A mashup of genres that never quite comes together
I sometimes worry that Housemarque are overthinking the success they’ve had with games like Resogun or Super Stardust. While the studio continues to promise a refinement of arcade mechanics and twin-stick controls, their most recent offering, Matterfall, loses itself along the way in a misguided attempt to blend shooting, platforming, and bullet-hell together in a mess of contradicting sensibilities, leaving the game feeling disjointed. There are times when Matterfall drops certain elements and becomes a solid action-platformer experience, and the level design occasionally finds its stride, but the game is so short, it fails to string enough of these moments together to be worth recommending.
Matterfall is about... well, I don’t really know if I could tell you. The game begins with a short cutscene that is so abrupt, by the time you realize Housemarque is trying to provide background and context for the game it’s already over. The gist is that humanity has built a giant city based on an alien energy source that has now turned evil. You, the player-character Avalon Darrow, have been sent in to fix it. A description of the game informed me that the main character is a gun-for-hire, but the game isn’t interested in its narrative to really care. And that’s fine. Action games don’t need much of a plot, though it’s weird that Housemarque shoves a cutscene in the beginning, as if someone thought it might be worth having as a blueprint, and forgot to delete it later on.
The bigger problem is that Matterfall’s gameplay structure is all over the map. Housemarque seems to have wanted to build an action-platformer, but they also really wanted the experience to be visually tied to the studio’s previous hit, Resogun. Not only are some of the arcade aesthetics exactly the same, but much like Resogun the controller mic loves to call out when you have a score multiplier, when you lose it, and when you’re low on health. This arcade mentality is wonderful in theory, but it directly conflicts with the rest of Matterfall’s design.
It feels like Matterfall was originally envisioned as an action/platformer. Its level design is broken into checkpoints, the combat comes in unexpected chunks, and it spends a lot of time forcing you into difficult scenarios rather than allowing for player expression through fluid mechanics. Arcade games are definitely hard, but usually there’s a slow ramp up in difficulty, made of enemy combinations and an accelerated flow of combat. Meanwhile, Matterfall’s difficulty spikes are unpredictable and it never allows the player to enter into a rhythm. Instead its gameplay comes in fits and starts that hamper the ability of Housemarque to create something engrossing.
Matterfall also features a surprising variety of action mechanics. There’s the twin-stick shooting, which is pretty straightforward, but the combat options don’t stop there. You also have secondary weapons, which are earned by freeing civilians who provide you with augmentation upgrades (these are either weapons or passive upgrades), of which you can choose to have three active at any time. On top of those combat mechanics, you have the matter gun, a gun that fires a blue ray that can be used in combat to explode floating matter orbs, destroying all enemies within the blast radius. The game’s challenging platforming comes from not only having the player jump and land on a series of platforms, but also requires you to use the matter gun in order to create certain platforms. And sometimes creating them isn’t enough, as you then use the strike move to power through these platforms. After you’ve performed admirably enough, you will trigger overdrive, which allows you to pass through enemies and projectiles unharmed and multiplies your energy.
So it should be pretty clear that there’s a lot going on in Matterfall, which would be great if the game allowed you time to learn how to effectively chain these abilities together, but it never does. The game is so short and the level design so lackluster, you aren’t given much time to familiarize yourself with the controls. So when you come to sections of the game that are simultaneously asking you to create platforms, shoot enemies, dodge attacks, dodge through platforms, and blow up matter orbs, it can become a bit much since these sequences also come with random spikes in difficulty. These gameplay elements work fine on their own. If you just focus on the platforming, or are simply shooting down a bunch of enemies, it handles fine. But each level has moments when you’ll need to chain multiple actions together, and Matterfall is not finely tuned enough to make this enjoyable.
The blend of action-platformer and arcade mechanics isn’t inherently a bad idea, but there is no blending here, just one game sitting on top of another, like oil on water. Housemarque built an action-platformer and simply draped a high-score mechanic over it without much thought into how it should inform the design or the gameplay. The levels of Matterfall can be so frustrating and unforgiving that they don’t beg to be replayed, the encounters are so randomly designed that it’s hard to build a working catalogue of fights and control mastery to improve your score - like one would expect in an arcade game.
