Adventure Gamers Awards
Are you ready to dive into the meat grinder? In Downfall – or more specifically, the significantly remade version of Rem Michalski’s 2009 horror adventure, reimagined in the style of The Cat Lady – you’ll explore the depths of human emotion and raw relationships as you claw your way through unimaginable terrors hiding in a seemingly quiet countryside hotel. Though the gore will surely turn some people off and the tension can be unrelenting at times, making you wish for a few more moments of quiet character development, the well-integrated puzzles, innovative points of view, and strong storytelling will have you steeling yourself to open just one more door or turn just one more corner no matter the darkest ghouls and monsters that might be waiting for you.
Joe Davis grew up in a dilapidated neighborhood. Outside a squalid building, a sign hangs from a metal fence warning you against playing in this seedy area. Joe is excited to show off to a friend such macabre areas as the place where all the neighborhood cats go to die. As you begin to explore these sidescrolling environments, you’ll control Joe using the right and left arrow keys, with hotspots appearing as text prompts when you approach them. The up and down arrows allow you to interact with objects and collect applicable items as inventory, respectively. The down arrow also opens a small inventory bar at the bottom of the screen, within which you can scroll between objects and select one for examination or further use. Though simple, I encountered some frustration with this method, like when I inadvertently opened my inventory when I wanted to interact with something or vice versa. Even more cumbersome is using an elevator, where going down involves first pressing the up arrow to interact with the elevator panel and then pressing down to select the floor that you wanted, even if that floor was above you.
Fortunately, the easy movement controls and lack of cursor let you really immerse yourself in Joe’s world. While Robbie, Joe’s younger brother, goes out to explore what he thinks will be the find of the summer, Joe meets a beautiful young girl named Ivy. They connect in a playful push/pull way. Joe plies her with compliments, and Ivy responds without missing a beat. In their initial meeting, you learn that both are transplants, strangers in a foreign land. While Ivy is from Sweden, Joe is an American living in England. There are tentative forays by both to get to know one another better, and little motes of information float by in their dialogue hinting at deeper issues lurking below, such as the fact that Ivy is discovered sitting outside a café as her mother eats alone inside. There isn’t much time for them to become better acquainted, however, before a horrifying explosion rips Joe’s world apart.
A meeting such as this one, baptized in blood, is bound to leave wounds that scab over but never entirely heal, as Joe notes about his meeting with Ivy again when he is in his 20s. He is still mesmerized by Ivy’s beauty, her emerald eyes, and by the tragedy they've shared – so much so that they soon marry. When we encounter them again later, though, their marriage is creaking under stresses and strains. They are hoping to escape, both from the storms of their relationship and a real-life thunderstorm, as they enter the weary looking Quiet Haven Hotel. From the minute they meet the sultry hotel manager, Joe and Ivy know that something is not quite right. Ivy can hear terrible things and sees blood under the manager’s fingernails. Joe doesn’t quite know what to make of Ivy’s observations, but things are not off to a good start for the vacation that was supposed to save their marriage.
As they settle into their room, a sad affair with two double beds sitting as far apart from each other as two strangers on a midnight bus heading to the end of the line, the bickering begins. In the morning, Joe awakes to find that Ivy is missing. For the remainder of your time with Joe in Quiet Haven, you’ll help him investigate the sticky nooks and crannies of the hotel and interrogate the few oddball residents who may have information about Ivy’s disappearance.
The Downfall remake offers quite a cinematic presentation. Upon your initial entrance into Quiet Haven, you’re shown off-kilter, quick-cut shots of the lobby, the camera view switching from a black cat clock on the wall to an enormous stuffed elephant’s head to unsettling paintings gracing the hallway. And while there isn’t a ton of ambient movement in each scene, the animations that exist are used quite effectively: a wall of monitors flickers and skips and stutters, adding a frenetic tension to the atmosphere; a character walks down a hallway lined with mirrors and something unexpected appears as her reflection; a frozen pig carcass swings slightly in the frigid air of a room-sized freezer; a shot that cuts to real video of swarming maggots and bees provides a glimpse at madness squirming beneath the surface. I often found the different ways Michalski layered 2D drawings, 3D images, and actual video to be brilliant. One memorable scene has barely-there flickering X-rays overlaying an unnatural surgery room, very effectively upping the creep factor.
The game has an original score and soundtrack, heavy on the wailing, poignant guitars and raw screams interspersed with quieter piano moments. The music can be needlessly heavy-handed at times, especially during softer conversations, but sometimes it blares out intentionally, blocking out dialogue and signaling something so horrifying it defies description. The terrific use of sound effects adds yet another layer of horror. I’ve never given any thought to exactly how a brain might sound squishing back into a brain cavity, but I think now I do. And the plip, plip of blood dripping from an arm flung limply over a chair in the background underlines the tense conversation involving Joe about a relative’s death.
All of this blends together to deliver some of the most terror-fraught feelings I’ve had playing through a game. There were times when lights would shut down, or whispers, scratches, and bangs would crawl through my headphones into my mind, and then… oh god, no, something bloody rising from the darkness, arghh! It would have been easy to fill the game with simple jump scares, and there are plenty of those: doors suddenly swinging open with loud crashes, for example. But there are also suspense-laden scenes that happen with slow inevitability. In a dark room, you notice something out of the corner of your eye. It’s the tip of something metallic and sharp. It’s covered in red. Cautiously, you back Joe away. Slowly the head of an axe makes its way into the frame, edging closer to Joe. Scenes like this are unrelenting, ratcheting up the tension. As you get further into the game, some of the imagery is so horrifying, I hesitate to even describe them. I’m a fan of horror stories in general, but the abundance of gore in this game (open wounds, dismembered body parts, and gallons and gallons of gushing, leaking, and spurting blood) pushed me to my limits.
I’m actually amazed at how much horror Michalski managed with such a limited color palette and simple line drawings for characters. The scenes are black and white for the most part (with memories wan and palely awash in weak colors). Splashes and stains of vivid color appear here and there: a red bow dangles from the black lace of a woman’s skirt, a bloody red jewel sits on a temptress’s belt, a cat’s velvet red tongue peeks out from its mouth. And of course the gore explodes onto various scenes in bloody excess. The palette isn’t all blood, black and white, though. There are brief – too brief – moments when the cool blue sky peeks through clouds or the warm lavender and rose of a sun setting breaks across the horizon. Pale red flowers are a sign of hope, however weak.
But even without an excess of color, Downfall cleverly uses varying light levels to alter the mood. As you walk past a bank of windows, crackling flashes of lightning brighten the entire room around you. Have Joe walk down the stairs to a hidden room, and the view switches to first-person, the walls becoming a bright, clinically blinding white that dazes you before heading into the next location.Continued on the next page...