Anyone familiar with Housemarque’s previous games Resogun, Super Stardust HD, and Alienation will know that the developer is somewhat of a specialist when it comes to recapturing, and crucially, modernising the arcade-game feel that hooks you, and implores you to play just one more level… Unfortunately, while Matterfall has moments of undeniably exhilarating action, once the short campaign is over, there is not much incentive to go back to the game at all.
Matterfall can be described as a side-scrolling 2D twin-stick shooter, but a lot of the game-play involves platforming to some degree. This is mainly due to an excellent mechanic called “Strike”, which is essentially a dash movement that can be done sideways, up, or down. Strike will stun the majority of enemies you touch, and makes you temporarily invincible to any enemy attack allowing you to pass through bullets unharmed.
This is an incredibly vital mechanic since Matterfall is not afraid to fill the screen with enemies, bullets, lasers, and projectiles, and mostly all of them at the same time. Strike quickly becomes what you rely on to manoeuvre around the environment, avoiding incoming fire, while trying to fight back with either your standard, always-equipped gun or a powerful secondary weapon of your choice, known as “augmentations”. Augmentations are collected by rescuing Civilians, three of which are found in each level.
When a game is so deliberately focused on the second-to-second game-play experience, it is hard to fault a developer for not spending a huge amount of time on creating a narrative to follow… But I still feel it would’ve helped to have a little more exposition in Matterfall. When starting up the game, a short cut-scene explains something vaguely coherent about a deadly “alien matter” spreading across the planet, and that is all in terms of story.
You are then thrust into the first level as Avalon Darrow, a soldier who could be easily mistaken for Samus Aran when she is in her combat suit. It is up to you to solve this crisis by tackling 3 worlds, consisting of 3 levels and a boss-battle each. The enemies mostly take the form of generic-looking robot creatures, and the levels take place within un-inspired sci-fi environments.
Once I grew accustomed to the initially tricky control scheme, I thoroughly enjoyed the first few levels of Matterfall. The beautifully pixelated explosions of enemies set to a thumping techno soundtrack is both visually impressive and engaging. The objective of each level is not just to reach the end, but to do so while destroying as many enemies as possible without being damaged in order to keep your multiplier up, and increase the points you receive. Successfully dodging through a bulletstorm-hell while throwing grenades and shooting in a 360 degree arc is incredibly satisfying when you manage to do it without being hit.
It is especially rewarding to activate “over-charge”, a mechanic that can be used when you’ve killed enough enemies to fill the meter, the colours fade, and the on-screen mayhem moves in slow motion for a few seconds, allowing you to blast your way out of a tricky situation, before everything explodes in graphic pixelated glory. This is Matterfall at its best; a tightly coordinated dance of offence versus defence that is as nerve-wracking as it is electrifying.
These high-points, however, can be few and far between thanks to some odd decisions by Housemarque in terms of game design.
First of all, the levels are just too long. For a game that is about re-playability to obtain high scores, there is an awful amount of filler in some stages. Often I’d have to run along empty corridors or carry out fiddly platforming sequences to get to where the action was. The game could’ve benefitted from shorter, tighter levels to make it more appealing to jump back in to try for a higher score. Often when I died (which I admit was a lot, especially on the “Veteran” difficulty), the checkpoint I would spawn from would be a long way from where I failed, making it a chore to get back. The games’ longish load-times also add to this feeling of time-wasting.
The movement never feels quite as tight as I would’ve hoped either. Avalon can double-jump, but sometimes it feels imprecise, which can be very frustrating on some of the more platforming-heavy segments. Although shooting with the right-stick is possible in 360 degrees, the Strike ability is only works in 4 directions. Adding this extra mobility would’ve gone a long way to alleviating the sometimes stifling movement.
The worst sin of all, in my opinion, is that enemies sometimes spawn on or next to your character, making it impossible to avoid taking damage. This means that the multiplier you’ve worked so hard to obtain can sometimes be lowered instantly, and through no fault of your own. For anyone good enough to be competing on the games’ leaderboards (definitely not me), I imagine this would be infuriating.
Apart from Strike, there are a few other mechanics worth mentioning. Avalon has a “matter-gun” that can be used to set off “matter-bombs”, which some enemies leave behind when they die, and can be a useful way to clear an area of foes. The matter-gun is also used in less-inspired ways, such as powering lifts to go up and down (as exciting as it sounds), and filling in platforms for a short time, allowing you to stand on them. There are also “Zero-G” environments, which bring slower-paced mini-segments to the game, and often stand out as a level’s best section.
Matterfall definitely has its moments of pure, arcade-like-action joy. Even though they may not add much visually, I enjoyed the diversity of enemies and their attacks. From the early level robot-spiders who leap about, to the more advanced humanoid-like-demons who shield themselves, forcing you to come up with ways to get behind them. And when all these different types of challenges are thrown at you at once, the intense combat and movement seem to combine perfectly with the irresistible soundtrack.
Having said that, it feels like the game could’ve used 6 more months of fine-tuning to perfect the game-play and level design, and expand upon some genuinely good mechanics such as Strike. Bizarrely, once you are finished with the 2-3 hour campaign, there are no challenge stages or horde-modes to play around with, and for me, the core game does not offer enough that I’d be tempted to start over.
Unusually for them, Housemarque have released two games this year within a few months of each other, Nex Machina came out in June, and was widely praised for being an excellent arcade-shooter. It appears that the development of Matterfall may have suffered slightly as a result of ouputting two games so close to eachother.