While prolific prior to 2013, developer Housemarque has arguably come into their own with the current console generation. Titles such as Outland and Super Stardust HD showcased their creative potential, but their collaborations with Sony on the PlayStation 4 have put them on another level. Resogun stole the PS4 launch, while follow-ups Alienation and Nex Machina continued to build upon their success. For their latest release, Matterfall, though, the studio is branching out in a different direction.
Moving away from the isometric shooter-style of the studio’s past two releases, Matterfall is a cross between traditional platforming and a bullet hell shooter. It’s hard to accurately describe outside of that sentence, because any close comparison you can bring up doesn’t really fit. You can say it has a little bit of Contra’s DNA in it, but even then, Matterfall has more of a focus on moving vertically rather than horizontally. Regardless, if you’re going into this expecting something a little deeper mechanically, you might walk away slightly disappointed.
One of the key skills for survival in the game is the agility that Avalon Darrow, the Fixer you control, is gifted with. Equipped with boosting devices on her back, Darrow can dash, leap and slide in devastating fashion. Not only does this boost allow her to move further and faster, the device also lets her both strike enemies, which freezes them in place, and negate enemy fire. It’s crucial to learn how to use this ability both offensively and defensively. Additionally, certain segments will place Darrow in zero-G environments, which, thanks to her boosters, let her move freely as though she were flying.
Outside of her impressive agility, Darrow also has a fairly standard set of offensive weaponry. You have the traditional machine gun, which is a staple of Housemarque titles at this point. It’s fast and deadly, even if the range isn’t particularly impressive. She also has a secondary weapon that can be used to alter material known as “Blue Matter”. Shooting at Blue Matter with this weapon will create a platform that can not only be used to reach higher ground, but it can also shield you from enemy fire.
Besides the standard load-out you begin with, additional weapons and augments can be acquired over the course of the game. Each level features at least one civilian that needs to be rescued from Red Matter (a deadly, infectious substance), and at least one of these civilians holds an upgrade for you. There are 12 upgrades in total, with four of them being new weapons and the other eight being augments for your current abilities. With Darrow having three augment slots for use, there’s plenty of combinations for you to experiment with. I mostly stuck with upgrades to my main weapon and boost, but I know there are many ways to tackle the challenge of the game.
You certainly have the ability to gracefully blast your way through Red Matter, it’s just a question of whether you can adjust to the odd control scheme. Perhaps done in the name of innovation, but Matterfall controls a little differently than you may have expected. Shooting is mapped to the right analog stick, with alternate weapons handled via L2 and R2. That’s all fine, but it’s movement that is a little trickier to handle. You press R1 to jump and L1 to dash boost, which, at least to me, felt alien at first, and for the first few stages of the game, I bumbled my way around with less than ideal precision. The more I stuck with the game, though, the more I came to appreciate this set-up. Eventually, I developed a rhythm between the two, which allowed me to become the killing machine I knew in my heart I could be. So, if you’re starting out in the game and feel a little lost, stick with it.
With only 12 stages to work through, Matterfall doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Split into three different worlds, while each section doesn’t feel that much different from the other, I never got bored with the action. The escalation of difficulty as you progress through the game is handled excellently, and the last batch of levels are some of the toughest work Housemarque has created. Nothing feels impossible, as between check points and drops, you’ll have a good supply of energy. The difficulty is still high enough to not feel like a cake walk, even on the lowest setting.
While I enjoyed playing through the main levels, I was less enthused with the boss battles that cap each section. If you’ve played through any other Housemarque game, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here. A large, central boss spits bullets at you, while smaller enemies spawn over the course of the battle. It’s a formula that generally works, but the bosses here feel like they were leftover scraps from other games. The only one that left an impression on me, outside of frustration, was a fight that takes place in a zero-G environment. It’s still the same formula for the most part, but the added challenge of low gravity at least makes it seem different.
Like other Housemarque titles, Matterfall is a game that is primarily designed around score-chasing. It’s fine in that regard, and I think there’s enough incentive to play around with augments in order to improve your performance to justify repeat play-throughs. With that said, I’m not sure it has the same replayability factor that Nex Machina or Alienation have. It lacks the depth and length of both of those titles, and considering this release is coming right on the heels of the former title, it’s pretty noticeable.
The focus on score-chasing also means that the plot of Matterfall is barely developed. You get an interesting set-up, which is that the Red Matter that is overwhelming the city was originally thought to be a benefit to society. However, as Darrow points out, why should we have been so trusting of alien technology? After the opening cutscene, though, the story never really materializes. This is kind of an issue with most Housemarque titles, and while it’s not the worst thing in the world, it would be nice to see a more substantial narrative in their games going forward.
Matterfall also retains the sleek, futuristic look the studio’s products are known for. It’s full of beautiful particle effects that explode off the screen. The unique properties of Blue and Red Matter give the studio a new look to play with, as their malleable properties look sufficiently alien. If there’s one area that I think could have been improved upon, though, is the enemy designs. They’re just not that memorable. and there’s not that many to begin with. You tend to see a lot of palette swaps the further you progress in the game, which is never a good sign.
Coming so soon on the heels of Nex Machina, Matterfall feels like it got the short shaft from Housemarque. It lacks the length of that title, as well as the variety and depth it excelled at. However, even a lesser outing from Finnish studio stands out in the genre. The game features solid gameplay, and the amount of agility Avalon Darrow possesses lets you pull off incredible feats. While you may grow tired of the title quicker than you would like, the action here will lock you in for a captivating, but brief, experience.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 exclusive that was provided to us for review purposes.
Matterfall may not be the best product developed by Housemarque in recent years, but it is still a thrilling adventure that boasts excellent gameplay and gorgeous visuals.