Genre: Horror Adventure
Release Date: May 15, 2009
Note: This review was originally posted June 16, 2009
WARNING: This game contains scenes of violence, sexual content and strong language. It is suitable only for persons 18 years of age and older.
We adventure game fans may not see the latest releases from our beloved genre flooding the media, nor should you expect Broadway Avenue to feature ads for Gray Matter as it did for Valve’s Left 4 Dead. But we do have the benefits of having a striving indie scene that lets you follow the development of a game from its very beginning to its release. And that was the case with Downfall, which has claimed my attention since its first production thread hit the AGS (Adventure Game Studio) forums.
Those of you who are in the habit of checking these forums sure remember Downfall´s first appearance. The first screenshots gave the impression that it would be the goriest game ever made with this engine, or at least that it would give Prodigal a run for its money. Dismembered bodies, blood everywhere and adult themes tossed here and there backed up this idea. The final build of the game, the first ever installment coming from Harvester Games, does not disappoint in this area, and sensitive players should be aware of the violence, gore and mature issues touched by the game. This having been said, Downfall is not a gorefest and, sure enough, the visual material is there for the purpose of creating a depressing, bleak game world and moving the story forward. The game begins with the main character, Joe Davis, and his wife, Ivy, looking for a place stay in a dark night. They stumble upon a small hotel, a kind of bead and breakfast close to a backwater town.
It’s late, it’s rainy, Ivy's speech makes no sense and, you are told, a physician could be somewhere in the town. From the player´s point of view Ivy may be high on drugs, may be undergoing a nervous breakdown or could just be fooling around with you. Hard to know, yet from these very early screens you can connect with Joe and his devotion to Ivy. Joe speaks with Ivy, tries to get her back into reality, and they talk back and forth for awhile. There is a lot of exposition in the first 10-15 min, yet this is a high note of the game. The writer attempts to put flesh and bones into the game’s characters. You are not just another Roger Wilco sprite looking for an artifact that has been split in four parts. Your character is a desperate, deeply-in-love young adult who’s trying to keep his relationship afloat. To be honest, the game does rely on cliché storytelling devices and cannot avoid the commonplace (e.g., madness is used to provide motivation for behaviors that otherwise would have gone unexplained; some mysterious characters are introduced just for the sake of explaining and filling gaps in the story, yet there is no appropriate backdrop for these characters) but it also has this deep emotional layer that you can connect with.
As enjoyable as the opening is, it is way too short. Perhaps my main criticism is that after the opening there is an abrupt, sudden change towards the full-flesh horror gore style. One moment you are discussing your relationship, the next the complete hotel goes into “nightmare mode” (much alike the hotel in Yahtzee’s Trilby’s Notes, another AGS blockbuster) and unknown horrors roam the place. Dear, beautiful Ivy is nowhere to be found and you are put up to the task of killing four instances of a given entity to have access to the other side of a mirror, where your wife hopefully awaits. Later on the writing shines again, though, particularly when some jokes are put forward for the sake of comic relief.
The game does not disappoint in the area of puzzles. You have to roam from room to room, fetch objects for shady characters who have motives of their own and so on. True classic adventure game fare, yet it is pretty entertaining and the puzzles well-crafted and logical. Most of the puzzles require combining inventory items with hotspots or interacting with the environment. At a given point you can give orders to a second character, which adds some variety to the gameplay. I would classify the difficulty as average to easy, which is a good decision since Downfall is undoubtedly a game in which moving the story forward and feeling its emotional impact are the most important elements.
And the story does move forward a lot. There are twists everywhere and although it never becomes fully chaotic, it has to be said that there are too many loose ends and characters that walk in, do their part and walk out leaving behind way more questions than needed. A “director’s comment” feature would have been a nice addition. Some areas, notably the theatre and museum, are hardly used and some objects' descriptions suggest that big areas of the game had to be taken out or were not completed. There are a couple of times when you are given choices by having to click on one of two cartoon panels depicting icons. The device works particularly well and provides some reliability value. Depending in your choices three slightly different endings await you.
The hand-drawn graphs are just breathtaking. They ooze not only professionalism but creativity and artistic sensitivity. The artist mixes styles, colors, shadows and lights without hesitation. You move from one room to the other and the style may change abruptly, yet you still feel a sense of continuity and there’s an almost perfect match between the mood of the ongoing story and the style of the graphs. An obvious weakness of the game in this department, albeit shared by many indie 2D games, is that the character’s sprites do not blend very well with the backgrounds.
The music score is no less grandiose than the visual style and its contribution is greatly appreciated. The game runs fine on desktops, laptops and also in a netbook, under Vista, Windows 7 and XP. A rather small bug in the inventory popped up in certain occasions and apparently can happen in some systems, but the workaround (which is explained in the manual) is so easy and unobtrusive that I am just mentioning it for the sake of full disclosure.
If it hasn’t been clear from my description so far, I have to stress that the game’s adult issues and abundance of blood and implicit or explicit violence make it not suitable for anyone under 18.
To sum it up, Downfall is a great game that explores areas that not many games venture into. It has outstanding visuals, amazing musical score and delivers traditional puzzles in a fast-paced gameplay. It even features innovative gameplay elements such as the choice system and (SPOILER) a boss fight with a life bar. It has a decent baggage of mistakes, but this can be easily forgiven and by no means ruins the whole experience. I am eagerly looking forward to the Harvester Games next production, The Cat Lady. Downfall gets a solid “B” and is recommended for every adventure gamer out there.
Final Grade: B
Minimum System Requirements:
Windows XP/Vista (32-bit) Operating System
DirectX compatible Video Card
Intel Pentium 600 Mhz or higher processor
1 GB of available system memory
400 MB of available hard drive space
DirectX compatible Sound Card