Indie Game of the Week 161: Downfall

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I realize there's been something of a lugubrious global mood of late, and I've gone on record before in saying that since games tend to be effective emotional metronomes I generally stay away from any that cause more depression than I can handle, but despite all this I've nonetheless found myself booting up another game from the delightfully twisted minds at Harvester Games, they behind the (mostly) monochromatic supernatural horror point and click adventure game The Cat Lady. The Polish developer has been tweaking their particular formula for emotionally deep and bleakly stark horror fiction for a while now, starting with The Cat Lady in 2012 and most recently with last year's Lorelei (which I've wishlisted for some future IGotW). I say The Cat Lady was their first, but from what I've been able to ascertain with a little research their actual first game was a prototypical version of this game, Downfall, which had a character or two that later made their way into The Cat Lady as some disquieted specters. This 2016 release is a more confident remake of that freshman effort, utilizing the experience the studio garnered from their commercial debut.

Downfall concerns a married couple - Joe and Ivy Davis - whose marriage is on the rocks. Joe impulsively books them a weekend retreat at the Quiet Haven hotel to see if he can salvage what they once had, but wouldn't you know it? The hotel's haunted by some malicious spooks who kidnap Ivy almost as soon as the pair arrive. The denizens of the hotel range from explicitly hostile monsters to deranged visitors who are possibly allied in your goal to escape the accursed place, requiring that Joe be careful about what he says around whom. Beyond that, the game has a familiar adventure game structure where Joe finds new floors and rooms to roam for items and hotspots, using the former on the latter to solve puzzles and progress the story. Though there's no real "action" in the gameplay sense, at least none I've found so far, the game still has a few staples of survival horror: sometimes you'll activate something and produce an unexpected result, sometimes you'll suddenly get trapped in a flashback or nightmare hallucination, and sometimes you have to run and hide from entities beyond your ken, but it's all mostly dramatic flourishes to serve the narrative than anything too gameplay-intensive.

Look, it was a long car ride over here, all right?
Look, it was a long car ride over here, all right?

The game certainly likes its macabre flights of fancy, and the developers went all out courting lesser-known talent for artistic contributions to the game, from the voice acting to the eerie artwork on the Quiet Haven's walls to the many musicians included in the game's eclectic soundtrack. The first of those is easily the worst: any game created in a non-English speaking country is going to suffer trying to find the right intonations and pronunciations of specific words and phrases, but I might attach a silver lining to it by suggesting this linguistic discordance is germane to the game's already disturbed and otherworldly energy (not quite the reverse-talking little person of Twin Peaks, but not far off either). It also doesn't apply to the script itself, which I've found to be fairly decent: creepy and unnerving and coarse and vulgar when it means to be, but sharp enough to understand its characters and the various ills they're suffering. Speaking of which, this game - like The Cat Lady - has some pretty serious themes that it juggles with some degree of tact and aplomb, once again building its supernatural world around the idea of figurative inner demons becoming literal outer ones; a scene early on suggests Ivy has some manner of mental unwellness and has suffered from bulimia in the past, and at least one antagonist of the game appears to be a bloated, infernal, mirror universe representation of that psychosis.

The game also has some odd glitches, possibly relating to the quirks of the Adventure Game Studio engine used to create the game. For one, the game is purely keyboard driven: arrow or WASD keys for movement (except down, which is used to access the inventory) and return to confirm. The mouse is disabled throughout the game including, annoyingly, the in-game shift-tab community overlay. The aspect ratio also appears to be fixed to a boxy 4:3, causing some odd visual glitches at the two margins whenever Steam's UI pops up with a notification. It's nothing that affects gameplay, but does make the game feel a little less tidy and professional, as well as interfering with its immersive potential. I'm glad to say that the game hasn't been overly obtuse as of yet with most puzzles and accessible areas limited to a handful of possible combinations, and even then the solutions I've encountered haven't ever been beyond the realm of logical deduction. Adventure games tend to benefit more when they sacrifice puzzle difficulty for the sake of a more immersive storytelling process, and for now Downfall's been adept at finding that balance (unfortunately, due to other commitments this week relating to a certain pandemic, I've not been able to play a huge amount; I'd estimate I'm about halfway through the game so far). If you enjoyed The Cat Lady, Downfall's been an adequate follow-up from what I've seen; maybe a little less narratively bold and intriguing, as it's hewing close to The Shining (literally, given there's axes involved) than The Crow-esque cycle of resurrection and revenge of The Cat Lady, but every bit as intense and perturbing. Looking forward to seeing how it plays out later tonight - it's Friday the 13th, after all, so there's no better time to scare oneself silly.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (Post-completion update: Nothing much to add, except this might be the ultimate Wife Guy: The Game.)

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