The Wii U has had a diverse range of artistically-driven download games ported to its eShop lately, from Another World to Master Reboot to the news that the critically-acclaimed Gone Home will be arriving later this year, and Vancouver-based studio Over the Moon's new adventure The Fall follows that welcome trend after a well-received release on Steam back in May. While it's nowhere near perfect, The Fall is a pleasing addition to the Wii U's repertoire. On a surface level it's is a dark sci-fi 2D adventure game with action elements thrown in: you control a dude in a space suit (who looks suspiciously like one of the Federation Marines from Metroid Prime 2) who shoots robots and pulls levers to advance the story. Been there, done that, right?
But wait... you're not the dude in a space suit. You are the space suit. The aforementioned character has been critically wounded and knocked unconscious – instead you play as A.R.I.D., his suit's advanced onboard artificial intelligence unit, in a literal out-of-body experience.
The meta-textuality only grows from there. The game is presented from the perspective of the AI, so all of the menus in The Fall look like old DOS screens full of ASCII coding, reminiscent of the dusty computer consoles in Fallout 3. The pause menu includes the "Operating Parameters", which always displays the core rules of "must not misrepresent reality," "must be obedient," and "must protect active pilot," echoing Isaac Asimov's iconic Three Laws of Robotics. As you can expect, The Fall is all about playing with concepts of artificial intelligence and robot sentience.
This is a pretty common theme in science fiction that risks becoming played-out and predictable, but The Fall's twist is that unlike most games that tackle similar subject matter, you're not a human; you yourself are one of the robots grappling with their own intelligence. Most of A.R.I.D.'s interactions are with other robots, whether it's fighting enemy security bots, taking the battery from a fellow combat suit whose pilot has died, or debating with computer systems about the idea of robot morality.
It all makes for a visually striking experience. The stark two-dimensional underground environments are presented largely in Limbo-style silhouette, and the entire screen will glitch out and warp at critical moments to remind you you're playing from the perspective of a computer. Perhaps because of this, though, some parts of the experience feel rigid and overcomplicated.
At first glance The Fall plays like a platformer, with the left control stick for movement and "B" to jump, but at its core it's an adventure game; the right control stick lets A.R.I.D. scan the environment with the flashlight for clues and objects to interact with, in the vein of Super Metroid's X-Ray Scope (explored further with the 2D version of Metroid Prime's scan visor in the "Metroid Prime 2D" fan project a few years ago). It's a great way of slowing the pace of the game, but because of the visuals' stark colour palette it's often difficult to distinguish objects from one another – you'll often find yourself scanning everything blindly in the hope of finding something with which to interact.
It's also obvious that The Fall was designed with PC in mind first, as the translation to Wii U controls (with support for both the GamePad and Pro Controller) is unfortunately clunky. To interact with a scannable object requires three button presses: holding the right stick to look at the object, holding the R button to pull up the interaction menu, and then using the left stick to select an interaction gets old very quickly. Combat is unwieldy, with a click of the right stick required (while you're already holding it in a given direction) to switch from your flashlight to your weapon. Taking into account how much of the screen is taken up by A.R.I.D.'s large, poorly-animated character sprite – a tall, slender model evoking Another World – it's strange A.R.I.D. possesses no crouch ability. While it's by no means a deal breaker, it's also disappointing that there's no D-Pad support at all, especially considering The Fall's old-school digital menu aesthetic.
The other major stumbling block of The Fall is its voiceover work. The unique story is done a disservice by the over-acted, clichéd voice acting; perhaps it would've been wiser to take a cue from The Fall's retro influences and forego voice acting entirely in favour of text-based dialogue. The text itself is fairly interesting – multiple-choice branching dialogue trees can feel stale and unrealistic, but it all fits perfectly in the context of A.R.I.D. being a computer programmed to give the most logical possible responses. There's a clever piece of writing early on where there's an option for A.R.I.D. to either tell the truth or lie in a response, in which the game plays with a gamer's expectations; little touches and smart moments are littered throughout the experience.
The Fall is a flawed title marred by questionable voice acting, disappointing controls and, in classic adventure game fashion, segments where you'll find yourself rummaging blindly through the environment trying to figure out what to do next. If you can get past all of this, though, you'll find an innovative title with atmospheric visuals that puts a unique spin on old science fiction tropes through an intriguing storyline and some great meta-textual moments with the user interface. If all you want is a solid action-adventure experience, The Fall is probably not your best choice, but if you're looking for a more cerebral change of pace you should check this one out.