Fallen Aces: Early Access Review

Hard-boiled action for the boomer shooter crowd

Fallen Aces: Early Access Review
Source: Author.

Dave Oshry and New Blood Interactive are rapidly becoming my favourite figures in the games industry. It's no secret I'm a boomer shooter fan, and New Blood has some of the best titles the genre has to offer under its belt. These include DUSK, Amid Evil, and ULTRAKILL, as well as co-publishing the remaster of Rise of the Triad with industry grand-daddy Apogee Software. FAITH is a horror adventure game that looks like it came straight from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and with Gloomwood, New Blood has also started to dabble in immersive sims too, to rapturous critical response.

New Blood CEO Dave Oshry loves to get down in the trenches too - he spends a good deal of his time personally promoting New Blood games on social media and has a strong grasp of how honest and direct engagement with consumers can build a loyal fanbase. Coupled with the studio's signature wit and humour, it's no surprise that New Blood Interactive has earned such a dedicated following.

Ey! I'm gamin' here!

Fallen Aces is the latest addition to New Blood's seemingly infallible catalogue. Created by Trey Powell and Jason Bond, Fallen Aces is what could best be described as a hybrid of boomer shooter and immersive sim. The levels are huge, sprawling affairs, with countless ways to approach a given problem and believable enough to apply real-world reasoning. If you choose to take the less subtle approach, you'll soon find yourself facing off against hordes of goons, and this is where the boomer shooter DNA shines. Movement is fast-paced and fights are dynamic, and you'd be forgiven for mistaking Fallen Aces for a 1930s-themed Duke Nukem 3D mod (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Source: Author.

Coupled with the studio's signature wit and humour, it's no surprise that New Blood Interactive has earned such a dedicated following.

Set in the fictional Switchblade City, Fallen Aces is a hard-boiled detective drama straight out of pulp comic books like The Phantom or Dick Tracy. You play Michael Thane, a.k.a. "Top Mike", a retired boxer and struggling Private Investigator. The game opens with a groggy Mike awakening in his dingy city apartment, and within minutes mysterious thugs are trying to kick down your door. Fallen Aces opens in media res, and through gradual exposition, you'll soon discover that Mike has a history with one of the game's early antagonists. Mike quickly finds himself teaming up with Nightwave, a Phantom-esque vigilante driven by his own enigmatic motives.

The story is told through in-game dialogue, protagonist monologues, and between-level cutscenes. The cutscenes are pure art - beautifully drawn comic strips reminiscent of the golden age of comic books (which began in 1938, the same year in which the game is set, according to an in-game calendar). The story-telling reminded me a great deal of Max Payne, which used a similar technique of in-game character dialogue and between-mission comics to drive its narrative, and the two games' themes have a great deal in common, though Fallen Aces' delivery has a great deal more comic relief. In fact, there were several points in the game where I stayed in my hiding spot just so I could have a good chuckle at the goons' banter.

Source: Author.

Sleeping with the fishes

As far as the boomer shooter heritage goes, there are a lot of key differences that distinguish Fallen Aces as something unique. First, the majority of fights are melee affairs - protagonist Mike's background as a boxer means you'll be delivering plenty of jabs and haymakers. For a bit of extra oomph, you can also find various improvised weapons around the game world - lead pipes, baseball bats, switchblades, and glass bottles. Each melee weapon has a limited amount of durability before it breaks; once it does, you can throw the leftovers as a projectile weapon before grabbing the next improvised hitting device. On occasion, you'll get your hands on a firearm too, and the arsenal includes weapons like a revolver, pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, and even a nailgun. You can also pick things up like chairs, trash cans, and even espresso machines to use as projectiles.

Source: Author.

In fact, there were several points in the game where I stayed in my hiding spot just so I could have a good chuckle at the goons' banter.

There's real chaos to the combat - the game perfectly captures the feeling of a scrappy bar fight, as you smash a chair over one goon's head, bottle another, and shank the last with the broken glass shards. Melee combat in first-person games is difficult to pull off, but Fallen Aces does it masterfully. Even when I was carrying a firearm, I usually found myself opting for melee weapons just because of how fun it is, especially if you execute a good finisher (which restores health) like kicking a goon off a balcony.

The player is limited to three inventory slots to carry any item - that includes spare ammunition, melee weapons, first aid kits, and sandwiches (food restores health). There's been a bit of debate about this - some have been critical that the inventory is too limited. For me, I found the limitation as a critical element of the game design. It forces you to make constant tactical decisions - do I carry a single pistol, some spare ammo and a health kit? Or do I carry two firearms and a melee weapon with no spare ammunition? It's an element of design that, taken in concert with other elements, keeps the tension high.

That said, the game is, at this stage, pretty easy. Goons have a hilariously bad memory, and will quickly forget they saw you if you sneak away for long enough. With some half-decent reflexes and a good grasp of the mechanics, you will be able to pretty confidently take on dozens of goons and win, and as long as you maintain those finishing moves, your health will stay nice and high. There's certainly some enemy AI and difficulty tweaks to be made, but this is thankfully offset by the fact that the combat is so inherently fun.

Lookin' sharp

Trey Powell explains sprite animation in Fallen Aces (Source: Trey Powell on YouTube).

Fallen Aces looks amazing. Not in a ray-traced, volumetric fog and high-poly count way, but in an artistic way. Powell and Bond knew exactly the aesthetic they were trying to capture, and have achieved that goal masterfully. The sprite work is achieved through a technique known as rotoscoping (see above video), and while the level geometry is lacking a lot of complexity, it successfully communicates a lived-in and immersive world.

Lighting plays a critical role in the game's stealth mechanics, and there are some visually striking contrasts of dark and light areas that give the game a true film noir tone. If you really want to immerse yourself in the noir vibes, there's even a "noir filter" that makes the game black & white with a film grain effect. For the most part, you can visually identify whether a given location will provide the "Hidden" or "Partially Hidden" status, but my experience was that this wasn't always reliable, and some seemingly darkened spots provide no concealment at all.

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Where's my money?!

Let's talk about one of the best bits about Fallen Aces - the price. True to New Blood's mantra of "We Hate Money", Fallen Aces launched at the very generous debut sale price of $10 USD. That sale has since ended, but the price for the first episode of Early Access is still only about $13 USD. This game cost me the same amount as about three coffees.

A single playthrough of the first episode's five sprawling levels will take you about five hours, but as I've previously mentioned, each level offers a plethora of play-style options, so there's plenty of replayability there. Powell and Bond plan to add two more episodes in the coming months, as well as a level editor and Steam Workshop support, and I am very excited to see what the modding community can create with these tools.

As more content is added to the game, the price will increase - a canny move on New Blood's part. If you want to commit to the game now and support the developer, then you'll be rewarded with a low price, otherwise, you can wait for the full release at a higher price. It's a model that I can appreciate - providing actual benefits to offset the risk of supporting Early Access games. I can tell you right now, Fallen Aces is already worth it.

Source: Author.

Fuhgett about it

Fallen Aces is yet another brilliant addition to the New Blood Interactive pantheon. It is jam-packed with replayability, fun combat, and sprawling, immersive environments. If any studio has earned enough trust to justify spending money on an Early Access title, it's New Blood Interactive. While there are still tweaks to be made and content to be added, I look forward to seeing Fallen Aces evolve into what I'm confident will be a timeless classic.


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