Review by Matt S. & Matt R.
Babylon’s Fall is a game that has been designed to be exclusively a “live service” multiplayer game. And so, to do something different with this review, Matt R (of Shindig and regular on DDNet fame) and I buddied up to cruise through a chunk of the game, and now, to review it, we’re going to have a chat about it.
Matt S: This game is such a tragedy, because it is so good in almost every way, but for the fact that it has been rammed into a live service structure, and that doesn’t suit it at all. You get the sense that at some point early on it was probably intended to be a single player, narrative-driven thing, but then someone high up decided that it should be a live service thing instead. I tell you what, Matt, I very nearly just gave up on it after that first quest that we did together, which just had to be a 20-minute boss battle that was most definitely not designed for a party of just two, and was an exercise in frustration.
I’m glad we persevered though, because the next set of levels and the boss at the end of that one was a lot more fun.
Matt R: Ye gods, that boss. I actually thought the fight and boss’ attack patterns were really interesting, not to mention the visual design of the boss itself (the atmosphere in this game, I tell you!). But with a health bar clearly balanced for four people and at least one very hard-hitting attack that literally can’t be avoided unless you have a full party, what should have been a fun encounter turned into a nightmare. That’s one of my biggest frustrations with it, really: it’s presented as this thing that you can freely play solo or in groups, but it’s not designed with that sort of flexibility in mind.
It’s a shame, because what’s there is really good, balance stuff aside. Having four different weapon slots that function differently brings such an interesting dynamic to how you gear up your character. “Cool, I got this awesome new bow from killing the boss! Should I use it for quick attack, strong attack, or one of the special attacks?” I love how much room there is to experiment there.
Matt S: Yeah, that equipment system is absolutely spectacular, with the way that each weapon has both a basic application and a “special attack” version. Like most live service games, the loot comes in thick and fast, and it’s the one thing about the live service structure that I think benefits Babylon’s Fall; it seemed like every time I completed a level I had a new weapon loadout that I was compelled to try. For the first hour or so it’s all variations on stock-standard swords, shields, bows and big hammers, but soon enough you start getting glow sticks of doom, chainsaw staves, and weapons that have passive effects like healing and stat boosts that make them useful even if you’re not swinging them.
Can I also say that I didn’t expect to enjoy the setting quite this much when I went into a “live service” game? That genre is usually very content-driven, to the detriment of creativity, but Platinum has done a really good job of building a mythological Babylon into this thing, and that’s just not a setting we see in games… well, ever? From bosses named after angels and demons relevant to the biblical Babylon, to a bestiary that has clearly been researched from myths of the era, the game might take place in a “Neo-Babylon”, but the developers have given us something that feels carefully researched and authentic.
Matt R: Yes, the setting is remarkable. It’s such an intriguing vision of Babylon, so full of mythical wonder and danger. I think the art style really brings it to life, too—the focus on blue and gold hues, and the Renaissance-esque finish really create a biblical atmosphere, not in a religious sense, but in that imposing, grandiose but sinister way the city is depicted in scripture. The designs of the monsters, especially, stand out—you can really see the hand of the studio behind Bayonetta in these elaborate creations that manage to look both holy and demonic at the same time. The atmosphere and texture of the world is sublime.
This brings me back to your comments about feeling rammed into a live service thing. This is a world I want to just get lost in and explore, on my own terms and without distraction, but all the necessities of this live service format constantly get in the way. I want to just play through this story without having to visit a hub area for matchmaking between every mission, and without constant reminders about battle passes and daily quests disrupting the mood. I want the conch shells scattered so enticingly around each level to be worth something, instead of just being a currency that loses all value about 10 minutes into the game because the only stuff worth buying is hidden behind the premium currency.
I want to play the story-driven, single-player (maybe with optional co-op) game that Babylon’s Fall was so clearly originally meant to be before some dollar-eyed suit in the hunt for some “recurrent spending” decided to force a good game into the shell of a bad one.
Matt S: You have to admit that within a very narrow band the game does click as it is, though. Going questing with you, where we both knew that we could take our time and take in the environment and settings at our own pace, was a lot of fun. Pairing up with randoms always meant I ended up with people that bolted through levels and everything went by in a blur. I don’t enjoy that in MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV, and I don’t enjoy that here. But when it’s questing with friends it’s different, and genuinely enjoyable. The combat system benefits from Platinum’s usual level of refinement, and while levels are all linear, they do have interesting quirks that make the journey through them enjoyable too.
If you can get a group together – and while it should ideally be four people, outside of the boss battles two will do – then Babylon’s Fall flies. It shouldn’t be so limited, and we have seen with the likes of Monster Hunter that this structure can work in single player. It is entirely down to commercial reasons that it is this way, and that sucks, but if you can engage with it the way that it is designed, it is fun.
I also think that the game is surprisingly good at respecting the player’s time. Because the narrative is organised within distinct chapters, and you’ll have an entire short story arc play out within a couple of levels, from the introduction to boss battle and conclusion of that arc, you can get in, get a chapter done, and then start fresh the next time at an all-new chapter and story without having to live within the game, like many live services try to encourage players to. It seems to me to be almost built around the Dungeons & Dragons model, where you’ll get a group together for a few hours once a week and then move on and play other things until the next week’s session. Sure you’ll get bombarded with a desperate effort to convince you to spend ever-more money while you’re playing, but the game’s not asking you to see it as your one and only hobby forever after, and that is admirable.
Also, as a side note, I need this game’s soundtrack. The boss battles have some of the best fantasy RPG music I’ve seen since FFXIV itself.
Matt R: You’re right—with the right group of players approaching the game with the same mindset, a lot of those problems fall away. Even then, the storytelling feels a bit disjointed, with characters who clearly play a key role in the story as allies that you fight alongside just… not showing up in the missions themselves, or at best, finding contrived reasons to disappear right before a boss fight. But if you can tolerate those little quirks, it’s an enjoyable ride.
I’ll also admit that, while playing with friends is best, I’ve generally enjoyed the time I spent partied with random players, too. Especially when replaying missions I’ve already cleared, where I’m less concerned about taking my time to absorb everything, it’s nice to be able to enjoy the combat system in encounters that feel better balanced. It’s not necessarily super cooperative and coordinated, outside of some boss encounters, and more just a bunch of people playing in the same room and attacking the same enemies, but the action is so solid that that’s enough to enjoy it, most of the time. Longevity and player base could be a problem in the future, but while there are a few players around, I wouldn’t write off random grouping entirely.
I still think at least a Monster Hunter style of solo/multiplayer compartmentalisation would have been better, but it’d be a shame to write off a genuinely interesting game just because of some rough edges and a strange pivot to live service.
Matt S: Sadly, I think the market has made it pretty clear that Babylon’s Fall has been written off. Not just because of the game itself, but also, the timing. What a ridiculous time to launch it, so close to Horizon and Elden Ring. I would say that I hope Square Enix’s takeaway from this would be to give Platinum another crack at it, but as a single player game this time, but I don’t think that’s going to happen either, as this game’s launch has been so catastrophically bad I doubt anyone sees a future franchise in the stars.
I don’t think we should completely give up on it, though. Games have been turned around from disastrous launches to become quite well-loved things, and I do think there is room for Babylon’s Fall to grow, while also being a decent time (in the right conditions) right now. It’s certainly content rich in its current state already, and while it’s probably a bit of a gamble throwing money into something that might not be around for too long, I can still see this developing a community.