Did you know that a single person can create a video game? That’s absolutely crazy to think about. Nevertheless, we’ve had some great solo-developed games over the years. 2005’s indie hit Braid was created by Jonathan Blow, the metroidvania wonder of 2016, Axiom Verge, was made by Thomas Happ, and 2018’s Return of the Obra Dinn came from Lucas Pope. Now, 2020 has brought us the open-world air combat game The Falconeer by Thomas Sala. This latest addition to the lone developer club is a part of the Xbox Series X|S launch lineup, and sets its sights high in the clouds. Does it succeed in delivering thrills and chills? The answer is yes, but not in the ways you may think.
As a Falconeer, you take control of an enormous falcon. After a short introduction to the controls, the world is yours to explore, and what a world it is. The world-building of this game is incredibly thoughtful. You and your falcon spend all of your time flying above the beautiful Ursee – an enormous, churning ocean that covers the entire planet. In order to survive the treacherous seascape, people have built buildings, towns, and garrisons on rocky crags and spires that are trying to climb into the sky. All of this combined with ancient temples and the mysterious, magical canyon known as the Maw makes each portion of the map look as if it has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. Really, the world of The Falconeer is visually stunning and delightfully original.
Unfortunately, as far as the story is concerned, the world itself is the only thing The Falconeer has going for it. The main campaign, if it can be called that, is a mess. There is no clear story or chain of events to speak of. Pieces of story information are delivered through fully-voiced characters that somehow explain both too much and too little. Every conversation feels like you walked in as things were wrapping up. Eventually, I got tired of trying to keep track of what was happening since it didn’t matter, and the voice acting was so laughably bad.
I say that the story didn’t matter for two main reasons: the game’s chapters and combat. Each of the four chapters have you relive the same events through the perspectives of different factions. A fine idea, sure, but it doesn’t fix the random dialogue thrown at you with each mission. What this chapter system also doesn’t fix, is the fact that chapter one starts you with your choice of two pretty dingy falcons. Their stats aren’t the best, but that’s to be expected. Of course you won’t start the game amazingly strong, and there are plenty of mutagens you can purchase to make your bird better, or you could get an entirely new one. However, you can start playing any of the chapters as soon as you fire up the game, and the starting bird for each chapter is greater than the last. That means you could start chapter four with an incredibly strong falcon, and play the same campaign you played in chapter one. It offers the new perspective of a different faction, but what is the point when the story is total nonsense?
Segwaying into the second reason for the story’s pointlessness, is that the combat doesn’t evolve. Within the first hour of the game, you’ve seen every combat encounter you could expect to have. Sometimes you’ll make a delivery, sometimes you’ll do some dogfighting, and sometimes you’ll acquire something to deliver before and/or after dogfighting. This would be fine if the act of dogfighting was actually enjoyable. It isn’t awful by any means, but it fails to deliver particularly exciting gameplay. Your weapon is an ancient relic that makes an annoying noise when it’s shot, and when those shots land they do so with as much gusto as a yawning mouse. I found myself growing annoyed anytime I heard the exceptional battle music kick in, because it meant I would have to fly around in circles for ten plus minutes before I could go back to what I was doing. Those repetitive fights were even more upsetting due to the fact that the “brake” and “dive” commands are bound to the same button. I found myself mistakenly plunging into the briny sea on multiple occasions when all I wanted to do was slow down.
All of this may sound dour, especially for a dogfighting game, but let me tell you about the most magical part of The Falconeer: flying. Exploring the map at my own leisure was a total delight. Discovering beautiful, new locations, careening through clouds, gliding over gentle waves, and shooting through air currents is an amazing experience. All of it is bolstered by the fantastic musical score, and some lovingly detailed animation. Several of my flights were some of the most serene experiences I have had with a game since Abzu in 2016. Yet, that relaxing zen feeling made the switch to clunky combat even more jarring.
It is unfortunate that the primary content feels excessively repetitive. On the other hand, while the combat may not be super engaging, and the story is a bad egg, the gorgeous world of The Falconeer on Xbox is a triumph. Paired with the spectacular music and breathtaking feeling of flight, this game provides what feels like an exceptional concept rather than a complete game.