Having an animal retrieve something at your command is one of the great joys of being a pet owner. It's difficult to put into words. My girlfriend's daschund hardly listens and doesn't know any tricks, but when you ask him to fetch his plum-sized orange ball, he finds it, wherever it is, and brings it to your feet, tail wagging delightedly. Falcon Age, a first-person action-adventure game for PlayStation VR, understands the special fellowship that exists between a person and their pet, and it expresses beautifully the trust and affection that caring for an animal can make you feel. Besides robust combat and fine crafting, it captures that simple, precious thrill of playing fetch–and captures it so well that, after a few hours in the company of this bird, you may feel you've adopted a new pet.
Falcon Age places in your charge a baby falcon whose mother is killed protecting it, and over the course of a roughly four-hour campaign you feed it, train it, nurture it, lead it into battle, and otherwise act as its full-time caretaker. This can be done conventionally, on a television and with a DualShock 4, or in virtual reality, with a PSVR headset and a pair of Move controllers (or in VR with a DualShock, if you so prefer). Falcon Age was designed expressly to be played in virtual reality, though, so the traditional, non-VR gameplay feels like something of an afterthought. It's adequate in two dimensions with familiar first-person controls, but the game's best qualities are appreciable only with the headset on and the Move controllers in your hands. If you want to really bond with your bird, you need to be able to reach out and touch it.
You play as Ara, one of the few humans left on a planet ravaged by robot colonizers. As the game opens, Ara is imprisoned, forced to follow a monotonous daily loop of "reeducation" in the form of morning quizzes and hard labor mining ore by pickaxe outside. Soon enough, she escapes, and the story follows her efforts to adopt the ancient traditions of her near-extinct people while fighting alongside the scrappy resistance that aims to take the planet back from its unwelcome invaders. Interestingly, the story begins near what seems to be the end of the colonization; the planet has already been exhaustively ransacked for resources, and as we arrive it looks long-since despoiled. The air of late-stage devastation–evident in every bleak vista and arid valley–makes fresh a premise that might otherwise feel too familiar.
It also makes clear the game's politics, which are as central to Falcon Age as the bird is. The background of the story–a sprawling, rapacious colonial superpower ransacks a planet of its valuables, strong-arming the natives into wildly unjust obedience–is obviously meant to suggest certain real-world analogues, and it's hard not to keep the historical parallels in mind when hearing this tale from the perspective of the oppressed. Even the falcon is poignant here; you're told early on that falconry is part of the traditions of the native population, rapidly disappearing under tyrannical rule. It's a simple parable, but it's relevant, and it lends the game a seriousness that belies the impression of a game about an adorable bird.
As you and your falcon make your way through the desolate landscape, attacking robot outposts and learning to practice farming on the recaptured soil, you discover encampments, encounter other survivors, and, in keeping with the demands of an adventure game, meet merchants with things for you to buy and people with errands for you to complete. The world itself feels well-realized and intriguingly stark, as you chart vast plains of barren rock depleted of verdure and pitted with fixtures of sleek, ominous steel. The conversations you have with its inhabitants, on the other hand, tend jarringly slangy and sarcastic, with dialogue that clangs as oddly careless. Your hero, in particular, often talks like an angsty teenager, with options to sass in practically every exchange with other people. The snarky one-liners struck me as totally inappropriate to the setting.
Communication with your feathered friend is, thankfully, much more natural–perhaps because it's entirely unspoken. For your troubles, it's at your command. The mechanics are simple, modeled on the basic techniques of falconry. Your bird's default state is airborne, circling the sky above you. Bringing a fist to your lips calls it to you, and raising a hand invites it to land on your wrist. While perched, it can be fed, stroked, played with, or tended to if wounded–more on that later. The Move controllers are very responsive to even subtle movements, and the bird AI is sharp enough that I almost never had trouble getting it to follow my commands or fly to me when needed. It feels like a natural extension of your own body in an elegant, smoothly integrated way.