Saturday, December 19, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Fall

Freedom Fall
  • Publisher/Developer: Stirfire Studios 
  • Lead Designer: Lisa Rye 
  • Release: PC, 10 January 2014 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1 
  • Cost: US$10

Previously on Indie-Cember 2, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, an example of the visual novel, a genre of gaming that revolves entirely around reading text. And that's not a diss to the genre, since any type of game can be great at what it does. For example, a game revolving entirely around reading text can be great for having a good story and/or writing. But man, wouldn't it be neat if a game could have a good story and/or writing without sacrificing gameplay in the traditional sense? There may be multiple ways of accomplishing this feat, and I am about to review one of them: Freedom Fall.

In Freedom Fall, you play as Marsh, a thief who has been arrested, tried in front of the local king, and locked away in a cell atop a tower that is so tall it makes the Burj Khalifa look like a puny molehill. But wouldn't you know it, somebody left a neat little hole in the floor for our hero to escape through! So the game is all about you falling to freedom, hence the title, but it's not the fall that kills you, as they say. As you make your way down the labyrinthine tower, you'll have to dodge many different forms of traps including spikes, spikes on walls, spikes on balls, cauldrons of fire, dragon statues that blow jets of fire, other dragon statues that shoot fireballs, electric fields, acid pools, and so much more. And yet there is absolutely no falling damage in this game, go figs. I'm not complaining or anything, but doesn't this mean that he could just find an open window and bypass the rest of the tower, along with all the traps therein? And why does everyone go around barefoot? Wouldn't that hurt Marsh when he's sliding down walls all the time? (For the record, this last question has been addressed by the creator herself: "The prisoners have their shoes taken away to make it harder for them to escape, and the princess isn't one for giving herself a handicap. =)" [1])
All of the game's exposition is delivered by writings on the wall.
Don't fret about all the hazards you'll be facing, as you have infinite lives and a series of checkpoints which are fairly common. Success in this game more or less relies on memorising a sequence of maneouvers, so it's nice that they're broken up just enough so as not to become overwhelming. To help yourself out, you can collect and throw bombs to break away most of the traps you come across, and you can collect nuts, bolts, and gears (the game's form of "coins") to build equipment with. There are only three things you can build, and whilst two of them are functionally identical (the parachute and hoverboard, both of which let you fall more slowly), the set of wings offers a double-jump, and in doing so does the most to change up the feel of gameplay.

Throughout the game, you'll read messages on the walls written by the princess, a bratty half-pint named Empheria. Some of these serve as tutorials, introducing controls and new mechanics in a way that doesn't metaphorically hold your head underwater, which is great if you're replaying levels for whatever reason. At points where the path splits into two temporary branches, she is also nice enough to have marked which way is the easier option and which is harder. But mostly these markings are just the musings of our princess, which are entertaining in their own right. She apparently takes a sadistic form of glee in letting prisoners get impaled on various pointy bits and what-not. But as you move on through the game, her painted comments get more personal, detailing the issues of being a princess and the troubled relationship with her mum, as well as unraveling the mystery of why you were arrested in the first place. What's amazing is that it builds and develops her character without breaking the flow of gameplay, which is especially notable as nobody in the game ever speaks, and you don't even see the princess that often, apart from impromptu races with her at the end of certain levels. (Although granted, if you're not English-literate, you're stuck out of luck, but then again the same could be said of this very blog too.)
The way down diverges into easy and hard paths at many points.
I don't know about you, but I first discovered Freedom Fall through its lead artist Lisa Rye, an Australian sheila known on deviantART as risachantag. I wouldn't put it past you if the game's art style sold you on the darn thing. Many art assets in this game have a hand-painted look, including the characters themselves, whose anime-styled faces manage to be expressive but still fit into the rest of the game's aesthetic. As for the animation, it isn't bad, per se, it's more... economical. There are few organic characters or objects that require distinct frames of animation, and so most other things (i.e. traps) get by with moving and/or rotating still art assets to simulate motion. And as for actual animation, some of the characters' animation cycles aren't as smoothly animated as others. It's not a deal-breaker; after all, Japanese anime also tends to place the emphasis on the still image as opposed to the motion, and I love it for it.

If I had to criticise this game (and I do, or otherwise I'd be a very short-sighted critic), I would make two observations. One, your character seems to stick to walls a little too easily. In a game demanding such precise movements, trying to jump off of walls can become a liability. And my second complaint is that the game is a little short. A single run-through should only take you an hour or two; my current record is around forty-five minutes. (And I did that without buying any equipment, too!) There is some actual replay value, however, as you can try to break time, score, and death count targets for each level as part of the game's Achievements. Each level also has their own online leaderboard, but that's just a load of bollocks because you know someone, somewhere, has found a way to exploit the game's mechanics to produce a score that no one could ever duplicate by all the conventional practice in the world. Face it, all online rankings are like that.

But you know what other game was short but had really interesting and non-invasive storytelling? Portal. Yeah, I said it. Any game that can swim even close to Portal's wake is deserving of high honours. In terms of what it does to the concept of 2D platforming, Freedom Fall may not have any mechanics as original or innovative as the portal gun, but like Portal, it does introduce new elements at just the right pace to get you properly acclimated to them, and of course the writing's at least as sharp or witty than anything involving cake or companion cubes (okay, bad examples). It may be a little insubstantial, but it seems most indie games are depending on your expectations. Pick it up when it goes on sale (or don't wait, what do I care?), and you'll be glad you did.

+ A brilliant, effective, perhaps innovative, method of storytelling.
+ A sensible amount of challenge.
+ A gorgeous art style.

- It's a little short.
- A few shortcuts were taken in the animation.

Controls: 4 spikes out of 5
Design: 4 spikes out of 5
Writing: 5 spikes out of 5
Graphics: 5 spikes out of 5
Value: 2 spikes out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Rye, Lisa (23 January 2014). "Comment on Freedom Fall: The Princess character sheet by Risachantag". deviantART.

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