The Falconeer Review
Flying above some rough seas
Any console launch lineup wants to offer players variety – so that there is a wealth of different experiences available to try out on the new hardware. This is a rarely thought of chance for many game genres to get an entry that they otherwise would not. There's always going to be shooters, racing games, and action titles, but less common are titles such as puzzles or aerial combat games. While Microsoft has managed to get its new Xbox Series X console released in a year stricken by COVID, brand new games available with it are indeed in short supply. There's no exclusive staple shooter, action game, or even Forza to help the console along. And so games like The Falconeer are thrust into the spotlight – whether they're ready or not.
The Falconeer is a strange game, but not in an intriguing sort of way. It feels like it was created by a team with ideas, but they forgot to actually tell the players what they are. Let's take the story – you're simply plopped into a mysterious world as a pilot of a huge falcon, the titular Falconeer. You briefly learn of multiple houses (factions) that reside in this world, their troubles, and their relationships with others. The narrative tries to weave a plot of deceit and mystery, but it feels entirely disconnected from the gameplay. There are no cutscenes, just narrated exposition dumps for each faction and location. You don’t really learn much about the situation until late in the game, and by then you've stopped caring due to the repetitive gameplay.
But wait, actually, the overarching story is that of a strange woman telling you about some life philosophies, and you're some sort of vessel who gets to experience a series of events from multiple different perspectives. Each perspective follows roughly the same events that shake up this world, and as a player you get to experience each side's take on it. But again, it's all told as a cheap Game of Thrones imitation with some added sci-fi; there seems to be a lot of lore, but there is no time to flesh it out or get the players interested. You don't even really learn how or why you’re a Falconeer or how these giant birds came about; like many things in the game, you're just expected to accept and run with it. The setup is sort of like the Sunless Sea/Skies franchise, which suffers from similar issues of a story that seems full of itself and yet offering no introductions, and there is little connection to gameplay.
The campaign is split into chapters, each following the perspective of a certain faction. At the start, you get to pick your pilot avatar, which seems randomized and is purely cosmetic. You then pick your past, which comes with a bunch of exposition, but all it really means is you get a choice of two starting falcons with different stats. The stats include speed, acceleration, health regeneration, and more. You do this selection at the start of each chapter – picking a new avatar and falcon, so in the later chapters you get an appropriately strong bird. Things you buy from vendors do carry over between chapters, so there's some sense of progress.
The Falconeer takes place in a water-based world called the Ursee, where occasional small rock formations rise out of the water and are home to settlements, outposts, or shrines. Each chapter places your home base in a different outpost, so you get to see every corner of the map – though there's not much to see. The world is not overly vast, and it's entirely empty. Apart from the rock outcrops, it's just miles of open water, with nothing but the occasional strange fish or whale jumping out. The game seems to know this, so if the next mission checkpoint is really far away, you simply get an option to teleport to it – and similarly, you can teleport back to your base city at any time.
Other than following structured mission content, there's little reason to explore – you might find shrines and temples, which offer more philosophical exposition about the world, or a special vendor that has expensive items that aren't worth it, and can be bought elsewhere. Once you've seen one corner of the world, there's not much else to drive your desire to explore, from a gameplay or story perspective. The only unique aspect on the map is a sort of long trench, called The Maw, where the water parted ways and you can fly along the bottom surface. Well, this trench is barely 10 feet deep, so either it's a coincidence, or Ursee has barely got any water, and you wonder why the various factions haven't simply created more land locations.
The game tries to implement a variety of ideas, but again they are strange, and seem unnecessary. For example, as you fly around, you can land at any location that's not hostile, but you can't talk to anyone because you need to first buy a permit for specific factions or outposts. The map has a few different icons, but there is no guide as to what they mean. You can infer the outposts, and the storm clouds, but there's an icon that looks like a directional wind tunnel, and even after beating the game it never became clear what it’s for or how to use it. You can also apparently do races over a course of flags – but again, the game makes no effort to explain how to start them.
There is one currency in the game, and it's used to shop at vendors in outposts. The vendors sell many of the same items, though some are more rarely found. Aside from the permits, you can also get temporary boosts, such as a health bonus each time an enemy is defeated, but only until the next time you land. Some vendors also offer mutagens – you can equip a bunch of them onto your falcon to boost your stats, providing an actual tangible benefit. These however do not get carried over between chapters.
Your falcon comes equipped with one weapon and a bunch of ammo canisters on its back – you can get a variety of canisters from the vendors or from the battlefield, which alter your weapon's effect. By default, you're just zapping foes with lightning orbs, but other canister types such as red ones can have a chance to set enemies on fire. There are only a few weapons in the game, and they are all rather boring to use. All weapons are unguided rapid fire shooters, so that already limits the gameplay variety; but even then, the only functional difference is slower rate of fire for more damage. There is an experience level that's gained over the course of the campaign – but it seems to have no gameplay relevance. You're not limited or locked out of anything due to your level, nor does it offer any benefit. Maybe it does – but again, The Falconeer is not one to explain anything.
