NAME: Johnny Barnstorm
AGE: Sometime in the late twenties.
LOCATION: British Columbia
PREFERRED GENRES: Anything where a sassy she spy blows things up. Adventure games. Racing games. Fighting games, too, to some degree. Side-scrolling hit-those-guys games.
KOOBERT'S SYSTEMS: Turbografx-16, PlayStation, Sega Nomad, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, PlayStation2, XBox, Nintendo DS, XBox 360, PSP, Sega Saturn, PlayStation3.
GAMES WHICH MAKE KOOBERT WAX NOSTALGIC: Manhunter: New York, Star Control 2, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Police Quest 2, Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire, Phantasy Star I & IV, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Shining Force, Driver, Metropolis Street Racer, Bushido Blade. Yeah... and that Smashing Brothers game. Fine.
CURRENTLY PLAYING: Braid, Penny Arcade Adventures, The Strong Bad Game for Cool and Attractive People: Episode One, Final Fantasy XI, Ys Books I & II, StarFox 64, Chrono Trigger.
Siren: Blood Curse, created by Project Siren and SCE Japan, doesn't have a lot of competition for survival horror game of the year.The Silent Hill games, while functional, didn't elevate the material about fan service. And Alone in the Dark had some good ideas (some shared with Siren) but evidently didn't work as a game. Siren isn't fan service; the only translated version of Siren previous to this was the translated release of Siren I, retitled Forbidden Siren in the UK, a game that achieved cult appreciation but little real love. It was hampered by a terrible translation that had incredibly inappropriate voices and accents for the characters. It was a heavily Japanese game, and yet everyone sounded like they were from Simon and the Land of the Chalk People, with perky British accents.
Here's what I mean:
Siren: Blood Curse is, in effect, a retelling of the first Siren game. The first, which recounted the story of Japanese people drawn back to the cursed village of Hanuda, was a dialogue-heavy stealth-and-survival game. It was developed by Keiichiro Toyama, the director of the original Silent Hill. The connections are certainly there. It takes place in a single cursed town, and features decaying versions of familiar structures: hospitals, houses, restaurants. The town has a bizarre occult following, and you explore the murky depths of it slowly, frequently lit with a single flashlight. Yeah, there's some Silent Hill in there.
Heck, there are even nurses in this game. And the eponymous air-raid siren.
But, it's different. And with this version, the difference is greater. This time, you take control of members of an American TV show called Encounters, a cheap-to-produce reality show that films mysterious locations. They walk in on a brutal ritual, and see one woman get killed before they move on to the second. Another American, a teenager named Howard Wright, interrupts the ceremony, saving the girl (Miyako) but (and you've been warned before, but this is a major spoiler) thereby causing a rip in time, beginning the loop in which some characters will be stuck forever. You guide Howard, Melissa and Sam Gale, and their daughter Bella, along with several other characters, through rapidly intersecting missions as you all attempt to leave Hanuda alive.
The controls are a hybrid of Silent Hill with a brawler like Yakuza. There are combos and special finishers, but your proficiency with a weapon depends on your relative character strength. Melissa is best off with light weapons, while Sam and Sol are good with heavier ones. What it takes from Silent Hill is the feeling that your characters are awkward and uneasy in combat. Fortunately, so are the enemies. The very long delay between button input and final blow from your weapon, based on your character's strength and the weapon's weight, could downright piss off some more twitch-based gamers. I don't mind it. And then there's the sight-jacking system. Basically, you can switch through the eyes of everyone around you to see what they see. You can use this as part of the stealth component of the game, which is the strongest of any survival horror game that I've played. You use it to check the line of sight of the monsters you are trying to evade, and sneak past them while you can see, in the split screen, that they aren't looking. Once you are armed, this feature isn't particularly useful, except against gun-toting enemies who snipe from afar, or in some cases, to see where items are located, and to overhear conversations.
Shibito have a helpful tendency of staring at objects you'll need to interact with.
