We've been dying to follow up on our preview of The Falconeer, open-world air combat RPG by indie dev Tomas Sala and Wired Productions, not least for the fact that there's always something new to discover, no matter how long you've played.
They say that time is the best judge of art, and letting the novelty wear off is the best way to expose any shortcomings. Thankfully, The Falconeer holds strong in this respect and its wondrous world is an incredibly soothing antidote to whatever the real world may throw at you.
It is for this reason that describing The Falconeer in terms of genres doesn't do it justice. Sure, at the most basic level, it's an open-world air-combat game, with RPG elements and an underlying tale of an imperial house's fight for dominance.
But it's also the fantasy of exploration of a mystical, magical world, the sort of which fairy tales are made of. It's a soothing experience and explosively hectic fight for survival, a masterclass in tactics as much as game dynamics. If you feel like racing, it's got that too. Heck, you can even fish. I called it a soaring example of video game magic, but little did I know that it too will feel like an understatement.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO
Visual arts range from photorealism to icon-like symbolism, and The Falconeer leans heavily towards the latter. Everyone has their preferences, of course, but the more one goes towards realism, the less it leaves to the imagination, so the dev's creative choice not only feels right - it's perfectly in tune with the rest of the game's themes.
The Ursee, which is where The Falconeer's story unfolds, is a mystical, magical world that Tolkien would've been envious of. This oceanic expanse simply begs for exploration, and there's plenty to see, from physics-defying swathes of dryland to cities in the sky.
In terms of fidelity, we've played The Falconeer on PC but there's no doubt it will look just as great on Xbox Series X. Being an Xbox Series X launch title should be great news for anyone planning to buy Microsoft's console - you're in for a treat.
Moreover, The Falconeer's Photo Mode is a joy to behold - if I tried to fit in all the snapshots, I'd need a few books worth of text. Make sure you have food and drinks when you go to "just take one snapshot". You've been warned.
They say that the best ingredients are those you don't even notice until you take them away, and The Falconeer's audio follows this culinary mantra to the letter. Simplistic, soothing tones make soaring through air genuinely therapeutic and calming, seamlessly transitioning into hypnotic war-drum beats whenever combat breaks out, all the while immersing you with discretely thrown in environmental cues.
Voice acting is reserved mostly for briefings and is pretty great, genuinely adding to the story. Dying in The Falconeer briefly brings you back to the Seachantress' cave, whose voice is a pretty effective way to wash out the bitter taste of a bad combat decision.
The Falconeer is a breath of fresh air, pun intended, in the era of shooters and battle royales, as it forces players to think in terms of vectors, speed, and altitude, rather than headshots, twitch reflexes, and so on. Directional controls are supplemented with Dash and Dive keys, and their simplicity makes for rich gameplay with impetus on players' strategic choices and thinking on your feet. Well, wings.
There are ample ways to augment your bird's health, speed, agility, regeneration and firepower, as well as additional artefacts that help you regenerate health in combat, inflict more damage to subsystems, etc.
Nevertheless, no amount of perks and stats will save you from a bad tactical call. Throwing caution to the wind and rushing into a swarm of enemies will quickly teach you the importance of strategy in air combat. The Falconeer doesn't coddle you and will punish poorly thought out attempts to Godmode your way through the game, so try to remember you're still a glass cannon.
If you're not in the mood for combat, however, The Falconeer lets you explore The Ursee as if it was an interactive fairytale - there's always something to do, even if it's just flying around. There are time trial races sprinkled through the world, completing of which lets you unlock different birds, and more mysterious locations than you can shake your bird feeder at.
STORY AND PROGRESSION
The Falconeer's story provides just enough narrative backdrop to keep you playing, without drowning you with in-game lore. My personal preference for show-don't-tell plays an important role here, and while there's no shortage of lore to be found, there are no drawn-out listening sessions you need to endure.
The story is that of a struggle for dominance among imperial houses, and there are even a few ethical curveballs that will make you ponder whether you're the bad guy here. Whenever you think you've seen it all, though, The Falconeer will throw a new mission, enemy or exploration opportunity at you.
Earning Splinters, which is The Falconeer's main currency, is easier as you go along and acquire bounty hunter permits for different cities, some of which pay more than the rest. As you progress, explore and open up moneymaking opportunities, you'll gain access to new weapons, artefacts, ammo types, etc.
Some of the items are actually locked until you've found specific landmarks, which further encourages exploration. And make no mistake, you'll be glad you did.
So now you see why categorisations like "open-world air-combat game" don't sit well with me - there's so much more to The Falconeer that no amount of neatly labelled genre boxes will do.
The Falconeer looks like a dream, plays like an action blockbuster and feels like a fairytale. Its tightly woven canvas combines peaceful flying, hectic combat and wondrous exploration like no other, and while you could compare its elements to many other games, none of them could even begin to compare in reverse.
The Falconeer would've been praiseworthy had it been made by a 50-man team, let alone by one guy, the realisation of which has been continually mindboggling. A testament to Tomas Sala's passion and a monument of indie game development, The Falconeer is a glaring reminder that video games are made by dreamers, not budgets.
There's no shortage of things to do in The Falconeer and it's not often that I turned to the same game to unwind as well as wind. The Ursee is a gorgeous, magical place that feels like it always has another tale to weave through its mystical landmarks and scattered islands. And if it doesn't, I'll still keep looking.
We'd like to thank Tomas Sala, Wired Productions and Tom Sargent for kindly providing us with a review code for The Falconeer.