Silent Hill: Downpour Review
- Silent Hill: Downpour
- Silent Hill
- Vatra Games
Made2Game Silent Hill: Downpour review score: 5/10
Formats: PS3, Xbox 360
Format Reviewed: PS3
Developer: Vatra Games
Reviewer: Mick Fraser
Survival horror has fallen a long way since 1999, its plummet almost diametric to the rise of "cinematic experiences". The more videogames attempt to ape movies, the more they fail to resemble videogames – something especially apparent in a long-running series that we older gamers have grown up with.
The Silent Hill franchise is a case in point. For those who don't remember (and have not yet been reminded by this month's HD Collection), the original game cast you as everyman Harry Mason, stranded in a waking nightmare and searching for his missing daughter, Cheryl, vanished upon the streets of a Hellish, haunted town. The sense of dread was palpable, the feeling of helplessness more-so. You could only just defend yourself against the horrific denizens of the town, armed as you were with scattered melee weapons or guns you could barely hit anything with. Harry had no training, he wasn't a tough guy; he was scared, and because he was scared, we were, too. Who can forget the sense of stark terror while exploring the school; the moment the cat jumped out of the locker and ran out into the corridor giving an abrupt, agonised shriek as something... unknown... eviscerated it? Who can forget the rising fear as the radio crackled to life, that ominous static the only warning to your own impending doom? That was the birth of true survival horror, and arguably its swansong, too. It's rarely reached those heights since – although in fairness, almost every time it has come close has been in a Silent Hill game.
Meet Murphy. Rearrange the details of his backstory and he is every Silent Hill protagonist ever. Well, except SH3's Heather. Maybe
Wrong guy in the wrong place
Fast-forwarding 13 years, bypassing a host of sequels, prequels, movie adaptations and spin-offs, and we're presented with Silent Hill: Downpour, a game that doesn't seem to know whether to step forward or look back, that may boast a half-decent cinematic story but whose actual gameplay is almost non-existent. If that sounds damning, that's because it is. There are a host of problems with Silent Hill: Downpour that the infrequent flashes of excellence, handful of interesting new ideas and intriguing plot just can't bury.
The issues begin with protagonist Murphy Pendleton, a convict who is stranded in the titular town when his prison transport crashes. The meat clinging to this particular bone of contention isn't the writing or the acting that bring Murphy to life, nor even his motivations, but in the young-white-maleness of yet another Silent Hill castaway. Not since Silent Hill 3 has the series deviated from this archetypal lead and as such, eight games in, they're all beginning to blur into one. We're not suggesting the next Silent Hill should feature a middle-aged West Indian lesbian ninja, but the 30-something Middle American everyman has been done in games. Big time.
Thankfully, Murphy is a likeable enough guy. It won't take many players long to work out why he was locked up or the reasons behind his crimes, but he's not your atypical swaggering con. He's a man toughened by things he's done, once broken by loss and glued back together by vengeance and the thirst for retribution. Haunted, then, but why else would Silent Hill be interested in him? Not trained in combat as his one-time predecessor Alex Shepherd (Silent Hill: Homecoming) was, nor as soft around the edges as Harry Mason or James Sunderland, Murphy seems like the perfect fit for a Silent Hill protagonist, but the problem is that despite his troubled past and fairly interesting backstory, his present-day quest is simply to leave Silent Hill. He's not seeking his lost child, dead wife or missing little brother, he's just trying to leave. To move on. As such, you're not pulled in by his plight; you're not compelled by the Mystery. All the internal anguish in the world can't make up for a lack of immediate peril like the possible death of your missing child, or the loss of your young sibling. As a character in a movie, Murphy might be eminently watchable. As a character you have to control through what's supposed to be a living nightmare of terror and uncertainty, he's not so hot.
Can you imagine needing gas this much? We'd rather curl up in the boot and cry all night
Quaint little Hell-hole
The town itself has suffered somewhat, too. Bearing striking resemblances to Alan Wake's Bright Falls (and yes, we know Konami’s series was an influence for Remedy's town in the first place), sometimes Downpour's Silent Hill doesn't know whether it wants to be the creepy, fog-shrouded skeleton of a town it always was or something fallen from the pages of a Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel. By turns it's both a good thing and bad. On the one hand the environments are occasionally beautiful, especially in the early portion of the game when you're exploring the mines and riding the cable-car, but on the other some of that innate creepiness has been sacrificed in favour of something more familiar and, by extension, less disturbing.
The sense of pregnant menace is all but gone, the psychological mind-games once considered a series hallmark are now so over-used in the films Downpour appears to emulate that they've lost their impact. Instead we have disturbed characters we've met a million times and by-the-numbers scare tactics that are almost amusing.
