Being as young as I am, I never really experienced a world where Communism was a huge and active scare and threat. But for the developers at Sand Sailor Studio, it was very real — they lived in a Communist Romania for years. Even years after Romania was freed from Communism, the developers still felt passionate and dedicated enough to craft Black the Fall, a game that they feel addresses and represents how they felt and what they went through during this time.
While Black the Fall is a well built game, and most of the communist imagery is very effective and eerie, the game unfortunately isn’t able to escape the shadow of other recent games that deal with some of the same themes, such as Playdead’s Inside and Oddworld Inhabitants’ Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!
Black the Fall begins on quite a chilling note. My character started in a large elevator with a bring red light hanging on his back, just like the crowd of similar looking people surrounding him. I got off the elevator at his designated work station. There is a bike mechanism that I could interact with, and was connected to a giant machine with a counter at 9999. A photo of what seems to be a world leader is looking over my character, and there was no way out as the room’s door was locked. I had no choice but jump on the bike and start chipping away at that counter.
Within a few seconds and without any dialogue, this demonstrates what it must feel like to live under an oppressive regime that dictates what you do, how you do it, and for how long. That is one thing Black the Fall does really well — it tells a powerful and though-provoking story with no real dialogue. This wasn’t the only moment of chilling imagery, many others in the game have also stuck with me.
Fortunately, as I was chipping away at the gigantic number on this machine, the door to my room started to malfunction, and would occasionally open for short periods of time. Almost instinctively, I ran to escape and was able to make it out, setting off tons of alarms. The light on my back turning from red to white. It was time to get out.
Once you escape your room, you must get out of the facility. In order to escape, you must go through some pretty simple, but interesting, platforming and puzzle solving. Your character is quite heavy, making for a slower paced and methodical experience. You can run and jump to cross greater distances, and can also grab onto edges. Platforming was never excruciatingly difficult, but stayed interesting and varied enough to keep things from getting boring.
There is also lots of puzzle solving present in Black the Fall. While it starts out very simple with most puzzles coming down to switch flipping, early on, you gain control of a laser pointer “Designator Tool” that you can use to control other workers, and you can even use it to control a little robot dog-like sidekick you encounter partway through the game, who has an easier time getting through areas populated with enemies undetected.
Puzzles are quite varied, and you’ll rarely be doing the same thing twice in the game. This Designator tool also has quite a sense of irony to it; you are breaking out of a regime that is oppressive and controlling of people by using that tool to control and command your peers.
The game’s sound and world design are also great. Whether you are in the dark and dreary starting area, or you are experiencing the outside world, the game visual design stays incredibly varied and detailed, and has a ton of depth. The world also uses its lighting and colors to aide the player almost every situation, with shadows sometimes being used to signifying things like an off-screen platform, and using the color red to clearly mark and enemy or obstacle.
The sound is also very atmospheric, whether you are hearing the mechanical sounds of the world in the background or the chants or groan of this world’s inhabitants. As there is no dialogue, the sound that is present is used as a very powerful tool to convey the game’s story. One standout moment even takes away your sight, forcing the player to use their ears to listen for pipes spewing deadly steam in order to avoid them. If you use headphones while playing Black the Fall, you will definitely feel more immersed and will most likely get more out of the experience.
While Black the Fall’s atmosphere and gameplay were well crafted, as soon as I started playing the game, I had a hard time escaping the feeling that I had done a lot of what Black the Fall does in other games before. The fact that I started inside a dark and dreary facility before escaping to the outside world, did some like heavy platforming and puzzle solving, and even got the ability to mind control people shortly thereafter consistently reminded me of other games I love like Inside or Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!, but the game never did anything radically different outside of the imagery that surpassed those titles.
Black the Fall was never able to escape the shadow of those games as it follows many of the same beats as those titles, even down to many of the themes it tackles. However, those sometimes are a bit more potent here due to some of the explicit Communist imagery. The game is also quite short and linear, so it lacks some of the replayability of other titles in the genre unless you are fine with going through the same beats and experience the world for a second time. You will still get your money’s worth out of this experience, but for those looking for a long and immensely replayable experience won’t find that in Black the Fall.
I enjoyed my time with Black the Fall because I am a fan of these kinds of atmospheric 2D puzzle platformers that tackle heavy themes. It is also because of my familiarity with the genre that I notice how much this title overlaps with other ones and fails to escape their shadow sometimes, even though it has a bit more of a historical basis than those other titles.
While playing, you can tell the game is competently built and comes from a place of passion with the developers, but outside of some eerie imagery and unique uses of the player’s robot companion and Designator tool, Black the Fall fails to be the next big standout entry in this ever growing sub-genre.