Much of the horror is conveyed through conversations Joe has with the various hotel denizens. The available dialogue options as you get deeper into the game provide you with increasingly difficult choices of how Joe should express himself. Is he patient and loving? Is he cold and callous? Is he insane? The dialogue doesn’t just document Joe’s apparent mental downfall, it also expresses those stress-filled internal conflicts anyone who has ever struggled to control their own anger and frustration can instantly recognize. Michalski explores a broken relationship where each person knows exactly how to hurt the other, whether by saying the most painful things or saying nothing at all. When first entering the hotel, Joe talks and talks, almost willing Ivy to speak. She has been silent for the entire ride. “So. You’re still not talking to me?” A long and heavy silence, followed by Joe, “Can we at least try not to make a scene in front of people. I don’t want to look like an idiot again.” Silence. “That’s right. Say nothing.” There are some conversations that revel in grim black humor. Joe regularly made deadpan observations that had me chuckling despite my fear, and one of the funniest conversations occurred in a place surrounded by death, each participant adding humor as well as an underlying menace.
Some dialogue choices will affect how the game ends for you. The ending I received appears to be the default outcome, but a final summary revealed that I may have missed some items even after multiple playthroughs. I did notice that the screen slightly glowed after making a conversation choice, but there is no direct feedback on whether that choice will have any consequences. The one time the game did provide feedback related to a choice I made in responding to a character, alerting me that she would remember, but I was never sure how that affected the story. It’s tempting to focus on making what you think the game thinks is the “right” choice, but for me it was better simply to choose the options that made the most sense given what I knew so far of Joe’s character. This led me to more realistic and relatable moments. When Ivy asks Joe what exactly about her he cared about, I chose the options that felt right to me. This allowed me to be genuinely surprised at Ivy’s reaction and to feel a sense of completeness when these choices echoed back to me later in the game.
You’ll learn about Ivy, Joe, and Agnes, a woman Joe meets at the hotel who ends up helping him in his search, through fully voiced dialogue – a major change from the 2009 version, which had no voice acting at all. There is quite a lot of speech to listen to, but you can use your space bar to click through the dialogues faster. For the most part, the voice acting is subtle and realistic. The few weak spots are the actors playing young Joe and his brother Robbie. Slow speech and odd inflections made for strangely spooky voice readings, which I’m not convinced was intentional. At times you get to play as Agnes, and her bright and carefree tones are a welcome relief from all the angst and brooding, making her a wonderful foil for Joe. Joe himself manages to convey love, barely restrained anger, frustration, and grief quite well. Ivy, the brief times you hear from her, has a voice saturated with sadness and weariness.
The surreal Quiet Haven Hotel is semi-inhabited, and you will meet four incarnations of a woman named Sophie; a smarmy boyfriend named Harrison, whose voice oozes sleaze; and a crazy German doctor named Doctor Z doing even crazier experiments. A woman described as the Queen of Maggots also appears in dream sequences for Agnes and Joe, and her vocal performance (along with a healthy dose of sound distortion) did a superb job of filling me with dread. And to my surprise, a major character from The Cat Lady makes a welcome appearance. It’s not merely a cameo, either, but a fairly substantial role that added a really interesting dynamic to how I actually wanted the game to end.
Another integral character is Sophie, a woman in the room next to Joe and Ivy’s who the manager warns you absolutely not to disturb. Of course, you do go on to disturb her with your arguing. Sophie was an enigma for me. You don’t learn very much about her backstory and her issues mimic those that Ivy is experiencing. She doesn’t appear to be a normal hotel resident, and that feeling notches the dial up to 11 when she explains that the only way you can find the missing Ivy is to kill four memories of herself. Naturally, at this point I began to question Joe’s sanity. Was this real? Had he and Ivy just happened to find a hotel filled with monsters? Who exactly is Joe being asked to kill? Are these memories real people?
To find Ivy, you must decide how to comply with Sophie’s request. Locating these memories and determining how to kill them involves a variety of inventory puzzles, though not your run-of-the-mill adventure game solutions: you’ll have to figure out uses for disarticulated mannequin arms, cat skulls, and severed human heads. Thankfully, there is no pixel hunting as hotspots immediately light up as you walk back and forth through hallways and rooms, though areas that might not have been interactive at first may become so after you’ve met someone new or learned a key piece of information. Very occasionally you will combine items outside of your inventory in a specially designated crafting area. You also need to interact directly with the environment, whether by turning on pieces of equipment or determining which entrance out of multiple options to enter. There is one maze where you navigate Agnes through a series of similar-looking hallways. I figured it out by trial and error, but the side-scrolling nature of the game made navigating directions a bit challenging, though not show-stopping. Regardless of type, the game’s puzzles are all fairly straightforward and easy. Nothing blocked my progression, which I didn’t mind at all as exploring the floors of the hotel and its immediate outdoor surroundings, like a large house in the countryside, is a slow process with no access to any quick travel mechanics.
Joe notes during one of his reveries that in his dreams he visits a quiet haven. Once again this raises the question of whether this entire visit is all in his mind. Many of the quirky changes in perception point to the unreality of what you’re experiencing. At one moment, Joe notices a lone TV sulking quietly in a room. He turns it on and as you watch the screen, suddenly you’re moving Joe in the TV! In another scene, Joe is walking through a hallway with Agnes. He moves forward and Agnes slows down and moves out of frame. He sees Ivy and something horrific happens. But when he backs away and both he and Agnes re-enter the scene, the vision is gone. Was he imagining things?
Whether Joe’s experiences at Quiet Haven are real or imagined is not a question to ponder lightly. I found myself continually returning to these doubts about the game’s reality, because you’re asked to accomplish a series of increasingly morally dubious tasks. "It’s just a game," you might say to justify your deeds, or speculate that none if this is real. But how do you know, and how far will you go in Joe’s quest to find Ivy? And if you see these requests as real, what have you accomplished when you’ve finished the tasks? What have you become?
At a certain point, your only choices are between awful and terrible. It’s such a bleak turn of events that I became weary of going forward. A character attempts to facetiously explain that the hotel was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. She laughs when she thinks Joe believes it, mocking his attempt to understand the insanity around him. But by then I felt a bit mocked myself. It feels as if some of the character backgrounds and motivations have been streamlined too much, moving in the direction of a horror tone poem instead of a stab at realism. This isn’t helped by the fact that large portions of Joe and Ivy’s relationship are merely implied, having lurched past the better times and straight to when their relationship was already on the downslope. A bit more time spent fleshing out the couple's relationship, adding more quiet moments (there are some, just not enough) when they were happy would have gone a long way toward making the pain of trying to regain what was lost more meaningful.
These few narrative complaints aside, Downfall is a highly compelling game overall, offering a variety of different ways of experiencing its story with nicely integrated challenges and presented with Michalski’s now-familiar distinctive style. I felt more horror than I ever have before playing a game, but despite my terror and the over-indulgent gore, I couldn’t stop playing. Having not played the original version of the game I cannot offer a proper comparison between versions, but for horror aficionados who aren’t afraid of investigating the complexity and depths of the human mind and experience, I can say unequivocally that the Downfall remake is a game well worth checking out.
Note: The original Downfall and 2016 remake were reviewed by different people, and should be considered standalone critiques. Scoring differences are not solely reflective of the upgrades between versions.