Black the Fall finds itself in an unfair position. By releasing a side-scrolling puzzle platformer set in a largely monochromatic dystopia now, it immediately, fairly or unfairly, will be compared to PlayDead’s rather brilliant Inside. I wish I could say that comparison was entirely a lazy one to make, (and in fairness, the game has been available in some embryonic form or another since 2014), but for whatever Black the Fall does well of its own volition, it still gorges perhaps a little too greedily from a very familiar-looking buffet of mechanics, concepts and art design.
The best borrowing Black the Fall does quite obviously comes from the experiences of the development team itself. The team’s Romanian background providing the dystopian backdrop to Black the Fall’s bleak, menacing world. A dark world devoid of free will just waiting for one person to fight back against a fascist system, the one cog to slip from the wheel of extreme communism and derail its steady descent into hell.
You naturally play as that cog, one day deciding you’ve had enough of riding a stationary bike to power factory apparatus, and make a break for it. From here you’ll need your ingenuity and cunning to evade, manipulate, and outsmart the oppressive regime as you seek to first escape it, then overthrow it.
There’s a smart use of color and minimalistic art design shown during the opening moments of Black the Fall that set the tone perfectly. The factory you find yourself escaping from is shades of black, grey, and white, with striking use of red to inform the player of threats. Useable objects, meanwhile, are displayed in a non-threatening white and soft yellow. It isn’t until you receive a first, brief respite from the confines of the factory, running along an outside pipeline during the escape, that you get to see the smoggy yellow hue of the outdoors. The air is made to look positively toxic and further demonstrate the failings of this future, but seeing the large splash of sickly color after being surrounded by grim monochrome and threatening red glow feels almost welcoming. It’s a rather effective way to get the point across that however terrible the state of the outside world might be, it damn sure appears to be a far more inviting option than being enveloped in the oppressive darkness of day to day life.
The only downside to Black the Fall’s visual style is that PlayDead got to launch it first, to much acclaim. Otherwise, this is a surprisingly impressive use of the notorious Unity engine, but as you’ll discover, that engine’s usual console issues aren’t entirely absent here.
The stuttering framerate beast rears its head once again, ready to feed on the ambition and dreams of yet another independent game trying to make its way in the console world. It’s probably one of the more tolerable examples to find its way to console in recent times, but the janky transitioning between screens and occasional slowdown are noticeable enough to make you curse the engine’s name again.
Moving on from that, we have a puzzle platformer to critique, and Black the Fall’s puzzling ranges from genuinely clever to ungraciously frustrating. The initial efforts revolve around simple timing and object manipulation, and this steadily evolves into greater, more expansive ideas that involve controlling the shackled masses to traverse the obstacles you face, and more importantly, forging a kinship with a mechanical dog that essentially works as a co-op partner in your quest for freedom. I won’t go into great detail about the puzzles, but they generally fall into two camps. Ones that provide obvious visual cues (thanks to some nicely-designed workplace safety posters), and ones that require a bit of trial and error to figure out. Even as you gain more power to problem solve your way to freedom, your soft, fleshy body is quite vulnerable to anything remotely deadly. So, failing a puzzle will see you shot to pieces or somesuch. The game thankfully places checkpoints fairly generously, and respawning is swift, so while there can be frustration surrounding some of the weaker-designed puzzles, you’ll likely not have to go far, or wait too long, to try again.
Sadly, there’s just not enough truly inventive puzzles here to massively stand out from the competition, and while the dystopian setting is well-realised, it often lacks the unspoken depth needed to sell this as a truly effectively dreadful futurescape. Black the Fall feels like it’s just on the cusp of being something greater, but being caught in an aesthetic and conceptual crossfire it didn’t ask for means much of the potential impact it could have had will be wasted. I can say that Black the Fall does at least feel like a more personal tale rather than the vague allegory PlayDead went for, and that means there’s more of a human element to this game. The interaction with your robo-pooch buddy ironically has a big say in that, as the cold hunk of canine-shaped metal shares a genuine bond with you. There way be similar beats, and themes, but Black the Fall has just enough of its own ideas to be judged on its own merits.