It has been said that the essence of comedy is tragedy plus time. A good-natured pratfall here and there is enough to brighten up anyone's day, but when you play the role of both the audience and the victim of said pratfall, things get a little more complicated. Developer No Brakes has created an experience where physical comedy is inevitable, where a bumbling idiot is forced to solve complex physics puzzles, and trying to keep control of it all is the real challenge. Human Fall Flat throws away the classic banana peel, insisting on the comedic virtues of cargo ships, wrecking balls, and coal furnaces in its place.
You play as a vaguely human-shaped lump of clay named Bob, who must navigate a variety of open environments with the simple goal of reaching the exit by any means necessary. Each broader level is broken down into a handful of smaller areas that all fit into an overarching theme. One medieval level for example tasks you with breaching the walls of a castle, before venturing through a small village and eventually diving into an underground network of caves. It's a seemingly straightforward journey from A to B, but that journey is entirely what you make of it.
Your sense of control over Bob is constantly and purposefully undermined by his wobbly movement, clumsy jumping, and awkward arm-flailing. While the world might seem fit for a 3D platforming hero, you'll quickly find it's a struggle to even open doors sometimes given the limited moveset on offer. The game's introductory level acts as a tutorial, teaching the basics of movement and the importance of using those jelly-like limbs. By pressing the left and right shoulder buttons respectively, Bob can lift his arms to pick up items, grab on to different surfaces, and even clamber up ledges. There's an instant, magnetic attachment to anything his hands come into contact with, so all you really need to do is aim your wild flailing by looking towards whatever your target might be. A key on the floor? Look downwards and Bob will bend over to pick it up. A wire hanging from the ceiling? Gaze upwards and hold your arms aloft to try and snag it.
If this kind of movement sounds a little messy. well that's because it definitely is. Initial puzzles might involve simply crossing from one side of a canyon to another, swiftly introducing the finicky mechanic of throwing your arms up onto the ledge and hauling yourself to safety without losing your grip. There are times where this kind of clambering is absolutely necessary, so you're given plenty of opportunities to test it out, and if you're truly stuck then a remote control will spawn in to offer optional tips or reminders. You need to maintain awareness of the weight of your character, and how he'll bump and nudge against every surface like a pudgy ragdoll. Aside from the physicality of drunken parkour, later areas also introduce vehicles, electrical circuitry and other gizmos to keep things interesting.
While the game is eager to set you loose in these large, chaotic playgrounds, the look and feel of the environments are actually quite restrained. Everything is rendered in a minimalist style, with stark, untextured surfaces cast against silent backdrops devoid of other life. Red doors, green fields, and solemn stone towers do stand out nicely against these environments, which helps keep things on track given the amount of distractions strewn about. Somber classical music sets a serious tone even in the silliest of circumstances, and it lends a bizarre sense of loneliness to proceedings. Even in wild feats of idiotic brilliance we were slightly numb to it all, which was pretty unsatisfying as a result, but then we tried out co-op play...
Without exaggeration, this co-operative play was a total game changer. Bringing another person on board with their own Bob and their own dumb ideas is a recipe for insanity of the best kind. Suddenly, every movement was sillier, every plan got more abstract, and every action just seemed so much funnier. Playing solo is fine, but we would strongly encourage inviting a friend to experience as much of the game as possible. What's meant to be a 30 minute test session ends up stretching on for hours once we give it a go, as the bumbling duo create makeshift slides out of bits of wood, launch each other out of catapults and repeatedly fail at any form of teamwork whatsoever. It could be argued that the game is sometimes more fun to watch than it is to play, but tackling the challenges with a friend gives you the best of both worlds. You can laugh at them, they can laugh at you.
In practical terms, many puzzles are a lot more manageable with two people as well. Larger items are easier to lift, machinery can be used without having to juggle different control panels; it's far more efficient overall. This is almost problematic given how many areas rely on weight-activated buttons, which are meant to be solved by finding a box and dragging it back. If you're feeling lazy, just have another player sit on the button while you head for the door - works a charm. We'd say that mischievous solutions such as this were always intended to be possible, but it still feels a little too exploitative. Even so, we feel as though this is the way that Human Fall Flat is meant to be played, and with the recent patch allowing for a single Joy-Con to be used per player, it's easier than ever to make this happen.
Co-op play is unfortunately split-screen only, as the possibility for online multiplayer has been omitted from this version of the game. Even having three or four players share a single screen isn't possible, two being the absolute maximum. We wonder if this has to do with the performance in multiplayer, as the framerate takes a definite hit in busier areas with multiple items or bits of debris. Add this to a temperamental camera you'll be fighting with more than a few times, and it's not always a laughing matter. We know that the visuals have a purposefully 'unfinished' feeling to them, but there were also points where sound effects seemed to be incorrect or outright missing. It isn't a sloppy port in every aspect, but it does feel quite limited even with the additional Aztec level that's included. Bob's customisation options took a hit too, losing the ability to draw on his person to add in facial features or otherwise.
While you're free to take your time in navigating the game's open areas at your own pace, we would wager it takes about six hours at most for an average playthrough. Replaying older levels is easy thanks to a level select screen, so it might be worthwhile to go back and try out different techniques or let friends have a go. We reckon there's a potential (and thematically appropriate) drinking game possible, though of course we wouldn't condone that sort of silliness... Stick to operating the wrecking ball and trying to crush your buddy, it's much safer.
Human Fall Flat recognises a simple truth - People falling down is hilarious, and when they're seemingly impervious to damage that's just an added guilt-free bonus. Playing as a wobbly, awkward avatar takes a lot of getting used to, and perhaps you never really get used to it at all, but the game leaves each level wide open to a variety of solutions to suit your own personal style. Tackling the five-to-six hour long adventure solo isn't entirely recommended, so if possible we'd definitely encourage getting a second player to join in on the fun, even if the game's performance takes a hit. While online multiplayer is sadly missing, we reckon that you and a fellow human might really fall for this little puzzler. Over and over and over again.