I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the fact that The Falconeer was built almost entirely by one person. Tomas Sala, best known for the “Moonpath to Elsweyr” mod series for Skyrim, has poured his heart, soul, and years of his time into The Falconeer, and it shows. This is a bold, ambitious game, and though it’s not without its flaws, it delivers a riveting flight combat experience and a chance to explore a fascinating world that’s not quite like anything else out there.
The Falconeer takes place in the Great Ursee, a beautiful and terrifying ocean dotted with craggy little islands that people have built precarious cities on. It’s a place where the ocean seems to be caught in the grip of a constant storm, where strange, alien creatures fly across the sky, where a giant scar across the landscape creates a waterless trench surrounded by walls of ocean, like Moses parting the Red Sea. It’s a place where the imperial rulers live in a city atop a literal ivory tower, thousands of metres high, while turf wars and faction rivalries turn the ocean below into a place of constant conflict.
Related: Anyone who likes flight combat games will want to check out Ace Combat 7. Here’s our review.
Each chapter focuses on a different one of these factions, putting you in control of a warbird-riding Falconeer mercenary who inevitably gets caught up in all the politicking and scheming. While the individual stories that unfold through each chapter’s main quest line aren’t especially memorable, the chance to see things from the different perspectives of each faction helps to piece together the rich, fascinating lore of this world. It’s grim and unpleasant, a place where there are lots of terrible people and not many good ones—but it’s a vision of a hellish world that’s compelling in its bleakness.
That said, The Falconeer can also get too bogged down in its own lore, to the point that it becomes hard to keep up with all the different moving parts and names attached to them. Plot developments are mostly delivered through having details barked at you by characters with little personality, with flat, listless delivery that makes even the more dramatic developments have little impact. The Falconeer is built upon some fascinating lore, but it’s delivered in a way that’s dry, dense, and hard to follow as a result.
But works to set up what The Falconeer does best: let you fly around a remarkably rich world. Flying on the back of one of these giant, majestic falcons is exhilarating, and controlling it feels intuitive to the point of being effortless. Most of the world you’re flying across is ocean, but it’s an ocean teeming with interesting details—whales crashing through the surface, strange rock formations that look like some giant being has been hacking away at the very surface of the earth, suboceanic caves and settlements, mysterious tornadoes and lightning clouds scattered all over the place.
That last point is crucial, because those weather effects feed directly into your flying. Most of your warbird’s mobility is governed by stamina—all your evasive maneuvers and speed tricks depend on a stamina gauge that normally only fills by diving from high up, and even climbing into the air will spend any stamina you have stockpiled (though you can keep climbing even when you run out). But a tornado is a handy way to launch yourself into the air without spending your own energy, and even get a boost in the process.
Lightning clouds seem deadly, but they’re an important way of keeping your weapons’ ammo stocks up. Falconeers’ cannons are powered by lightning, with tanks of bottled electricity serving as your ammunition. If you run out completely, you can buy more tanks, but that’s costly and inefficient; a better way is to simply fly into a lightning cloud and catch some more. There’s a danger to doing so—an overcharged lightning tank is a good way to get yourself killed—but this will still be your main way of keeping your weapons firing.
These things come together to give combat in The Falconeer a unique twist. Dodge rolls and the like are as crucial as in any flight combat game, but they’re not something you can just use willy-nilly—stamina management, and the climbs, dives, and tornado jumps that play into that, are as important as aiming your cannon at enemies and pulling the trigger. Keeping your eyes on nearby lightning clouds while also not carelessly hanging around inside one for too long is important to keeping your firepower up, especially when you start getting stronger, rarer tanks that aren’t so easy to just replace.
The combat itself is smooth and intuitive, for the most part. Even if you’re not accustomed to dogfighting, The Falconeer‘s agile birds and nice difficulty curve make it easy to figure out how efficiently and effectively take down your foes. At the same time, the wide variety of enemies, from other Falconeers to pirate ships, from humanoid bugs that can turn on a dime to giant flying eels, always keep things interesting.
Unfortunately, somewhat uninspired quest design holds the game back a bit. Almost every mission is some variation of fly to a marked location, destroy a group of enemies there, then fly to the next marked location and do the same thing, then fly back to your base. Sometimes there are extra wrinkles, like an item you need to carry (which limits your mobility) or a boat you need to protect, but the fundamentals don’t really change much. The satisfying core combat loop helps prevent this from becoming as tedious as it otherwise could, but the lack of variety still makes it feel like something’s missing.
The Falconeer is also held back by some more general frustrations. The shopping interface is clunky, and it’s very easy to accidentally sell upgrades and items that you didn’t intend to. When buying new weapons, there’s no way to check how the stats compare to what you currently have equipped, and you can’t switch back to a previous weapon without buying it again. There’s no reliable way that I’ve found to grind experience points, which depend on how well you perform on one-time-only story missions—if you don’t excel, it’s easy to find yourself outlevelled by the missions you’re trying to complete, with no way of catching up. Mouse and keyboard controls are vastly improved now than they were at launch, but are still clumsy and awkward to use.
And yet, despite these frustrations, The Falconeer remains a captivating game. It adds some unique new ideas to the classic aerial combat formula, and gives you the freedom to just enjoy the thrill of flying through a beautiful, haunting world. Backed up by a truly original setting and fascinating lore, The Falconeer is a game that’s worth getting lost in. It may be a diamond in the rough, but it’s ambitious—and an impressive achievement for a solo developer.
The Falconeer is developed by Tomas Sala and published by Wired Interactive. It’s available now for PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.