Aiming to bring Silent Hill back into the pantheon of Survival Horror greats Silent Hill Downpour is an ambitious title that attempts to remedy the problems of the last few iterations of the seminal horror series. Does it succeed or is it just another charge for the inmate already on death row?
Announced at E3 2010 with the promise of being a return to form for Silent Hill, the developers were going to respect its survival horror legacy while breathing new life to the stagnating genre. Very high expectations indeed.
Well good news because the game isn’t bad.
Personally the only bad Silent Hill game I ever played was Origins for the PSP and that was because I felt the controls to be unwieldy and terrible. Silent Hill 4 was a great game (as resident horror junky Stephen Turner will attest to), Silent Hill: Homecoming had neat ideas but never moved past mediocre, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was pretty damn amazing.
So where does that leave Silent Hill: Downpour? Well let’s start with the basics. The game plays fine despite the vocal criticism from other critics. I personally had very little problem with the combat aside from the fact that it was repetitive throughout. Perhaps they were trying to emulate the fighting mechanics from the earlier PS2 games in which case they certainly succeeded. Yes in fact the game plays identical to Silent Hill 2/3 and both of those games never had the most elegant of combat systems. They did however have a sense of visceral contact, a certain brutality that comes from beating something squishy to a bloody pulp with an iron bar. Downpour brings back that unnerving feeling lost with firearms and laser pistols. Often times the panic of multiple enemies would set in and I would attack anything near me and then continue long after the enemies went down. It was brutal and I felt pretty bad about myself afterwards even if they were nasty buggers that were moments ago trying to rip my face off. So combat is clunky but it has heft, a panicked inelegance that fits well with the fear the protagonist should be feeling if he were truly facing such creatures. However inelegance isn’t the issue nor even a fault. What is a problem is balance in which the game has none.
I understand that the game was going for that reality factor by making the protagonist weaker in comparison to monsters much stronger than he is but that doesn’t give the designers the right to make it seem completely unfair. They keep reminding you that running may be a better option than fighting but during those certain moments where the game forcibly pits you against multiple enemies was where I felt the most anger. A poor blocking mechanism I can’t help but feel unneeded if the enemies were toned down just a tiny bit.
Breakable weapons is another thing I have a gripe with, not just in Downpour, but in all games that include such a feature. Very rarely have I seen such a mechanic utilized properly because either A.) I have no idea when the items are about to break and it all relies on chance, or B.) It’s just very inconvenient in the sort of situations video game characters are placed in. Downpour continues the tradition of not informing the player how close to breaking their weapon is but it’s not the worst. Obviously weaker items like bottles and wooden planks have a shorter lifespan than metallic objects like axes and pipes, and even those can be reused a bit further. Still it wasn’t nearly as bad of an experience as I was expecting it to be and the limited weapon storage was rarely painful so kudos I suppose for not making one of the worst ideas to come out of video game realism nearly as bad as it is.
Lastly the graphics. The graphics are a bit dated compared to what modern game engines can do but it’s definitely not obsolete. Presentation was obviously a top priority for the developers and they don’t let a slightly lower pixel count hamper their vision. I was never such a stickler for those sorts of details so for all intents and purposes the game looks fine, great even during those aesthetically minded moments I’ll discuss later on.
The problem though is that the game isn’t as smooth with texture pop-ins very noticeable and a delay for some of the game textures. Very blatant but never game breaking so there’s solace in that. In the end clunky character models and poor texture resolution doesn’t hamper from the main game design and definitely not from Silent Hill itself.
[+Plays pretty standard to a Silent Hill game which is okay in my book.][+Breakable Weapon System not terrible.][*Still has a breakable weapon system.][-Unbalanced combat][-texture pop-ins]
Rain was an inspired choice as a theme for Silent Hill. Like fog it obscures and hides the evil that lurks throughout the town and at the same time it is a bit more dangerous than fog as exposure will not make for a pleasant experience. The moment when I was walking through the town and I can see the figure of an enemy standing there I wondered to myself whether or not it could see me but I could certainly see it. Subtle moments like those hint at the ambition the team had when devising the atmosphere for Downpour.
This Silent Hill is the largest and most intricate of all the previous iterations. While not quite an open world the map is instead divided into several sections that are fairly open themselves (think Legend of Zelda). From there you could either go to your next destination or explore a bit and maybe discover some secrets hidden within the city. Once while traveling (without a map because the game didn’t just give one to you) I wandered into the basement of a house. It seemed like an ordinary domestic basement at first with power tools and old furniture but further exploration provided a much darker story. The cries of a young girl, a cell, a missing child poster, dirty clothes. I think you could make the same connections I did.
