The Falconeer is an open-world game featuring giant warbirds and hectic dogfights above the mysterious Ursee. Soar above the gaping maw, drop mines on ships and face off with a crab the size of a city.
One of the aspects that really stood out to me, is that the game is made entirely by one developer (excluding the soundwork). I had the pleasure of meeting Tomas at IndigoX in 2019 and have been keeping a close eye on the game ever since.
From the very start of the game, you’re given a lot of freedom: You can tackle the prologue or go straight into one of the four available chapters, with only the fifth chapter locked behind a progression threshold. Instead of a linear story, you’ll be witnessing the events from the perspective of different factions that have made their home on the Ursee, the vast ocean that covers the entire playable map.
You don’t get to follow the narrative through a single hero’s eyes either, you pick one of the nameless characters, select one of the predefined looks and backstories, choose a class that fits your playstyle and tackle missions and sidequests as you deem fit.
The menu can be a bit confusing at first though, I had two fellow reviewers contact me and ask how they can progress the story. Luckily I had already played the closed beta so I knew that the first character gives you a bit of lore, the second one is for story missions, the third gives you sidequests where you can earn extra splinters (the currency used), and the fourth & fifth are for buying weapons/upgrades and new birds to ride on respectively.
When you choose one of the story missions, you’ll get a short debriefing, showing you where to go on the world map and what’s expected of you. These explanations are fully voiced, but the voice acting felt very uncanny with most of the lines being brought in a more dramatic tone than what felt necessary.
While the voice-acting and the repetitive sound of firing your weapons may not exactly sell the game, the epic soundtrack surely will. It’s been a long time since I’ve booted up a game and found myself unable to “Press Start” simply because I was enjoying the title music so much. It’s a bold combination of instruments and what I believe could be Mongolian throat singing and it seriously gave me goosebumps before even loading the actual game.
I also really applaud the game for the minimalistic approach they took with the UI: it rarely gets in the way of the visually spectacular presentation and you can even toggle the number of visible elements by pressing the select/menu button.
Your current objective is usually shown at the bottom of the screen, as well as your energy and stamina, while a useful yellow dotted line plots your path to the next target. When you’ve got a long distance to fly, you can simply disable all the overlayed elements and enjoy soaring through the beautifully crafted world. (or you can use the “Skip Ahead” option, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice)
The Ursee truly is a sight to behold. You’ll soon become enchanted by the warm glow of the rising sun, the impressive gap in the ocean called “the maw” or the various other setpiece locations that will take your breath away. The fact that the game only comes in around 1.6GB install size is incredible and that’s in part because it doesn’t use a single texture.
That last part is also the reason why it scales so well to the device you’re playing it on, being it full HD on your original Xbox One or 4K at 120FPS on the Xbox Series X. Playing it on the Xbox One X did have some issues though, with some larger enemies suddenly blipping into existence even some time after targetting them in the distance.
You might be happy to hear that The Falconeer comes with a photomode included from day one, a pretty recent evolution that I’ve really come to appreciate in games. In fact, I think I spent most of my early hours with the game, doing nothing but exploring the world and snapping pics at interesting locations.
But we’ve come all this way and we haven’t really discussed the combat yet. Isn’t that the meat of the game? Well, yes, but there’s a reason I’ve been postponing the topic: It’s by far my least favourite aspect of the game.
This may be in part because I’m not particularly into the dogfight gameplay that this always leads to: You’ll target an enemy and they’ll try to flank you or get behind you while you do the same, usually resulting in going in circles until one of you wins the agility standoff.
Doing this for almost every combat section you face quickly becomes repetitive, tiring and boring. Sure there are variations where you get to drop landmines on boats or turrets, or even on a giant crab the size of an entire city at some point, but those rare highlights don’t take away that the majority of your time spent in combat will just be you pressing X to lock on to an enemy, pressing B to keep the camera on them and then using your barrel rolls to dodge fire and trying to get behind them.
Perhaps I’m just not the right audience for this particular type of gameplay, so take this with a grain of salt. No matter what type of gamer you are, you can at least take comfort in knowing that the bird controls well and behaves exactly as you would expect it to.
What added to my frustration is that I often found myself dying without really knowing why. If I dropped a mine too close for comfort and was at low health, it feels like that’s on me. But when I shoot an enemy from a safe distance, with full health and it explodes but somehow also takes me down with it, that’s when it feels unfair.
Having to replay the entire mission and grinding down the health of a midboss-level vessel, only to die again in the next confrontation and again have no clue what killed me is cause enough to put the controller down for a bit and take a relaxing walk outside.
Luckily the game has a lot to offer outside of the combat and world is a joy to explore. Chasing a random whale, getting a record time in one of the races or going out of your way to find relics and other landmarks is a fun and relaxing experience.
When you decide to get back to the story, you can also choose to take on some easy side-missions first, in the hopes of earning enough splinters to be able to purchase new weapons or birds (which are very pricey) or you can buy mutagens to enhance your bird.
Beating missions will also help level up your bird, growing its stats across the board and giving you a better shot at beating that tough story mission. It’s good that this content is present, but it can feel like a bit of a grind just to artificially increase the game’s lifespan.
The Falconeer is a gorgeous game that once again shows that there is no limitation to what a single person can achieve if they set their mind to something. Exploring the Ursee is a blissful experience, offset only by the repetitive nature of the combat encounters and the slightly grindy progression.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on Xbox One X and PC, copy provided by the publisher.
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