Aside from the heroes of public relations, quality assurance, and publishing, The Falconeer bears few credits. There is music and sound design (Benedict Nichols), the voice director (Mikee Goodman) and the cast, console development (Stefan Wijnker), an original song (written and performed by Sherry Dyanne), and some special thanks. The most we get, by way of an explanation for the sights and smells that have just drifted by, is this: “Created by Tomas Sala.” A game that has been developed, more or less, by a single soul is by no means guaranteed to be great, but what it usually provides is a report, like a wartime dispatch, of someone’s obsessions. Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn are both fixated on the failures of bureaucracy—that flimsy tool that attempts to sift through the chaos in search of order. Braid was about going back, the sticky ache of nostalgia spiked with regret, and I can scarcely play it without fretting on past mistakes. Everything, meanwhile, was about everything. So what, pray, haunts the head of Tomas Sala? In a word, birds.

The world is mostly ocean, a vast mass of boiling blue that seems to be taken by mood swings into green, gray, and black. Cutting upwards from the deep are jagged little towns and cities, clustered high on the cliffs and battered by the wind. Life is on the rocks. People, of various houses and loyalties, scrabble for supplies, while oily ships splutter out of the mist. Moving over the face of the waters is you, a freelancer doing odd jobs for any who will pay, by virtue of your chosen mode of transportation: a falcon, roughly the size of a car and ready for combat. Thanks to a rack of batteries fastened to the poor creature’s feathers, you can loose bolts of lightning at your foes. (In a nice touch, you charge these cells by flying into storm clouds, as dark as ink, and sucking up the jolts within.)

The Falconeer is made up of aerial battles, fought mostly against leathery pirates who ride falcons of their own, perch atop giant, glowing insects, or else fire into the sky from their galleons. The controls—much like the birds, I imagine—are sensitive, swerving at even a slight touch of the stick, and it takes time, as perhaps it should, to get comfortable. Swooping downwards fills your falcon with breezy energy, which is used to boost forwards, with a strong beat of its wings, or to perform evasive barrel rolls. By way of variety, there are floating mines, which can be plucked from the waves and dropped like bombs.

The aerial dogfighter, with its lurches and loops, is a genre that revels in movement; and yet, it is also completely frozen, with a lone figure stuck at centre screen, swaying and tilting in place, and momentum signalled only by the scenery, which reels by like a back projection. This curious contradiction, between speed and stillness, is perfect for the ideas at play: the mingling of grace and death played out in the firmament, where delicate machinery or mortal beasts claw and snarl in the midst of life, and crumple, at a moment’s notice, into flames. It is fair to say that the shining jewels of the genre, from Panzer Dragoon and Star Fox to the Rogue Squadron series, have—dressed with fur, feathers, scales, or steel—been studies of the quick and the dead. 

Not so for Sala. Instead, we get the swell and churn of mythology, which is plunged beneath fathoms of enigmatic detail and pecked at only in passing. You can roost on certain peaks and listen as a nugget of lore is narrated, in feathery tones, by a mysterious woman. And there are striking sights to behold, like the Maw: an inexplicable gulf, cluttered with rocks and wrecks, where the sea has parted, as if Moses had paid a visit. “Only on the wings of a falcon are we free from the waters that bind us,” reads a message at the beginning of the game, but we’re also free of the binding of backstory, and this is, I think, where Sala’s obsessions come to an intriguing clash, as glimpses of opaque history are caught on the wing and left below. Far more than the combat—whose charm ebbs away on a tide of repetition after the first few hours—the draw of The Falconeer is its suggestion that, while we may be shaped by our stories, they don’t pin us down, that the mere act of living is to take flight from the past. As you wheel through the salty air, above a sea of frothing pewter, you aren’t free; you are present.

Developer: Tomas Sala

Publisher: Wired Productions

Available on: Xbox Series X [reviewed on] / S, Xbox One, PC 

Release Date: November 10, 2020

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