Sunday, June 2, 2013

Downfall

     While Harvester Games' recent title The Cat Lady is busy out there, wowing gamers both young and old with its incredible storytelling and thickly discernible human heart, their first effort, Downfall, is still hardly getting any attention at all. Between its limited availability (Gamersgate and Desura appear to be the only sites that let you purchase it.) and its relative obscurity, Downfall piqued my interest, mostly because there weren't many reviews floating around, and I thought it'd be nice to play a game not knowing what quite to expect going in besides the game's promise to be very shocking. Let's give it a go, shall we?


     We begin our adventure in the shoes of Joe Davis, an everyman traveling with his schizophrenic wife. He's ready to get off the road, due to the ever intensifying storm, and also because his wife is beginning to have an 'episode'. He stops at the Quiet Haven Hotel for the night, and the two get a room. After an intense argument between them, Ivy suggests they sleep it off. They do.
     But when Joe wakes up the next morning, Ivy is nowhere to be found. He runs down to the kitchen to see if she's decided to grab some breakfast but finds the entire kitchen void of any life. Disturbingly, though, the bodies of many patrons are posed in the dining area. Through a mysterious woman who seems to be in charge of the hotel, Joe learns that Ivy disappeared with a woman named Sophie, who has a habit of viciously murdering and eating the people unfortunate enough to try and make friends with her. So, it's up to us to save Ivy and deliver her from this horrible beast. Just one small problem, though: how does he accomplish this?
     A ghostly little girl in Sophie's apartment suggests Joe kill all the little pieces of Sophie scattered throughout the hotel. Specifically, her memories of different stages of her troubled life. She promises Joe that if he murders these four distinct 'Sophies', Sophie will die, and he'll be able to rescue Ivy from her evil grasp. But it's not that simple. After meeting the first two Sophies, you realize something disturbing: you don't want to murder these poor girls. But the game keeps telling you to, promising that it's all in the name of saving Ivy. What do you do?


     To say that the plot packs quite a punch is a bit of an understatement. It's rare that video games make their players feel so legitimately ashamed of their actions, but Downfall doesn't shy away from making you feel like an asshole. In fact, if there's one thing that Downfall does best, it's making you feel terrible about your decisions throughout its runtime. If I had to compare it to something, I'd probably choose Spec Ops: The Line.
     The game all seems to be leading up to some sort of final revelation and it definitely doesn't disappoint us there. The end twist is a bit formulaic, but is, overall, pretty well done. The decisions you have made throughout don't affect the ending a ton, but that doesn't matter so much simply because the guilty feelings they create in you are effective regardless of how they factor into the plot. It's a fairly short game, and it only took me about four hours to finish, but I ended up playing it through twice, and so I felt pretty satisfied with the game's length.
     Is the game scary? Well... that's a difficult one to answer. It's definitely disturbing, and it has a few good jump scares, but for the most part, the closest it ever gets to being scary is during a few very creepy dreams  and some of the chase sequences, although some players will inevitably be more creeped out than others, so its entirely possible that some may find the game absolutely terrifying.


     So, the bad? Well, for starters, this is a point-and-click adventure game we're talking about here. So, in that regard, its not going to be to everyone's tastes. Me personally, I don't mind archaic gameplay as long as the story holds up, but others that require a little more visceral stimulation will likely be disappointed with the slow, plodding pace of picking up countless mundane items and combining them into reidiculous contraptions that are all replacements for keys in some way or another. The puzzles don't ever get too offensive (certainly nothing as bad as the puzzles from Scratches rear their ugly head here.) but still, I know of at least one person who stopped playing the game because they couldn't get past a particularly annoying puzzle late in the game. Plus, it must be said that the sheer volume of objects you pick up in the game leads to feeling overwhelmed a lot of times, which is especially bad towards the beginning of the game, when multiple items you pick up won't come into play until at least the last third of the game.


     The ugly? The game looks and feels very rough, in some ways like a beta more than a finished product. The game contains numerous spelling errors and some weird bugs that occur over and over again at the strangest times. The backgrounds are excellent, and look like they were drawn by Stephen Gammel (of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark infamy.) The animations, however, are just plain awful. The character's themselves are gross-looking, and have fuzzy, indistinct features that stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the often quite wonderfully ugly watercolor backgrounds. One particularly amusing animation occurs when Joe crosses a large city street, or the hotel parking lot. He moves faster than a rocket and skids around without so much as moving his feet. It got a lot of chuckles out of me, but when I first saw it, I got worried I had just wasted ten bucks on an unfinished game. Luckily, it didn't take long for me to forget about the dumb animations and enjoy the amazing things this game has to offer.


     And it does have an awful lot to offer. There are few other games out there that attempt to tackle such difficult subject matter in such an interesting way. The writing does occasionally read like something from a teenager's diary, but it handles pretty mature themes like divorce, anorexia, and mental illness in a surprisingly nuanced and loving way. It may not always be the prettiest game, and it doesn't wrap up quite as well as it could have, but overall, Downfall is a remarkably original indie horror adventure that deals with mature themes in a very mature way, and never fails to surprise us at every turn.

Verdict: A-

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