Falcon Age Review — Fight Colonialism in This Adorable But Unpolished Experience

Falcon Age Review — Fight Colonialism in This Adorable But Unpolished Experience

First-person adventure Falcon Age was built with love but has some oddities more noticeable when not played with the PSVR headset.

As blockbuster video games dominate the news cycle, sometimes indie games only catch eyes through positive word-of-mouth on social media. When scrolling through Twitter, Reddit, or even Tumblr, if that’s something people still go on, one may catch some wholesome GIFs of a game where the player has a bird friend. This is Falcon Age, and it has a wonderful pitch: fight colonial oppressors with the help of your falcon companion—and yes, you can dress the bird up. But to my disappointment, the excitement from the GIFs died down as I played through the actual game.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of owning a PlayStation VR headset, which this game was designed around. What resulted was a game experience that felt barren and lifeless whenever my falcon wasn’t taking up half of my television screen. From the rare character interactions and the larger themes of the game, I could feel the affection the developers had in making Falcon Age, but it was difficult to see through the myriad of minor technical issues and the lack of content. It’s a wonderful pitch of a game, but what I played in around three to four hours felt more like a tech demo than a full-featured video game.

Players are on a colony planet and take the role of a girl named Ava, who at the beginning of the game has been wrongfully imprisoned for a rather minor infraction. Forced into labor by a robotic prison warden, Ava makes a great escape with the help of a baby bird that quite literally crashes into her life. In the middle of her escape, she runs into her aunt and is thrown into a resistance meant to fight back against the oppressive Outer Ring Company.

The player as Ava eventually forms a longer bond with the falcon, which grows up and earns a name. Ava and her falcon will roam around parts of the planet, taking down Outer Ring Company refineries and liberating areas for the larger resistance. In the meantime, you as Ava will feed your falcon with cooked food, and dress up your falcon with clothes and accessories either bought from a merchant or earned from NPCs after sidequests.

It’s a rather light game, and it was saddening to see these wonderful ideas intensely streamlined. For example, the bond with the bird is skipped over through a literal time skip, where the bird grows in age and size. There are really only two areas populated with any resistance members, and with an exception or two, only the aunt is fully characterized—she’s the only character I noticed to have any sort of voice acting. And the land which you are fighting for is empty and devoid of life, other than the occasional creature—I struggled to figure out if it was commentary for the adverse effects of colonization, or if it was merely due to technical limitations.

Falcon Age

Interacting with and controlling your falcon was mostly a breeze. The important actions were mapped to the two left shoulder buttons, with L1 calling or releasing your falcon, and L2 letting you aim, commanding your falcon to retrieve something or attack an enemy. Most of your own interactions with Ava came through the square button, and you can speed up actions by having your falcon drop items to you while your hand is out with square, instead of waiting for your bird to land on your arm to give it to you.

Most of the combat involves a baton that you retrieved during the prison break, eventually gaining a laser whip ability used with the R1 button. To be honest, I never quite got a feel of the combat flow. Enemies will come in the form of bipedal robots, spider-bots, drones, and turrets. These turrets will shoot darts at your bird, so the player will have to use their baton to disable the turrets. Robots will attack the player, so the player will have to summon the falcon to immobilize the robot at first.

It all sounds straightforward on paper, but combat eventually becomes a tangled mess with so many moving parts. Your bird will be shot and the game gives little feedback on where and how this is happening; players will have to figure out which order of taking down the turrets and taking down the robots to go through, but any scenario will result in unneeded damage to your falcon. Eventually, when larger robots come into play, strange glitches occur where their lasers and spider-bots are able to go through walls or go at the player from any angle. And the gameplay never exactly changes up, making each encounter a bit of a repetitive exercise.

Falcon Age

Falcon Age isn’t helped by the fact that there is little to do in the game’s world. Most NPCs lack any personality, all stationary and giving the same canned lines. They may comment on how life is hard with all of the smog and pollution from the refineries, and then, later on, comment how the air is nicer after you take it down, while still doing the same menial task (i.e. painting or juggling) in the exact spot. One poor NPC was in the same loop of lying down on a table, getting up to finally do some work, and then give you the same item each time you talk to him. The overworld of Falcon Age feels like an uncanny autonomous theme park.

There are some smaller games to play, but I felt that none of them were worth my time. One was sort of a form of minigolf where I had to use my laser whip to get a ball into a hole, with different holes and par for each one. It wasn’t something I was able to get a hang on, with the NPC providing useless tips and with the ball going back and forth in an uncontrollable fashion. Another NPC lets you retrieve mushrooms off of a tall rock formation with your falcon within a certain time, with the mushrooms allowing you to build “blind bombs” that your falcon can drop on enemies to stun them. But this “game” was basically the same basic action repeatedly, with little challenge or strategy.

A cooking system allows the player to conjure up some bites and goodies for their bird. With recipe cards and ingredients around the overworld, and two areas where one can grow more of these food items (they grow unnaturally quick, by the way), players should eventually have a decent supply of healing items. Fruits and vegetables are easy to pick off or retrieve, but foxes, rabbits, and lizards will involve some timing and stealth to catch for their meat. In the end, the food system just feels like padding, an attempt to make the health system feel like a more active mechanic of Falcon Age than it actually is.

Falcon Age

I wanted to forgive some of the weird technical issues because making a virtual reality game isn’t an easy feat. It just became too difficult to fall in love with Falcon Age when there were so many minor things that irked me. Some of the story beats didn’t register to me because of awkward blocking and animation, or a lack of sound effects. Some sentences were missing punctuation. Pop-in was egregious, as were several minor visual glitches and bugs. And good luck to those playing the game without the PSVR headset, because based on the UI and menus, everything in Falcon Age was built around it.

But the biggest disappointment to me was that Falcon Age lacked any bite. I wasn’t able to feel angry at the Outer Ring Company or feel empathy for the resistance because neither felt developed after the provocative opening, which has you in a prison and being stripped of your individual will and identity. It felt like the game depended on players to project their own feelings towards corporations, colonialism, and oppression from real life because the text itself was lacking. Despite placing all of these interesting questions and themes down on the ground involving tradition and culture, with an indigenous cast of characters with gorgeous costume and character designs, beautiful landscapes blemished by large, towering, grey corporate structures, Falcon Age feels very fill-in-the-blank. At some point, Ava’s mother, sympathetic to the Company, shows up to throw a wrench in everything. Whether Ava sides with her or her aunt is unclear by the end—I’m not sure if it was meant to be an ambiguous ending, or if the writers just never figured it out. Either way, the story feels incomplete.

For tackling such a large real-life issue, Falcon Age doesn’t add enough gravity to its story. It is rare for a game with these sorts of themes to release on a mainstream platform, and I would like to see more of them. Maybe Falcon Age won’t succeed as an individual game, but I would hope that it works as a proof-of-concept in inspiring developers to come up with stories and themes that are a little more damning to the larger powers that be. It may have been a disappointing playthrough for me, but I wish for Falcon Age to have a larger impact than a handful of adorable GIFs of a bird with a scarf and hat.