Published by: Wired Productions
Developed by: Tomas Sala
I’m not a big fan of birds. They’re sinister things, with their wings and shit. Oh, how I so envy them. The ability to simply take flight and travel wherever I want, whenever I want would be bliss. Bloody birds.
I know we have planes and helicopters, but it’s simply not the same, is it? And, because we’re the way we are, we’ve obviously fitted weapons and missiles to them. So we turn the art of flight into another way to kill each other. Because, humans, amiright?
So, the merger of the two concepts [weaponised aircraft and birds] should be something I’d have an abhorrent disdain for…right? Well…
Cue The Falconeer, reviewed on Xbox Series X [also available on the Series S or Xbox One], with a code generously provided by the developer. Speaking of the developer, The Falconeer was made by one guy – Tomas Sala. Really amazing work, even if I say so myself.
Anyway, enough fanboying.
“I Want to Fly Like an Eagle”
The Falconeer sees you take control of a soldier fighting for the island natives you fly to during the story. The single-player, open-world game has a minimum amount of customisation. However, you’ll not be spending hours making your avatar; there’s a world to save. There are pirates that will try and smuggle contraband and disrupt the flow of normality for the inhabitants of the Ursee.
Oh, yeah, the Ursee. So, the Ursee is the game’s open-world. It’s a vast ocean with several, independent islands, cliffs, and rock formations dotting around. Different tribes/nations/businesses inhabit these various islands. And you can visit each one. You can take jobs, carry out requests, and improve your steed; the Falcon itself.
Speaking of the Falcon, it is a ruddy great big bird. Either that or the falcon is normal-sized. And it’s the humans who are really small. Hmm.
Anyways, the falcon is a beautiful construct in-game. You control the bird (obviously) and it just feels…natural. Like, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved, especially at the outset of the game. But once you’ve got it figured out, that’s it. There’s no other game that feels like it. Simple as that.
There’s a serene quality to the world you inhabit. Plus, the flight mechanics are perfectly balanced. And natural-feeling. So much so that you’d swear Sala was a bird himself.
Is that your secret, Sala? Are you birdman? It’s okay, your secret is safe with me.
So, we’ve established the feel of the game a fair bit there already. Aside from that, let’s take a look at some other criteria for the game, including; characterisation, functionality, sound, and atmosphere.
So, the central protagonist really does take a backseat to your mount. Yes, they exist and speaks to the other inhabitants of the Ursee, but it doesn’t really, for want of a better word, matter. The other inhabitants, on the other hand, build the world up rather well.
Whether they’re a merchant or another soldier, each of them brings a bit more character to an otherwise bleak world. Although, there were often occasions where the NPCs would speak but no words would leave their mouths. Which was rather frustrating at times, though really minor as it only ever happened in ambient interactions in the world. You know, the sort that just happens in and around the world whether you instigate them or not.
Aside from that, the game doesn’t build up to focus on the characters as much as the gameplay mechanics. As I mentioned earlier, the flying feels a lot more balanced than perhaps any other game and its movement or transportation mechanics. I know I’ve made more of a point about this than other aspects of the game, but it’s a major part of The Falconeer. After all, you spend the vast majority of the game flying around.
“So Take, These Falcon Wings, And Learn to Fly Again…”
It’ll take you some time to adapt to the combat, as it will take some getting used to. Especially at the start of the game. It’s not like your usual lock-on targeting-based combat system. Instead, whilst you can lock-on to enemies, there’s a bit more of a skill to it involved.
Your energy bullets – replenished by harnessing mother-trucking lightning – are affected by physics; if your target is moving to the left and your banking slower than they are, it doesn’t matter if you’re “locked-on”. There’s a level of precision that won’t become natural until a fair way into the game. Thankfully, you will have ample time to get accustomed to the airplay mechanics.
Aside from the story missions, you’ll have all manner of side-quests to accomplish. From escorting cargo freights to taking out pirates terrorising some farmers, it’s usual open-world filler stuff. However, the simple fact that you’re doing this atop a massive bird makes it just that much different.
“‘Cos I’m as Free as a Bird Now”
The Falconeer makes use of environmental sounds more so than many other games I’ve played recently. The atmosphere developed simply by the ambience in the clouds gives a true sense of space to the world. It’s less that you can hear everything around you with perfect fidelity, and more that you can’t. There’s an eerie silence to being amongst the clouds. It creates a sense that you’re isolated and alone. Which, in a way, you are.
You’re, essentially, a mercenary that goes from hub to hub to save the world. A lone fighter in the good fight, if you want. And the emptiness of the skies, which is only broken by radio chatter from pirates or civilians, also gives a vastness to the Ursee.
You could be flying for a decent hour and barely touch a fifth of the world’s map. It’s vast and it’s looming. But the game uses your lack of speed to maximise the world’s size.
After all, this isn’t a supersonic jet you’re flying. A bird can only fly so fast. Granted, you can upgrade your bird through the game, optimising flight speed, energy cannons, or aerial manoeuvers. However, it’s not like you can strap a rocket on the bird’s back. It all helps build up the game’s atmospheric tone.
I’ve spent a large portion of this review bigging up The Falconeer, but what about where the game falls short? Well, as I touched upon earlier, the game has a steep learning curve at the start. There’s a lot more to the flight mechanics than “press [this button] to fly faster” or “hold [that button to brake]”. There’s an art to flying that you only get by actually playing the game. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful game to get lost in.
There’s a slight cell-shaded quality to The Falconeer that makes it seem almost cartoonish. I don’t know whether this distracts from the gameplay for you or not, but it does lend a surreal yet comforting feel to The Falconeer. At times, it might come across like a Saturday morning cartoon [M.A.S.K., Transformers, etc], and who the fudge wouldn’t want that? It also harkens back to the likes of Star Fox 64 or maybe Z.O.E. for that stylised asthetic. And I think those should be enough of a recommendation to pique anybody’s interests.
All-in-all, The Falconeer is a splendid aerial combat game. There’s enough to the combat mechanics to make it feel fleshed out. Whilst the Ursee feels empty at times, it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking anything. Yes, the story is quite bare-bones and the missions are just rehashes of the same mechanics, but when you consider this was one man’s work, you can let them slide.
The Scores on the Doors
In the end, The Falconeer set out what it intended to do; be a great indie game that was much better than it had any right to be. I tentatively give it an 8/10. Whilst it could have got higher, there are some elements to the game that lead to repetition on continuous play. It’s not the worst case of repetition ever. At a push, you’ll be able to get around eight hours of gameplay out of The Falconeer. A bit more if you’re keen on exploration – and you better ruddy had be. I should probably point out that this review was written before any DLC expansions were readily available. As such, I can’t comment on The Kraken or The Hunter DLC or their impact on The Falconeer.