Saturday, 26 July 2014

Fallen London (Browser Based Video Game Review)

Current opinion among many critics of gaming that story should never come before gameplay when it comes to this medium. Emphasis should always focus upon how the player can directly affect a story play straight into video game's greatest advantage over television and film: It's interactivity. Here however we may have one of the rare releases which defies that rule, yet dies it well enough for it not to harm the title.

As a whole, Fallen London is an extremely strange kind of game to try and pin into any genre. Its gameplay is minimal, coming down to choices or statistics, progression can be limited at times and on occasions you can find yourself farming quests for basic loot and experience. Yet despite that it manages to remain thoroughly engaging the entire way through, offering you the chance to carve out your own story and backs it up with darkly humourous writing, great choices and a fantastical world.

Having sunk down into the mythological underworld thanks to an infernal deal, now located between the surface and Hell, London now resides in the land of the semi-dead. Much of the city lies in ruin, stalked by humans, the walking dead, strange humanoid cephalopods and living men made of clay. However, for as much danger and insanity lurks among these streets, there are opportunities to be made by those with ambition. Especially those ready to break out of the gigantic prison built into the stalactite hanging far above the city...

Little of Fallen London itself is truly explained outright. There are no real documents or guides you'll stumble upon, delivering masses upon masses of exposition detailing what the entirety of the city is like, and in many respect this is the game's biggest advantage. By leaving the player largely in the dark, there is a sense of real exploration behind the game as you go through each storylet (read: quest), reading and trying to understand more of the world. This is hardly a fruitless effort either, with many storylets providing more answers as time goes by, revealing problems with racial treatment, the truth behind the clay men and dark elements of London's past. Points such as the idea that the British Empire once made an ill-fated effort to invade Hell can be found if you look in the right places, but it's only by befriending or speaking with the right people you learn more.

Normally this lack of answers would be a death knell for any title, but what truly helps Fallen London in this regard is the strength of its writing. Dialogue heavy and thick with visual illustrations and descriptions, the world is like a dark, twisted version of Ankh Morpork. All the humour, all the insanity, all the problems of a cultural melting pot of multiple races are there, but with an often dark twist and subject matter which seems more at home with Lovecraft mythos than Discworld. Obviously this means it's ill suited to those who place mechanics over story, especially those who play World of Warcraft by skipping quest information, but you find that out very early on.

The game supports this great writing with a surprising amount of choice and just the right degree of progression. From the start, the player can pursue a number of different careers and job opportunities to help make a living. Each has its own benefits, detriments, but most importantly its own new storylet and plotlines to see. These range from basic starting jobs such as hunting rats and plagues of flying pests, to hanging around in bars to help improve your persuasive skills. The more time you spend on each, the more storylets can appear, and many do offer long running narrative opportunities. Two personal examples I ended up enjoying immensely were becoming involved in an effort of a police constable to help bring down a local crime lord, and the efforts to help a clay man being mistreated by his employers. These weren't over in a few hours either, you come back every day or so only to find more mail and information updating on these storylets and choose how to react accordingly.

Gaining further access to storylets or letters and other areas of London comes down to your stats and the amount of cash you have, which help to unlock more opportunities. In the latter case it's usually down to buying personal items or new lodgings (many of which have their own unique nightly narrative threads) while the former are what you'd expect for this kind of game. Each has a number and a level you grind out or boost with new items. The higher the number, the easier certain tasks become and the more opportunities become available to you. These are divided up into Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous and Persuasive, each benefiting certain story-lines at certain points. 

You can likely guess which each one will be required at each location with the likes of Watchmaker's Hill requiring Dangerous tests quite frequently, but storylets will still throw you the odd curve-ball now and then. You can be going along Spite, acing every Shadowy test, only to stumble a far more satisfying choice which requires a Persuasive stat. Each storylets tends to branch out quite dramatically from its original thread, and it's quite rare to find one which offers purely one choice or way to accomplish a certain task. However, failing these tests are hardly without consequences. Each can end up with you carrying a negative modifier, a stat which complicates matters, or badly wounding you in some way. While some can work in your favour by unlocking certain storylets, others will grind you down and eventually kill you. Yeah, with this being the underworld death isn't quite so terrible but it's still a royal pain in the behind.

Grinding out these stats takes time and it's only by gradually progressing through storylets and narrative plotlines that you can really advance at all. While there are a handful of ways to truly farm the right kind of experience you want, they're hard to really find and far from accessible at first. By the time you do get to them properly, they'll only be useful for so long, giving you a limited advancement with each action. The same goes for money, which is constantly going to be in short supply.
Actions which could be better spent pursuing more challenging and interesting storylets. The action points system itself takes time to recharge, only storing up to twenty actions at a time and taking several minutes to recharge each point. This slows down progress but it forces players to really think about what they want and means that progression is slow but steady. You can see yourself still advancing continuously if not rushing through everything, and it helps to solve the common endgame problem in any online title.

With the game itself being free, Fallen London does have a few more options available for paying customers. While it's nothing extensive, some of the more intriguing storylets or outcomes are locked unless you have bought a certain amount of Nex, a resource which occasionally replaces actions points. This is the only area in which the game seems to have problems. On the one hand these show up extremely rarely, sometimes seemingly at random on some storylets. It's also one of the few things you pay for in the game beyond some consumable items to build up a few more action points. On the other hand however, storylets give you no real indication or warning when one might show up, so you could be caught off-guard or be more inclined to make a knee-jerk decision to purchase Nex if you stumble upon a choice. Especially when you can't stop or going somewhere else on the site will force you to start that specific section of a storylets all over again.

There's so much more that could really be gone into here but the bottom line is this: If you're feeling nostalgic for the sort of pathways and narrative which used to be offered by text based games, this is the one for you. It should be treated far more like a lengthy novel than an actual game. Rather than going on a gameplay binge for hours at a time, this is a game you would pick up for half an hour to an hour per day, when action points are full. It's less a game which has problems so much as a one which will appeal to a niche audience of people with the right mindset. If you like the aesthetic or the idea behind the game, definitely give this one a look, It's free after all. However, if you're after something with far more action and real gameplay, look for something else; though good luck finding any other game which allows you to hunt down a golem Jack the Ripper, after making underhand deals with the denizens of hell.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like it has an intriguing narrative! Thanks so much for the review.