Psychological horror games are quickly becoming all the rage as of late. As opposed to the slasher and torture porn genres which leave you more temporarily disgusted and desensitized more than anything, stories that build up atmosphere and tension and proceed to play with your mind are the ones that stay with you a lot longer. I don’t care how many times some maniac cuts some dumb student with a meat cleaver it always looks the same, and the same amount of blood usually spouts forth. Meanwhile, torture porn is a sort of depraved aberration that holds no value (except maybe to sociopaths and psychopaths) which thankfully seems to be going away now.
I’m glad that games like SOMA—which delves into fascinating subject matter dealing with such things as what it means to be human, as well as others like Layers of Fear, which is so terrifying that I have yet to work up enough courage to complete—are getting their due.
So along comes Harvester Game’s latest entre in the psychological horror genre with their recent release, Downfall. Chances are that you haven’t even heard of Downfall since it was a real indie-indie project—in other words: Very underneath the radar. I must to say right off the bat that Downfall is one bizarre game. It combines gameplay, graphical, and story elements that are sort of a mishmash of disparate gaming conventions and standards. In some ways they work but in others they miss the mark entirely.
The story revolves (sort of, anyway) around the main character, Joe, who meets and falls in love with a beautiful girl name Ivy when they were both young and virile (read: Horny). Then some catastrophic events take place and Joe’s world is torn asunder. Later (while still young), Joe meets up with the irresistible Ivy again and the two lovebirds elope. Advance quite a bit further in time and not surprisingly, like most marriages, their relationship turns out to be not what it seemed to be during the brief “honeymoon” phase, and Joe and Ivy are constantly at each other’s throats.
In order to try to save what is left of their tattered relationship, Joe and Ivy decide to get away for a while. They choose a quaint, venerable hotel that has seen better days for the occasion. Just as they approach the hotel, and coincidentally (read: Trope-ishly) enough, a thunderstorm closes in on the troubled pair. From the minute they enter the hotel’s forlorn environs, they can both sense that things are a little off-kilter. But in light of the developing storm they have no choice but to take up lodgings in the withered hotel’s dilapidated accommodations.
Right away, Ivy notices some blood caked underneath the hotel manager’s fingernails as well as many other indicators that spell doom and gloom. Joe more or less brushes off Ivy’s foreboding observations. Other bizarre “clues” that wallop the player over the head (again and again) that things aren’t right, happen from there, and soon Joe is swallowed whole into a nightmarish dream-like realm where he doesn’t know exactly what is real and what isn’t.
I must say something at this point that as a highly literate person who has read many British and early American weird fiction novels, which this game clearly draws much of its inspiration from, the whole set up is rather lacking. Indeed, although Joe is an American, and Ivy a Swede, the game is set in the English countryside, but it didn’t remind me much of great horror novels or films that have used that setting before. I’m not sure what part of the U.K. the developers at Harvester Games are from, but what mainly differentiates most forms of British horror from American horror is that the former tends to build up suspense in a subtle way, while the latter bludgeons readers/viewers with obvious indicators that you must be terrorized at that point. I’ll liken this to movie posters and book covers. Ones that are more mysterious are much more frightening than ones where you see the monster or ghost or whatever emblazoned across it.
Downfall tries hard to build up atmosphere and tension but for the most part it feels too forced and the clues are much too obvious and out in the open. If you really want to scare someone psychologically, tease their minds with something horrible beyond their imagination, something lurking on the boundaries of their senses, not out in plain sight for the world to see. The game is also confusing from a narrative standpoint.
At different points it is dreary and depressing, at others disgusting and repugnant, and still at other times it is strangely humorous. There are some parts that are genuinely terrifying in a more cerebral way, but that is more or less ruined by displays of gratuitous violence, gore, and buckets of blood. While playing Downfall, I just kept saying to myself: “Pick a mood or genre and stick to it!”
Downfall’s graphics are interesting. As a point and click game (although it is played on a 2D plane much like a side-scroller), Downfall features some beautifully pre-rendered black and white backdrops (with a limited color palette) and settings which really capture the essence of early British and American weird fiction and horror illustrations and films. They really looked good on my high end gaming PC at higher resolutions. Unfortunately, they look a little too great when compared to the actual in-game characters and their animations, which look rather cartoonish and bland by way of comparison.
This incongruity is indicative of Downfall’s unsure footing and is a common thread throughout the game’s unnecessarily overwrought storyline along with its clunky gameplay mechanics. For instance, when trying to simply use an elevator, I had to first enter it, then activate a sub-menu by pushing a key, then activate the elevator by pushing the down button, even though I wanted to go up. Other control missteps included trying to pick things up and having that activate something else altogether. In a game that emphasizes a minimal control configuration I feel that this clunkiness may turn quite a few gamers off.
Overall, I found Downfall to be a somewhat engrossing game, if you can suspend your disbelief in spite of the heavy-handed clues and prodding hints scattered throughout its length. It did manage some surreal and horrific moments beyond simple jump scares that so many “horror” games rely on these days, so it should be commended for that. It also has a very unique (if somewhat convoluted) storyline that some gamers may find interesting. In that regard, I think Harvester Games has succeeded in creating a very niche-y horror game that will appeal to certain gaming folks.
Downfall has some really 90s-style retro graphics that you’ll need a decent gaming PC or gaming laptop to enjoy, at least at higher resolutions:
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