When Downfall was released with promises of a mature storyline, intense scenes of violence, language, and sexual content, I was among the horror enthusiasts excited for this game. Sure enough, the first adventure from small independent English studio Harvester Games has loads of gore and deals with a lot of sensitive themes, including murder, suicide, eating disorders, and cannibalism, and there’s full nudity and strong language sprinkled throughout. If these issues offend you, then this is definitely not the game for you. If, however, you enjoy morbid experiences chocked full of shocking scenes, Downfall delivers plenty, at times even crossing the line into distasteful, in a title with strikingly original artistic design but somewhat underwhelming gameplay behind it.
Downfall starts off in the small town of Devonshire, where players take control of Joe Davis. While vacationing with his wife, Ivy, Joe makes a stop in front of the small hotel “Quiet Haven” during a raging storm when Ivy starts to act weird, speaking in dark verses that make no sense. Thinking they can continue on and find a doctor for Ivy in the morning, Joe books a room. Waking up in the morning to find his wife has disappeared, however, Joe is left to explore the increasingly sinister and altogether surreal hotel, unraveling its inhabitants’ dark secrets as he tries to find his wife.
Joe soon discovers four manifested “memories” of a demented woman in various stages of her life, each situated in different rooms of the hotel, each asking Joe to kill them in particular ways. The line between reality and dream blurs for both Joe and players, since these memories seem as real as the rest of the hotel. Still, he has little choice but to agree to their pleas, as the living form of this woman holds the fate of Ivy in her hands, and helping these memories is Joe’s only chance. The plot is refreshingly original, although anything but realistic, so it’s best not to take it totally seriously.
Throughout the hotel and a few locations in the nearby town, such as a waxworks museum, a small office and an isolated house, players will also meet various other people, whether real or equally imagined. This cast of 15 or so includes the lonely but secretive hotel receptionist, a German Dr. Frankenstein-wannabe, and a “queen” of the undead. Each character helps Joe in some way with his quest, whether by opening up more areas, finding more weapons, or aiding an escape from a mad axe-murderer, though some add to his tasks with new requests before they’ll cooperate. Later in the game, a second playable character and possible companion is introduced in the form of Agnes, another visitor of the hotel. Convinced that she’s dreaming and that Joe is just a figment of her imagination, she has no sense of the obvious danger around her, running around in a wedding dress with little regard for her own safety. Agnes is willing to help Joe get his wife back, but only if you make the correct choices when confronted with them.
A wonderful thing about Downfall is the ability to make choices that affect the game throughout, not just the ending. Some are only minor, offering small variations of the same outcome, but there’s an important choice in the middle of the game relating to Agnes, and then another game-altering decision near the end that offers three different finales, each with a different take on the story. The smaller choices aren’t necessarily enough to warrant an entire second playthrough, but you can save at almost any time, so you can easily re-load and check out alternate decisions along the way. At the very least, you’ll want to save near the end to check out each dramatic conclusion in turn.
The plot itself, unfortunately, goes from its fairly original premise to rather clichéd by the end, offering a rather formulaic explanation for the bizarre events of the hotel, if motivated by some quite unusual circumstances. The ideas in the story are thought-provoking and interesting, but not handled as maturely as they could be, and most of them are merely hinted at before moving the game along. Some of the darker subjects are broached almost nonchalantly, which seemed a bit distasteful to me. Details like young women cutting their arms, starving and overstuffing themselves, and hanging themselves from lights are met with casual indifference rather than as tragically and respectfully as they should.
For the most part, however, Joe is a sympathetic character, with just a few flaws that keep him from feeling believable. His devotion to rescuing his wife and his confusion over all the weird events at the hotel are emotions anyone would experience in his position. Not all of his reactions, though, ring true to how people would intuitively respond. In one scene, Joe freaks out when finding dead bodies in the dining room, while in another he’s perfectly calm and passive when he stumbles upon more corpses, some in far worse condition. And after seeing the dead bodies, most people would leave to get the police, but like so many other adventure games, our protagonist thinks he can rough it on his own. Agnes, on the other hand, is quite a believable character in an unbelievable setting. Thinking that she’s dreaming, she handles everything like it’s not a big deal, but even so, she still acts like a normal woman would. Refusing to go onto the roof in the pouring rain wearing a dress and getting grossed out and covering her eyes when walking through a room with dead bodies really adds to the depth of her character.
