The past few years have reminded us that many countries’ healthcare systems are not in good shape. Even so, it’s hard to appreciate the challenges that healthcare workers face if you’re not one. Fall of Porcupine aims to do this in an approachable way by putting players in the scrubs of 2D animal doctors. Unfortunately, the latest release from Critical Rabbit isn’t the hard-hitting medical drama wrapped in a fuzzy waffle blanket that we would’ve liked. This cute game has so much potential, but it needed more care and a focused narrative to really soar.
An impressive amount of research and interviews have gone into the game’s much-needed commentary – everything from full beds to alternative medicine to corporate hospital management. It’s a shame all that research results in a flatline story with repetitive mechanics. You control Finley, an anthropomorphised pigeon and the newest doctor at St. Ursula’s Hospital in the town of Porcupine. As you tend to patients, your boss, white cheetah Dr Krokowski, is constantly less than impressed with you. There’s also a fellow newbie doctor, a suspicious janitor, a chief physician, and MANY more characters who take the form of various animals.
Fall of Porcupine is mostly a 2D side-scroller with some light platforming elements. You play through Finley’s work, life and dreams, and you access tasks by using an in-game phone, which also keeps a record of the cast and text messages from before the game’s beginning. These texts seemed to hint at a wider story so it’s a pity none of it leads anywhere.
The story plods along for the first two-thirds, padded with long stretches of Finley talking to a vending machine or mocking his boss through an entire one-pigeon play. Whenever something interesting happened we sat up and leaned towards the screen, thinking, “Okay, now the story starts”, only to be let down shortly after. These dramatic moments would end with anticlimactic reveals, go-off on tangents, or fizzle out altogether.
The unsatisfying narrative is interspersed with minigames that mostly serve as Finley doing his hospital rounds. The better ones include colour-matching puzzles and a symbols game that borrows from Wordle. Many are hardly even minigames, though, and simply ask you to hold several buttons at a time in an unnatural finger-twisting position or ‘solve’ an obscure riddle by speaking to your neighbours until they hand you the answer. Sometimes there’s even turn-based combat, just ‘cause. When it’s your turn, the puzzles are given an A, B or C grade that has no effect on the patient’s diagnosis.
You can make choices throughout the game with dialogue options and other small actions (take the bus vs walk), but it isn’t clear whether they impact friendship levels or story arcs. Of course, not everything has to, but in a game like this, we wanted to know how our choices affected the outcome, if at all, and the results felt inconsistent.
For a small town, Porcupine has an abundance of residents. They all talk a lot, without saying much. Their motivations often go unexplained and their behaviour is inconsistent. As a result, it’s hard to empathise with them in their times of trouble. Some events are emotional, but more in the sense that we knew we were supposed to feel sad, rather than feeling any actual sadness. The story was so filled with fluff we couldn’t grasp the emotionally significant things when they appeared.
Fall of Porcupine also suffers from several performance issues on Switch. There’s no way to save the game manually and autosaves are few and far between. A few times the game froze on us, forcing us to restart. There are other more minor scrapes, too: conversations replayed themselves twice, the font size was inconsistent, the screen would sometimes move separately from Finley, and characters who were meant to follow Finley would often get stuck on stairs. These kinds of things can be patched later on, but between these headaches and scratches, repeating already-repetitive play and pushing through frustrating moments was a test of our patience.
The heart of Fall of Porcupine is its cute art style – a 2D paintbrush look that’s reminiscent of Night in the Woods and even A Short Hike. These artists know their way around a colour wheel, which they use to give life to the atmosphere of Porcupine and St. Ursula’s. The rainy nights feel icy, the colourful weekends happy, the hospital’s white walls clean and clinical.
If the visual style is the heart of Fall of Porcupine, then music is its brain. The soundtrack mixes folk rock, slow-paced acoustic sounds and dark dramatic strains to drive the feel of the game – that is, when you can hear it. We found wearing headphones gave us the best effect, otherwise our volume was so high our speakers hissed at us. Sound effects like crashes, shouts and thunderclaps helped ground the scenes too.
We’re also grateful to Critical Rabbit for including a trigger warning at the start of the game, and there are accessibility settings such as Dyslexia Mode and Colour Mode to help assist players. It’s always nice to see games that include these options and highlight potential triggers.
It’s hard to give Fall of Porcupine a hugely positive review after having played other indie titles that do similar things much better: tough topics (Spiritfarer), strong storytelling (Night in the Woods, Beacon Pines), gameplay (Stardew Valley). While its art and music stand out, they aren’t enough to compensate for the uneven story or gameplay. We only recommend playing this after you’ve exhausted the above cosy games – and even others we haven’t listed that you may have bought but haven’t played yet.
Fall of Porcupine has a lot of potential, but our diagnosis is that it’s fallen short. The cute art style and evocative soundtrack are its main drawcards, and while the wide-eyed animals can mask the dark themes of an unhealthy system, they can’t quite cover up the haphazard story or keep players engaged. We felt the game needed either a stronger narrative thread or more involved gameplay to improve its condition. Performance bugs can be treated with patches, but it’ll take more than a band-aid solution to cure the ailments in Fall of Porcupine.