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The Falconeer is a unique launch title for the Xbox Series X|S. Developed solely by Dutch creator Tomas Sala, and with a haunting but often awe-inspiring, other-worldly and intriguing seascape to explore atop your giant warbird, The Falconeer flies its own path, hampered by sometimes frustrating controls, unforgiving difficulty and a simplistic mission structure. There is, however, a lot of beauty to behold in this open world air combat title.
Life on the Ursee
The water world of the Ursee is the backdrop to The Falconeer, where factions are at fever pitch against each other in what appears to be a long held rivalry between The Empire, The Mancer Order, pirates, mercenaries and the Ursee’s Great Houses. And it’s the depth of the lore that Sala has created that really helps to flesh out what is essentially a barren open world dotted with small outcroppings and islands. There is tension between all of these competing forces, and in a clever and seldom used storytelling mechanic, you play each chapter with a different faction, where the stakes are raised to a climactic finish, and you get to see it from all sides.
Visually, The Falconeer excels. Although it has a simplistic art style, and boasts no textures whatsoever, the stylised world that Tomas Sala has created is often mesmerizing and always beautiful. The high seas roll out into the distance, with cresting whales and jumping schools of fish, and the strange islands, fortresses and outcroppings that make up the limited land masses on the Ursee are quite beautiful.
The lighting and cloud formations are another visual standout, and I spent a lot of time just soaring ever higher to get a panoramic view of the world around me. Storm clouds also act as a gameplay mechanic as well, where the lightning in the air is used to charge your ammunition fitted to the back of your warbird. In the game’s tutorial it says to be careful that you don’t overcharge your ammo pots, but I found that never actually occurred throughout my campaign so it was never something I thought about. Most often your weapons will charge with normal, blue lightning, but other areas will charge it with red (causing fire damage), or green (which I believe is poison based – it’s not entirely clear).
Complementing the excellent open seas and their captivating views, as well as the game’s gorgeous lighting, is a haunting ambient soundtrack. While you’re just exploring or engaged in traversal between combat sections, there is an atmospheric score, loaded with mesmerising, throat singing that I just couldn’t get enough of. And when combat breaks out, the game’s music perfectly captures the action packed scenes, with a mix of orchestral sounds and electronic beats, synths and bass lines. Massive props have to go to the game’s composer Benedict Nichols for the work he put into creating this excellent soundtrack.
Combat that Just Doesn’t Click
Although its aesthetic is captivating, unfortunately the game is often let down by its combat. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that maybe I’m just terrible at this game, but I found The Falconeer’s difficulty curve to be incredibly frustrating. Especially early on, I succumbed to death repeatedly and nearly never made it out of combat without suffering massive amounts of damage. Even weaving and soaring and rolling out of the way of incoming fire left me vulnerable to attacks. Being in a pitched dog (or falcon) fight would become a mess of dodging out of the way of fire (unsuccessfully), spinning and turning to face my foes only to end up chasing each other in circles without a clear winner. The game’s hit detection can be wildly frustrating too, and although there is always a reticle for where you should be leading your targets, often I felt like I was just aiming wildly and hoping for the best.
Unashamedly I put the game on easy difficulty after the first two chapters, and the gameplay became much more enjoyable. But thanks to much too skilled enemies, barrages of fire from multiple targets, and probably a lack of skill, normal mode was all too much and simply not fun.
This isn’t to say the gameplay is bad though. There are times when you are the master of the skies. Times when you just nail that turn and your aim is true and the game feels really satisfying. It’s just the fact that these moments are often fleeting. It isn’t helped by the game’s serious lack of checkpoints. Each mission starts at a perch of the faction you’re currently fighting alongside, and you’re tasked in flying to a location to rendezvous with your allies, escort a ship, or attack your enemies, but there are no checkpoints between any of these objectives. There were occasions where I’d die in the final part of a mission and just have to start again entirely. Thankfully there are sections where you can choose to ‘fly ahead’ to a predetermined location, but even then this just feels nearly pointless when the whole joy of the game comes from the traversal. This is where, I think, the open world nature of The Falconeer lets itself down.
The open world aspect is unnecessary as well. When outside of the main missions, you can explore the high seas, and there is some cool stuff to find and some interesting lore to learn, but the side missions are the standard fare of fetch quests that I found underwhelming and not fun. I’ll note though, if you want great weapon upgrades and more cash, you almost are required to partake in some of the side missions because you’ll be sorely underfunded if you don’t. And the merchants at some of the main hubs have little to no interesting items for sale. The problem is, the game doesn’t really tell you that you should do this stuff, and I think if the side content was slightly more interesting, it would empower players to explore what is actually an incredibly well fleshed-out world.
Lore as Deep as an Ocean
Towards the end of the story, you start to really have a knowledge of these factions, and the writing is quite superb. The lore masters at each of the main faction bases tell you about the group you’re working for, and a narrator voices descriptions of the areas that you hover over on the map to give you more information, and it’s really deep and well told. The voice acting is even quite good as well. There are even surprises along the way and a couple of really climactic sections, especially at the end of chapter 2, but the game’s narrative if hampered sometimes by its confusing structure.
I’ll give Tomas Sala huge praise for the universe he’s created here though. The depth of these factions is clear and there is a real history in who they are. There is also mythological lore that often rears its head throughout the game, that does a great job of delving into how the people of The Ursee came to be in this unforgiving water world and why they war so passionately against each other. Despite my gripes with the game’s combat, open world monotony and difficulty, I was drawn back to The Falconeer largely due to its world building.
In the End
After careful consideration I’m finding it really difficult to give this game a clear rating. Now, I should mention here that I encountered a literally game breaking bug in The Falconeer’s epilogue that stopped me from completing the game. I’ve reached out to the developer and he assures me that there is a fix coming. Actually, the patch is already out on PC, but it has yet to be tested for Xbox and I’m only playing the console version. It took me a lot of repeated attempts and flying right around the actual waypoint to trick the game, and stay hidden in this ‘stealth’ section. But I did eventually manage to roll credits. The ending was actually quite clever too, but it is incredibly frustrating that, throughout the entire game, I barely encountered one technical issue, right until the finale.
There are some things that I find absolutely fantastic about The Falconeer – its music, its world, the gorgeous lighting, and the sheer alien seascape that Tomas Sala has created. But there are also things that I just found frustrating, monotonous and even boring. The repetitive mission structure can become a chore, but then there are some quests that have really unique components and show you that its not all the same. The combat drove me up the wall on medium difficulty. I felt like I was progressing way too slowly, especially with the game’s severe lack of a checkpoint system.
Overall, I do like what Tomas Sala has done here. The Falconeer is a really ambitious little game, and I’m glad that its here for the launch of the next gen Xbox consoles. But unfortunately it suffers from too many issues that I feel let it down in a big way, and they stop it from being a truly excellent indie title.