Stop me if this sounds familiar: humanity discovers an alien form of matter that no one entirely understands. Because no one has ever read or seen any science fiction of any kind in any fictional universe, the human race decides to make this matter the center of the galactic economy. They also decide to use said material to start powering robots, and open a weapons research facility under one of the largest cities not located on Earth. Naturally, things go horribly wrong, and a Freelancer, or Fixer, named Avalon Darrow is brought in to clean things up – discreetly. She also has to shoot tons of evil robots.
If you’re looking for a story in Matterfall, that’s about all you’re going to find. Like most of Housemarque’s games, Matterfall’s plot is just an excuse for some fast-paced action. As a presentation, Matterfall delivers: its techno-infused soundtrack sounds like a throwback to the best stuff from Terminator, and thumps along to intense action and the thrill of chasing multipliers and a high score.
That level of polish, unfortunately, doesn’t extend to the gameplay. Like many of Housemarque’s games, Matterfall is a side-scrolling action platformer that operates on a 2D plane. As you advance through Matterfall’s world, which consists of a cityscape, hydroponics facility, and a matter mine, you’ll kill robots, build-up and lose multipliers, score points, and save civilians. Most of Matterfall is pretty standard, and by and large these parts work pretty well.
"The Strike is dash attack that creates a shockwave allowing you to stun enemies (who provide more points if killed while stunned) and destroy, or pass through, most harmful projectiles without taking damage."
One area where Matterfall changes it up is the Strike ability. The Strike is dash attack that creates a shockwave allowing you to stun enemies (who provide more points if killed while stunned) and destroy, or pass through, most harmful projectiles without taking damage. Strike can also be combined with Avalon’s double jump to get to hard-to-reach places, which provide access to score bonuses. Saving the civilians is crucial; they hold augmentations, which range from weapons like grenade launchers and seeker missiles to passive benefits like greater Strike radius and damage upgrades for your core weapon.
The upgrades you choose to equip (you get three) can significantly change the way you play, so it’s in your best interest to seek them out. You might equip Avalon with a number of weapons, or make your Strike act like a bomb if you Strike through certain objects. It’s a compelling level of freedom, and it’s fun to play with the augments between missions, or try something new if you’re having trouble with a specific section.
Simultaneously, Striking through enemies is satisfying and makes Avalon feel powerful, even though you’re often severely outnumbered. There’s nothing quite like striking through an unavoidable wave of bullets or stunning an entire group of incoming enemies and then blowing them up for a huge score and multiplier increase. The problem is that the ability never feels quite as reliable as it should, which is a problem because the game can’t be completed without it.
"It’s impossible to know exactly when Strike is available as there’s no visual or auditory indication of when the ability is coming off its cooldown. Because of this, it’s easy to wind up in situations where there are enemies that you can’t avoid and a number of projectiles coming at you that you have no way to dodge. "
The main problem is that it’s impossible to know exactly when Strike is available as there’s no visual or auditory indication of when the ability is coming off its cooldown. Because of this, it’s easy to wind up in situations where there are enemies that you can’t avoid and a number of projectiles coming at you that you have no way to dodge. These situations often end in death, or at the very least will cost you a large percentage of your health bar. This isn’t a problem for other parts of the interface – auditory and visual cues will inform you when your score multiplier changes, and your secondary weapons have an icon that refills as the weapon cools down – which makes the lack of one for the game’s most important ability seem like a rather large oversight.
Similarly, Avalon’s jump ability seems stiff. It isn’t very good for horizontal distance, so you have to use Strike to propel yourself forward. Since Strike’s cooldown is difficult to determine… well, you can see the issue. I can’t tell you how much damage I’ve taken from falling into pits of harmful matter after misreading Strike’s cooldown time. Because of this, controlling Avalon’s movement can be extremely frustrating.
This is compounded by the fact that you can only Strike in four directions – up, down, left, and right. Matterfall understands 8-way directional inputs – Avalon’s gun features three hundred and sixty degrees of movement – but that doesn’t carry over for Striking. It’s an especially limiting design decision given the game’s focus on avoidance and large combo strings, and can be especially irritating when inputs fail to properly register.
"Matterfall’s boss battles embody the term “bullet-hell” as your fight against enormous big bads who take very little damage and wave after wave of supplementary enemies."
These problems come to a head in Matterfall’s boss battles, which embody the term “bullet-hell” as your fight against enormous big bads who take very little damage and wave after wave of supplementary enemies. The lack of precision granted by Matterfall’s control scheme means that these fights are exercises in trial and error and less a test of skill. You’re going to die, and you’re going to die repeatedly, and after you die, you’ll be treated to long load times so you can go back and die again.
It’s a shame, really. There’s a lot of good in Matterfall. The zero-gravity segments that dot many of the levels are genuinely fun to play around in, and evoke the best moments of RESOGUN, and Avalon’s Overcharge ability, which slows time and significantly upgrades her weapon for screen-clearing moments of destruction, is a neon-colored joy. Even the weapons, and Strike itself, are enjoyable to use – when the latter works properly.
Unfortunately, Matterfall never quite comes together, despite its short runtime; the game only has twelve levels, and they don’t take very long to beat. Of course, you’re meant to go back through them and obtain a higher score, but I can’t imagine many braving the game’s myriad frustrations for that. It’s not a total wash; Housemarque’s visual flair and core gameplay are genuinely solid, but Matterfall often feels like less than the sum of its parts. If the game had a tagline, it would be “for completionists only.” Like its done-to-death story, you’ve seen much of what Matterfall has before, and done better. RESOGUN this ain’t.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Vibrant visual design. Techno soundtrack. Chasing a score is fun.
...When it works properly. Controls feel stiff. No cooldown indicator for Strike. Frustrating bosses. Replay value is only for the dedicated.
Despite its visual flair and solid core gameplay, but Matterfall often feels like less than the sum of its parts due to a few key oversights. It isn't a bad game, but you’ve seen much of what Matterfall has before, and done better, usually by Housemarque themselves, which makes it hard to recommend to anyone other than hardcore fans of the genre or developer.
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