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I must admit before I even begin to pass judgement on this game that the indie adventure scene has never truly grabbed me. Many years ago, when money was tight and the school nights long and uneventful (how I long for those times now!), I would occasionally grab a free Adventure Game Studio project and give it a whirl. Sadly, for whatever reason, I could hardly ever enjoy these games. They never offered the graphics and sounds of the commercial offerings, and certainly not the overall polish. However nowadays, I am glad to say, things are different. Either I have changed, or the times have changed. Regardless, it is for the better.

As an aspiring journalist and reviewer, I have recently found it quite interesting to be assigned to review games I may not normally play otherwise. It is refreshing in the same way that bad films can be refreshing. A bad film is usually only going to rob me of 2 hours of my life, and will highlight what makes a good film, well, good! On the other hand, some bad games seem to last forever, and are a much bigger commitment, time-wise and financially. Still, even the games I haven’t enjoyed as a reviewer have always let me learn something new, especially about what is important to me in the adventure genre. Gradually, I have learnt that one thing above all matters most to me: story is paramount.

Main Menu

The Adventure Game Studio engine that Downfall is created on offers a fantastic opportunity for Indie game developers to hone their game making skills, and produce adventures of all shapes and sizes. Many of these games are offered for free, and this is perhaps apt and fair. After all, games built with this engine will usually share the same level of graphical detail as the original Lucusarts SCUMM-engine games, such as The Secret Of Monkey Island, which is itself nearly 20 years old. Many do not feature voice-work, and the music can be minimalistic at best.

So, all of this typing without a mention of the game at hand? Please bare with me, as this has a reason for which I am now about to explain. Downfall, built on the Adventure Game Studio engine, is rendered at 640×480 resolution, in 32 bit colour. There is no voice-work at all. The game was created by one man alone, Remigiusz Michalski, and all of the music was made by his brother. It is not free, costing £6.95 from Direct2Drive in the UK. The site also issues a warning: “PLEASE NOTE: Game contains scenes of violence and gore, sexual content and strong language and it is suitable only for persons of 18 years and over.” Immediately you get a sense that this game is not mainstream in the slightest: it will be a very tailored, unique experience that will not be for everyone. I worried that it would not be for me.

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To justify the price-tag, however small it may be, over its freeware brethren was always going to be this games biggest challenge. Another challenge it faced as soon as I loaded it was the preconceptions of a reviewer who loves the horror of Stephen King, but cannot stomach the gratuitous violence of the Hostel films, or the later Saw sequels. I recently much enjoyed Johnathan Boakes’ supernatural thriller The Lost Crown: A Ghost Hunting Adventure, yet the trailers for this game, showcasing gore that still has the power to disturb regardless of the primitive graphics, did little to endear me towards playing the full game. Thankfully, my preconceptions were misinformed and to my delight, completely incorrect.

Downfall does feature some moments of gore and scenes of an adult nature, but it is by no means gratuitous. It may feel like that at several points along the way, but this is actually the ingenuity of the narrative, which is expertly woven from the outset. It begins with a storm coming, as told to us by protagonist Joe Davis in a beautiful hand-drawn closeup that quickly pans out to a blood spattered title screen. This then makes way to the storm itself. The graphics may be retro in design, but there is undoubtedly modern artistry at work here, with thunder and lightening illuminating the screen, and rain perfectly cascading over the Quiet Haven Hotel. Joe has pulled over to the hotel due to the storm, and also due to his ill wife Ivy, who is talking in riddles, vulgarly cursing and belittling him, convinced it is raining blood.

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This lends a creepy air to the game straight away, although nothing that could not be explained in some shape or form later on. Joe gets a room in the surprisingly quiet hotel for the night, argues with his wife some more, then sleeps. It is when he awakens that the madness begins. The dining room is full of dead people. The receptionist informs Joe his wife has been taken by a woman named Sophie. The walls are smeared with blood. Downfall pulls no punches in quickly transcending from being simply creepy, into a full blown descent into hell. It is discomforting to say the least, yet there is no denying its effectiveness.

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Joe soon finds himself doing unspeakable things within the shelter of the hotel to try and reconcile with his wife Ivy. The character of Sophie is strongly present throughout the whole game, shown in different forms throughout the various rooms of the hotel. As a  crying, fearful child in room 102, wanting to die painlessly. As a crying, beautiful woman at a party of faceless guests on the third floor.  Again, just across the corridor from the party, shown several times dead, shot with a discarded shotgun , in the bath, on the toilet. And finally, still barely breathing near a gas oven, begging for pain, fat and disfigured. All instances of Sophie have one connection: Joe must kill them if he ever wants to see Ivy again.

