“As Nyx, an old, retired warrior, evade the Shadows and find your way through the crooked corridors of gloomy dungeons, navigate the treacherous pathways of the darkened overworld and fight emissaries of darkness in long-forgotten temples. Many puzzles and deadly traps stand between you and your goal – to bring your daughter Aether to the last place on the face of Earth that still sees light.”
The World and its Story
“In the beginning, there was only an excruciating, screaming void, wherein twisted souls writhed about, imprisoned in nothingness. Then the darkness was pierced by Luce, and with her came warmth and order. The time of men had begun, and would last many eras. But the 14th era is one of Darkness…”
Fall of Light wastes no time establishing its bleak and esoteric setting, opening with an melodramatic expository monologue from an old crone, drenched in reverb and accompanied with suitably moody musical accompaniment. Anyone who has watched the opening cut-scene of Dark Souls has pretty much seen this with a larger budget.
The villain is a nebulous but definitely evil sorcerer subtly named Pain, who overthrew the Luce, the goddess and creator of the world, and made everything dark, smelly, and unpleasant. Nyx’s goal is to reach the Threshold and in order to do that, his daughter Aether must first absorb three “Shards of Luce’s Gifts,” divine artifacts that give her new powers. Presumably this poses a threat of some kind to Pain and he is not a fan of the idea.
The visual design on display here is one of the game’s biggest strengths. It’s heavily stylized and with plenty of character, but clean and minimalist. It communicates its gothic atmosphere with a lack of visual clutter and not the slightest hint of photo realism (which is boring anyway). It’s arguably low poly, with plenty of visible angles and monochromatic textures. Everything is seen from a fixed, overhead camera angle.
And if the world they’re depicting here is anything, it’s dark. And I don’t just mean that figuratively. In many areas, the only significant light source is either your lantern, which you cannot hold with a weapon readied and which has a limited charge, or your daughter, Aether, whose ghostly aura illuminates your surroundings. It’s absurdly dark, even with the brightness turned all the way up.
This creates a sense of separation and loneliness when you’re separated from her. The world is darker when you’re apart. It seems like it’s always night time, of course it’s raining, and there seems to be a surplus of undead more interested in hitting you in the face than having a pleasant conversation.
The musical score takes after From Software’s titles like much of the rest of the game, opting at many times for silence, and using music at specific moments for dramatic effect. The short choral theme that plays whenever you pray at a shrine is a particular highlight. However, this sparse approach to the music strongly shifts the emphasis to the sound design of the game.
Strangely, the audio listener for the game seems to be tied to the character and not the camera, which means that sounds are positioned from Nyx’s perspective, not the player’s. This creates some interesting audio anomalies, such as Nyx’s foot steps audibly panning left and right despite the character being featured in the center of the screen.
While tonally appropriate for the most part, the sound design of Fall of Light is lacking in some consistency, attention to detail, and overall cohesion. Many of the sound effects don’t feel like they exist in the same space. Some lack appropriate reverb, seeming to exist in a heavily sound-dampened room. Some have strangely excessive reverb that sounds very out of place. Some sound effects have natural reverb that is faded out too quickly. Some are just bizarrely unfitting, such as a giant door that opens to the quaint sound of a small latch.
Ambiences are a hugely important element of establishing a believable world and fortunately, they aren’t absent in Fall of Light, but they could use
All ambiences are static stereo sounds, which play back the same way regardless of the player’s position. This can work for certain effects, usually slow, transforming sounds with few sudden changes, but it creates notable discontinuity with periodic, environmental sounds. An early example of this is the sound of waves crashing against the shore which follow the player even as they move quickly inland. At one point a bit later on, you pass a bubbling stream that immediately presents a stereo image which seems to rotate with the player, not based on your actual position relative to the stream, then simply fades to complete silence as you walk away.
These are little details that can go a long way in immersing the player in the world and something that the Souls games have always done very well. Something as simple as reverb on the weapon swing and impacts would go a long way.
From the start, it’s clear that the game was designed with controllers in mind. Menus have absolutely no mouse support and must be navigated using the keyboard. More specifically, the arrow keys, as the in-game movement keys do nothing in any menu. The game does, however, feature a custom mouse cursor… which does nothing in any menu or in-game.
This sensibility extends to the gameplay, for which keyboard and mouse controls are an afterthought. Some of the default mappings are a bit odd, but make more sense when considered as transpositions of a controller layout, such as “e” to open your inventory. The game uses WASD by default with left and right mouse buttons tied to light and heavy attacks respectively and the middle mouse button used to lock on to enemies.
But that’s all the mouse does. You have no control over the camera, you don’t use it to turn your character, and it feels strangely disjointed as a result, especially when you can apparently click outside of the game window (in full screen) in the middle of combat.
