Housemarque are especially adept at one thing, and that one thing is creating explosive arcade shooters that look absolutely dazzling. The purer, and simpler the shooter, the better they tend to be (see Resogun, Super Stardust, and Nex Machina). It’s when things get a tad more complex that Housemarque’s output goes from great to merely good. Can Matterfall change that?
Having already released the rip-roaring tribute to the likes of Smash TV in Nex Machina this year, Scandinavian developer Housemarque are swift to follow it up with a Metroid-esque side-scrolling shooter in Matterfall. This is an old-school, short n’ sweet score-attack romp back with eye-catching chaos and a cracking electronic soundtrack. The Housemarque D.N.A. is deeply engrained in this, even down to the rescuing of humans, the score multiplier that steadily plinks upward until you get hit, and soft-voiced announcements on your progress. On a base level, this is very much a familiar experience, for better or worse.
Matterfall is an action platformer combined with Housemarque’s love of twin-stick shooting. There’s also a dash mechanic called the strike that doubles as both a dash and a bullet diffuser so you can escape through gunfire. It’s a limited use action, so that you’ll need to time it for recharges as it can’t be abused.
Matterfall introduces its mechanics and ruleset in small chunks, easing you into the action, but once the training wheels come off, that trademark intensity kicks in and you end up performing that pleasing ballet of bullets and bombastic explosions. Again, it’s all a bit familiar, especially so close to the release of Nex Machina, so Matterfall could really do with something that makes it stand out.
Enter the matter beam. An energy beam that can create platforms, free trapped humans, and manipulate objects. Matterfall gains its edge with this addition, adding much-needed variety to a well-worn template. Combined with the strike maneuver it opens up a more complex game than it initially appears to be.Combating enemies in a firefight, dodging and dashing enemy fire whilst having to create new platforms before everything swarms and overwhelms you is hectic from the earliest sections, it’s pure bullet hell insanity later as you throw in being chased as you try to do all the things mentioned before, and then there’s Zero-G sections that turn the game into something closer to Resogun. Yet no sooner have you got to grips with Matterfall’s intensity, it suddenly, and abruptly ends.
Matterfall is the sort of game you can finish in a casual day, and while there’s a bit more to it than it first appears, it never quite reaches the peak of Housemarque’s powers before fluttering off into the night. Bosses fights are repetitive, and uninspired in design, and unexciting to take on almost instantly. Just as you think the game is opening up and becoming a tad more varied, it ends, and the feeling of emptiness is hard to ignore. Replay value could rescue the game of course, a chance to top that high score, or speedrun those stages in a perfect, untouched run (good luck with that). But intensity aside, Matterfall just isn’t as interesting as it should have been. I’ve returned to Nex Machina and Resogun a fair few times after finishing the campaign, chasing better scores, I already don’t feel like Matterfall falls into that category.
It may sound like I’m overly down on Matterfall, and in truth, how could I not be? I know what Housemarque are capable of, and this, while a pretty solid arcade shooter, is not the developer’s top tier work. The visuals are gorgeous (HDR always makes Housemarque’s work pop), the artstyle is well…stylish, and the shooting is pleasing, but it all feels a little humdrum, even when the intensity gets ramped up. The blame has to lie squarely with the repetition of mechanics and rules that have been perfected and paired with tighter, more interesting games as recently as two months ago. On the one hand, more of the same, but merely good from Housemarque is still an enjoyable ride by regular standards. On the other, the memory of Nex Machina is still very fresh, and it’s difficult to brush aside just how damn good that game is, and that certainly makes Matterfall suffer.