Video games have relied on the standard 'alien invasion' plot since the very beginning. It takes a unique twist to make it work in this day and age, whether it's a new gameplay style or a refreshingly original storyline, and that isn't an easy task. Falling Skies: The Game takes fun, tactical gameplay and blends it with the expansive setting of a popular TNT drama series, managing to make a mess of both in the process.
Developer Little Orbit has been no stranger to licensed titles in the past, and the sci-fi setting of Falling Skies makes it a particularly suitable candidate for the inevitable tie-in game. Admittedly this writer has only seen one episode of the show, but the general premise is simple enough to grasp with a single description — space invaders. It's a gritty tale of human survival against impossible odds, as an alien race known as the Espheni continue their ruthless occupation of Earth. Within days their armies of mechs, insect-like troops named ''Skitters'', and possessed humans have destroyed most of the population, leaving only a select few to form ramshackle groups of rebels where they can. Professor-turned-soldier Tom Mason leads one such group, determined to fight back against their fish-head oppressors.
Falling Skies is a very human drama, focused on how the characters have had to adapt to this new, hellish existence, so the turn-based, tactical gameplay is an excellent fit on paper. Like the Fire Emblem series, the player is given control of a small group of survivors that navigate a grid-based map one at a time; entering combat or choosing strategic vantage points as the battle evolves. Both visually and mechanically, this system borrows very heavily from the excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, in the same sense that Transmorphers ''borrows'' elements from the Transformers movies.
Operating from a home base, you'll pick and choose combat teams from a pool of customizable survivors and send them on various missions, which either progress the story or reward you with experience and resources. Initially you'll only be able to send out four at a time, but later on this can be expanded to a total of six. Aside from some named characters from the television series, these soldiers can all be re-named and re-designed as you see fit, provided with new equipment and trained to upgrade certain abilities. Different unit types excel in the usual areas of expertise, such as snipers, berserkers and assault troops, so you'll quickly get a feel for who to bring on each mission. Keep in mind that unit death is permanent, so it's worth keeping track of the wounded to make sure you're not going to end up even more under-equipped than you already are.
You can choose from a variety of missions throughout the course of the campaign, and these range from simply racking up kills to rescuing prisoners and salvaging important supplies. Generally speaking, each unit is granted two action points per turn with which to make their move, whether it's changing position or opening fire on some alien scum. Sprinting longer distances will spend both, but it's often necessary in order to keep to the front lines. Taking cover is an important mechanic too, as every map is littered with debris to hide behind while the Espheni forces advance. Everything we've just described is based directly off of the XCOM formula, but we could have easily excused this if it had made for an enjoyable game. Sadly Fallen Skies provides far too many examples of how to take a good idea and implement it poorly for this to be the case.
Aesthetically, it's about as exciting as a puddle, with visuals that disappoint right from the start and character models that even the Wii would have laughed at. Everything is a muddy blur that evokes fatigue after just a few missions, despite forest environments rolling into urban battlegrounds as you progress, and cutscenes are especially bad. We can't imagine fans of the show will be happy with the phoned-in voice acting and robotic animations worthy of the lunchtime show at a dilapidated pizza place. It's a problem when trying to identify custom troops as well, as there are only about 4 or 5 models used, and outfit changes are relegated to preset hair and clothing colour alternatives. You can mourn the dead, only to see their twin arrive moments later during the next recruitment drive.
The enemy types don't bring much to the table either, and actually tend to go down far too easily once your team members have got a few upgrades under their belt. Skitters can crawl across the terrain, but not a single enemy will actually do anything until you move forward enough to spot them directly. Nothing at all happens behind the scenes until they're activated, so this can be exploited to make for some overly simplistic firefights. When they actually manage to hit, we've seen more than one instance where the damage and status changes never even displayed on screen like they're supposed to, so we were left in the dark as to whether or not our poor sniper was bleeding out or not. The larger enemies can soak up damage, but nothing that's worth changing your trajectory over. As enemies won't ever scout ahead, all you can do is just charge forward, which removes the fun of ambushing.
In between missions, you can send a single soldier off in search of vital resources, used to produce new troops or different weapons. It's pretty self-explanatory, so food acts as currency for the former, while metal will buy you the latter. It's likely that these missions can end in disaster, but we can only assume, as we've had no first-hand experience with this actually happening. Our intrepid explorer returned over and over again with a wealth of supplies, most of which we ended up sitting on for the rest of the game as the unit in question levelled up beyond belief.
Controlling the action can be an issue as well, with awkward swings between fixed camera angles set to the L and R buttons, making for some imprecise views during critical moments. Sending a unit forward isn't always a simple task when the terrain is so indistinct, but viewing anything on the GamePad for extended periods is a migraine in the making. The smaller screen on the controller just isn't suited to the blurred visuals and tiny text used in-game, so it's a shame that off-TV mirroring is it's only function. There are no touch controls or alternate display to speak of, and even the D-Pad can't be used to make more precise movements. In fact, you're stuck with the GamePad throughout, as no other controllers work with Falling Skies at all.
It's a technically competent release, but feels gutted of any kind of atmosphere or connection with the player. For first timers this might entertain for a while, but we'd suggest swiftly moving on to something much more engaging. Interestingly, this was destined for a full retail release at one point, as it was on the Xbox 360 and PS3 systems, but is now found as an eShop exclusive. A lower price will help some overlook the flaws, making it a slightly easier pill to swallow.
Even through mimicking XCOM's tactical gameplay and utilizing the setting of the popular TNT series as a reference point for the campaign, Falling Skies: The Game feels about ten years too late to impress. Currently, there's nothing else that delivers a tactical shooter of this kind on Wii U, which is something of a selling point. Unfortunately what it delivers is a bland, watered-down version of the genre that even hardcore fans will probably want to stay away from.