Matterfall is the latest title from Housemarque, a studio that is quickly making a name for itself as a powerhouse development outfit. Matterfall is a shorter title with an indie feel, however as a PS4 exclusive it has the full weight of publisher Sony behind it. Essentially a classic side-scrolling shooter, Matterfall expertly blends bullet hell-style gameplay with 2D platforming, and the end result is a fast and frantic assault on the senses that is both challenging and rewarding.
There’s not much story to Matterfall, but this need not be a deterrent as this is certainly not where the focus of the title lies. You play as self-described ‘Fixer’ Samus Avalon Darrow, who with the help of some futuristic weaponry is called in to mop up a catastrophic mess of planetary proportions. An alien energy source has escaped the control of both the planet’s government and military, and a bunch of top secret experimental weapons and machinery has now turned violently homicidal. With the planet evacuated, it’s up to you to take down the possessed machinery the only way you know how: by killing it until it is dead. For those looking for a complex narrative that makes you question the human condition and life’s deeper questions, Matterfall is not that game (nor does it pretend to be). But if you’re keen to shoot things and watch them explode until your eyeballs melt out of their sockets, then it most certainly has you covered in that department.
Matterfall adopts a twin-stick shooter style, with the left thumbstick controlling movement and the right thumbstick controlling fire and direction. As you’ll constantly need to have your thumb on the right stick, all other important controls are moved to the shoulder buttons to ensure those sweaty palms have maximum Mom’s spaghetti at all times. This includes the jump button (mapped to R1) which initially feels counterintuitive (the X button not being jump takes some neural rewiring), but once you get the hang of the controls you will be zipping around and killing things with murderous precision. There’s an awesome sense of fluidity and control once you master the fast movement, and when it clicks you’ll find a rhythm that makes the game an exercise in sheer chaotic joy.
A major mechanic that plays into the vast amount of killing you do is a manoeuvre known as a Strike. Executed with L1, this move can be incorporated into a dash or from a standstill to stun surrounding enemies and soften them up for some bullet therapy. It also destroys enemy bullets in the process, meaning you can perform a Strike with reckless abandon through a hail of enemy fire. Timing is everything though, as it has a short cooldown between Strikes meaning you can’t simply spam your way to victory when surrounded by enemies. Mastering the Strike manoeuvre is the key to success, and it’s is also incorporated into the platforming. Walls made of blue matter can be dashed through with a strike, and also handily block enemy bullets. The only thing you really need to fear is red matter, which can’t be dashed through and must be avoided at all costs.
As I was playing the game’s first levels I initially felt that the game was screaming out for some RPG-lite elements that upgrade your basic arsenal, which tend to feature in bullet hell games of this ilk like EverWing or Gradius. However the game opts for an augment system, which ends up feeling slightly limited but works well enough within the context of the game. Basically rescuing civilians within a level will sometimes grant an augment that is either passive (like a greater Strike stun range or more health), or enables secondary fire options like enemy-seeking projectiles or a powerful shotgun. But with only four secondary weapons and eight passive augments to choose from, I
Kill all the things!
*Michael Bay intensifies*
didn’t feel like I had too much choice. Some also appear to be head and shoulders above the rest (the two passive augments I just mentioned were my mainstays), and the fact that you are only allowed to equip three at a time feels a bit stingy. Some greater customisability wouldn’t have gone astray, but as I progressed this issue bugged me less because the incredibly entertaining gameplay tends to do the majority of the talking.
As you’ll constantly need to have your thumb on the right stick, all other important controls are moved to the shoulder buttons to ensure those sweaty palms have maximum Mom’s spaghetti at all times.
Matterfall is a gratifyingly difficult game that continually throws you into crazy situations that demand a hefty amount of focus and good reflexes to overcome. While there are quieter platforming moments, it’s never long before you are thrust into another crazy gunfight where the screen is quite literally filled with bullets, explosions and robot enemy giblets. It’s an absolute visual feast in terms of colour and sheer intensity, however the apparent chaos is expertly balanced to mean that skill still reigns supreme, and being quick on the trigger and positioning yourself correctly with Strikes makes you feel like a beast when the enemy numbers start climbing. There’s also a pumping sci-fi synth soundtrack that oscillates between a slightly cheesy ‘80s vibe to more intense techno beats, which perfectly matches the on-screen action.
The measured chaos that the game dishes out in liberal portions is no more apparent than in the brilliant boss battles. These relatively lengthy and intense multi-phase donnybrooks demand you learn a boss’s varied attack patterns lest you find yourself staring at a loading screen after the shame of yet another defeat. I just wish there were more of these boss battles (there are only three in total), but it’s guaranteed that these fights will test your skills and get the adrenaline pumping.
By the power of Greyskull!
So close, yet so far
Matterfall ends up being a bit of a lightweight in terms of content, featuring a paltry three acts comprising three missions and a boss fight each. Playing on hard I managed to knock over the campaign in under four hours. After completing the game you will gain access to the incredibly masochistic Master difficulty (which features tougher enemies and you die in one shot), and if you manage to complete the game on that difficulty then my hat goes off to you, as it is incredibly punishing. This being said, the short by oh so sweet campaign does have replayability built into it in the form of score chasing, and the game places a large emphasis on not getting hit in order to increase a score multiplier. When enemies go down the score they grant will flash on screen, and it’s addictive indeed to watch those numbers climb, particularly when large amounts of enemies are biting the bullet(s) and numbers and explosions fill the screen. The score chasers out there will have a field day with Matterfall, but personally I would have loved if the scoring fed into some sort of post-level reward system.
Matterfall is an expertly produced title which successfully mixes and balances some clever gameplay elements, and the end result is a brilliant 2D shoot ‘em up that is slicker than a Teflon-coated baby orca. While it wouldn’t hurt to have some extra length to it, if high scores are enough of a carrot on a stick for you then there are potentially many hours of good wholesome shooty fun awaiting you. Highly recommended.
Reviewed on PS4