You would think this would mean that you could ignore the scores and arcade aesthetics and simply enjoy the game for the action. And this is when Matterfall is at its best. When you’re just running for your life, blending the simplest shooting and platforming controls together, Matterfall works much better. There’s a fun dodge mechanic, called strikes, that freezes enemies, and as you master it, you get a sense of how levels are designed around it. The issue is that while the strike attack works well in combat, it’s annoying when it comes to the platforming. At its toughest, the game is usually asking you to strike through the air to certain areas - this might be to clear out projectiles or move through a platform, but it’s in doing these precise functions that the strike ability feel clunky. Chaining a strike move with the platforming doesn’t always work, especially if you are leaping in one direction and striking in the other. In fact there were times when I was trying to just stand in one place and strike through the floor and it would take a couple of attempts.
This is particularly tricky in the zero gravity sections where Matterfall does away with the platforming and allows you to fly around the area. These sequences are filled with projectiles you have to avoid and hardly any space to do so. The idea here is that the strike function will allow you to prevent the projectiles from hitting you or dodge out of the way, but usually I found myself dodging into projectiles or escaping one projectile for another.
A perfect microcosm of the uneven difficulty spikes are the boss fights at the end of each stage. The first fight is a little challenging, as the boss usually stayed out of firing range, forcing me to build up my overcharge so I wouldn’t take damage and then get in close without having to worry about self-preservation. The second boss was incredibly easy - a zero-g fight that was easier than some of the sequences in the regular levels since large amount of health drops kept me safe. The third was infuriating, as plenty of damage was flung my way with almost no opportunities to heal, and great emphasis was put on using the strike move to avoid damage.
The engulfing problem is that the game is incredibly short, and doesn’t allow the game to breathe. You can likely beat Matterfall in a couple of hours as there are only a few different stages, each of which contain a handful of levels. Short games aren’t necessarily bad, but Matterfall’s climax is ultimately unsatisfying. It doesn’t payoff in a complex battle that showcases the player’s improved ability, it doesn’t deliver narrative closure, and it doesn’t feel like the exhaustive finale to a difficult journey - it’s abrupt and disjointed. You can sense that Housemarque is hoping players will revisit the levels, in search of higher scores, but like I explained earlier, there isn’t much a gameplay incentive to do so.
It doesn’t help that the visual language of Matterfall isn’t always clear. There’s some fun aesthetics with a lot of rich blues and oranges filling the screen like in Resogun. But so many of the backgrounds are stock facilities and underground tunnels, it steals away some of the beauty. Sometimes the orange fireballs and lava chunks that are spewed at you blend in with the environment, making for cheap damage and kills. Even the enemies can be indistinguishable from the projectiles and when Matterfall is as demanding as it tends to be, with nasty platforming and bullet-hell segments, it’s maddening to have a spare fireball hit you out of nowhere or be betrayed by the tricky strike mechanics.
There’s just so much going on in each level between the bullet-hell, the platforming, the twin-stick shooting, your score, the checkpoints, the strikes, the matter-gun used to blow up enemies, and your secondary weapon, that playing the game feels like a juggling act you know you can’t keep up with. There’s never time to enjoy the visuals, or try to appreciate the thumping techno music pulsing in the background; not when you’re trying to master the exact timing of the jumps required to simply survive to the next checkpoint.
For all its faults, the game is technically sound. Housemarque has a history of delivering solid games at launch, tech-wise, and this is another. It’s so small, it seems unambitious, but there’s so much at play in the overwhelming level design that any technical hiccups would have been horribly frustrating. But there’s no complaints on that front, the game is very solid.
Matterfall suffers from an identity crisis. It struggles to understand what kind of game it wants to be, and because the answer never arrives, it can never satisfyingly communicate all the mechanics to the player. It wants to be replayed, but doesn’t want you to enjoy playing it. It wants to keep track of your points, but doesn’t want to let you focus on your score. It wants you to chain a bunch of skills together, but never gives you ample time to practice doing so. It’s a game of contradiction, and while it does occasionally work, it usually does so when it forgets how much stuff it’s trying to do and focuses on a single aspect. I just wish that it did that more often.