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If I buy my bird a skateboard, does that make him Tony Hawk?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The titular falcon in Falcon Age is without a doubt one of the best achievements in character design this generation. Want to put hats and masks on the birb? You can do that. Want to give the birb a fist bump? You can do that. Want to pet the birb and give it tasty treats and cry a little as you pluck poisonous darts out of its wings? Well, you can do that too, and it speaks to the quality of developer Outerloop Games’ original idea.
In Falcon Age, you’re a young woman of color whose planet has been colonized by an invading force of robots and corporate overlords, and the cruel authorities have jailed you for being a disorderly citizen. Later, a deadly incident makes you the primary caregiver for a baby falcon, and you two quickly learn to cooperate to escape prison, hunt the local wildlife, and take back the planet one smog-belching refinery at a time.
It’s really interesting to hear developer Chandana “Eka” Ekanayake talk about the game’s roots in British colonization of Sri Lanka. Falcon Age very clearly wants to go for the throat on its themes, placing you in a loosely science-fiction world choking on industrialization, but with a history and a populace that’s determined to keep itself whole and unbroken. There’s a mentor character (whom Ekanayake based off south Asian “mean aunties”) who quite realistically chides you for your naïveté and attitude, spurring you to prove yourself before you become truly worthy of naming your Falcon. She’s a badass, and she’s not afraid to tell you.
The game finds some pretty meaningful ways to express the impact of colonization, including one key story beat that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, for a game with stylized, cartoonish graphics and overall a lighthearted atmosphere, I’m sufficiently impressed that Falcon Age “goes there” in many respects. It doesn’t just tell a story about the obvious evils of colonization; it also tells one of more subtle coercion and cultural erasure that sustains colonization for centuries at a time.
But enough about the heavy stuff. We’re here to see a cute bird do cute bird things, and thankfully, Falcon Age almost never disappoints on that front. When you’re not sending your falcon up into the sky to battle robo-copters or disable antennas, it does a remarkable job of imitating a living, thinking creature. The way it gazes back at you and flits its wings about or the way it hunches over in pain when injured: All its little behaviors go a long way to genuinely connecting you with this fake animal. It’s a joy to outfit it in little costumes (I’m a fan of the bowtie and French beret), or give it little toys to interact with that trigger unique animations. Even though the falcon has some issues landing on my hand while I’m doing anything but standing still, it still manages to impart a lot of love. It’s just too cute.
Where Falcon Age begins to sink is in the gameplay itself. On the plus side, it’s always a blast to watch my little friend take off and nosedive into an enemy or a tasty rabbit, and thankfully it responds quickly enough to commands to ensure it never feels like you’re steering a glacier.
It’s disheartening then to see almost none of the systems built around that core gameplay really flesh themselves out in any meaningful way. Combat isn’t much more than figuring out the pattern that will give your falcon an opening to knock the robot down and let you whack on it with a stick a few times, ad nauseam. Your falcon will repeatedly find itself getting shot out of the sky before you can call it back. Crafting, which ostensibly is meant to turn a fight in your favor, never feels worth the effort, and generally is just a bore. The fact that you can only craft items at very specific, dispersed locations is equally frustrating. There’s a fair number of different fruits and animal trinkets to collect for each recipe, but they only ever seem to appear in one or two spots, so it can feel pointless to go all the way back across the map just to ensure you’ve got enough health for the next fight.
And y’all, there’s a lot of needless walking back and forth. It wouldn’t be so bad if the world were more than rocky canyons, but alas, it rarely feels that way. Don’t even get me started on the minefields that respawn when you come back to the area, forcing your bird to slowly dig them all up. In a narrative about reclaiming the beauty of a land trampled by colonialism, it sure would have felt great to see different reasons why this place filled them with pride.
(It’s worth noting too that Outerloop Games added an “Imprint Mode” that allows you to bypass combat, providing greater accessibility for players who might not be able to handle it)
I’ve got to point out one very sticky point that completely halted any enjoyment of Falcon Age for a good while. About two-thirds of the way through the game, you’re prompted to upgrade your falcon’s gear for a big final fight, but Falcon Age does nothing to communicate exactly what you need to purchase, and offers no easy way of acquiring the huge sums it would take to purchase even one upgrade item in the store, so I resorted to farming little fruits that netted me two coins a piece… for like an hour. Thrilling. This all felt like some sort of oversight, like I was meant to have much more money than I really had. (Can you blame me for buying my bird a skateboard, though?)
People like to talk down “walking simulators” like they only barely qualify as games, wondering where all the progression systems and upgrades are, but it’s a game like Falcon Age that really proves this doesn’t need to be the case. I’m not a developer, but I can’t help but feel like Falcon Age might have benefited from some more linearity, or at least the subtle direction that Firewatch implemented so well.
That dang bird is so cute, though.
Falcon Age was reviewed using a PS4 code provided by the developer and played in non-VR mode. It’s now available on PS4 and PSVR.
Joseph Knoop is a gaming writer for Daily Dot, a native Chicagoan, and a slave to all things Overwatch. He co-founded the college geek culture outlet ByteBSU, then interned at Game Informer, and now writes for a bunch websites his parents have never heard of.