It isn’t often we see a developer like Housemarque move out of their comfort zone when it comes to new titles. Traditionally, they’ve always been about top-down twin stick shooting, but Matterfall takes the conventional formula they’ve nail time and time again and puts a new and unique twist on it. Going in, I was both intrigued by the approach they were taking as well as extremely optimistic it’d deliver the same cathartic arcade chaos I’ve come to expect from their titles. However, while the game is indeed one of Housemarque’s freshest and most original takes on the genre, it does stumble a bit when it comes to post-game content with several key elements missing that make these sort of games as addictive as they are.
All Matterfall has going for it when it comes to narrative are two expository cutscenes. One at the opening of the game and the other at the very end – just how a Housemarque game should be. They’ve always been minimalistic, but Matterfall, in particular, is more simplistic than any of their other titles. The premise is simple, players control a “Fixer” named Avalon Darrow, who’s been tasked with cleaning up the mess created by the use of a matter-like energy. After it was discovered and mined, it was used to power robots who eventually went rogue. The whole city is evacuated, and it’s up to Avalon to destroy the results of this corporate greed. There’s no other world building, character development, or plot devices to speak of, which allows the game to fire on all cylinders when it comes to gameplay, in a typical arcade fashion. The conclusion is as satisfying as it can be for something like this, but you don’t play Housemarque titles for the plot, you play them for the cathartic gameplay they offer.
Matterfall has everything you’d expect from a Housemarque title. Enemies and projectiles fill up the screen, humans need to be saved, and scores are to be racked up. Its main differentiation from other titles such as Nex Machina and Alienation is that Matterfall has a 2.5D perspective for the entirety of its 12 levels. This is unlike any of Housemarque’s other titles and allows for the inclusion of some interesting environments and level design, though the enjoyable platforming can be accredited to a different mechanic entirely.
While Matter is the main driving force behind the game’s “antagonist”, Avalon has her own means of utilising its power, and that’s through the form of a dash and a Matter Gun. Dashing is integral to surviving the chaotic situations you’ll inevitably be thrown into because proper use of the invincibility frames and the ability to destroy projectiles at the end of a dash can mean the difference between life and death. It also stops enemies in their tracks if they happened to get caught in the blast at the end of a dash, which creates some serious potential for high-level play. The Matter Gun acts a bit differently; it’s used to create platforms that only you can pass through by dashing, and it’s also used to free the humans you find scattered around levels. Proper manipulation of these platforms in the larger firefights is key to staying alive and building up your score.
There are a number of humans to save in each level, and collecting them unlocks secondary weapons and passive abilities that you can equip. These perks range from a short-range high-damage shotgun to causing a larger blast radius at the end of a dash. You have access to three of these abilities at any given time, and you can pick and choose what you want to use on the fly. I found there was one load out I liked above all others, but being able to experiment is refreshing and makes for a varied experience.
The two to three hours it takes to complete Matterfall’s twelve levels are some of the best that Housemarque has ever made. The entire experience is intense, chaotic, and fast-paced. It’s challenging and never unfair. Each zone has its own unique setting and boss fight, and while there aren’t as many as there are in something like Nex Machina, they are innovative, and they do challenge everything you’ve learnt up to that point. It’s short and sweet, but the game’s length is also one of its biggest problems.
It took me roughly two hours to get through the three different zones, and I was raring to start score attacking straight away only to find that there’s no dedicated mode for it. Matterfall doesn’t have any other game modes apart from the campaign menu which allows you to select individual levels. There’s no arcade mode, no single world mode; the only way you can score attack is by going through single levels. There’s arguably nothing wrong with this, but frustration is significantly increased due to slow load times and momentum-jarring platforming sequences. This makes score attacking quite an arduous task in Matterfall, and that’s definitely not a good thing when that’s what the whole post-game is based around, alongside the lack of content.
Housemarque’s latest titles have all been very consistent when it comes to visuals, art style, performance, and sound – Matterfall is no different in this regard. The screen is constantly covered with bright neon particle effects that bring the diverse sci-fi environments to life. The pristine towers that plague the first area of the game effortlessly communicate the feel of an empty and falling dystopia. This is carried through all three distinct worlds, lending an air of caution to the entire experience. These visuals are all carried by 4K resolutions and a consistent 60 frames per second for the whole experience on PS4 Pro, too. Ari Pulkkinen was also once again headed by Housemarque to compose the score for Matterfall, and he’s done another excellent job. It definitely leans more on the electronic side of soundtracks past, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. It feels great to blast bad guys down to a score that gets you going as much as this one does, even if it’s familiar territory for Housemarque.
It’s hard to say whether or not Matterfall is another definitive win for Housemarque. It’s a concept that’s executed so well, and it perfectly encapsulates what makes this cathartic arcade genre so fun. At the same time, however, it fails to live up to titles like Resogun and Nex Machina that came before it due to a lack of additional game modes and addictive score attacking. Its platforming is well-designed, for the most part, boss fights are innovative, and, most importantly, it’s just damn fun to play casually. It’s a beautifully vibrant and colourful side-scroller with a killer soundtrack that has a truly delightful first playthrough as you explore its varied environments. However, if you play Housemarque titles for their longevity, I can’t fully recommend Matterfall unless you’re willing to stick with its sometimes arduous nature and lack of content.