“Their first mistake was to build the galaxy’s economy on this alien matter nobody understands,” begins the introduction to Housemarque’s new arcade blaster Matterfall. “Next, they start using it to power these freaking robots,” it continues.
There’s (slightly) more, but these two sentences are about all you need to take out of one of the more hand-wavingly generic game premises for a while, because Matterfall knows it’s not here to ruminate thoughtfully on mankind’s hubris and the importance of scientific oversight; it’s here to throw wave after wave of bullets at us, giving players no choice but to throw them right back until everything moving onscreen that isn’t them has exploded in a glorious cloud of voxels.
Players take on the Samus-y role of Avalon Darrow, a super-suited mercenary deputised to “slip in, clean up the mess and keep their mouth shut” (see, I told you there was more), mostly by atomising any red-crystally-looking-alien-matter-anything that looks at her funny.
A twin-stick platform shooter, Matterfall throws a couple of wrinkles into the formula that helps to make things interesting. The first is Avalon’s Strike move, a short dash up, down, left or right that not only conveniently stuns enemies in its path, but also allows Avalon to phase through and cancel out enemy projectiles. The second is her blue matter beam. Hold down left trigger, and her stream of offensive fire from the right stick will switch over to a beam that can materialise certain platforms and walls in the environment instead, and is also used to trigger cluster bomb type arrangements that defeated enemies occasionally leave behind where they detonated.
Using these mechanics, combined with Avalon’s double jump and some clever level design, Matterfall often manages to become a strategic challenge and a real test of coordination. Knowing Avalon can occasionally simply dash through bullets, Matterfall’s enemies aren’t afraid to fill the screen with more than she could actually hope to dodge, while the matter gun is used not only to materialise things for Avalon to stand on, but also sometimes to create defensive barriers that allow passage through nasty laser grids or provide respite from the projectile storm.
Throw in certain types of fire that Avalon can’t Strike through, and the situation can get pretty complicated, calling on the player to pull off a number of different things within a couple of seconds like striking through some bullets, jumping over some fire, and matter-beaming a platform into existence just before landing on it, blasting waves of materialising enemies all the while.
Three slots that can be filled with the player’s chosen combination of collectable special weapons like grenades and homing missiles (the latter are particularly fun to fire) and passive abilities such as additional health or a longer Strike dash time are unlocked by rescuing trapped civilians. This allows experimentation with different tactics, and can be switched on the fly to counter specific enemies. If you’re struggling to get past a particularly annoying be-shielded deathbot in a tricky spot, why not pop open the menu, grab the railgun, and ping him in the head when he lets his guard down?
The way the game manages to add an additional layer of strategic complexity to your basic bullet hell situation is very reminiscent of Housemarque’s earlier title Outland, and like that excellent title, it likes to produce situations that initially make the player think “What? How is this even survivable?!” before they realise that aha, they can totally make it through like this if their brain can just get their fingers and thumbs on board.
There are a few things letting the side down a bit, though. The presentation is very polished – bigger enemies exploding into showers of crystalline shards is always a cool visual – and a sweet techno soundtrack keeps the action pumping along too. But while you don’t need an in-depth backstory and deeply plotted character motivations for a game like this, the thin gruel of the plot setup is rather unfortunately also reflected in the game’s aesthetic, which can only really be described as “generic sci-fi”. The space-city, space-farm and space-mine stages pretty much look exactly what you thought of when you read “space-city, space-farm and space-mine” just then. It’s just a wee bit boring.
The game's secrets are mostly of the “hey, what if I ran left instead of right?” variety, and its three boss fights are each punishingly long and very much old-school: you'll progress a bit further each time until a previously unseen attack mode wipes you out, then it’s right back to the start of the fight you go. Expect to see the end of Avalon many, many times during the fight with the game’s final boss in particular.
And while Strike is an ability with a cooldown period, weirdly, there’s no visual indication of when it’s ready again anywhere on screen, which given the gameplay loop can lead directly to some mega-frustrating deaths after you rely on being able to use it, only to find it’s not ready yet.
None of this is particularly terrible in itself, but I’d suggest that they probably combine to hurt is the game’s replay value. That’s a concern as it seems to be relying on that somewhat; the campaign offers a scant three stages of four levels each that can probably be blasted through in two to three hours, and there’s a strong focus on scoring multipliers and time attack that’s obviously aimed at leaderboard ladder-climbers. Whether many will be keen to jump back in for repeated perfectionist runs after overcoming the game’s initial challenges seems questionable, though.
If you’re after a bit of a palate-cleanser game or are a serious shooter connoisseur, Matterfall is worth picking up as a go-to for the odd quick burst and the interesting things it does with the bullet hell formula. Others may like to wait until the no-doubt-talented team at Housemarque next marry their skills with presentation and gameplay to an idea with a bit more imagination and lasting appeal... it’ll happen.