Much in the same way the game tosses you into its story, it does so into the open world, and combat shortly thereafter. There is the briefest of tutorials to get you familiar with the controls, but after that you're off into fight after fight. The regular flying is straightforward enough, but in battles things fall apart. Once more, the game makes strange decisions - the controls and camera are rather unwieldy to use, and the game binds a braking maneuver and a nosedive to the same button. It then binds a dash and a roll to another, single button. This results in frequent mishaps due to no fault of your own, as the game chooses what action to take based on some unknown factors – perhaps which way you're facing, or in which direction you hold the analog stick? You're basically given no choice but to stop your aerial maneuvers just to execute a move, which is bad design all around. And don't even bother with the incredibly poor bombing options - picking up bombs out of the water to drop them on enemies is finicky at best, as your flying ability is severely hampered, you can't look directly down and there is no indicator of where the bomb will land.
The enemies that you'll be fighting don’t have such issues; in fact, they can turn on a dime and almost always focus on you rather than any of your AI companions, making most of the battles play out as a constant circular encounter. There are just one or two unique enemies for each faction, but functionally they behave exactly the same. There's some enemy falcons, some enemies ride dragons, and some beetles. A few larger waterborne and airborne vessels show up with lots of health and turrets, but are slow to maneuver. You can try to be creative and use the occasional terrain to break line of sight- but alas, the enemies are not bound by the laws of physics and can fly and shoot through most obstacles. They thankfully don't have any homing attacks though, but that doesn't mean the fights will be easy.
The occasional companion AI pilot you get at least does the job and dishes out good damage. The game's best battles are those where both friendly and enemy AI are engaged; when you're solo, it's simply annoying. The game also dabbles with the idea of not just target-locking an enemy, but also certain components – such as sails or turrets of the larger ships. But like many other things in this title, it's a half-executed mechanic that is required just once in the campaign, and the rest of the time it's optional and offers no benefit compared to just attacking the main body of the enemy vessel.
You can't do much to dodge incoming attacks, as that also requires stamina, which is yet another finicky and strange mechanic. Your falcon's stamina is refilled only when you're flying downwards. If you're performing dodges, or simply flying upwards, it gets used up quickly. So what you have to end up doing is strange up and down maneuvers which are anything but strategic. The game also dabbles with a pointless stealth mechanic, and it's used exactly twice. The second time, the game actually had a game breaking bug which would always get the falcon spotted and mission failed – even as it was scraping and bouncing off of the bottom in The Maw.
On medium difficulty, The Falconeer is a completely frustrating experience, even for experienced pilots. With awkward controls and enemies that focus-fire you, you will go down in flames over the water frequently. There is no way to restore health other than those one-off vendor items, or (most commonly) waiting for it to slowly regenerate – hopefully you boosted that stat with some mutagens, as it's basically the most important. You will also come to discover that the game only saves when you land somewhere - which means if you happen to die 20 minutes into a mission, you're replaying all of it. The only smart decision the game makes is allowing you to touch/crash into the water below as many times as you want, without losing any health.
With shallow gameplay, the mission design is even more simplistic and repetitive. Even as some dramatic story events unfold that you're told about, the only things you ever do is fly places, shoot at some enemies, and return. On occasion, you will need to escort a slower moving ship against enemies. Or perhaps you will need to attack a fort by destroying its defense turrets. Or maybe you'll need to deliver an item from one place to another – it can thankfully be dropped in the water and picked up later, so you can engage the enemies without it weighing you down. There is no creativity or variety to the mission design – everything is strictly marked by waypoints, so you can predict exactly where enemies will appear, and where you'll just be flying along. Despite a vast open world, the game sends you on indirect paths via the checkpoints, with no story explanation of why you can't just take the direct route. You can do more of these same types of activities from side missions in outposts – but with enough currency earned from main missions, and extreme repetition setting in, it's difficult to see who'd want to do that.
Through all the trials and tribulations, you won't even have a pretty vista to keep you company. The game is by no means pushing the Xbox Series X hardware to its limits; it uses an abstract and yet low-polygon art style that could easily run on Xbox 360. The waves of the water are just repeating textures, and sure, some of the sunsets can be quite nice during the day/night cycles, but the grey and featureless clouds block most of the view, and the draw distance is extremely short. It's no surprise the game claims it can run at 120fps – though we haven't tested that in the scope of this review. You will fly through some storms – which cleverly lets you recharge your ammo canisters – but again it's fairly basic visuals and certainly not at all technically impressive. The audio design is pretty low-key – there is combat music, but just some humming and silence when simply flying. The exposition dumps are voiced, but there is much left to be desired in the voice acting department.
With many fans looking at any and all launch games that carry the coveted Xbox Series X|S optimized badge, The Falconeer is one of the few new games available. And like Crimson Dragon before it, it's unfortunately not a good one. From the poor controls, frustrating difficulty and repetitive mission design, to an empty open world and no technical aspects that impress, this is not a title that you want to showcase the new console with. There are glimpses of potential here, but the experience is so full of strange designs and choices that very little fun can be derived from it.