“If you want a picture of the future,” O’Brien says in George Orwell’s 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” It’s a powerful mental image and one that’s conjured on a number of occasions by Black The Fall, as Black tries to escape the industrial complex of a Communist dictatorship.
Everything about Black The Fall works to evoke this oppressive regime, from its stylishly muted colour palette that’s punctuated by rare bursts of colour – most often the reds of danger – to its audio design. It’s unfortunate, then, that there’s a feeling Sand Sailor Studio are following in the footsteps of others. The visuals and the side-scrolling puzzle platforming are reminiscent of Limbo, Inside or Little Nightmares, while some of the elements within the puzzles have a kinship with Abe’s Oddyssey, not to mention the opening break out from an industrial complex.
Beyond that, much of the symbolism has been well trodden in other areas, with the aforementioned 1984 the clearest touchstone. One moment in particular has a crowd of people stood cheering a huge TV screen with an image of what must be assumed is the current illustrious leader, before booing and jeering when it changes and the Statue of Liberty shows her face.
The fact of the matter is that for Bucharest-based Sand Sailor Studio there’s both personal and cultural history behind what they depict in this game. What’s perhaps a little surprising is that Soviet iconography is so prominent throughout, that the violence, the decay, the deaths and the oppression are so clearly being linked to the Cold War power, instead of concocting a fictional state. While there’s still an awful lot of fantasy within this – there’s a very modern prevalence of CCTV, more than a few examples of advanced robotics, and the guards are rather slobbish in their design – it’s still quite powerfully tied to reality and specifically the Romanian Revolution at certain points.
The game itself is a fairly familiar feeling puzzle platformer for the most part, with a hefty dose of trial an error in working out some of the solutions. You’re more than likely to be killed if you try something foolish or make a mistake, with the CCTV cameras narrowing their red cones of vision before unleashing a hail of machine gun fire, an inability to swim, and plenty of other hazards. Many of the puzzles revolve around avoiding the cameras or deceiving them by fitting in with your surroundings, mimicking the other workers and citizens.
It doesn’t take long for you to gain a distinct advantage in your escape attempt, as you incapacitate one of the guards and take their laser pointer. While Black has shaken off what one can only assume was a form of mind control, though he still wears the harness and has a light-tipped antenna on his back, others have not, and this pointer allows you to direct them around to trigger certain buttons and switches for you. Initially, these are fleeting moments of remote assistance, but later there’s a more permanent companion on your journey, a dog-like robot that adds a further layer to how you traverse through an area. It can grab onto certain control boxes, give you a boost up, misdirect the cameras, and plenty more, and puts a smile on your face with its dog-like characteristics.
Sound also plays a big role in this game, lending it a great deal of its downtrodden atmosphere. One moment in particular stands out, as the darkness consumes Black and you’re forced to make your way forward and avoid dying purely by listening for the dangers that await you. It only lasts a few moments, but it’s something that almost demands that you wear headphones, even if only for this section – it’s quite clearly marked with a headphones sign in game.
There were quite a few occasions where I found myself feeling completely stumped, grappling for a way to get past a particular conundrum, and there’s a hard-nosed edge to some of the puzzles. I was rarely held up for too long, but a few puzzles are a little too unforgiving, hampered either by a slight unpredictability with the physics or controls that demand a touch too much precision. While Black is held to a running from side to side, the environment is fully 3D and you can point and direct your robot companion within this space. This can lead to moments where it’s not quite situated correctly in relation to Black or you’re searching for line of sight to where you want it to move.
Through the stylishly muted visuals and the trappings of a Communist state on the brink of collapse, Black The Fall challenges you to escape its series of perilous puzzles in a bid for freedom from oppression. Though it will live in the shadows of its critically acclaimed peers and has a few rough edges, Black The Fall is a great addition to the puzzle platformer genre.
Version tested: PC