Review: Fallen London

By Tof Eklund 13 May 2016 11

Review: Fallen London

Released 04 May 2016

Developer: Failbetter Games
Available from:
App Store
Reviewed on: iPad Mini

Fallen London. Ah, yes. I was there when London was stolen by bats into the cavernous ‘Neath, the Fifth City bartered to the ancient Echo Bazaar and its petty, proud, enigmatic Masters. ...wasn’t I? Perhaps I descended later, drawn by the lure of prisoner’s honey, which bodily transports one into dreams, or drawn down from the surface in pursuit of an all-consuming vengeance. No, wait, I remember now, I came to play the Marvelous, that mythic game of luck and skill said to be played with the coins that bought Christ as ante, and one’s fondest desires as the prize.

I sought my stake in Veilgarden, where the mushroom wine flows and one can scarcely tell the poets from the honey-mazed, and in Ladybones Road, where Hell has its embassy and the recently hanged descend from their nooses to resume their lives or else, if their shame is too great or their decay too severe, depart for the tomb colonies. I have been to the tomb colonies, where a secret I dare not speak is hidden. Would it shock you to know that I took a lover there, muslin-wrapped and reeking of camphor and myrrh? 

ratchatcher

One can't afford to be too fussy about one's soul in Fallen London.

I have sought refuge from London’s bustle in the swamps of Watchmaker’s Hill, where the epithet “ratcatcher” is a badge of pride, in the Traitor Empress’s hushed court, across the unterzee in Polytheme, and with the Rubbery Men down in Flute Street, buried deep below the city. That last journey cost me plenty, but not so dearly as when I sought out the Nadir, whose secret would be worth a Khan’s ransom, could I but remember it.

The world of Fallen London is one of the richest and most compelling I have encountered in any game. Fallen London, in its original incarnation, is a browser-based game in the vein of Kingdom of Loathing and, to a lesser degree, Urban Dead. Failbetter Games, the creators of Fallen London, have expanded the franchise with The Silver Tree, a story set in Kharkorum, the Fourth City, during the height of the Khan’s rule, and with PC-exclusive Sunless Sea, wherein one braves the terrors of the unterzee and the strange inhabitants of its ports, trading in sorrow-spider silk, stolen sunlight, and souls. 

zee

Many there are who go mad in the darkness of the broad unterzee. But to go mad before leaving port, ah, there's a true zailor.

Fallen London isn’t for everyone: the folks at Failbetter Games value compelling writing above all else, so if you’re a “TLDR, get me to the action” kind of gamer, there’s literally nothing for you here. Fallen London’s game system is nothing more than a set of stats, equipment, faction reputations, and actions that replenish over time. That’s right, Fallen London is free-to-play, with it’s own premium currency, Fate. That’s also going to make it a dead letter for some people.

The thing is, Fallen London never feels FTP. Yes, you can buy more actions, but that’s the stupidest possible use of your Fate points. Fate doesn’t get you better things than other players, it (mainly) unlocks stories that are strictly non-essential but become part of your path, your story through the game. It can also be used at times to skip time-consuming steps in the process of working your way up in the world of Fallen London, but, trust me, you’re better off with the experience of taking the longer road.

toadbeast

My toadbeast is quite the looker. I mean, it's ugly as sin, but it can see where it's going, where it's been, and the ground under its feet all at the same time.

The most satisfying use of fate I’ve made in the game was buying the route to Flute Street. I’d been obsessed with the cephalopod-ish Rubbery Men since I started playing the game, and getting to learn more about them and how they came to the ‘neath was well worth the roughly $5 I spent for it. In another case, I spent a similar amount of fate for the opportunity to breed some unusual animals that could then serve as companions (an “equipment” slot). In every case, they offered smaller stat boosts than companions that I had already acquired without spending Fate, but I’m not giving up my Occular Toadbeast or Corresponding Oscelot for anything, even if this Pokemon scenario was rather silly compared to the game’s usual style of dark fantasy and sinister humor.

There’d been rumblings of a native app for Fallen London on iOS for some time before its debut, and that’s where this review gets… complicated. The Fallen London app is not, sadly, the belle of the ball. Oh, it does some things right: for the first time, Fallen London has a score, and it’s by Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman, creators of Sunless Sea’s haunting soundtrack. There’s some subtle use of animation, a gorgeous map, and the overall look of the app is good, both suiting and updating the style of Fallen London online.

map

This map makes me want to love the Fallen London app. But one cannot adventure by map alone.

It’s just too bloody slow.

It takes a minute and a half, sometimes longer, for the game to load and update itself on my iPad Mini, which is insane for a game of this type. Worse, it consistently takes three seconds, sometimes four, to process every action you select before showing you the results. Playing via the web portal, on the same device, it never takes more than ten seconds to start Safari (if it’s not in memory), load the page, and log in. Thereafter, the game processes each action in about half a second. What’s the difference between half a second and three seconds? When you’re waiting with no feedback, it’s the difference between "immediate" results and wondering if your tap even registered on the screen, or if the game crashed.

There are grind-y parts to the experience of Fallen London, be it accumulating whispered hints to trade for crates of expedition supplies, or advancing your cause in a seduction, bits where the brilliant text doesn’t matter because you already know it by heart. In these sequences, those three second delays stretch toward infinity well, it’s enough to send one straight to a room at the Royal Bethlehem Hotel, one of the special rooms with no mirrors or candles, and a door that locks from the outside.

At first, I thought this maddening delay was due to the game’s need to communicate with the server after every action, but the game doesn't do that, instead storing batches of action before sending them to the server. This is also a problem, as the game will lose your most recent actions if it gets pushed out of memory. There’s no manual sync, and thus no way of protecting your progress but continuing to play and hoping the game syncs before you run out of actions.

On top of all this, the app’s interface, in being less cluttered than the website, hides some information too well: the only way to see how many echoes (the game’s primary currency) is to bring up a sidebar with some additional game information. It’s not shown in your inventory or anywhere else, including the Bazaar: when you buy and sell things with/for echoes, you are told how much you spent or earned, but not what your new balance is. Finally, when the game stops to sync with the server (another delay), some of the witty short texts presented online as sidebars are shown, and maybe they look okay on a phone, but on a tablet they appear as one or two short sentences in a small font sitting over an endless expanse of empty black screen. 

Screen Shot 2016 05 13 at 12.02.58 PM

Be it ever so cluttered, there's no place like homepage.

This leaves me in a conundrum. If you like story-driven text-heavy games with RPG elements, Fallen London is one of the finest titles ever to grace the genre, and I highly recommend it. If you want to play Fallen London on your mobile device, I can honestly say that the website offers a remarkably good experience on tablets, even older ones. On a phone, it’s a bit cramped but functional enough. If you want to play Fallen London using the dedicated iOS app… don’t. Just don’t. It’s sadder than a barrel full of wet cats. If you want play the game with the soundtrack, buy it on Bandcamp and load it into iTunes.

The most generous thing I can say about the app is that the folks at Failbetter know about the issues and have promised to fix them. They named their company after the very idea of making mistakes but learning from them, so I trust they will. I also trust that one of the mistakes they’re learning from is releasing an app that makes a delightful treat of a game into an exercise in irritated tedium.

Fallen London is a text and story-driven game set in a highly original and expansive dark fantasy world that affords players an unusual amount of freedom to shape their character's destiny. The original web-based game runs well on mobile, but the recently released app is critically flawed.

Review: Fallen London

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