Matterfall Review — Top Notch Gameplay with Little Replayability
Housemarque's second game of the summer, Matterfall, is fantastic in terms of gameplay, but leaves a lot to be desired in level design.
Matterfall is an interesting new step for Housemarque. While many staple elements of previous games from the Finland-based studio remain — twin-stick shooting, saving humans — Matterfall for the most part is a very new kind of game for the developer. With that comes some growing pains however as Matterfall once again is masterfully designed from a gameplay perspective but leaves a lot to be desired in many other areas.
For those unaware, the biggest difference between Matterfall and other past Housemarque arcade titles is that Matterfall is a side-scrolling platformer. The easiest comparisons to it would be games like Contra or Gunstar Heroes where you are constantly fighting enemies on screen while also concerning yourself with dodging bullets and jumping from platform to platform. For the most part, double-jumping through the game’s twelve levels feels great.
Where things get a bit more interesting in Matterfall is when you start to bring in some of the game’s other unique mechanics. By far the most important ability in the entirety of Matterfall is the dash move which you can use to propel your character in any direction that you aim. This dash doesn’t just help give you that extra boost to reach a ledge though, it also gives off a pulse which stuns enemies and destroys incoming bullets. If you want to survive in Matterfall, the dash ability needs to become your new best friend.
The only major issue I had with the dash was that there is no way to tell when the ability has reached its cool down point and is ready to be used again. Having some sort of on screen heads up as to when I could’ve utilized the dash once again would’ve aided me more than once.
The other distinctive new mechanic in Matterfall would be the Matter Beam. This device allows you to create new platforms, free humans from crystaline prisons, or detonate bombs that have been dropped by fallen enemies. It’s a gadget unlike any others that I have seen in run-and-gun games of Matterfall’s style, and for that reason I think it really helps set the game apart.
Despite this, I sometimes felt that the Matter Beam was just one device too many and the need to use it added an unneeded layer of complexity to the game’s levels. Using the beam to detonate bombs works well, but all other uses I found to be a bit cumbersome and unnecessary.
As for the twin-stick shooting itself, the mechanic feels as accurate and responsive in Matterfall as we have come to expect from other Housemarque games. In addition to the basic shooting mechanics however, Matterfall adds a new augmentation system that allows you a certain level of customization to your character. Some of these augmentations could be new sub-weapons like a grenade launcher while others might give you boosts to your health or increase the radius of your dash ability’s pulse.
You can equip three of these augmentations at once — there are twelve in total — and they really allow you to cater to your own style of play. Augmentations were a fantastic idea in Matterfall and I’d love to see the same system implemented in future Housemarque titles.
While gameplay is the portion of Matterfall that stands above the rest, there are unfortunately many qualms that I have with the game’s level design. As I briefly mentioned, Matterfall contain twelve different levels that are spread out across three acts. Each of these acts culminates in a boss fight, of which I found to all be quite tedious. Of the game’s other nine levels, my main issue is the lack of distinctness between them.
No single level within Matterfall’s campaign stood out to me as being uniquely designed. While the level design isn’t necessarily bad and as such hinders the gameplay experience, I felt as if I had seen all that Matterfall had to offer in terms of design once I reached the fourth or fifth level.
To go along with this, because of the stale level design I feel myself much less inclined to return to Matterfall in the future to chase high scores. Unlike other Housemarque titles that often contain a variety of different game modes, Matterfall only gives players the option of playing through each level once again on its four varying difficulties to mix things up. Upon finishing my first playthrough of the campaign, I didn’t feel as compelled to jump back in and pursue higher scores.
Most of this I think stems from the aforementioned bland design in Matterfall, but I also just think that this is a game much less suited to high score chasing than other Housemarque titles. Because Matterfall falls within the run-and-gun genre of games, I found myself less worried about trying to achieve a large score and instead just wanting to make it to the end of each bullet-hell level that it offered. Even when looking at some of the previously mentioned games like Contra and Gunstar Heroes that Matterfall is pulling inspiration from, these are titles that I don’t associate with trying to boost my score. I can only speak for myself, but I have a natural inclination to care less about score chasing when it comes to games in this kind of genre.
The other odd thing I found in my time with Matterfall was that the game is sandwiched between two story cutscenes which try to establish a narrative and world for the game to take place within. However, when these said story beats are only touched on once at the beginning and end of the game, it feels incredibly tacked on. I don’t understand why these cutscenes needed to be included and I think Matterfall would’ve been much better served to tell any semblance of story that it might have visually within the game’s levels rather than through poorly written dialogue.
I also can’t go without mentioning the game’s final boss which receives and insane difficulty spike when compared to Matterfall’s other levels. Typically I hate mentioning difficult sections of games — especially skill-based ones like Matterfall where the game is intentionally challenging you — but I felt like this last boss was drastically harder than the previous levels that I had played through on the game’s equivalent of medium. After trying to clear the last level some 20+ times, I conceded and lowered the difficulty to easy which was upsetting. I understand that Housemarque loves to challenge their players and I typically think that their difficulties scale quite well. With Matterfall however, I don’t think the game’s first eleven levels adequately prepared me for the challenge at the end of the game.
Lastly, in regards to Matterfall’s aesthetic, the game looks fantastic. Like in other Housemarque titles, enemies will explode into a thousand voxels when killed which still looks cool every time. Plus, the soundtrack to the game is pretty fantastic and will get you into a nice groove when playing through the campaign.
Matterfall is a mechanically sound game but has very little to keep you coming back to chase high scores. As it stands, I enjoyed the handful of hours that I spent with it, but I can’t see myself going back anytime soon. This greatly disappoints me since I have spent months if not years coming back to some of Housemarque’s past ventures. While I like the new direction that Housemarque tried to go in with Matterfall, I’d be fine if we never ended up seeing a game in this same vein in the future.