The Falconeer: another win for solo-developers.

The videogame industry has absolutely exploded in the last fifteen years. There are so many games being developed these days that it would be totally inconceivable to even keep track of them all, never mind to actually play all the newest games on release. In a market this saturated, it has become more difficult than ever for developers to stand out, and for consumers to find exciting, original games to play.

Why didn’t the Eagle Lords just take the One Ring to Mordor? These are the real questions

Enter the Falconeer, a fantasy aerial shooter where, instead of using planes, you ride gigantic falcons into battle.

Air combat games aren’t anything new, but the neat fantasy twist of replacing planes with Great Eagles ripped straight out of Lord of the Rings makes the game more attractive to players like myself, who wouldn’t usually give the genre a second look.

Probably the most intriguing thing about the Falconeer is that it was developed by just one man, solo-developer Thomas Sala. If you’re thinking that means the Falconeer will be at all limited in it’s scope and it’s polish, you’d be dead wrong – quite the opposite in fact, but we’ll get to that later.

A one-of-a-kind world

Falconeer takes place in a deliciously dark and depressing dystopian/fantasy world almost completely devoid of land, called the Ursee: where the wild, stormy ocean meets the endless open sky; where humanity clings desperately to sea-beaten cliff faces trying to eek out a life in a world entirely unsuitable for two-legged inhabitants. It’s absolutely intoxicating – in a brutal, humbling sort of way – to see humanity reduced to such insignificance by the awesome power of nature that constantly beats down upon them.

It seems that a lot of developers these days feel the need to fill their open-world games to the brim with ‘content’ – settlements, locations or secrets for players to find out in the world – presumably because they feel that the game world won’t be interesting enough without these things. Personally, I have a lot of respect for Thomas Sala in choosing to buck this trend and leave the majority of the Ursee as an empty open ocean – remaining true to your own artistic vision, even when it means breaching the conventions of your industry, takes courage.

The Ursee is truly an “open” world

Having the Ursee as a bleak, bare seascape totally makes sense in this game; it’s vastness and emptiness is what makes it so unique and intimidating. You can fly from one side of the map to the other and without ever seeing another sign of civilisation, except perhaps a passing trade ship or two in the distance. For me, the sense of eeriness, isolation and vulnerability I felt whilst exploring the Ursee is part of the Falconeer’s magic.

The narrative has potential, but it needs fleshing out

For a genre that usually relies heavily on raw action to engage it’s players, the Falconeer is surprisingly strong narratively. It is a multi-narrative, in that the story is told from the perspective of three different factions: the Imperium, the Mancer Order and the free states. As with the majority of games with a militaristic theme, the story is full of strategy, espionage and politics, with each faction trying to outsmart or outmanoeuvre each other. Underpinning it all though is a broader narrative about humanity’s struggle to escape from the oppressive maw of the Ursee, and the mystery of how they ever arrived there in the first place.

However, the biggest problem the Falconeer faces narratively is that it tries to cram far too much into too few lines of dialogue. Important plot reveals end up feeling rushed and losing their impact when only a vague explanation is given as to what’s happening in the story, before it’s back to more shooting. It’s clear to me that there is a wonderful, rich story being told throughout the Falconeer, and that story would be a lot easier to appreciate if the dialogue was just a little more fleshed-out. It’s as if Thomas Sala was afraid that too much story-telling would scare away his audience, who obviously just want to mindlessly shoot at things until they go ‘boom’. Just because this is an aerial shooter – an action-centred genre – doesn’t mean that players aren’t interested gorging themselves on some fresh, tasty lore… whilst shooting at things until they go ‘boom’ of course.

Another thing that got in the way of the narrative experience for me is the voice acting – it feels very amateur, even for an indie game. Awkward accents, bad quality audio recordings and pieces of dialogue where it’s abundantly clear that this is the first time the voice actor has ever read the line – there are a multitude of sins being committed here. To a certain extent, this is an indie game developed by one man, and published by a small studio, so what did I expect? For Troy Baker to waltz in and offer his services for free?

Customisable controls

The Falconeer’s control scheme is far less complex than the likes of Microsoft Flight Simulator – after all, the game’s challenge should be in the aerial combat, not in getting your bird to fly in a straight line – and it closely resembles what you would typically expect from a flying game. The best part is that the Falconeer’s control scheme is customisable – you can choose to play with a keyboard, a controller or even a flight stick, as well as customise your key bindings.

It should be said that, whilst I had no problem playing with a mouse and keyboard and the keyboard controls are perfectly functional, the game is optimised to be experienced using a controller or flight stick. These allow for much smoother, more graceful flight, plus the ability to pull off cool acrobatics.

Aerial combat is challenging and varied

Let’s be honest, riding into the battle on the back of a giant falcon is the reason most people pick up the Falconeer. And yes, I can confirm that it is as exciting as it sounds.

The most effective strategy in a confrontation will depend on what kind of falcon you’re riding. If you’re riding an speedy, agile falcon, your best bet is to grind your enemy down with drive-by bursts whilst acrobatically evading return fire. If you’ve got a tanky falcon with high HP but little speed, you can afford to be more direct in your attacks, dive bombing enemy battle ships and fortifications. Luckily, it’s easy to start shopping around for the kind of falcon which suits your play style best even from early on in the campaign.

I’ll admit I struggled at first to get my head around the Falconeer’s combat, but that was more due to my inexperience than anything else – I’d never played an aerial shooter before playing this one. For the benefit of any noobs in the audience, here’s some hard-earned wisdom: in large-scale battles, you won’t survive long charging head-first into the fray unless you have a falcon with lots of HP and regenerative abilities. Early on, it’s best to take a tactical approach and pick enemies off when they’re distracted fighting your allies. Also, when all else fails, buy a better gun – it makes a huge difference to your survivability on the battlefield. Oh – and go buy the falcon in the far northest settlement. It’s the best one, promise.

Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that maybe too many cooks do spoil the broth.

There have been lots of stunning and successful games developed by solo-developers – Minecraft, Undertale, Stardew Valley and Spelunky, to name only a few, are absolutely iconic in both indie and mainstream circles. When we look at these games, the Falconeer included, the one thing they all have in common is a very clear, consistent artistic direction to them. That, I believe is the single greatest advantage solo-developers have over their bigger-budget counterparts – the developer’s creativity and vision is poured into their games straight from the source, instead of being watered down by teams of developers, all trying to put their stamp on the finished product.

It’s not uncommon for triple-A publishers to have over 100 developers working on the same game. By the time it’s been poked and prodded by all the various programmers, writers, animators, artists and executives, what we are left with is something very different from what the concept originally was.

Bigger does not always equal better. Sure, indie games have limitations placed on them, and some genres are more forgiving of these limitations than others – it’s far more common to see a great platformer or action game developed by a solo-developer than it is an epic RPG, for obvious reasons. But, certainly as a consumer, the difference is tangible. I’d take a pure, unadulterated product that’s a bit rough around the edges, over a polished but less authentic game that’s been strained through a corporate filter any day – especially when I am being asked to part with £50 or more for the privilege.

Perhaps we will see more creators exchanging traditional in-house development for greater creative freedom.

It’s too soon to know yet whether the Falconeer will earn it’s place in the Indie Hall of Fame, but I think there is a valuable conversation to be had about whether the triple-A development model works best creatively. This isn’t to dimish the amazing work of the developers at triple-A studios of course. I think it’s worth acknowledging thought that creative, talented individuals don’t necessarily need the support of industry giants to bring their visions to life. Perhaps we will see more solo-developers-to-be cutting themselves adrift in the future.

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