Matterfall is another game in developer Housemarque’s particle-effect-heavy catalog. Drenched in neon and engulfed in a thumping techno soundtrack, it posits itself as a game for those interested in tackling challenging side-scrolling action and chasing high scores. And while the intense action and pulsating score make Matterfall a thrill to watch, a sloppy combination of mechanics and a few crucial oversights leave this game both disappointing and frustrating to play. Save for a few moments of greatness, Matterfall fails to make the most of its promising foundation.
As is the norm for Housemarque, Matterfall’s obligatory opening cinematic quickly introduces your motivations before setting you free to chase high scores. You play as Avalon Darrow, a freelancer hired to clean up widespread and dangerous alien technology. As a massive evacuation is in effect, freelancers come in to eradicate the out-of-control technology and extract whatever citizens remain. And thus, you embark on a journey through three worlds with four stages each (the last being a boss battle).
It doesn’t take long for Matterfall to seem all too similar to Housemarque’s previous games. It operates in a 2D environment in the same vein as most side-scrolling action-platformers, but it has eight-directional inputs similar to Nex Machina. There are character upgrades, cyberpunk motifs, obligatory point multipliers, and the studio’s signature, highly detailed special effects. Housemarque knows how to craft a captivating game, and Matterfall continues the studio’s impressive, trademark design. It’s tinged with vibrant blues, greens, and pinks reminiscent of the prettiest sci-fi worlds, and the synth soundtrack creates a rhythm that fosters intensity, fueling the frenetic chaos on-screen.
While Matterfall as a whole doesn’t display a lot of innovation, Housemarque tries to be inventive with the new Strike ability, a dash that emits a shockwave to stun enemies (to increase the amount of points gathered from them) and destroy nearby projectiles.
You can combine Strike with Avalon’s double jump, granting you access to higher terrain and potentially imprisoned civilians bearing augmentations, upgrades that can be equipped to one of three slots. Augments vary from active tools like grenades and shotguns to passive benefits like greater Strike radius and increased weapon damage, and while they can add new tools to experiment with, they never feel like crucial additions to your repertoire.
A well-timed Strike feels satisfying, yet a peculiar design choice prevents the ability from feeling like a reliable tool: there’s nothing to indicate when its cooldown timer resets. Unsurprisingly, because of this lack of notification, you wind up in situations where your best intentions mean nothing in the face of swarms of enemies you can’t avoid and projectiles you can’t destroy. This isn’t a problem elsewhere–an audible cue informs you of changes to your score multiplier, and secondary weapons are given a graphical cooldown timer in the bottom-left corner of the screen–so the omission of an alert for a crucial mechanic feels like an oversight.
Unfortunately, Avalon also feels too stiff to control. Her double jump has no forward momentum; you can only propel yourself forward by using Strike, and since it’s unclear how often or when Strike can be used, chaining together Avalon’s mobility options can be cumbersome and tedious. Matterfall understands eight directional inputs–your gun, mapped to the right stick, fires in all directions–but Avalon can only dash in four directions: up, down, left, and right. This limitation feels contradictory in the face of Matterfall’s insistence on agility and multiplier combos, especially when inputs fail to register as intended.
The rigid controls are further illuminated during boss battles, intense bouts with gargantuan enemies who fire barrages of projectiles, frequently accompanied by a few weaker enemies you encountered earlier in that world. These boss battles provide a true test of the augments and skills presented to you, forcing you to adapt during these multi-tiered fights. Boss battles deliver a bullet-hell experience, with all the incessant deaths and walls of projectiles you’d expect. Because the controls are stiff and Strike has an unclear cooldown, these showdowns are more exercises in trial and error than they are a test of adaptability and skill, meaning you’re going to die repeatedly. Death inevitably leads to long load times while you wait to jump back into the action, and since boss battles are always difficult, waiting around while the game loads just so you can die again grows tiresome.
At first it’s great to engage with Housemarque’s tried-and-tested designs again, but Matterfall never manages to build off of its promising foundation, and it even mishandles one of the studio’s longest-standing mechanics: dashing. There is still some fun to be had, and it’s easy to appreciate the technical artistry on display, but factor in inconsistent controls and long load times, and it’s easy to grow frustrated throughout the Matterfall’s short campaign.