Matterfall – Review
In December 1999, the world turned its collective eye towards the New Year’s fireworks displays that would usher in a new millennium, closing out a decade in entertainment that had witnessed the last gasp of the now dust-riddled arcade, and the rise of the home console. In that very same month, with all eyes on the horizon, author Stephen King would release what many considered to be his most important piece of work to date: his book on…well…on writing books.
For a writer as proficient in the ways of horror as King, On Writing held, for a select few, the most horrifying line he’d yet committed to paper. A line that would fuel editors’ red pens, and dash the hopes of those who carried ‘New York Times bestseller’ dreams in their hearts, and ‘aspiring writer’ in their LiveJournal profiles:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Like most writers (*raises hand*), videogames are yet to fully reconcile with the allure of the adverb. You’ll find them littered throughout trailers and PR marketing material. You’ll spot them in previews, reviews, and features. And you’ll find them, or the lack thereof, used to debate at length the act of play and the very definition of what it means to be a videogame: when’s the last time you simply ‘walked’, ‘ran’, or ‘talked’? Or, more accurately, when’s the last time a videogame was allowed to without being made to feel bad about it?
Ever the proponent of the videogame adverb, you’ll also struggle to find a developer that revels in them as much as Housemarque. But then, you wouldn’t expect much less from a studio whose heart beats with all the rhythmic button-mashing of a neon-soaked arcade. Sure, King may have posited that the road to hell is paved with adverbs (and it may well be), but if Housemarque’s philosophy suggests anything it’s that for videogames, or at the very least their own, the road to bullet-hell nirvana is paved with adverb-riddled games. With a lineup like theirs? It’s hard to fault the logic.
Enter Matterfall, the latest brick in that road, but also a game that finds itself in the long, illustrious shadow of one of 2017’s best, if not also Housemarque’s greatest: Nex Machina. Lacking none of the developer’s signature fit and flair, Matterfall is an altogether simpler proposal than their earlier collaborative wunderkind. Here, it trades in the superpowered gunships of Super Stardust, and the loot-incentivised gunplay of Alienation for a game – as is Housemarque’s MO – that is as much reminiscent of their previous platformers as it is an old arcade classic in Gunstar Heroes.
In practice? Matterfall plays out like a twin-stick bullet hell shooter by way of Super Metroid, in both feel and fluidity if not the sprawling maps and intricate locales. In fact, the most advanced secrets and side passages you’ll find within Matterfall’s self-contained levels – a sum-total of just twelve that test your combat skills more than your platforming – are hidden in plain sight as the game’s veritable Samus Aran (Avalon Darrow) ventures off the beaten path, rescuing civilians not out of good will but in search of minor upgrades that expand on her already impressive array of abilities and prepare her for the arcade combat encounters that Housemarque have built their reputation on.
If these combat encounters could be considered the game’s pre-show entertainment, then the game’s Overcharge ability is the main event. Build up enough of a running multiplier, and the AI voice in Darrow’s ear will utter the words you’ll come to savour over Matterfall’s short playtime: “Overcharge ready.”
From here? With a simple tap of the square button, the screen erupts with all the bombast and lavishness of a night sky on New Year’s Eve. Time slows. The world turns to luminous multicolour. And your weapon enters a supercharged state, shredding anyone and anything in sight into voxel dust. It’s a simple trick, all things considered, but it’s just so effectively trippy that it never quite loses its sheen, just as your face is unlikely to lose the grin. ‘Sit back and enjoy the lights show!’, says Housemarque, and you’d be crazy not to, even as Matterfall itself wears thin.
And wear thin it does. If those early hours hint at something deeper – an unlock here, a high score there – then they remain just that: hints. The immediacy of Housemarque’s past outings that inspired such fervent pursuits of high scores is lacking here. There’s none of the infectious pick-up-and-play found in Super Stardust, or the insatiable hunt for loot as seen in Alienation. You can’t fault the presentation, but the action is more often than not found wanting an adverb or two, even by Housemarque’s lavish standards.
In an ironic twist of fate, this leaves Matterfall squarely in King’s sights. It is, all said and done, the adverb to developer Housemarque’s tale that’s still in the writing. It’s enjoyably extravagant. It’s fun while it lasts. But it also, fireworks and all, a game that never quite shakes the feeling that it wouldn’t be missed if it were to suffer the fate of many a writer past, present, and future, and find itself left of the cutting room, or in this case acrade, floor.