Fortunately, the controls are fully customizable, which is a step a bit more in the PC game direction.
Fall of Light wears its inspiration on its sleeve. Messages are scrawled on the ground in fiery text. You’re a faceless knight (though not nameless, because your name is Nyx) who dies a lot. When you die, you’re resurrected at the last shrine you visited and you have to get back to where you died to retrieve your daughter who was naturally killed after you died. Oh, and all of the enemies come back when you die or stop at a shrine, so you get to fight them again!
Role-playing game elements are dialed way back. While you do basically collect the souls of your enemies to strengthen yourself, there are no attributes to invest in. It just increases your health pool after you collect enough and visit a shrine. And you don’t have much of an inventory either. You can carry two weapon sets at a time (a weapon and a shield when applicable), which you pick up at various set locations throughout the game world.
This has the added side effect of eliminating vertical progression from exploration and looting. You can pick up a different weapon (and a shield when applicable) and that’s it. There are no real upgrades, unless you happen to like the new weapon more. The only other things to be found in the environment are the Fragments of Luce, which have no immediately obvious benefit.
So, that’s the Dark Souls inspiration out of the way, so what about Ico? Well, you have to lead your ethereal daughter fittingly named Aether through the world by the hand. When you die, she stays at your last position, so you have to retrieve her. This means that the entire game is effectively an escort mission, with simple puzzles for the father-daughter pair throughout. She can technically die, but there don’t seem to be long term consequences for it. You simply resurrect her from her ashes and go on your merry way. Occasionally, she will be captured imprisoned in a hanging cage from which she must be rescued.
Personally, I don’t consider innovation and originality to be essential qualities of a good game, so Fall of Light’s fairly derivative nature isn’t necessarily a knock against it. Where it stumbles is in the execution.
First and most immediately apparent, everything in the game seems to take longer than it should to the point that it almost feels like playing with half a second of built-in input delay. Movement has tons of acceleration and deceleration time. A simple action like turning around is accompanied by a noticeable pause, after the initial animation, before the character moves at all. Attack animations, light attacks with small weapons included, have excessive wind-ups.
This is plenty annoying in combat, but also in simple navigation, as I found that it is actually very easy to fall off of the map to my death. Why this is possible at all is something of a mystery. The game is in not focused on traversal, there are no intentional challenges built around it, and yet an errant dodge roll in a direction you didn’t intend can send you off the edge to your death, resetting you to the last shrine several and wasting several minutes of time. This can happen in all kinds of places that don’t really makes sense, included thin patches of seemingly shallow standing water next to the intended path.
Another problem that never goes away is in the enemy behavior. Quite simply, it’s extremely simplistic and repetitive. Melee enemies walk in a straight line towards you once you’re inside their detection range and turn on a dime to face you (which means that flanking isn’t really an option). They attack once you’ve stood still in front of them long enough and when you’re lucky, their attack range consistently makes sense.
Ranged enemies infuriatingly seem to back away at just the right speed that you can barely catch up to them before next their projectile hits you, causing a recovery animation (whether or not you block it) that slows you down. The best strategy seems to be to herd them into a corner. They are not fun to fight.
Unlike Dark Souls, the clear inspiration for the combat system, it’s not a matter of observing and learning enemy behaviors, because they’re very one dimensional. It’s a matter of finding the least risky exploit and hoping the controls don’t get in the way. At a certain point, I found myself using essentially the exact same simplistic strategy against nearly every enemy type. Combat is more annoying than it is challenging and the Souls-style conceit of bringing them all back every time you save and level-up just makes it worse.
It certainly intends to be an unforgiving game, but the key to that kind of game being fun for the player is creating a consistent sense of fairness and control. When the player fails, it’s their fault, they had an meaningful opportunity to avoid failure, and ideally they understand what they did wrong. Here’s a standard example of not doing that:
I spent at least 5-10 minutes from the most recent shrine, fighting through waves and waves of fodder enemies on the way to and inside of a dungeon, to get to a mini-boss (that respawns when you die). I defeated it, got to the end of that path and flipped a switch to open another path earlier in the dungeon. On the way back, I found a secret room that contained the sword I was already using, and then slipped off the narrow path I came in on and instantly died, because I couldn’t see where I was going. There wasn’t a single save point that entire time.
Fall of Light is a game that tries to put together a lot of pieces of the great game puzzle that other, critically acclaimed titles have employed to great success. Unfortunately, despite its ambitions, it often falls well short of its inspirations. Its biggest problems are its combat mechanics and controls, which are unavoidable, because that comprises the vast majority of the gameplay experience. Exploring the world ultimately isn’t as satisfying as it is made out to be and that’s a shame, because it has a lot of potential.