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.Continued on the next page...