Freedom Fall, a new platformer from indie studio Stirfire, wants to slap a story onto challenging arcade action – but does the journey really prove more important than the destination?
Stop me if you’ve heard someone ask this before: what’s more important in a videogame, what it feels like to play or the story it’s telling you while you play it? Easy, right? Plot is always less significant than the running and jumping and puzzle-solving and whatever, and while a well-designed game can make you forget a dull, tedious story, a well-written story is no panacea for a mediocre game. So why do I like Freedom Fall so much?
Because let’s be blunt – in a purely mechanical sense Freedom Fall isn’t that hot. It’s a simple platform game where you duck and weave through a succession of increasingly complicated obstacle courses, resurrecting at the nearest checkpoint when you inevitably pitch face-first into a rusty sawblade. The one thing that’s vaguely out of the ordinary is that you’re typically headed down, but even that’s been done before.
Oh, it’s one of them
This is one of those games, basically, the kind where you um, and ah, and think well this is okay but it’s no great shakes. The level design isn’t particularly memorable, the difficulty curve gets frustratingly steep by the end and this is only compounded by some seriously problematic controls (on iOS, at least) that refuse to register touchscreen presses for no apparent reason. And yet, let me say it again: I really, really enjoyed it.
Let me elaborate. You’re headed downwards because you’re trying to escape from a very high tower where you’ve been locked up (for reasons which aren’t immediately revealed). It’s not going to be easy: the tower’s a maze of circular saws, spikes protruding from every available surface, jets of flame and sundry other life-threatening barriers to progress, but hey, it beats starving to death.
Two more things. It quickly becomes obvious that every time you meet your demise, you come straight back to life a short way back up the tower. On top of that, there’s someone in there with you, communicating (for some reason) in messages painted on the walls, and it seems as if not only do they know something about why you’re in here, they’re not terribly well-disposed towards the idea of you making it out alive.
It’s such a lazy method of storytelling, right? People have mocked videogames for this before – horror games where characters have just enough time before they bleed out to write a message about how their legs are currently being chewed off. And yet in Freedom Fall it’s these messages, and the person who it turns out is behind them, that are the number one reason to play what would otherwise be a decent, but pretty unremarkable game.
Right in the feels
Her name’s Emph, and she’s a princess, only she’s not locked up in here – she’s in charge of the place. She’s curious about you at first, then scornful, mocking your progress, then increasingly angry as you refuse to stay dead or give up. So far, so clichéd, but in this one-sided banter you get pretty much an entire character arc and an antagonist who evokes a startling amount of emotion for a simple 2D platform game from a tiny indie team.
Not to put the plot on too high a pedestal. This is still a fairly simple three-act setup, and the final resolution is a little underwhelming after all the work that’s led up to that point. But the writing itself is superb, some of the snappiest, wittiest storytelling in any videogame this year: drily sarcastic, laugh-out-loud funny, sweet and poignant by turns. It conjures a world far richer than the simple backgrounds and workmanlike gameplay suggest.
To be fair, developers Stirfire Games have plainly put some effort into how the running and jumping and puzzle-solving and whatever actually work. You collect scrap to make bombs to break through barriers, or craft various gadgets to help you in your long fall: first a parachute, then flapping wings and so on. But it feels so desultory in practice. I never built the last gadget and didn’t remotely feel I was missing out.
Even without the control woes, there’s nothing that special about how Freedom Fall unfolds. There’s no arrangement of traps that sticks in your head, just the moment you first think “Oh, okay, they’re using water now” or electricity, or fireballs or any other piece of level furniture countless other games that want to be Super Meat Boy have done more inventive things with (the League of Evil games, for starters).
And yet that story kept me going; kept me invested in how this was all going to turn out. I ground my teeth when that bratty little kid laughed at how useless I was, but at the same time there were messages that made me feel sorry for Emph, even had me hoping things might not have to end badly. The game itself is… competent. The story, though? In all seriousness I’d rank it shockingly close to how I felt playing The Last of Us or Gone Home.
How to rate something like this? Stirfire have some way to go in learning how to design a game where the simple experience of play is enough to hook you, but in terms of storytelling I’m reminded of To the Moon, where the narrative was captivating enough I could forgive a multitude of sins. Plot is gameplay’s bitch? Hogwash! Freedom Fall is a middling game at best, but a story I’d recommend everyone play through right now.
Freedom Fall, from Stirfire Studios, is available for iOS devices (reviewed), Windows, Mac and Linux.