For example, the enemy types in Downpour are lacklustre in the extreme. They become slightly more interesting in later areas, but for the first half of the game they're either zombie-like women in mottled dresses or weird, apelike abominations that roar and growl and leap around like murderous, skinless gibbons. They're so underdeveloped compared to the rest of the game (particularly the environments, which stand out as some of the best we've seen) that they just aren't scary. The fact that simply hitting them with whatever's at hand three or four times puts them down further diminishes their ability to scare.
Meet Anne. Rearrange the details of her backstory and she is every Silent Hill supporting character ever. Except... Nope, she's pretty much it
Weapons break after repeated use, but they're in such abundance for most of the game that it's never a problem, and you can punch and run to deal with most enemies anyway. Once the initial fear of that first contact with a new monstrosity is over, they all become minor obstacles in Murphy's quest to leave. So minor, in fact, that you wonder why he occasionally sounds so scared when he's already killed half a dozen of whatever's attacking him and suffered narry a scratch.
We’re in this together
The supporting cast is a hodge-podge of half-mental townsfolk, escaped convicts and dodgy police – the latter appearing mostly in Murphy's flashbacks. The part of obligatory ballsy female is played by prison warden Anne Cunningham, whose own history is tied to that of our anti-hero and whose early hatred for Murphy soon develops into a relationship based on uneasy co-dependence. The acting is half-great (Murphy, Anne, Howard the eerie postal worker) and half run-of-the-mill (everyone else) but the story is one of the better offerings in the series' history – again, mostly due to backstory as opposed to current events.
Perhaps Silent Hill's biggest flaw, though, is in its lack of real gameplay. It's one of the least compelling campaigns of recent years, and at times it seems the developers are giving you things to do to alleviate boredom. Why does activating a valve require the rotation of an analogue stick? Why does activating everything require some kind of minigame, whether to re-route power, direct water-flow or unlock a door?
Gloomy caverns like this are creepy enough, but the monsters that lurk in them are too nondescript to be frightening
It doesn't stop there, either, as every cool idea highlights further flaws. The cinematic feel of, say, using a lighter to illuminate the dark is nixed by the fact that it never blows out, never runs out of fuel and never gets too hot to hold. The implied fun of chopping down a plank barrier blocking a door is offset by the next door up that's completely impenetrable. Murphy's shirt is bloodied in combat, which adds to the realism by removing the need for a HUD, yet a health pack not only cleans up his wounds but washes the claret out of his cottons, too. At no point does he physically consult the journal that serves as the pause menu. He can climb a ladder and break a padlock, but a pile of boxes is as insurmountable as Everest. A good portion of the game is spent running back and forth between switches or lifts and the power supplies that run them, and Murphy does a good job of not getting eaten despite how much time he spends out of consciousness.
We don't expect complete freedom, and all games must follow their own rules, but the more cinematic a game like Silent Hill: Downpour becomes, the less sense standardised gameplay mechanics make. These complaints might seem like nitpicking, but they irrevocably hamstring the horror element upon which the game leans. Graphical problems like persistent screen-tearing, jarring texture pop-in and juddering pauses during autosaves aren’t exactly game-breaking, but they don't sing the praises of the Unreal Engine used to power the visuals, either, and serve only to negatively impact the all-important immersion.
Where the Hell am I now?
A major plus point, however, is the Otherworld, the charred, bloody corpse of a town that Silent Hill becomes when Murphy segues between realities. The "chased by a nondescript ball of evil" sequences are fairly crap, but the mind-bending physics, interesting puzzles and inspired art design of the Otherworld are a wonderful counter to the persistent feeling of boredom that begins to take over around the third or fourth hour spent traipsing through Silent Hill's misty back streets and echoing caverns.
The first time you have to run from The Void is quite scary. After that, it's a bit pants
The latter portion of the game, which we won't go into for fear of spoiling some of the better twists, is a redeeming feature – at times the ambiguity of the plot and the question not of which characters are guilty or innocent but of which are guilty of the worst crimes elevates Downpour to impressive heights, but it's a case of too-little too-late, as no sooner do you reach the final moments of revelation than the game ends. As is always the case, there are a handful of endings to unlock depending on your actions and moral choices (presented at key moments as stark good/evil decisions) and a secret ending only achievable through a New Game+.
It's almost a shame that what Downpour does well (story, dialogue, aesthetics) are less important than the things it does badly (gameplay, suspense, mystery, atmosphere). The change in sound direction and often-flat ambient sound effects, coupled with the loss of Akira Yamaoka's legendary scoring, make the world feel occasionally empty, but it’s just one issue among many. What Downpour doesn't do that a good sequel should is improve upon what came before, and perhaps if it wasn't carrying on such an illustrious name we'd have been less disappointed. If you're a stalwart fan that eats up anything related to Konami's multiverse, you can probably add a point to the score for loyalty's sake, but for everyone else, Silent Hill: Downpour’s archaic mechanics and lack of focus just aren't good enough for the 8th entry in such a hallowed series.
Incredibly pretty it may be but, ultimately, it’s also pretty un-incredible.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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