A trap that represents instant death, unless you avoid it. And you’d have to hear it in the first place, before you’d have even slim chances of success. I always appreciated the inclusion of English subtitles in any film or video game made by English-speaking countries. You have to be aware of potential deaf customers and cater to their specific needs. So that pitch black level section needs a visual cue of some sort, for those few players that cannot hear at all.

Even if I won’t give it a final rating, I am pleased by what I managed to play so far in Black The Fall. I have no information related to price tag or the future inclusion of Steam Achievements & Trading Cards but I hope the developer understands the need to include those as well, for Steam players and collectors. The game itself, is most certainly a different take on communism and the foes you face in this case, are far more cruel than mercenaries or zombies will ever be. The official screenshots show a glimpse into even more schocking scenes, which were still unreachable in the press build. I’m looking forward to playing and completing the storyline in Black The Fall as soon it is made available.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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