The supernatural backdop in Downfall helps create an atmosphere that is very surreal and creepy. Much of this is conveyed through graphics that are easily one of the high points of the game. Each scene is hand-drawn in a gritty graphic novel style by the game’s creator, Remigiusz Michalski, who did everything but the music by himself. Every room is distinctly different, with vibrant colors in one room and black and white drawings in the next. A very important color for this game, red can be found all over the hotel for the obvious purpose. While spread copiously in many rooms, its use as blood on a door, which was not there the last time you looked, really heightens the anticipation that something just happened, or is likely about to.
Many of the subjects dealt with call for very disturbing depictions, which are here in all their grotesque glory. The stylistic way the images are drawn somewhat diminish how graphic the body parts, acts of brutal killing, and naked women are presented, though it is still enough to shock. The “Mature” rating is certainly well deserved, though it comes not from working through its adult themes but rather from the constant splash of gore on screen, which the story could have cut back on substantially without losing its dramatic impact. In fact, it likely would have added to it, as the horrific images start to become just part of the scenery after a while. Slasher film fans may be pleased with the amount of blood and carnage thrown about, but less would have been better here. I myself am a horror fanatic, and like chills and dark stories, but the sheer amount of violent imagery was enough to turn me off, and it took me a while to get past these drawings enough to enjoy playing the game.
Sound in Downfall is rather sparse and includes no voice acting, as all dialogue is displayed solely as text. The lack of voices is understandable in an independent effort like this, but nevertheless the game would have benefited from at least some vocal support, as some of the emotional drama is lost with players just reading the dialogue. Some scenes feature small background noises like ticking clocks, and plenty of musical pieces accompany the action, including a very punk piece that plays during pivotal scenes. Subtitles are used for the dialogue, with characters’ lines presented in different colors so players can easily tell who is talking. There is a fair bit of conversation throughout, although not enough to turn most people off. Interactive dialogue trees are used to choose lines, and some of the responses are purely optional. Unfortunately, too many words are misspelled, which gives the game an unpolished feel. Strong language is also peppered throughout, with the “F” word used frequently.
As unconventional as Downfall is in its subject matter, it’s very traditional in its gameplay, almost to a fault. The puzzles throughout the game are mostly inventory-based, from finding and transporting a “live” brain to locating a deadly liquid chemical, requiring Joe to scour every area carefully. The puzzles are generally on the easy side, as combining items is only used for a few puzzles, and item application is otherwise quite simple, just clicking the item you want to use from the top bar on the screen with another object in the environment. Some of these can be entertaining, requiring creative ways to get around an obstacle, and one memorable puzzle ensures that it doesn’t matter which option you chose, as a disturbing scenario still results. Other puzzles, on the other hand, seem entirely uninspired and overly contrived. A window will need to be broken not with any of the perfectly usable items on hand, but one specifically designed for that use alone. Even that old standby, the poke-the-key-through-keyhole puzzle makes its presence felt here.
One of the few difficulties you may encounter is that some of the hotspots are quite small and easy to miss, which can stop progression cold at times. Once you find everything you need, however, the puzzle solutions typically make sense, and inventory items no longer needed disappear from your inventory, although that won’t stop the items from adding up, requiring a rather cumbersome system of scrolling to objects you need. There are a few “action” events where it is possible to die, but this word is used very loosely, as these scenes are easily finished, giving you plenty of time to do what’s needed, such as running away or shooting someone. If either Joe or Agnes does die, the game gives you a few more chances to try again, restoring right before the action sequence. You should still save occasionally as you go, but there’s little chance you’ll ever need to find yourself restoring from one.
Navigating through the game is done using simple point-and-click, though you can move characters with the keyboard if you desire. Left-clicking will move Joe around, pick up items, and communicate with other people. Right-clicking objects will describe the object, and either button will skip dialogue to the next sentence if players are quick readers. It can sometimes be finicky selecting inventory objects, and I did hit a few technical errors that kicked me out of the game, unfortunately. This did not set me back too much, but all the more reason to save your progress periodically.
Downfall is a pretty short game, taking me somewhere around five hours to complete, though its replayability does extend its value somewhat. And at a purchase price of $10, there’s really no complaint about the cost for time spent playing. Whether or not the experience is worth paying for, however, is far more of a question, and in a game of this kind, may depend even more on personal preference than most. Players who aren’t turned off by gruesome images may like this game for its distinctive artistic presentation and very visceral subject matter. Other players, including myself, don’t mind mature storylines but don’t look for it in how much gore can be shown on screen, so likeminded people probably want to think about passing this game up. In either case, once you look past the carnage, Downfall is a commendable indie endeavor that stands apart from the usual adventure fare, but is a little too rough around the gameplay edges to fully recommend.
Note: Since time of writing, the original version of Downfall this review is based on has been declared legal freeware. A significantly updated remake of the game will be released commercially in 2015.