The Falconeer is an exciting flight sim/air combat game set in a water world that stopped growing somewhere during the Victorian/Industrial era. If you're not sailing somewhere, you're flying on giant birds capable of amazing aerial feats. And if people are not one of the many trying to make an honest living, they're one of the various pirates or warmongering groups that proud Falconeers such as yourself are trying to stop.
In a world where just traversing can seemingly be the most dangerous thing (I saw what looked like a giant, spike-armored whale snake leap out of the water, it's got to be dangerous in there), flying makes the safest sense in terms of getting around. Thankfully, I've been a big fan of flying sims or general "flying games" for most of my life. Sky Oddysey on the PlayStation 2 springs to mind as a prominent one, but that's just me dating myself a bit. The Falconeer puts you on the back of one of these birds, strapping guns and some ammo packs on there for good measure, and sending you off into the wild yonder without a ton of orientation. The tutorial is relatively useful, given you a chance to test yourself and how good (or bad) a pilot you might be.
That's not a bad thing, though; the world is seemingly massive. It takes some time to get around with some of the weaker/earlier birds, given their lower speed, but exploration is genuinely one of the best ways to understand the game. Stopping at different locations gives you a chance to buy items or upgrades or find additional quests to complete mid-stream (stuff you can do post-mission completion as well). You may also get an intriguing monologue from various characters, providing world-building lore, such as the creepy shaman/fortune teller woman about the meaning of the place. There's genuinely a massive world to explore, but once you've seen everything on the map, the excitement from the unknown is gone.
The Falconeer ends up, after a point, feeling very repetitious once you've managed to uncover all of the hidden must-see locations around the map. The gameplay loop is relatively basic; go to point a, kill some enemies, go to point b, ensure your weapons are charged, rinse, and repeat. Unfortunately, the exploration aspect wears out potentially early on unless you manage to hold off and focus only on completing the missions. Granted, the giant gaping hole in the middle of the ocean takes a bit of time to get an explanation, but beyond that, it's a series of small port towns, defensive structures, or old shrines. The story is your main draw, and you'll be sent off to be a mercenary for various groups, building your reputation, skills, and firepower over time. Much like how there's excellent world-building with lore hidden around, the game's story is very political – backstabbing, double-crossing, and a series of ever-escalating political intrigue.
However, most of the story ultimately relies on combat—something which is both fun as hell but challenging and frustrating at times as well. The game revolves around you flying your giant bird around, engaging in aerial dogfights or strafing sea-bound vessels, targeting forward with your lightning cannon. It's all great in theory, and most of the time, it's excellent in reality. However, I found myself consistently facing difficulties maintaining a good bearing on my foes. Sure, yeah, it's a dogfight – barrel rolling and turning usually ends up being the norm. But I often struggled against the camera, and anytime there were more than four or five enemies up against me, I was quickly picked off from all conceivable angles. Encounters would generally devolve into spinning in circles, attempting to find an enemy only to be killed no matter how many swoops or maneuvers I performed. The game offers you the ability to lock onto enemy targets at the cost of losing camera control and any orientation of how you're flying. It can be almost nauseating if you try to do it for too long in the middle of combat, and it's one of the reasons I ended up not using the mechanic and hoping for the best.
Outside of combat, though, the controls felt very intuitive and similar to other flight titles. It was fun to work with the bird, climbing higher and diving back down to recharge my energy meter (part of what you use to speed up or do rolls). I could almost hear Peppy from Star Fox yelling, "Do a barrel roll!" as I effortlessly spun through the air, and just getting that speed up in a sharp dive was thrilling and fun. A bonus – to refill your ammunition, fly through an active thunderstorm and watch the electricity surge towards you. I mention all of this because, even as frustrating as the combat always ended up being for me, the rest of the game felt fluid and fun. Flying around, exploring, and learning about the great mysteries of The Falconeer while helping random passersby at least filled in some of the gaps created by the combat.
There's so much here to The Falconeer that I want to see more. The world feels very fleshed out and realized, the giant birds are freaking cool, and I'm still left wondering what the hell is going on with the woman glowering over my (maybe?) dead body between missions. I would love some tweaks to the gameplay and some chances to freely explore the world, but I feel pressured to complete the missions at hand, and I ultimately missed some things until I was a few hours into the game itself. It's great that the initial tutorial helps you get your wings, but there was a lot more I didn't know until experimenting around during missions. The history lessons I found, shopping opportunities, and side hustles are neatly tucked away, waiting to be unlocked by players that want to spend the time looking. But I worry that once those are dried up, the story (and combat) may not be enough to hold some through to completion.Note: The Falconeer was reviewed on Xbox Series X. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.