|Genre||Flight, Action Adventure|
|Platforms||Xbox Series X|S (reviewed), Xbox One, PC|
|Release Date||November 10, 2020|
Not many people take on the challenge of developing a video game all by themselves; you have to wear a lot of hats and cover a lot of bases that other studios would tackle with lots of people. Still, passion projects made by solo developers can turn into beloved treasures, as evidenced by games like Stardew Valley and Undertale. This year, developer Thomas Sala tries his hand at game-making with The Falconeer, an open world flight/action game. The Falconeer has a chance to stand out right now, as it not only has released at the launch of a new console generation but also serves as one of the few exclusives in Xbox’s anemic exclusive launch lineup. The question is: does it capitalize on this golden opportunity?
Violence: As The Falconeer centers around aerial combat, you spend most of the game shooting adversaries out of the sky and sinking enemy warships with your energy cannon. Your falcon often bleeds when it takes damage, and everything explodes into nothingness upon destruction. For the record, despite the fantastical nature of your weaponry, you are not technically using magic, as your ammo containers store lighting energy.
Other Negative Themes: Most of the characters and factions resort to subterfuge and manipulation, even to the point of putting innocent people in the crossfire. While some express reservations about these tactics, none condemn them, and you as a player must serve as a participant.
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
The Falconeer’s story takes place in a fictional world covered almost entirely by the ocean, with small rock formations scattered across the seas serving as mankind’s only refuge. Various factions wrestle for control of this barren land, engaging in acts of political manipulation, skullduggery, and brute force to achieve their goals. Over the course of the brief campaign, you play as different Falconeers—people trained to ride giant falcons for the purpose of scouting, transport, and combat—for each of the various factions, all while a mysterious narrator puts the disparate pieces of the overarching story together.
Unfortunately, this attempt at a grand narrative falls flat in numerous ways. First, the game never gives you a reason to care about any of the characters involved. Since you shift between the competing factions, you cannot settle into any one role. While the differing perspectives give you a broader understanding of why each faction acts the way it does, this is undermined by the characters themselves, who are manipulative jerks willing to put people in harm’s way for their own ends. But beyond all that, a technical glitch mars the experience and almost completely derails the storytelling. One of the game’s chapters cannot be completed, as a mission requires you to eliminate ground forces in a place on the map where there is no ground! Thankfully you can still access and complete the later chapters, including the one that lets you see the epilogue and its final—underwhelming—reveal, as finishing the last chapter dumps you back into the menu and unlocks the previously inaccessible conclusion.
Aerial traversal and combat comprise the vast majority of The Falconeer’s experience. Nailing the controls is the most important element here, and fortunately the game does just that. Navigating through the air feels responsive and buttery smooth, and while adjusting the camera with the right stick can be finicky at times—the sensitivity seems way too high, and there’s no way to change it—you can track a highlighted enemy by holding a single button, which makes it easy to relocate your opponents when you lose sight of them.
The combat mechanics prove rather barebones, however. The right trigger fires your energy cannon, you can pick up floating mines—assuming there are any in your current location—to drop onto ships, and…that’s it. The closest thing you get to any sort of weapon customization is the ability to purchase special ammo that either deals extra damage or slows enemies down. These are nice to have, but hardly critical; your standard ammo inflicts sufficient damage against all but the largest of foes, and the nimblest enemies go down in only a few hits anyway. Furthermore, the standard ammo is the easiest to refill, as you can restore it by flying through one of the many thunderstorms scattered around the game world. That lets you save your money for more important items, like upgrading your weapon, which permanently increases your damage, or buying a new falcon with better base stats. But the lack of different weapon types or firing modes—staples in many other games in the genre—left me yearning for more variety in moment-to-moment gameplay.
You can improve your falcon’s stats by injecting them with mutagens purchased from settlements, but these minor buffs form the full extent of falcon customization. You cannot personalize your bird’s stats in any significant way, and no cosmetic options exist, either. The game would benefit greatly from more options to tailor your flying experience, considering the central importance of the falcons. Other characters in the game actually fly on other creatures, such as dragons, manta rays, and giant insects; being able to trade your falcon for one of these could have been another element to spice up the gameplay, especially if they came with unique traits or weapons.
Even if the gameplay offered more flexibility, however, I likely would not want to spend much time trying it all out, as this waterlogged world contains only a few other activities. Time trial races—the sole interesting feature of the open world—unlock new falcons for purchase, while side missions task you with completing the same types of objectives you already find in the main missions. Landing on a smattering of other spots on the map will reveal extra lore, which would be appealing if the world as a whole were not so empty and its inhabitants so unlikeable. This feels like even more of a letdown given the game’s appealing minimalist art design. The landmarks and rock formations stand out and draw the eye, teasing a deep and intriguing history. It is a shame that there aren’t more and that the rest of the game fails to take advantage of them.
To top it all off, the game lacks any multiplayer component, which seems like a glaring omission for a dogfighting game. Of course, given the lack of weapon or cosmetic customization options, a hypothetical multiplayer mode would thus also lack the variance and personalization that gamers have come to expect from modern multiplayer experiences. In that sense, it’s almost a mercy that this game doesn’t have multiplayer because if it did, it would probably be dull.
Viewed as a whole, The Falconeer stands as a case study of unrealized potential. While I’m genuinely impressed that the game’s one developer delivers polished flight controls and makes smart use of minimalist graphics, every other element needs far more depth in order to truly shine. The flight element of the game may stand out compared to typical fare, but its fellow open world competitors offer far more robust and comprehensive packages. The Falconeer just cannot keep up.
Review copy generously provided by ONE PR Studio.
The Bottom Line
With a forgettable story and a critical lack of gameplay depth, The Falconeer fails to realize its potential.