It is difficult for a game to be truly uninteresting. It requires an unlikely convergence of events to perfectly thread the needle between good and terrible to create something remarkably unremarkable; functional and largely inoffensive, but also joyless and flat. Babylon’s Fall is one such convergence: The generic dark fantasy storyline is pointless, and the worst-in-class textures and character models suck any visual appeal out of what could have been an interesting painted-canvas art style. Combat and level design are both competent but plain in single-player or co-op, with just enough good ideas sprinkled in to keep things from immediately growing stale… though it inevitably does. So no, it didn’t exactly keep me glued to my seat for its 15-hour campaign, and no, I don’t think I’ll stick around for much of the endgame.
The world of Babylon’s Fall could have been constructed via Mad Libs. You are a mighty [noun], protecting [place] from the forces of [evil thing] with your trusty [weapon]. Platinum Games’ answer to these prompts are Sentinel, Babylon, the Gallus, and Gideon Coffin, respectively – there’s nothing remotely memorable about any of those things except the last, which is a weird device fused to your spine that projects a pair of ghost arms that let you wield a total of four weapons at once.
The story is largely told in exposition-heavy still images, zooming from one fibrous picture frame to another. The painterly art direction had potential to be interesting, but it never gets the chance because Babylon’s Fall is one of the worst-looking games of the last several console generations. Everything is covered in textures that genuinely would’ve been unimpressive on the PS3. Lighting is almost non-existent, and NPCs all look like they were made by a random character generator from the mid 2000s. It’s distracting how poorly done it all is, revealing it all to be a façade that does little to cover all of the hideous models and jilted action.
The monsters and environments you encounter would be right at home in an early Dark Souls game. Decaying castles, ruined city streets, and dark caves are home to all manner of grotesque creatures. Knights with unsettling body proportions battle you in one area, while you face off against a giant spider/human hybrid with a skull for an abdomen in others. Occasionally, a gothic orchestral score crescendos in the background. It’s a proven formula, and Babylon’s Fall dutifully checks off items on the list of things a dark fantasy game is supposed to have.
But while a Souls game can instill a melancholy as you explore a richly detailed rotting fortress, or dread as you face off against a hideous abomination, Babylon’s Fall fails to evoke any connection to the locations. Each level follows the same template: You load into a quest and run from point A to point B, navigating linear corridors as you race to your objective. There’s very little room for exploration and virtually nothing interesting to find if you try.
Transparent barriers occasionally form around you to create a sealed arena in which you’re barraged by waves of generic enemies until you slay an arbitrary number of foes. Environmental hazards like pits, spikes, and lava do just enough to keep at least some attention on the field of play, but it is easy to zone out while running down virtually the same ugly corridors time again. The action of jumping, in particular, is oddly bad. A noticeable, persistent input lag, coupled with an unusually flat arc, makes gauging jumps more frustrating than it should be. Then you stop and fight more enemies. Rinse repeat until you reach the boss fight at the end – one last damage sponge devoid of new mechanics or interesting attacks. It’s extremely linear, and the cycle grows tedious as you repeat it dozens of times.
The saving grace to this is that stages will often have a unique twist to freshen things up. One has you ducking for cover at regular intervals as a dragon strafes the battlefield with fire, while another has you ascending a mountain by leaping from one floating platform to another. Of course, they aren’t necessarily all good twists, and some – like the sphere that protects you from a hazardous atmosphere at the expense of disabling your best attacks – are genuinely annoying. But they keep everything from being exactly the same, so on the whole they’re a good thing.
There are many fights to be had in Babylon’s Fall, and the combat is competent. You equip up to four different weapons: two weapons are wielded by hand, and are your basic light and heavy attacks; the other pair floats in the air behind you, controlled by your Gideon Coffin. These ethereal attacks tend to do the most damage, but consume a stamina meter that is regenerated by regular attacks. I’ll give some credit here because this is a novel system, in that changing which slot each weapon is equipped in can dramatically alter your damage output and survivability in interesting ways. A bow and arrow may work well for rapid fire shots from your hands, or be charged up in your Gideon Coffin and used more like slow firing artillery while you hide behind a shield.
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Putting out a constant barrage of regular and Gideon Coffin attacks has a satisfying ferocity to it, but against tougher enemies it does devolve into extended bouts of pure button-mashing while you watch health bars slowly decrease. Battling an undead dragon sounds interesting on paper, but in practice it’s just another hit box to tune out to while you stare at a health bar, running the same sequence of attacks in hand-cramping perpetuity. Dodge rolls and aerial attacks add a small amount of variety, but be prepared to get a lot of use out of the same three buttons.
The weapons and armor you use have varying rarities and levels, which is effective at moving you from one loadout to another as you progress. There are limited archetypes in each category so you will see the exact same swords and hammers dozens of times, each at incrementally higher power levels than the last. Randomized enchantments add a much-needed element of unpredictability, though: You might get one version of a bow that builds attack speed over time, then another later that converts damage dealt into healing for you and your party. Granted, the effects of the enchantments are minor. Your teammates may not be aware they are being healed, for example. Still, the cycle of speeding through the toughest mission your group can handle, then eagerly sorting through drops and upgrading pieces in order to challenge an even tougher encounter, is as compelling here as it is in any loot-based action-RPG.
The ability to level up a favorite piece of equipment is held until late in the campaign, which is a smart decision that forces you to jump around between different weapon combinations as you earn more powerful loot instead of just finding one that works and sticking to it. That said, it would have been nice to know that this ability was coming – maybe I wouldn’t have sold off some favorite weapons when they became too low-level to be much use.
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There is an endgame once the main campaign has concluded, but it, too, has its share of pitfalls that make the idea of sinking more time into Babylon’s Fall unappealing. It’s made up of high-level variations on missions, called Skirmishes and Sieges, that become available as opportunities to earn the most powerful gear. Skirmishes may contain Infamous enemies that drop special loot, while Sieges will emphasize combat or platforming. You also unlock new types of attack patterns, and alternative abilities for your Gideon Coffin. Given how repetitive the campaign missions got before I reached the endgame, holding these more interesting additions until the end is a questionable choice. Even so, they do little to change the actual experience of playing, so it’s not as if introducing them earlier would’ve solved all its problems.
The biggest of those problems is that Babylon’s fall doesn’t even come near to living up to its inspirations. For instance, multiple social aspects are like something pulled straight out of Monster Hunter: There is a hub town shared by players with quest boards, item shops, and a blacksmith; quests can be undertaken with friends or random players, with a mix of story missions that advance the plot and skirmishes that can lead to finding better weapons and armor. It all works reliably well, and playing in a group of four people didn’t noticeably impact the framerate or general performance.
However, joining up with a group of Sentinels has no strategic value beyond making missions pass more quickly. It even comes with drawbacks, like the fact that you can’t change your equipment once matchmaking has begun so it’s impossible to tweak your build to work well with your team – although even if you are playing with friends there is little incentive to try and create synergy between one loadout and another. Because there are no character classes with defined roles like damage-dealing, tanking, or support, more teammates just translates into more bodies rushing at the enemies, flailing their ghost arms with reckless abandon.