Another feature that may or may not be up your alley is the leading-you-by-the-nose objective system, which pin-points what you have to do on the map, pretty much exactly. You won't ever really be stuck, because it spells out what you should be doing. The hard part can be figuring out the timing and stealth required to do it. There are rare occasions when the designers, for whatever reason, drop this idea, and you have to do the usual adventure-game style room searching to figure out where to go next.
So what did this game do right? What can other survival horror developers learn from their design decisions? Let's sit back and have a look at...
What Siren Did Right: - Structure. Siren uses its episodic structure intelligently. Think of it as Lost meets Silent Hill. You follow seven survivors, with usually two or three featuring their own interactive chapters per episodes. You never stick with one person for very long, and chapters almost invariably ends at a moment of high tension. It gets right what many television shows fail to do, which is give you enough information to be satisfied with what you've seen, and then teases you with scenes of the next episode to push you into playing further. It also helps reduce the fatigue of games like Silent Hill, wher eyou trawl through the apartment complex, school, or mall for ac ouple of hours. You might spend the same amount of time, in the end, in each location, but it's divided, keeping things moving, and fresh. Although it does feel like one large release cut into chunks, it uses the stops and starts of its twelve episodes to heighten the impact of scenes and instill a strong desire to see what happens next. Finally, along with the newest Alone in the Dark, it takes a great idea from Driv3r, and begins each episode with a smartly cut recap of the previous episode's cliffhangers, to put you in the moment while simultaneously bringing you up to speed.
- Variety. One chapter might have you hunting down shibito with a shotgun in overcast daylight. They'll fall easily, and it plays much more like the opening village scenes of Resident Evil 4 than a tension-filled scarefest. But previous to that, you were stuck in a hospital as Bella, the unarmed young girl, whose mission ends instantly if a shibito catches up to you. These sequences sound worse than they really are; there's never too many enemies, and you can count on the shibito, for the most part, to have repetitive movements. There are also escort missions, which play well and have escortable characters who will generally run away from trouble and keep out of harms way. The best are chapters that begin as an unarmed stealth crawl, and then change up gears into action as you get weapons and fight back against previously invincible enemies.
- Immersion. Japanese characters speak Japanese. American characters speak English. One Japanese character speaks broken English, while one American has somewhat functional command of Japanese. This really puts you in the location, and helps you understand the frustration of an American man who can't communicate with the Japanese person he's next to. The immersive environments, though, are what really steal the show. They're among the most detailed that I've seen outside of a Hideo Kojima game. While the texture work doesn't always hold up, the hundreds of little details, from street sights to posters and electronics, give you a scene of the era in which the village is stuck: 1976. Two locations really sell it best, the Ito household and the flooded ruins of the main street of the town. The Ito household is a fully-furnished, if decaying, well-off Japanese house from the 1970s. Every room has its purpose, from the daughter's bedroom, featuring posters of her favorite band, a record player, her guitar, to the brother's bedroom, the master bedroom, the shrine, bath, and living room. If there weren't all the now-shibito members of the Ito household shuffling around, aping their old living routine, you'd just want to stay and explore. The red-water flooded main street, with its noodle shop, poorer housing, and bobbing items, has its own set of cool locations to explore, and thoughtfully placed details.
- Intelligent re-use of locations. You do visit many of the same locations over and over again. However, you're never usually in them for too long, and the manner with which you explore them changes through the game. When you are running with Amana with Howard, blindly following her up and down rooftops, unarmed and avoiding shibito, you won't realize until much later in the game that it's the same town location that you visit the next day, during that Resident Evil 4 style shootout. The context, lighting, and action are all completely different. The hospital, too, can be totally frightening when you are isolated there, alone and defenseless as Bella, but is almost a situation that you can control when you return as one mad Mommy, smashing the hell out of shibito brains. The re-use is also part of an underlying theme of repetition in the game. Much like Majora's Mask, there is a time loop occuring here, and you do experience somewhat similar events more than once, as (spoiler here) when all the major characters of the game are converted into shibito, and Amana, sensing a time paradox, restarts the day all over again.
