(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played, and our site score also reflects the state of the game at that time. Since then, one or more critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original verdict at the end of the article.)
I look back fondly on the late 1990s as the Golden Age of RPGs: a five year span packed with big budget titles that had great stories, brilliant music, and tons of fun experimental gameplay tweaks that kept the formula fresh without chucking it entirely. Kevin Mitchell and Lee Pattison may not have reproduced the “big budget” part in Fall of Angels (Out Now, $2.99), but they channel the spirit of that era like no other. Together with Monster RPG 2 and Steam Pirates, Fall stands as a testament to just how much Western developers were inspired by the Japanese classics, and suggests that there’s interesting ground yet to be covered in this genre. Now, don’t get me wrong — Fall has its fair share of slip-ups. But I can say with confidence that if you’re a JRPG fan and venture into it with the expectations you’ll naturally have based on screenshots, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Fall’s developers tout a “gripping original story,” but I must admit I was skeptical during that critical first half hour. The setup certainly has potential: when a pair of technologically backward nations get into a scuffle over an object that just crash landed on their border, the church that reigns over Fall’s world sends in its own military arm to break up the fight and investigate. With protagonist Sariel spending a fair stretch taking orders from a robotic superior and wading through heavy exposition, however, I found myself wondering whether Fall could go anywhere interesting. It doesn’t help that a few spelling gaffes mar early dialogue and that the its versus it’s dilemma – ever the bane of today’s writers – rears its head every so often.
Then it hits — a big surprise half an hour to 45 minutes in that finally hooked me. An act of insubordination lands Sariel in hot water with his team and leads him on a journey to find out more about the potentially possessed civilian he felt driven to protect. On one level it’s sad to see Sariel’s special forces exploits collapse so suddenly. His erstwhile teammates are a diverse – if wooden – crew who never get their chance to shine. On the other hand, there’s no question that Sariel and the story benefit for his falling in with more emotive, well-fleshed characters who have plenty of questions about his intentions and mysterious past. Fall’s story hits a perfect pitch that keeps the player’s interest from that point on, though it’s certainly dark: imagine a dash of The Exorcist sprinkled on Final Fantasy VII and you’ll have a good feel for the direction Fall veers into after the plot twist.
An evolving story summary refreshes the player on everything that’s happened so far, and this is a feature more JRPGs would do well to adopt. It’s only too bad that the summary’s potential to double as a guide is often left untapped. The player has to pay very close attention to dialogue to figure out Sariel’s next destination, and if you have a knack for forgetting details or break for a while after an important story event, don’t always expect a paddle to help you up the creek you’re in. Together with a dearth of maps and an environment issue I’ll get to later, this leaves Fall a little less user-friendly than it could be — although, just as this review went to print, the devs released an update that provides a few more hints and does a great job propping the experience up compared to the initial release. They’ve also kindly offered a Help page that should get players past the trickiest spots.
Fall’s battle system follows the well-worn, Final Fantasy-style Active Time tradition, which has the player waiting for action bars to fill before his or her team can do anything; in the meantime Sariel and his two active companions receive enemy pot shots. Long-stretching seconds of deadweight inaction have always been the Active Time system’s shortcoming, so I’m hoping for a speed adjusment option in updates. While very traditional, Fall’s battle system demands plenty of strategy and the interface is shrewdly designed. The player’s right thumb picks a character to activate once his or her action bar has filled, and the left hits a target for a regular attack or reaches for virtual buttons to invoke one-off specials or item usage. This means the iPhone or iPod Touch owner spends most of the game holding the device just like a console controller, which is wonderfully ergonomic.
Field, dungeon, and even town exploration are where Fall truly shines, lack of area maps aside. A tool system lends the game an excellent Adventure feel normally reserved for other genres. If Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals or Wild Arms happen to ring a bell, you know what to expect. While those golden oldies delivered the concept with more graphical panache, it works every bit as well here, tempting the player to revisit old locations or backtrack to passed-over dungeon rooms once a new block-breaking, lock-picking, or other ability is in hand. Some tools can swat enemies right out of the way – yes, you can see them outside of battle! – or capture bonus items that take a little pressure off the player’s inventory of expensive consumables.