I think it’s safe to say that many of us fear for the future of the world. For some, it’s based on an undeniable, terrifying past. Black The Fall takes us on a fictional journey through a dystopian hellscape, but it’s based on the recent communist occupation of Romania.
You begin the game as a laborer in a forced labor camp. Cameras and guards are constantly watching for misbehavior. They glow red and ominous. Cameras are armed and will shoot to kill with only a moment’s notice. You must manipulate other laborers and machines to make your way out of the camp. It’s a dark and brooding experience.
The development team, Sand Sailor Studio, lives in Romania. They took a fairly simple game and tied in their own repressive past. This is how the game soars leaps and bounds above others. Of course the eeriness feels realistic. It’s because the foundation of the story is based on the real history of their country. The poor working conditions, abusive authority, and manipulation were all legitimate concerns in Romania only 30 years ago.
Black The Fall’s gameplay appears to be three-dimensional, but you move along a two-dimensional plane. You can only move backwards or forwards, sometimes on an upper or lower platform, as common in the platformer genre. This isn’t a platformer, but it often feels like one. I found it interesting that I might be running across an open area only for the game to turn 90-degrees, and suddenly I’d be moving in another direction. On PC, the game supports both the use of a keyboard and controller, but I found a controller to be the most comfortable. I do wish I could set my own keybindings, but this option isn’t presently available.
As you travel across the screen, you’ll enter a room or an area where a puzzle must be solved. There’s no going back to previous rooms unless you exit the game and manually select the chapter. Sometimes, the puzzle is as easy as avoiding the careful eye of the security cameras. Other puzzles are more complex. Early in the game, infographics on the wall help to guide you to the correct answer. Later on, you move outside of the initial factory, and help is less frequent.
Death is inevitable, but Black The Fall takes it easy on players. When you die, you quickly dissolve and start right back at the beginning of the last checkpoint. The checkpoints are frequent, so you never have to go back too far. I’ve played many puzzle or platformer games where the load time between deaths was unbearable. It’s not the case with Black The Fall, and this keeps frustrations low. Also, lives are unlimited. You don’t have to worry about running out of them, which gives you more freedom to explore possible puzzle solutions.
Gameplay becomes more interesting when you manage to steal a guard’s laser pointer. The laser doesn’t shoot to injure. Instead, you can use it to open doors and move elevators. Other times, you must give up the laser pointer mechanism entirely in order for a door to open.
Roughly halfway through Black The Fall, you gain a charming robot companion. He’s handy to keep around, and you can solve all sorts of puzzles with him. You can fold him in half and use him as a stepping stool to reach high platforms. The robot can double your weight and push down heavy platforms. You can send him ahead to activate buttons. The addition of a companion helps to keep the puzzles from becoming repetitive.
Although I enjoyed having a robot companion, I had trouble with the continuity of the robot pet. At least twice in the game, he gets stuck in a valley of some sort. The only way for the robot to climb out is to fill the valley with water. The little electronic robot can swim across water. In another puzzle, you ask him to jump off a platform into a pool of water multiple times. Why is this troubling? Because if your protagonist, a non-robot person, even touches more than a couple inches of water, he dies instantly. At points where I thought I might be able to cling on the edge of a pool of water and lift myself up, I’d die and dissolve as soon as I touched the water. Why can my robot swim, but I can’t?
Black The Fall is a deeply personal, moving work of art, and I felt it the most about 80% of the way through the game. A twist in the plot leaves the protagonist physically and emotionally broken. It’s heartbreaking. Skipping ahead, the end credits show real photographs taken of Romania during Communist occupation. This connects the struggle and despair of your protagonist with the pains of real life. I found myself wanting to know more about Romania’s history and of the development team itself.
Overall, Black The Fall is a successful atmospheric puzzle side-scroller. The minimalist design and color choices are spot on for the story it is trying to tell. The puzzles are challenging, and the addition of a companion adds another level of complexity. The story is powerful and memorable because the foundation comes from real, human history. The biggest weaknesses are the inability to change the default keybindings and some lack of continuity between how the human protagonist and robot companion interact with the environment. If you can overlook those two things, you’re sure to enjoy this captivating new puzzle game.
A Steam Review Copy of Black The Fall was provided by Square Enix for the purpose of this review.