One of the most imaginative launch games for Xbox Series X/S puts you on the back of a giant bird patrolling a water-covered fantasy world.
The Falconeer’s mere existence represents a major triumph: in an age when big, blockbusting games are routinely developed by teams consisting of hundreds of people, this has been created (over a period of many years) by just one man, Tomas Sala. That actually makes it the second single creator game in the Xbox Series X/S launch line-up, but The Falconeer is a considerably more refined experience than Bright Memory.
Given the way it was made, the impressive graphics and distinctive, coherent premise of The Falconeer are rendered even more admirable. This is an open world aerial combat game, in which you get to fly around a planet on the back of giant warbirds equipped with lightning-powered weapons. Your area of operations is the Geat Ursee, a vast ocean apparently influenced by Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, in which the population perches on rocky island outcrops and piracy is rife.
However, The Falconeer starts in a very unpromising fashion. A cursory tutorial introduces you to the pleasingly simple control system – the left stick handles your movement, the right trigger fires your weapon, you can do an evasive roll and get a speed boost via the left bumper – while two of the buttons handle different degrees of target lock-on.
Additionally, you discover that you can fly into thunderstorms to power up your weapons (although running out of ammo doesn’t seem to be a problem in the game proper), and that diving towards the ocean also speeds you up and recharges your warbird’s energy.
But the tutorial’s static targets don’t prepare you properly for even the first mission – a reconnaissance run in which you encounter flying enemies and must engage in aerial combat. It’s never a good sign when after a few failed attempts at the first mission, you feel obliged to turn the difficulty level down to easy but that’s what we encountered with the Falconeer.
You’re given a computer-controlled wingman but initially it feels like it requires a lot of hits to take out flying and floating enemies, and too few hits for them to blow up your own warbird.
The combat, frankly, takes some getting used to. Like all aerial combat games, it’s fine when you’ve managed to target a distant enemy, but when they reach you, you must keep flying for a bit, evading fire if necessary, before wheeling around and trying to work out where they have gone.
Cranking the difficulty level down to easy, however, bought us the necessary time to get to grips with the combat, and we were glad that we persisted. Because when you do prevail in a shoot-out – or, for example, land direct hits using the mines you can pick up on pirate ships – there’s plenty of satisfaction on offer.
After its rocky start, The Falconeer really begins to grown on you. The lore that it builds up, in which you operate as a warbird-pilot for hire and come across rivalries between the aristocratic factions that own the Great Ursee’s outcrops of land, plus the tensions existing between them and the everyday folk who do their bidding, is surprisingly compelling.
You can take on missions related to the fortunes of particular islands, or more general courier style ones, all the time earning money which can be used to upgrade your warbird via stat-boosting mutagens or new weapon types – or you can purchase warbirds that belong to different classes.
The missions themselves are more varied than you might imagine, given that they all involve flying around on the back of a giant bird. The Falconeer cleverly alters your overriding motivation from mission to mission. You might, for example, have to shelter a precious cargo from attackers, by dropping into the Maw – a great trench into which the sea mysteriously disappears – and hiding behind its aerial defences.
In the end, The Falconeer sucks you into its strange but beguiling world, and provides a decent dose of escapism, which turns out to be impressively meaty given the game’s indie style price and the fact that it was created by a one-man band. It is a shame, though, that it starts in such an off-putting fashion, and if you’ve never really got on with aerial combat games you’d be well advised to avoid it.
As a determinedly indie game, it also fails to do more than scratch the surface of the Xbox Series X/S’s high-tech capabilities. However, viewed as an advert for the prodigious talents of its developer Tomas Sala, it is an undoubted tour de force. The Falconeer is an oddity, but we’ll surely be hearing more from its creator in the coming years.
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