I’m going to start this review by addressing the elephant in the room. Black the Fall is a hell of a lot like Inside, from the aesthetic to closely overlapping subject matter, playing through this game instils a deep feeling of déjà vu. This is of course a huge compliment to Black the Fall. Inside was one of the best games released last year due to its attention to detail and nightmarish atmosphere. Luckily Black the Fall actually does a number of things even better than its doppelganger. Devilishly clever puzzles and a more straightforward, familiar narrative based on true events set it apart enough to be completely well worth your time.
Black the Fall takes place in a dystopian Soviet-Communist hellhole. You play one of the workers who spend their days powering machines and avoiding punishment from burly and sadistic prison guards. After breaking free from the assembly line the goal is simple, get away from this place, by any means possible. The game is rooted in Romanian communist stories of oppression, stories which developer Sand Sailor Studio puts front and centre in its narrative. It’s a little heavy handed, sometimes even resorting to flashing up pictures of the Rezist movement, but necessary, due to the under reported nature of the subject matter. The oppressive environment really stands out. Red flags stand in stark contrast to the dingy browns and greys which are more commonplace in the lives of the downtrodden inhabitants of the world.
Visually, the game is absolutely astonishing. While most of the game concerns itself with black and white backgrounds and ghostly lighting there are moments of outstanding beauty in which rich colours struggle free from the hopefulness world around them. The mixture of body-horror, industrial machines and surveillance equipment all culminate in an incredibly tense and unpleasant environment. It’s also a brutal one at that. Everything which can harm you will, and will kill you in one hit too. Luckily the game is extremely forgiving with checkpoints which keeps the pace up throughout. There’s a lot going on in each scene, most of it in the background. Stand around in an area for long enough and you’ll notice a person solemnly pushing a swing or bolting their windows shut. The attention to detail is clear in every single second of Black the Fall.
A lot of the game revolves around a robotic arm which can be used to control certain aspects of the environment. From other people to lasers which must be reflected off of walls to hit switches, this tool is a versatile little mechanic. The main hook of the game is moving into a new area and assessing the environment. In these brief moments of confusion you learn how the game works and get a glimpse into the impeccable level design before a rush of satisfaction washes over you when you finally figure it out.
While the game does concern itself with a pretty heavy story thematically, it’s mostly a puzzle platformer. The puzzles are an area in which the game really shines, especially later on in the game. They take genuine thought but are always fair. Later on, you gain the help of a trusty robotic companion. This mechanical mutt completely changes the dynamic of the game, giving puzzles more complexity and depth. The puzzles are pretty much all different too. You’ll never feel like you are going through the motions and are constantly challenged from start to finish. The platforming sections are a little less effective however, lacking the finesse and tightness needed to make traversing the world anything other than awkward. The character will sometimes jump without any input and sometimes distances are hard to judge due to shifting perspectives.
These are minor gripes though as Black the Fall excels at so many things. After the credits roll, the game leaves a lasting impression and you really get the feeling that you’ve gone through something. The feeling of a genuine struggle is what makes up the game’s DNA and is what makes it so endearing. In Black the Fall, people are not in a good place, even the ones seemingly running it are sick and deformed, living in a polluted and bleak world. The ever present glimmer of hope keeps things from getting too much, for every major setback there’s a new goal to strive towards. Because of the hostile and lonely nature of the game, the arrival of the robot dog is an incredible welcome event. The game really plays with your connection to it and emphasises the importance of relationships, however fleeting, in an oppressive environment.
It really is such a genuine shame that Black the Fall is destined to be compared to Inside as it has so much to offer. If the release dates were switched this would be a totally different story but the way things have turned out will no doubt be to the game’s detriment. Stellar visuals, intelligent puzzle design and a gritty and grounded subject matter set the game apart from its peers and completely warrant its existence. You can finish the game in under 3 hours but each frame is so densely packed with detail and world-building that it definitely deserves a second play through. Inside comparisons aside, Black the Fall is an excellent puzzle platformer with a lot of character and some of the best level design of this year so far.