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So Joe’s adventure, and therefore the players, amounts to murder. The violence with which this takes place pulls no punches, yet the game has a sly sense of humour, and Joe himself has an everyman likability, that urges the story to be further unraveled. Joe himself acknowledges that he is only killing memories: the gore means little in this context and you start to enjoy finding ways to achieve the task at hand.You become totally desensitized. I certainly did.

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The hotel is full of unique personalities and bizarre characters. The receptionist’s body is found hanging in her room, yet she still wanders the corridors, desperate for Joe to give her that one last kiss. Doctor Z is a B-movie fan’s dream, a neo-nazi scientist performing experiments on a dead body, reluctant to leave his room due to the voices and screams he hears through the walls. The later introduction of a lady named Agnes also offers some interesting possibilities. Perhaps Joe is simply still asleep in his room? Agnes is adamant that SHE is dreaming, making Joe only a part of this dream. All of this furthers the mystery, adding much needed intrigue and certainly food for thought. I must admit though that I often doubted everything would be explained in any coherent manner: the weirdness would just have to be accepted, even when Joe is running wildly from an axe-wielding maniac whose body is actually in the basement, definately dead.

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The suspicion that everything is somehow an illusion or a trick makes the game easier to stomach and actually enjoy. The puzzles are fantastic, often logical and rarely unfair. One criticism is that the game sometimes will have a set path in mind. You can think too far ahead and waste time on a puzzle you can not yet solve. This is only a small criticism however. The game offers several choices as well, unusual for the genre. It can actually make the difference between a character living or dying, and one choice in particular is very clever because you think you are choosing something that then immediately turns into something else. Mistakes can be made, and the player (you!) will have to live with their decisions. There is some weight to this which actually feels delightful.

So, a mixed bag so far without a doubt. Now would be a good time to make a mental checklist. Positives include the stunning hand-drawn visuals. They are fantastic, regardless of resolution. Joe often also sees the world in black and white, with only splashes of primary colour such as red to break the palette. This is very effective and lends plenty to the atmosphere. Another positive is the music, which is nicely understated, and actually excels during the final scenes and closing credits. The characters are suitably developed and interesting enough to interact with, the script often weird but definitely well written. Sadly, some bugs do creep into the game, and it is therefore recommended to save regularly. One bug was unfixable and forced me to replay from an earlier save.

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So overall, a solid, average-good rated kind of game, if not a very strange and quirky one that is difficult to figure out… that was before I finished. I have decided to throw caution to the wind here folks and, in a slightly unprofessional manner, throw in a personal anecdote. I was driving my girlfriend somewhere during my play-through of the game, and asked her for her thoughts (she often will play a game I am reviewing so I can get an alternative viewpoint). She admitted that, although she initially hated the idea of a horror adventure, the game was quite solid and had good puzzles. She agreed with my pending average-good rating, but also agreed that the story was slightly too out there and nonsensical and that the violence was suspect, lacking any emotional connection to make it feel real.

We later sat down and finished the game together (she had chosen different options at several points but overall the narrative stays on the same course.) Joe completes his final task, desperate to finally reconcile with his wife, and then… I can’t tell you what happens, or how anything continues. What I CAN say is that the game suddenly, and without warning, completely blew me away. In a matter of seconds. What follows is undoubtedly the greatest game ending, and explanation for a twisted narrative, that I have seen in years. The writing is phenomenal, and many of the criticisms present in the body of this review were instantly rendered obsolete. I actually felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. My girlfriend is less dramatic than I am, but certainly agreed that it was a fantastic ending, and changed her overall opinion of the game to hold it in a much higher regard. Downfall is named so aptly, it bites. Oh, and as previously mentioned, the music in the final, secret (don’t expect me to tell, you must play yourself!) sections, is amazing. It matches the mood and the atmosphere perfectly, and got my heart thumping even faster as my mind raced, finally clicking prior events into place.

So we must now conclude. Does Downfall have faults? Undoubtedly. Some bugs need to be ironed out, the lack of voice-work is a real shame, and the game could easily be misunderstood for the majority of its play-time. Some combat sequences stumble, as do other attempts at action-style moments. But for those who stay the course, this is masterful storytelling at its absolute finest. And for all my typing, I have only hit the tip of the iceberg with regards to what will happen. Whole subplots have gone without mention here to ensure your unsullied enjoyment. Stephen King would be proud. In fact, I am proud. Indie gaming, I salute you, and shall never underestimate you again.

Marty’s Score: 5 of 5 starks

Note: You can read Martin’s in-depth interview with the game’s creator Remigiusz Michalski right here.

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