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The Falconeer hands-on preview: Bringing imagination to the dogfight

A fantasy aerial combat RPG might not scream elegance on paper but The Falconeer hopes to blend sophisticated mechanics with the freedom of flight. We go hands-on and speak with developer Tomas Sala.
The Falconeer hands-on preview: Bringing imagination to the dogfight

Games revolved around flight feel like they’ve fallen out of fashion. Aside from realistic simulators or the Ace Combat franchise, you’d probably have to hark back to Star Fox, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, or Elite Dangerous for standout titles within the genre.

This absence makes the bold world of The Falconeer even more refreshing. Created by solo developer Tomas Sala, you pilot a giant falcon across an endless ocean as you encounter battles with all kinds of foes - from dragons, pirate ships, and looming blimps raining gunfire.

As the same artist who worked on stunt-driving title REKT, the visuals in The Falconeer are unsurprisingly stunning. The open world of Ursee blends industrial aesthetics with fantastical sci-fi, as lasers and cannons rip through the sky simultaneously in dogfights with mythical beasts, enemy factions and sea creatures.

Falconeer shot
Falconeer is a stunning game (Picture: Wired Productions)

The ocean itself is also just as impressive. In our hands-on, we were shown an area where the ocean is split like the Nile, allowing you to fly beneath where enemies lurk. Settlements also curl around and above the sea level, with the possibility of surprise attacks and whirlpools making the ocean feel just as dangerous as enemies in the air.

While most of your time will be spent flying and engaging in battles, there’s more to sink your teeth into in the main campaign. Missions are divided between three separate factions, where you build friendships with characters to unlock upgrades and new falcons, all of which have different agility, speed, health and damage stats.

While we didn’t get to see it ourselves, we were told different bases in the open world will react differently depending on if you prioritise one faction over the other, who all have their individual motivations and desires you’ll discover over the course of the game.

Falconeer gameplay
Falconeer lets you soar to the skies and in the oceans (Picture: Wired Productions)

We didn’t get to see how the introduction pans out, but there’s certainly a learning curve with the controls. Acrobatic manoeuvres and steady sweeps are just as important as locking on and hammering the trigger, with the camera occasionally feeling like it’s working against you during intense fights - although this could be due to us jumping into more difficult battles from the outset.

The Falconeer’s beautiful visuals seem to mask a deceptively complex aerial combat game. With a distinctive, fascinating world to explore and some surprising minor RPG elements, this looks to be a welcome shot in the arm for a genre which has been sorely lacking in imagination.

After trying out The Falconeer, we spoke with developer Tomas Sala about making the move to a solo developer and the game’s inspirations. You can check out our video and written interview below. 

One of your first projects was the Moonpath Skyrim mod, was that a springboard to becoming a solo developer?

I exclusively worked for hire for a studio, so I did the mods as an escape from that. It was very successful, so that’s where I thought maybe I should do something by myself and have fun, and make a career out of that.

I started making an indie game called Oberon’s Court which I never finished. I spent a good three years on it and it became way too complex, and it was one of those games where as a designer you have to ask, “is it going to be fun when I end this?” And it really wasn’t. I still wanted to do something by myself, so I thought I needed to make something that’s fun the minute you pick it up.

For me, it was a short step to making a flying game. I grew up on Red Baron and Star Wars: TIE Fighter, all the way up to Crimson Skies. That’s always been appealing to me, so I thought I’d make that.

You’ve also worked with small studio Little Chicken Game Company in the past, why did you want to make Falconeer on your own?

It’s a really complex question. I’m a little bit of a hyperactive person, I’ve mentioned the word ADD in the past. You have to be a little crazy to make a game by yourself and want to do it.

I’m not in it to make a really cute, storytelling games. I want to do intelligent and interesting storylines, and I also like big explosions and making things as epic as possible, so to take that all on you have to be a little bit strange. That’s always been a problem for me when working with big teams.

All the tropes you hear from bad game management, I think I’ve done that. When I work by myself on my own, I’m a lot less stressed and a nicer person. Now I’m older and have young kids, I get to work at home, be around my kids and make video games - who doesn’t want that?

For me, it’s great. It’s why I decided I’d go for Falconeer and focus on it full time with the help from Wired Productions and Microsoft. I got to do that, so that’s a dream come true.

Has working on your own been mostly a positive experience? How was that shift?

It was a couple of years ago [when I went solo] but it’s not black and white, you have to make a living so it’s been a gradual process. Over the past year I’ve been working on The Falconeer full time. There’s three and a half years in it.

When you’re on your own, everything is crunch. So to be honest nobody is suffering because of me except me, but creatively it’s just… I say 20 years of repressed creativity is just pouring out. So it’s making itself. I just sit down and cool stuff happens.

Falconeer is created by Tomas Sala (Picture: Wired Productions)

Where did the idea for the Falconeer come from?

I went looking for that flying game mechanic and I had an old model from that mod where it was a dragon. I had all these assets and put the ocean in there and it looked really nice, but a dragon flying game has been done in various iterations; like Panzer Dragoon.

That’s a little bit cheesy and you have to be original to stand out in today’s market, so I thought about a bird of prey. I modelled a bird of prey, put a guy on top, gave him a lance, put it in that world and I just went. “woah, this is a really good idea”.

It’s just grown from there. All the layers of the storytelling, the water versus the air, that’s just come from being free to do what I want and finally think about how stories work in games.

What’s the most difficult thing about being a solo developer?

It’s keeping your motivation up. I play hours every night, I will do something and I’ll play it. You’ll play it and enjoy it, but you’ll have weeks where you go, “oh that’s shit’. And then I’ll fix up a few loose ends.

If you want to do an RPG or like a 2D Japanese RPG, it’s super difficult because you have to play that same game a thousand times. At some point, you’ve seen that death sequence or done that battle a hundred times.

I think that’s very difficult where people can finish these games despite having played it a thousand times and having motivated themselves beyond what the genre is capable of; games you don’t necessarily play a thousand times, but you do as a developer. I think that’s the most difficult thing by far.

Are you looking to release The Falconeer on more platforms?

It’s an Xbox first exclusive which is also coming to Windows 10. What will happen in the future will happen in the future.

The Falconeer releases on Xbox One and Windows 10 in 2020.