Deadfall Adventures is looking like a bit of a romp. Inspired by the early 20th Century fascination with the notion of ancient, lost civilisations having access to powerful artifacts and technology, The Farm 51 have crammed decades of The Land That Time Forgot-style literature and pulp magazine adventures into just one man: James Lee Quatermain. Great-grandson of Allan Quatermain, part Indiana Jone, all-action archaeologist.
Archaeologist should perhaps be peering out from behind some quotation marks, there. Deadfall Adventures is set in 1938, a time when the term ‘pyramid scheme’ referred to Imperial powers robbing ancient burial sites, rather than a method of exploiting the disenfranchised with promises of a dream job working from home.
If you hadn’t guessed from the date and the Indiana Jones references, the game is also a tremendous excuse to shoot lots of Nazis. You can’t keep Nazis away from mystic Egyptian pyramids and rumours of devastating technology from Atlantis, it’s scientifically impossible.
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James is accompanied on his battles against the Third Reich and the ever-present menace of Unreal Engine texture pop-in by Agent Jennifer Goodwin, a proper archaeologist who’s also fairly handy with a firearm. She’s there to remind James that he’s bad at everything except blowing stuff up (even though she guns down her fair share of Nazis,) while James is there to be sleazy at Jennifer until she gives up and falls for him in that ever-dodgy Romantic Comedy way.
Deadfall Adventures sets the tone between them pretty early on when the instruction to “watch her back” is accompanied by a lingering shot of Jennifer’s virtual arse from a James-eye point of view. The companion banter really isn’t much better, but there was something so groan-worthy about James watching a gigantic Mayan doorway carved in the shape of a face collapse and muttering “someone really lost their head” that it nearly became brilliant again.
Still, what it lacks in character chemistry, it makes up for with pointy traps and Nazis to catch in pointy traps. Russians too, actually. This preview code came with four levels from the game (about one third of the single player story,) and the last pair were set in an area Guatemala that’s of apparent interest to Moscow. It had skipped a fair bit of plot so precisely what the Russians were doing there I’m not entirely sure, but it’s probably safe to assume they’re on the hunt for mythological treasures like everybody else.
Back to traps though. When you’re not shooting Nazis and/or Russians out in the open air, you’ll probably find yourself inside an ancient structure or tomb of some kind. During the game’s opening chapters this is a classic Egyptian pyramid, complete with sarcophagi, pits of improbable crocodiles (is a semi-regular diet of adventurers enough sustenance?), and coded devices involving symbolic Eyes of Ra and scarab beetles. A lot of the traps you come across are activated or deactivated by firing your weapon at a pressure plate, which (delightfully) means you can wait for the AI to bumble under a crushing pillar and let fly.
Every now and then James is forced to put away his 1930s weaponry and fish around for great grandad’s notepad in order to solve a puzzle. The notepad gives you brief and fairly literal visual clues to your surroundings. So, if you’re having to solve a traditional videogame conundrum involving the rotation of mirrors to direct a beam of light, the pad will depict beams of light bouncing off some rotated mirrors. That sort of thing.
Based on the preview levels, however, it’s fair to say that Deadfall Adventures is heavier on the shooting than the physical puzzle solving.
It’s wise to occasionally break from the main pathway to visit side areas for upgrade-bestowing treasures, and these are sometimes hidden behind traps as well. But when the game says it’s “about exploring” in the tutorial text it’s really more of a conceptual nod than a suggestion of huge open areas to roam about in. The maps are pretty linear (with periodic branches) and the obstacles tend to be demanding of bullets.
You’re not even safe down in the tombs, because fearsome creatures of the darkness don’t take kindly to having their possessions purloined by snarky adventurers. Fighting these fellows is slightly different, and dependant upon a technique learned from the great Pacific Northwest explorer Sir Alan of Wake. You aim a rechargeable flashlight in their faces until they’re vulnerable, then blast them back to true death.
It’s just about possible to forgive Deadfall Adventures for ripping off this mechanic so shamelessly, because (1) It can make for a decent change of shooting tactics (2) It means you sometimes get to just sit back and watch Nazis try to fight mummies in the dark while you laugh, and (3) James has no clue how his torch works against the undead but explains it happens by “just pressing a button.”
If players aren’t keen on so much combat, the game does offer a neat double helping of difficulty settings. If either Nazi gunplay or mirror rotation isn’t really for you, you can tone one down without affecting the other. It’s a helpful touch. Further game modes will be in the finished title too; namely some kind of co-op Survival and (presumably) competitive Multiplayer. Those weren’t available to preview though, so I can report little else about them.
Here’s the problem I think Deadfall Adventures may run into. It’s drawing from a pulp genre that videogames have already been borrowing stuff from forever. Hell, we even have an entire series named after the raiding of tombs.
We’re in an era where a game like Gone Home is unique because it allows the player to just explore an ordinary, 1990s house. Attempting to sell “you’ll fight Nazis and undead stuff while avoiding plate-trigger traps” as a period piece isn’t really going to work when videogames have pretty much cornered the market in exactly those three features.
There are, though, some encouraging moments. It’s always satisfying to find a game that allows traps to be used against the AI, and one which lets you see various AI factions slug it out amongst themselves. To get both of those aspects in one title is terrific. 30s Hollywood Nazis make a subtle but welcome change from the usual grim WWII shooter Nazis, and it’s never tiresome to find them chasing across the globe in pursuit of whatever Biblical or mythological artifact is flavour of the week with the Fuhrer.
So as I noted at the start, Deadfall Adventures is looking like a romp. An absurd, Atlantis-fueled adventure. Just one that’s maybe going to feel a bit too familiar in a medium where pulp narrative is already the norm, rather than the exception.