I’ve talked before about how I don’t do reviews. Well, today we’re breaking that rule. I don’t have a general point to draw out of Downward, but it’s such a great game that I wanted to talk about it. Great graphics, great level design – at least in terms of the visuals – and awful, awful voice acting. It’s got a really interesting spread of qualities, and I highly recommend it to anyone. I’m going to do a general survey of the game, talk about some of the different good and bad features – like I say, there’s no general point, so it’s probably closer to a review than I’d like, but it can’t be helped. Read on if you’d like to learn about Downward.
Firstly, and most importantly, the game is stunning. Just stunning. It’s not just the graphics though – we’ve got a lot of pretty games out in the world. This game is stunning because it understands how to construct vistas, how to create views that look great from different perspectives. To be clear, the graphics are good – but the landscape design is better. Just look at this shit.
That is some aesthetically pleasing shit. The core conceit of the game is that there’s three planets that have magically turned up and changed the way that this world functions. One planet makes the tides rise, bringing up the water level and allowing you access to different parts of the map – basically you can swim across to stuff you couldn’t reach before. Another planet breaks gravity – as in the above screenshot, with all them floating palm trees and shit. The third planet – uhh, the third planet’s actually a bit shit. It makes everything hot, so you take damage if you’re out in the sun. The third planet’s a bit weird, really. With the other two, there’s clear environmental changes that actually change your ability to get around the map. The water comes up, or the rocks start floating and create a platform. But with the fire planet, everything’s just… hot. It doesn’t really offer new directions in and of itself. The three planets serve as a great metaphor for the rest of the game. It’s got some really good stuff, but then has these really weirdly lopsided bad ideas that almost ruin the whole thing.
One of the other cool things about Downward is that it’s big on vistas. It’s big on you entering into an area and getting an overview of everything that you need to know about it. So with this screenshot above: I’ve just entered, and I can see the main temple thing in the middle, and three big old rock formations jutting out around the sides. I’ll only be able to get to those areas later, with – you guessed it – the rising tide planet. You actually technically use a different planet for each one – the one on the, uh, left, I think, you get to with floating rock platforms. The third one you reach through a vent that just randomly appears and opens when you’ve got the fire planet activated, because shut up I guess. But the game has given us all the visual information we need for this area right at the start. It’s gorgeous and informative and just fucking excellent.
Against that excellent visual information, we have to balance the voice acting. My goodness, that voice acting. Partly the dialogue is a bit corny – for example, you go to an ice region (pictured above) and meet an old man who opens with “Brr, it’s cold here, isn’t it!” He continues to tell you about the area: “Smart people lived here, you know?” And then: “A great citadel, I tell you! They were very welcoming people to everyone, yes, yes. At least before they started to slaughter each other, of course, eheheh.” There’s no rhythm to this dialogue, and it all sounds a little bit like it was written by a five year old with a very limited vocabulary. Smart people lived here? Awful. Also note that these two sentences have the same number of syllables, disregarding the ‘eheheh’:
(1) They (2) were (3-4) very (5-7) welcoming (8-9) people (10) to (11-13) everyone, (14) yes (15) yes.
(1) At (2) least (3-4) before (5) they (6-7) started (8) to (9-10) slaughter (11) each (12-13) other, (14) of (15) course.
Because they’re the same length, their rhythms are going to be similar. Basically they need more variation. It’s not just about length though – also consider where the comma has been set. It comes after the thirteenth syllable in each sentence. So in terms of rhythm, you’ve got a beat of thirteen syllables and then two, and then another thirteen syllables and then two. Try saying it out loud – you’ll see what I mean. That kind of strict repetition just makes it sound awful. So the dialogue’s not great – and I’m not fond of the voice acting either. I’ve linked the video in below – the clip I’m talking about is right at the start. I’m not sure what it is, but the protagonist just sounds… wrong. He’s only got two lines in that little cutscene, but it just – ugh, it grates. He doesn’t sound like he belongs in this environment. I checked the Steam reviews briefly to see if anyone else mentions the voice acting – and yes, they do. The top review that I see is positive, but cites the voice acting as a “qualm,” and then the second (also positive) review goes out of its way to argue against the “common criticism” that the voice acting is bad.
Anyway: I’d recommend Downward any day of the week. It’s got really cool mechanics and a really great sense of the visual. The writing and voice acting are bad, but if you can press past them, it’s a great game for the visuals alone. Apologies for the review; normal service will resume next week.