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Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action
Developer: XDEV (EU), Housemarque (US)
Release Date: Aug. 15, 2017


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PS4 Review - 'Matterfall'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 4, 2017 @ 5:00 a.m. PDT

Matterfall is a fast-paced, high-tech, retro-inspired, side-scrolling shooter game where you use extreme agility and high-powered weapons to blast enemies and make or break the world.

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For the most part, Housemarque sticks to its shooter wheelhouse, and the results have been excellent. Resogun, Super Stardust HD, and the newly released Nex Machina are classics at this point due to their spins on classic shooter games. However, the studio has been known to experiment every now and then with titles that aren't strictly about shooting. Alienation and Outland are their versions of a dungeon crawler and platformer, respectively, and both are done well, even if their popularity hasn't reached the heights of Housemarque's shooters. Matterfall is the developer's take on a run-and-gun platformer, and the result are good, but not great.

The story is set in the distant future and meant exclusively for setup, as it is never referenced again after the opening sequence. Players take on the role of Avalon Darrow, a fixer who's been hired to clean up a really big mess. Over the years, mankind became fascinated with an alien crystal that seems to be the answer for energy since it replicates itself. Before long, the crystals were used for military robots, and like any good sci-fi yarn, the robots went out of control. The citizens of Earth's biggest city are evacuating, and it's up to you to get quell the robot rebellion before things get worse.

Matterfall is a side-scrolling, run-and-gun, twin-stick shooter. Those are a lot of hyphenated words, but the bottom line is that this is a homage to the kind of shooter from the 8- and 16-bit eras with titles like Gunstar Heroes, Turrican, and Robocop vs. The Terminator coming to mind. The twin-stick shooting is absolutely necessary, as the game loves to provide numerous enemies in a rapid succession of waves. In addition to the main machine gun, the player can pick up secondary weapons along the way, like a grenade launcher or a gun with heat-seeking capabilities. Enemies also drop explosive energy bombs, which can be detonated from afar to wipe out a number of enemies at a time. All of this is wrapped up with a hefty dose of standard platforming challenges, like navigating floating platforms to avoid chasms filled with large, red-spiked crystals.

The game comes with two main features to differentiate itself from the pack. The first is the matter gun, which has a variety of uses. It'll mostly be used in certain spots to construct energy walls, which block enemy shots while still allowing players to fire back. The energy walls also act as platforms that the player can climb to reach higher spots. The matter gun is also used to free civilians trapped in the alien crystal and can detonate energy bombs left behind by fallen enemies.

The second feature is the Strike ability, which is essentially a dash, and like the matter gun, this is also a multipurpose tool. Players can double-jump, and the Strike adds a third jump — if used last since jumping out of a Strike isn't allowed. The move can also be used to go through blue energy walls, but its most important ability is against enemies and bullets. With the game fond of providing near-bullet hell curtains, the Strike lets players burst through the bullets unscathed and temporarily freeze opponents to get in some free hits before they become mobile again.

As cool as the Strike ability is, it's also the source of some of the game's issues. For starters, the ability only lets players move in the four cardinal directions, which feels like a massive restriction considering the freedom with shooting. It doesn't help that controls sometimes don't read the direction in which players are pointing when the Strike is triggered, making players may not necessarily go anywhere. For some, the bigger issue with Strike is the presence of unknown variables. In particular, the move doesn't last forever, and players have no idea how long to wait before attempting the move again. This becomes a real issue by the game's final boss, as the difficulty skyrockets, and having an indicator about when or when not to dash would've been a godsend.

Speaking of controls, Matterfall's reliance on twin-stick mechanics means that the other necessary functions are relegated to the triggers and shoulder buttons. R1 is jump, R2 activates the secondary weapon, L1 is Strike, and L2 is the matter gun. The d-pad lets players choose which secondary weapon to use, while the Square button activates overcharge to slow down time and pepper the area with bullets. It makes sense on paper, since it allows players to keep their thumbs on the sticks at almost all times, but it's difficult to fight years of muscle memory to stop instinctively going for the X button to jump or getting things mixed up and using the matter gun instead of the Strike. There's no option to change the controls, so players must deal with pratfalls until things are ironed out.

Once players get used to the controls and the limitations of the Strike, they'll find everything they want from a Housemarque title. Gunplay is smooth, and there are enough enemies on-screen to feel chaotic. The Strike does a good job of giving some control of the situation, and it also allows for some memorable moments due to the close escapes or the crowd control. The rush from titles like Nex Machina and Super Stardust HD is present, but is taken from a new perspective.

The level design seems to lean too much into the platforming instead of shooting and dashing. The unorthodox controls, chasms that require precision, and occasional Strike issues mean that some otherwise easy jumps have to be repeated. Those same issues are also a common cause for multiplier loss, and the booming reminder of your failure makes the experience rather frustrating. The good and bad news is that the game is rather short, so players don't have to suffer through too many bad jumps. At the same time, given the lack of shooting time and the bland boss experiences, the short game length can feel disheartening.

Once players beat the campaign, the game doesn't provide much else to do beyond replaying the campaign at different difficulty levels or trying to find any civilians that may have missed on the initial run. The leaderboards in a Housemarque game tend to be catalysts for repeat gameplay, but they feel rather broken in Matterfall. Even though the counter looks like it supports five digits, the leaderboards only support 1,000 entries. Furthermore, rebooting the game wipes out any marks on the leaderboards they're in the 1,000th spot or above. While the platforming doesn't make a high-score chase any easier, it's quite discouraging to see the leaderboards malfunction like this.

Housemarque's obsession with the voxel at this point has enabled them to make it a signature element of recent games. This is apparent when an enemy explodes with a shower of particles in their wake. Take a teleporter, and the same holds true, so particles are always being shown off in some way. Like many of the studio's titles, Matterfall has a solid frame rate, and while the environments look great, the enemy designs could use some work. The generic future look works fine for spaceships and for a top-down viewpoint, but a side-scroller like this one tends to be more charismatic. From the regular adversaries to the bosses, every enemy fails to look distinct and memorable.

On the audio side, everything also takes on the studio's signature style. Heroic electronica fills the speakers, as loads of soft gunfire are balanced out by a plethora of explosions. Outside of the opening cinematic, the only voice is that of the announcer, who blares through both the controller speaker and the TV or sound system to notify players about gained or lost multipliers.

Admittedly, the overall quality of Matterfall hurts more than usual because we've seen exactly what Housemarque can do. The core game is fun, but mediocre platforming holds back the game's strengths of dashing and shooting. Controls seem fine on paper, but the inability to map the buttons means that there's a learning curve to the game that will result in many deaths and wrong moves. It may look and sound pretty, but with a short game length and a punishing leaderboard system, consumers may want to wait for a price drop before jumping in.

Score: 6.5/10

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