It’s this attempt to flesh out Silent Hill as an entity and as a town that makes Downpour such a strong title. Aesthetically it’s one of the best in the series. The other world transition that happens in real time was one of the few ideas I really dug about Homecoming that I was happy to see return in Downpour. Large set pieces, a very brilliant weather system that makes it periodically rain which makes enemies more hostile adds a sense of danger whenever traversing outside but never happens at a set schedule or at a pace that makes it seem like it rains all the time. Side missions are a welcome addition that adds to the game and never detracts from the experience. The prison motif also adds to the story as a fairly original plot device that allows for some great set pieces that add to the nightmarish other world of Silent Hill though it could do without the running sequence involving a void that follows you forcing you to flee a la Shattered Memories.
Creature design is a bit lacking and fairly superficial. The creatures in Silent Hill are a manifestation of the turmoil of its victims but what made the creatures in the previous games disturbing wasn’t their outright disgusting features but rather that subtle feeling that while those creatures definitely aren’t human, they relate to you in some sick way you don’t really wish to find out about. The creatures out here are instead outright manifestations of your guilt and fairly obvious ones at that. There’s nothing really subtle about them and that’s perhaps the problem.
Puzzles make a welcome return in this game (difficulty settings and all) and there are some really fantastic ones. A Hansel and Gretel stage play remains the standout moment throughout the entire game. Things are definitely more interesting this time around on the puzzle front instead of in Shattered Memories where you were supposed to turn the door knob and was told that that was the puzzle.
Sound will obviously be a touchy issue as famed composer and the last remaining original element to the Silent Hill series Akira Yamaoka no longer composes for the series. Luckily Daniel Licht was just the man to bring the right atmosphere for the town without being a blatant imitation of Yamaoka. Licht instead brings his own talents as showtime original series Dexter composer carries a more orchestral tone than the industrial rock of Yamaoka. Heavy precussions and a Spanish guitar seem to be favorites of Licht for this soundtrack and famed collaborator Mary Elizabeth McGlynn makes a small return. Also apparently Korn did something for the game but it only appears at the end credits and never during the game proper so rejoice all ye faithful.
All of this are from the design perspective of the game which just goes to show you the amount of care Vatra Games put into how the town would look and feel. But what about the story?
Murphy Pendleton (Named after One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest hero Randle P. McMurphy and associated setting Pendleton, Oregon) is a prisoner for a crime he may or may not have committed depending on the ending. The story starts with a fairly disturbing sequence as Silent Hill borrows from prison dramas to great affect. While being transferred to a new prison, the transport bus crashes in Silent Hill where Pendleton escapes into. The narrative is typical of a Silent Hill game with ambiguous morality (and a morality system to boot) but avoids the pitfalls the weaker Silent Hill narratives fell into namely overblown mythos or convenient situational fallacies. While I would say Shattered Memories had a stronger narrative, Downpour proves itself capable of telling a story that has twists and turns but also some emotion and a bit of subtlety. One particular ending I found to be quite strong while the others were fairly typical. The joke ending is also a bit of a treat so that’s always fun.
Murphy is an especially strong protagonist as he is indeed weighed down by guilt over an incident and his desperation for freedom, fear of the town and his past, and particularly the way he reacts to situation in anger and more importantly fear and hopelessness makes for a convincing character.
[+Rain is amazing thematically][+Grand scale adds to the experience][+The town never felt so alive][+Music is good][+Puzzles are creative][+Aesthetically inspired.][+Murphy is a great character][*Story is decent][*Sort of shallow][-Enemies are boring][-Not very subtle]
Clocking in at around 10 hours without all the side quests the game is a fairly decent adventure either new or used. If you are willing to wait for a cheaper experience I can’t say I blame you but for those hungry for a return to form for Silent Hill then 60 dollars isn’t a bad entrance fee for multiple runs and endings as well as a chance to go back and finish up all the side quests. If you’ve never played a Silent Hill game then the cheaper HD collections should be out by the time this review goes up but in the end the game is a great entry for the series and any fan of the Silent Hill series shouldn’t hesitate to pick this title up.
[+Fairly long][*Replay value is moderate][-HD edition is cheaper and will give you two of the best Silent Hill games]
Not really falling in line with the majority, I never really hated any of the other Silent Hill games after 4. Still I recognize the difference between the weaker and stronger titles and Downpour definitely fits with the latter. There will never be another Silent Hill 2 and why people keep demanding one when we already have it in the form of…Well Silent Hill 2. Still the plague of the series has always been comparison with the original of which I have been guilty of throughout this review. It’s very hard to judge an installment in the series when its progenitor left such a mark. Silent Hill: Downpour is a valiant effort and hopefully a sign that Silent Hill has the potential to achieve greatness once again. I enjoyed my time with the game and hope this will stall the death of the seminal series.