April 13, 2012
While Resident Evil was the game that may have brought survival horror to the big leagues, it was Silent Hill that had gamers afraid to play on their own. The series certainly owes more to the insidious, creepy horror stylings of classic Japanese cinema than its brash cousin ever did, preferring to make the player think something terrible is going on rather than overtly showing them that is the case. Tense music, bizarre enemies and characters that pop in and out of your life with ambiguous motivations all made for a captivating game. So where did it all go wrong? Ever since the giddy heights of Silent Hill 2 things seem to have been on a downward spiral and, while the recent entries have been decent enough, you have to wonder if time is running out for one of video game horror's big hitters.
Straight from the off Downpour feels like a different spin on the horror genre, as events feel a bit more carefully weighted and combat has a far more prominent role than it has in the past. As ever the story is deliberately ambiguous and fragmented, with the player learning a little bit more about protagonist Murphy Pendleton seemingly around every corner. Whereas in previous titles' combat felt like a random occurrence, and a desperate fight for survival, here it's just a regular hazard as you traipse around town. Enemies no longer seem to have the same shock value considering the frequency of your encounters and that would not necessarily be a bad thing if the combat itself weren’t so poorly implemented.
In order to defend yourself you can scavenge any number of weapons that are just laying around, then use then to batter foes senseless. Unfortunately they degrade and break over time, and as guns and ammo are rather scarce this can be a bit of a pain. It doesn’t help matters when there is no real way to aim at foes, and most combat just devolves into randomly swinging at them until they drop. Sure you can block attacks, but as that causes you to stagger about almost as much as if you’d just taken the hit then it seems rather pointless. It’s a shame that the game asks you to fight so many of the same enemies time and again, as it only serves to highlight how unwieldy and disappointing the action truly is. Better hope you don’t get caught out in a storm either, as that only serves to piss off your foes even more (maybe they're mad about forgetting their umbrella?), and your only sensible course of action in such cases is usually to leg it.
Sadly the number and variety of enemies seems to be severely limited, so you often find yourself just going through the same familiar motions to succeed. Outside of combat there's certainly plenty of exploration to occupy your time, with the town of Silent Hill offering any number of mysteries and puzzles for you to solve or ignore as you see fit. However, it has to be said that the odd open-world nature of the game can often leave you stumped about exactly where to go next or how to solve a particular problem. Gamers do not need to have their hands held at all times but it would have been nice to have some kind of system, even in the journal or maps, that would clue players in a bit more to their surroundings.
Thankfully the puzzles themselves are often interesting enough to keep you occupied, even if the answer is not always instantly apparent. Indeed, most of them help to flesh out the background to the town itself or offer a slightly different insight into Murphy. Just being able to do side quests as and when you feel like it is certainly a novel approach to a game of this genre, though it’s a shame that most of them devolve into basic fetch and carry tasks.
Your time will be spent between the regular world and the sinister Otherworld, with each offering a different spin on the story. Often the Otherworld segments result in exhilarating chases from an unknown entity, as you fling obstacles in its path to bolster your chances of escape. These moments certainly help to ramp up the tension, but soon fall into the same trap as the rest of the game – becoming over-used, overly familiar and, then, overly dull. As ever it is the brooding menace that the player never sees that keeps the game interesting and ticking over, and the random appearances of strange characters, whether to help or hinder you, adds to the sense of mystery.
The key element here, as it has always been with Silent Hill titles, is the underlying sense of dread and the sense of stepping into the unknown with a lead character who is not all he appears to be. As ever the story is the one part of the game that keeps you pressing forward, often in spite of the boring combat, dubious graphical textures and over reliance on fog to keep the player guessing. When it works, it certainly works quite well, but the feeling of stumbling on some great revelation has been used so much by now that it feels like it has worn out its welcome.
As ever with Silent Hill you can expect multiple endings that are dependent on your actions throughout the game, as well as key choices towards the finale. Unfortunately for achievement hunters this means that you will have to play through the game at least twice, assuming you save at the right moments to get all of the outcomes. Considering the fact that you'll have seen and done pretty much everything the first time around, this is more of a drag than it needs to be as the game doesn’t really hold your interest the second time around. It also doesn’t help that the rest of the list is tied into the various sidequests and just killing certain enemies multiple times. The lack of invention here is surprising considering the source material.
Silent Hill: Downpour, for all of it’s faults, is still a fairly interesting ride the first time through. It has enough heart-pounding moments to satisfy, while never being quite as scary as it should be or as tense as you want it to be. The graphics, repetition and poor combat mean it can be more frustrating than entertaining, which is a letdown, as at times the issues melt away as you're creeping through the town of Silent Hill, peering through the fog and wondering what will happen next. If only the game had managed to hold onto that sense of wonder the whole way through, then things may have been different, but as it is this is just another Silent Hill that takes us back to a town that never seems quite as good, or as creepy, as we remember it.
Eerie sounds, ominous music and crackling static all set the scene perfectly. The loss of the series' famed composer, Akira Yamaoka, may be a big one, but the game still manages to crank up the tension when it can.
Never jaw dropping but at least they do the job. The drab, fog shrouded exteriors are standard fare by now and most of the enemies feel like the same old thing. It’s perhaps time to spruce up the series' trademark look.
The combat is tiresome and the open-world nature of some of the areas and puzzles can leave you grasping at straws sometimes. There is still a tense sense of wonder and exploration lurking behind the scenes, but it’s sometimes easy to get frustrated.
When did Silent Hill stop being scary and become a rather familiar action game? At times there are certainly little moments of clever scripting and audacious ideas, but they are few and far between with the rest being all too predictable.
Multiple playthroughs suck, no matter which way you look at it, and the rest of the list is filled with rather generic side quests and lists of monsters to kill. Pretty standard fare.
Silent Hill: Downpour is a solid game with a typically twisted story underneath all of the pretence. Still the gameplay mechanics are starting to show their age and there is a lack of genuine shocks and intrigue, it feels like familiar ground, albeit fairly well made familiar ground. This is certainly an upturn for the series but it hasn’t yet gotten back to the giddy heights of its predecessors.