Steve Robinson is not a happy chappie. His wife, Carol, has left him, his mum has recently died, and his novels aren’t selling like they used to. He’s spiralling, and his solution is to return to the cottage he inherited and see if he can find something, anything to hold onto.
As a premise for a game, it’s a rather gloomy one. One Step After Fall has graduated from the Dear Esther School for Maudlin and Mildly Spooky Walking Simulators. That’s immediately going to fold it up several times over and tuck it into the smallest of niches, but there is still an audience for this kind of narrative adventure. And the concept allows for some – hopefully – adult conversations about mental health and clawing yourself out of depression.
One Step After Fall is probably best considered as a short story. The homestead that you are returning to could be crossed in less than a couple of minutes (faster if you find the LB run button), and there’s no more than ten buildings to explore. You are rung around by mountains, so this is a narrative crucible that you will be exploring for no more than an hour, perhaps two if you are hunting for the slightly obtuse achievements.
As you start, a path wends towards the cottage that you shared with your mum and then your estranged wife, Carol. It’s locked, so you’re hunting for a key, but a helpful note points to a nearby windmill. We stopped questioning the odd layout of the grounds: they manage to have both a windmill and a lighthouse, even though the area’s landlocked and neither of the buildings have the inner-workings that you’d expect. Let’s chalk it up to being a dream.
One Step After Fall doesn’t really abide by things like goals or objectives. There’s the odd hint of what you might want to do – a chest is locked; a gun needs bullets – so most of your time spent will be rambling, and moving from landmark to landmark as they crest over the horizon. It’s a tried and tested model for a walking simulator – very few have things like scores or objectives to achieve – and it duly works here.
Most of One Step After Fall’s storytelling is done through notes. You find them pinned to walls and left on desks, and they begin to paint a picture. Steve Robinson may be depressed, but the people who have died or abandoned him – as he believes them to have – have done so for good reason, and Steve is more loved than he initially makes out. Steve recognises this, and begins to heal. Over the course of the notes, the depression lifts.
Or, at least, we think that’s the intention. Because One Step After Fall – at least in our eyes – makes a couple of truly heinous mistakes. The first is that the notes need to be picked up in a specific order. Should you travel to Note #3 before Note #2, then Note #3 simply won’t be there. You have to explore your little open world in the order that One Step After Fall wants you to explore it, and that’s ignoring Gaming 101. You simply don’t do that in explorative games. If you are expecting the player to retread ground and explore an empty cabin again, having exhausted it previously, then you’re doing something wrong.
The other problem is one of taste. One Step After Fall isn’t a stupendously written game – there are too many typos, wooden dialogue (read by RoboVoice) and cliched phrasing to make it anything more than ‘pulpy’ – but its biggest crime is how it handles mental health and suicide. A public service announcement: One Step After Fall deals with these topics, and there’s no trigger warning. But, worst of all, it deals with them – at least in our view – insensitively, handing you guns and perilous falls, tempting you to commit suicide with glibly named achievements.
When the critical path of the game is so hard to follow, thanks to the precise order in which you’re meant to follow the notes, it’s all too easy to find yourself at the bad endings. A flaming scarecrow screams at you incessantly, telling you how worthless you are, while the suicides are dangled in front of your nose, presented as if they are the true ending. Which, to be fair, One Step After Fall makes clear (after the fact) that they are not. But we can’t help emerging with the feeling that One Step After Fall is treating serious, endemic issues with a goofy grin.
Otherwise, One Step After Fall has a few collectibles to find in the form of zombie action figures (no explanation given, and wildly out of tone with the rest of the game), and a smattering of other things to find. There’s no combat, although the flaming scarecrow is a pest that keeps appearing when you turn your camera, screaming into your headphones. It’s best to avoid him if you spot him on the fringes of the game area, as he will quickly ruin your game experience – if it hasn’t been ruined already.
We’re an open-minded bunch. We are open to short experiences, as we’ve got lives to get on with. A one-hour experience, sitting snugly into our evening is welcome. Whisper it, but we love walking simulators too. Some of our favourite games are nothing more than exploring pretty environments and letting the narrative light the way.
A short walking simulator was absolutely what we fancied as we arrived at One Step After Fall. But as pretty as it is, it’s a particularly poor example of one. It penalises you for exploring, and too often it resorts to an insensitive approach to mental health. As a one-hour stroll goes, One Step After Fall is a painful one. It’s more like walking over LEGO than a relaxing amble.
You can buy One Step After Fall from the Xbox Store