Deadfall Adventures bills itself as an homage to the pulp action-adventure stories found in the magazines of the 1920s to 1950s. ‘Pulp’ is often used as a pejorative term, but the publications spanned multiple genres and produced their fair share of definitive characters. The detective branch gave us Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, while Indiana Jones owes his origins to the daring explorers who pillaged ancient tombs and battled supernatural foes. For that matter, so does Lara Croft and quite a few other videogame protagonists.
Developers The Farm 51 either don’t care for, or couldn’t secure, the Indiana Jones license, so instead Deadfall Adventures squeezes you behind the eyes of James Quartermain. He’s a convenient great-grandson to the Allan Quartermain found in King Solomon’s Mines and other novels by H. Rider Haggard.
Conceptually and visually, the game gets a whole lot right. Your jaunts will find you traversing the depths of trap-filled Egyptian pyramids, bundling up warm to scour the Arctic, then crashing planes in the Guatemalan jungle. And guess what? Each location is full of Nazis, Communists, angry undead, or all three. Both ideologies are searching for the missing heart of Atlantis which, for reasons that I’m still blissfully unclear on, will open the door to the Mayan realm of Xibalba.
That’s pretty much the exact plot everybody should want from a pulp-inspired game.
The Nazis are reassuringly Hollywood in style too, which means plenty of “Zis is zee end for you, Mister Quartermain!,” eye-bulging occult craziness, and absolutely no direct references to horrible war atrocities. Our Russian pals are not caricatured to quite such a satisfying degree, but at least they’re led by a mysterious and barely-explained Red Army officer with a burned face who owns a gigantic underground mining complex. So that’s something.
Quartermain is accompanied on his travels by the British agent Jennifer Goodwin, who exists to exchange banter, periodically help out with gunfire and be kidnapped at pre-ordained times. Here’s where the pulp ambitions start to slip, because the dialogue between Quartermain and Goodwin gets the tone quite badly wrong.
“Lou said if I ever got caught in the rain, you were the boy to see. It’s raining hard where I am” is not a line from Deadfall Adventures. It’s one I’ve just skimmed at random from Raymond Chandler’s Finger Man, and has more punch and smoulder to it than anything from this game. That’s noir rather than swashbuckling adventure, but if you’re creating a pulp world striking the right tone is at least as important as capturing the look. Instead, we get anachronistic Rom-Com guff, the awful ‘they’re cruel to each other, OH BUT WAIT IT’S MASKING DEEP AFFECTION’ cliché and garbage lines like “Alright. You had me at ‘well shaped ass’.” This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s like taking Casablanca and replacing half the dialogue with lines from Bridget Jones. Whenever someone speaks there’s a serious risk of the tone being destroyed.
Mind you, James does have the excuse that he may be suffering from severe head trauma. The amount of scene transitions that end with him slipping through a floor/off a ledge/being blown off his feet by an explosion and blacking out reaches comical levels towards the end.
On one of the few occasions the writers dodge this ‘fade to blackout’ technique, the aforementioned Russian Commander mysteriously disappears out of a locked room. He’s initially holding Jen at gunpoint in a small hut. The lone door is barricaded (from the outside … I guess he got his men to do that?) and you enter through the ceiling. In the following cutscene, the hostage taker is nowhere to be seen. For the record, he’s not established as some sort of magician.
Still, the genre is action-adventure not making-any-sense-adventure, and there are plenty of other Comminazis between you and the untapped holiday destination of Xibalba. The AI does a fairly dependable, if uninspired, job of sticking behind cover and sometimes lobbing a grenade or advancing towards you a little bit. It never really flanks (except by accident if the spawn points for extra guys happen to be beside you) and also has an irritating habit of entering an “oh good heavens your bullet has knocked me over” animation that looks exactly the same as the “gosh, I’m dead” one. Not helpful for figuring out who’s still standing.
You can carry a pair of guns at a time; one pistol type and one longer ranged rifle/automatic type (of which there are plenty laying around each arena-like space.) There’s also a knife stashed somewhere about your person although I rarely used it.
Using your own weapons is a mugs game, though. Real adventurers make use of environmental traps and restless undead spirits to help them kill Nazis. The moments where you can trigger jets of flame, or smash open a couple of sarcophagi and sit back to watch the carnage are some of Deadfall’s strongest. They don’t happen as often as they perhaps could, but each one is welcome and encourages a bit of contextual combat.
A touch more variety is introduced during periods where you have to face the undead yourself. They’re vulnerable to light, and to your strangely magical flashlight in particular (amusingly, regular enemies can be blinded by the flashlight too.) Wave the light at them for long enough and they become a whole lot more vulnerable to bullets. You may have read about this fighting technique in the classic pulp series This Sounds A Lot Like the Combat From Alan Wake, but it works just fine and mixes up the enemy types the game can chuck at you.
You tend to encounter these mummies and ghoulish spirits in the bowels of ancient temple structures, and the one thing temple builders love more than leaving restless guardians rotting around the place is putting doorway and trap-based puzzles everywhere.
James carries his great-grandfather’s notebook with him which (again, for dubious reasons) contains puzzle-specific clues to each barrier that blocks his path. The conundrums aren’t really approaching, say, Portal quality, and mostly just involve rotating some mirrors, retrieving a lost piece of mechanism, or (rarely) some numerical reasoning. There’s a particularly horrendous one involving floating pieces of debris and an obtuse moment with some cranes, but the former is optional and the latter is an exception to the rest. Turning up the puzzle difficulty makes the notebook less forthcoming with clues, and there’s a neat option to mix and match puzzle and combat difficulties (though I didn’t notice a huge combat difference on ‘hard.’)
Rounding off James’ collection of pseudo-magical items is a compass which will point towards treasure when it’s close by. Rather than making him very popular with curators of the British Museum, this is actually your method of levelling up. The treasures are strewn across the game’s moderately explorable areas (it’s by no means open, but you can usually head slightly off the beaten track,) and are imbued with the mystical ability to do things like improve the intensity of the flashlight or give James a steadier aim. You’ll sometimes come across a map to make hunting these items even easier.
Levelling up isn’t exactly crucial, but a more rapidly recharging flashlight does come in handy for the later (more undead-heavy) sections and it does encourage you to take your time a little rather than just rushing through each location.
Deadfall Adventures also has a full selection of multiplayer modes, but you should consider this a review of the 7-10 hour single player campaign only, because at the time of writing the only people with access to the game were fellow reviewers. Our paths did not cross; though I was able to take a brief, lonely look at the Survival (Horde) mode, which functions pretty much as you’d expect. One to four players fend off waves of the undead, with timed ammo caches, the option to switch weapons between waves and rewards (like a grenade launcher) for surviving long enough.
Only time will tell if the competitive side takes off to any degree, but I always fear for multiplayer games with an (as yet) unknown playerbase.
In its efforts to evoke a particular tone and thematic feel, Deadfall Adventures hits the mark about half of the time. The locations and barmy plot are suitably pulp in nature, but much of the dialogue and character interaction is some way off. Neither the combat side nor the puzzling are especially dazzling, though the former does at least allow you to engage in some satisfying moments of environmental violence and turn foes against one another. It’s an enjoyable enough Boy’s Own romp, but, like so many of the pulp publications that it apes, James Quartermain’s adventure is ultimately rather disposable.
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