More than that, it shines. Check out the screenshots in this article. They’re some of the most striking images I’ve taken in any game. It’s a combination of simple elements coming together in a powerful way, and that’s before you factor in movement. The pictures don’t tell you how it feels to fly a giant falcon around a moody archipelago. They don’t express the serenity of it, the peace and quiet up there in the clouds, wingtips carving an airstream as you glide silently above.
But what I really love is how singular it feels. There is an undiluted grand vision to the game, the kind that can only survive because it’s hidden inside one head. A committee would probably have shortened it, focused it, honed it. And in some ways, The Falconeer would be stronger for it. But it wouldn’t be as authentic. It would no longer be an intriguing kind of personal statement, and no longer feel like venturing into another person’s mind.
Let’s backtrack. The Falconeer is an aerial combat game a bit like Panzer Dragoon. You fly a giant falcon around, shooting at other other enemies in the sky, and sometimes in the sea, and sometimes on the land. And everything you do revolves around that core.
But it’s not an arcade game. It’s not action all of the time. That’s because a huge part of the game is flying around an open map, running various missions for various settlements dotted around a mostly sea-covered world. Each chapter, you’ll call a different settlement home, and there will be a new main story to follow. But you can also take on contracts, on the side, to earn money. There are bounties, mail deliveries, base defences – anything you might need a handy falconeer for. And you can accept contracts from your home settlement or abroad.
In this way, The Falconeer spreads the action out. A key part of its charm are the moments in between, the sections away from the tension of combat, where you’re flying untroubled through the sky. It’s in these moments where the mood and personality of the world sinks in. It’s in these moments where your mind wanders and you wonder what things are for. You see the giant scar in the middle of the ocean, a kind of trench water pours into, called the Maw, and wonder what caused it. You see the strange stone monuments poking from the sea and wonder what built them. You hear mythology and wonder why the game is telling it. You listen to a mysterious lady give philosophical pep-talks every time she brings you back from the dead and wonder why. And you begin to question the things you’re asked to do. Are you the baddie?
This is the story the game slowly tells, both directly and indirectly through the world itself. What is really going on here? It’s what elevates The Falconeer beyond being just an aerial combat game. And I’m almost certain it’s this aspect of the game a bigger team would have chopped. There are a few reasons for this.
It takes too long to tell. Clearly the maker feels they have an important story so they’ve strung it out across several chapters. Problem is, you can’t smoothly glide through the chapters because of random difficulty spikes. There’s one right at the beginning. No matter what I did, I couldn’t clear it. It wasn’t until I went off and grinded side-contracts, to make enough money to buy a new gun, that I eventually succeeded.
There were benefits to doing this. I was forced to learn more about the game in searching for a way to overcome my problem. I learned about mutagens I could buy for my bird to make it stronger. I learned I could buy stronger birds. I learned there were better guns. I looked for every advantage I could find. And I felt very happy with myself when I overcame the challenge.
But there were drawbacks too. It took a long time. Every retry meant restarting a mission, not simply retrying the bit you failed at from a handy checkpoint nearby. It’s both annoying and time-consuming. And flying around doing the equivalent of fetch-quests takes time too, and sometimes the actual difficulty of a mission doesn’t tally with the projected difficulty score when agreeing to it.
But a bigger problem is to do with the combat itself. It lacks thump, and it lacks variety. Simply, there isn’t a lot you can do. You have one attack: a machine-gun that you whittle enemies’ health down with (you can also grab mines from the sea, in your talons, to drop on ships, but you don’t really need to). You follow enemies around and putter-putter-putter limp-feeling projectiles at them until they die and plummet into the sea. You can mix in a barrel roll and a dive, maybe an air-break, but that’s it.
There’s no missile equivalent. There’s none of the thrill of tailing an enemy for a lock-on so you can blow them spectacularly out of the sky. And, conversely, there’s none of the excitement of desperately flinging yourself around trying to shake a missile off. More disappointingly, there’s no kind of falcon attack. There’s no way to savagely lunge with talons the way they birds do in real life. No way to hold a sustained dive as you thunder down from above and tear an unsuspecting enemy to shreds. I might as well be fighting on a giant pigeon. And if what I’m doing isn’t working, there’s nothing I can do. Except grind.
To be frank, it made for a really bad introduction to the game. Combat wasn’t enjoyable, I was annoyed, and the game wasn’t giving me any help or advice. And I didn’t care about the story because it hadn’t had a chance to do anything yet. The prospect of several more chapters terrified me. I wanted to stop.
But when I got a new gun, trivial as it sounds, the game opened up. Combat was still one-note, but at least now it was a pleasant note. I could do meaningful damage and actually kill things. Incidentally, my top tip for playing The Falconeer is ‘get a new gun’. And don’t stop until you have the best gun. I can’t tell you how much more fun I’m having now with what is effectively a canon. Oh, and fly north to Sark’s Hollow to buy the bird with loads of health and health regeneration. But bear in mind, you will have to complete a racecourse in a certain time before you will be able to buy it. It took me a while to work that out.
It took me a while to work a lot of things out, and I’m still not sure I’ve fully grasped everything. And I’m still not immune to difficulty spikes, and they’re still really annoying. But they’re the elbows and awkward bits of a game that wouldn’t be the same without them. Polish away the imperfections and you polish away the humanity. The Falconeer is a remarkable achievement, and a personal one.