Is American Fugitive, the new crime adventure from Fallen Tree Games, worth pursuing?
Right now, I feel like a fugitive. In hiding from our friends at publisher Curve Digital for having sat on this review for so long. Fallen Tree’s tale of small-town crime hit PC and consoles at the end of May, with our Nintendo Switch review code arriving shortly after. The plan was to review the game as quickly as possible, but for a couple of reasons, it’s been slow coming.
One was our E3 commitments. The other was that American Fugitive had some well-documented console performance issues at launch and we wanted to see the effect of its week-one patch. On that subject, we’re pleased to say that the game’s frame rate is much improved. There are still some other problems we’d like to see fixed, but Fallen Tree has been active on social media and promises further enhancements soon.
All of this preamble is to say that American Fugitive is a rough diamond of a game. It’s scrappy, and often infuriating, but it’s a gem, and when it shines, it really shines.
The game is best described as Grand Theft Auto filtered through the lens of films like Hell or High Water or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Players assume the role of Will Riley, a prison escapee wrongly convicted for murdering his father. His journey to uncover the real perpetrator provides the main thrust of the narrative, but it wouldn’t be an open world crime game without a plethora of side-quests and hijinks to enjoy along the way.
Fetch quests, convenience store hold-ups, and stunt jumps all serve to keep Riley occupied while the story – which plays out through a series of nicely drawn comic book-like images – leisurely ambles to its conclusion.
The key to American Fugitive’s success is not the story, however, but the delightfully realised world of Redrock County. Its three regions are distinct, and the map – which is large but not excessively so – is easily committed to memory. And with the action confined a dusty corner of the deep south, the crimes you commit – to begin with at least – are authentically petty. You’re limited to breaking and entering, theft, and carjacking. Although it’s a stretch to say it aims for realism, American Fugitive is refreshingly domestic.
The world is also brought to life through some sublime character animation and physics simulations. The sight of Riley hoisting himself over a fence, stumbling through scrubland, or knocking over a bucket while being pursued, is continually a treat.
American Fugitive’s lighting model – there’s a day/night cycle, naturally – is also striking. It gives the game, in which you never see the sky, a remarkably clear sense of time. And although the frame rate remains in need of further improvement, it looks sharp and runs at a decent enough clip. The visual aesthetics are also enhanced by an evocative, earthy soundtrack of slide guitar and country blues.
The open world is a treat, then, but just as enchanting is the game’s slightly more abstract burglary mechanics. Every building can be cased by peering through its windows, and any room entered if you have the necessary means. A wealth of tools and weapons are on hand to assist, ranging from rocks and crowbars to pistols and baseball bats.
Once inside a building, the view switches to a floor plan blueprint and a timer counts down the seconds until the cops arrive. Looting a building room-by-room eats up precious time, but the prospect of finding a useful new item before the police pull up is irresistible. And if you haven’t fully cased a building in advance, there’s always a possibility that you’ll surprise an unsuspecting inhabitant. Such occasions rarely end well.
With more time, money, or resources at their disposal, Fallen Tree might have implemented something more traditional. My instinct is that the studio made a deliberate design decision, and the game is all the better for its taut simplicity.
With a resonant sense of place, solid controls, tight combat, and an engaging story, American Fugitive is all set to become a minor classic of its genre. But then the cops do show up. And then they show up again. And again. And again.
Although it’s entirely reasonable to expect that breaking into a store or shooting a gun in public will raise an alarm, American Fugitive’s police are all too keen to make their presence felt for the slightest misdemeanour. Rear-end another car, and here come the sirens. Drive through a picket fence by mistake, get ready to make your escape. Sometimes, just getting from A to B to start a new mission can result in a full-on pursuit involving cop cars, SWAT vans, and choppers. Again, it must be a conscious design choice – American Fugitive is a game that revels in how small actions can have big consequences – but it’s also frustrating. Hopefully, Fallen Tree will adjust the balance in a future update.
The rest of the game is such a pleasure to play that it’s still easy to recommend, but, just like a life of crime, it’s worth knowing what you’re getting in to.
Game: American Fugitive
Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Fallen Tree Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: May 23, 2019