- Graphic design. A small point, but one worth noting; the menu design and font choices, as well as the 2D-to-3D map, are great. There's a sterile coldness to the presentation, which sharply contrasts with the muddy, grainy, decaying look of the environments. The text coming in and out of focus looks great, too.
- Reduced dialogue. Compare the youtube videos of the cutscenes from the original Siren to Blood Curse, and they show it to be a very talky game with characters that tend to spew out the expository crap that drags down much of the survival horror genre. This reworking takes a minimalist approach to dialogue, with the longest conversation in the game, a chat between Seigo and Sam in the hospital, being something that you can choose to observe with your sightjacking, rather than a cutscene. In fact, most conversations last but a few lines before something terrible cuts them off, or they realize that they should keep moving. It's one of those situations where there is almost too little dialogue, especially in the first few episodes, and most that is there consists of confused characters being herded from area to area, mostly in a blind panic. The context of the story, and of the characters is told instead both by the environments and the action that takes place therein, and the archives found automatically or by meeting set criteria. The archive stuff is much better than the usual files found in Silent Hill or Resident Evil; it consists of diaries, paraphernalia, video tapes, and phone messages that work hard to put some context and background into the characters that you play. The best is Seigo's driver's license, an item that, if you think about it, tells you who he is and where he's from (it expires in the 1970s, placing him firmly in part of the looping past.)
- A rethinking of the health conventions in horror games. There are no green herbs in Siren. There aren't any health packs, first aid sprays, or bottles of pills. Its damage system is subtle. Your character can't take too much of a beating. Three or four hits in a row from a shibito, and you are down for the count. That's the difference: they have to be in a row. Let yourself be cornered or caught unarmed from one or more shibito and you are done for, but as long as you can interrupt their consecutive hits with a few of yours, you can make it. This means that you're never stocking up on supplies and worried about not having enough health to make it out alive. You're always at "max health" as long as you aren't being pummeled. It even works in context of the game; the red water covering Hanuda supposedly heals everything, which also explains why the shibito are immortal. You can't ever kill them. You can knock them (literally) out of a level, but otherwise, they're always coming back.
Bullet hole in his heart or not, Howard's doing okay.
- Puzzles that felt involved in the world. The puzzles aren't arbitrary. You need to get past a shibito and you are unarmed. So you need to distract him or her. There are several interactive items around, and you have to figure out what to use and when. One of the best puzzles involves playing as Bella, where you must sneak past a shibito nurse who for most of her routine stares towards a door that you need to get through. The game suggests using something in the kitchen to distract her. You find an egg timer, and then can use that to lure her out of the way in order to sneak past. But even that's not necessary. You can yell to get the attention of shibito, or just run through and try to see if she can't catch up. Many of the puzzles, such as hitting a shibito on the head with a noodle shop sign, are purely optional, and just consist of easier means of defeating shibito or passing obstacles. Some reward your efforts with additional archive items. There is, below, one exception however.
- A limited number of enemies that are as much characters as you are. The generic looking nurse seen in many pictures of this game might give you the sinking feeling that this is Silent Hill Lite. It's not, and she's not a generic nurse. She's Yukie, and you find out that (spoiltown!) she's Seigo's coworker and the object of his affections. She was sacrificed during that ceremony, the one killed before Miyako, and after her death, returned to the hospital to wander. Her diary, combined with some personal affects of Seigo, fill this in. You'll get to know the police officer that patrols the town, as well as the Ito family quite well. As they can't die, you'll see them over and over, getting increasingly inhuman. The Ito family in particular is well-sketched, without dialogue or even really archive items. You can follow them through sightjacking as they go about the fractured remains of their lives, from watching the sister move about her room and scribble on her notepad, the mother move from the kitchen to the pantry, and the father as he shuffles from his den to his bed, where he lays, staring up at the ceiling. It's a very refreshing alternative to the generic zombies of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and makes it all the more disturbing when you see Seigo casually shooting them, or in one case, ripping them apart. He knows these people.
Honest, this creepy nurse is different.
- The ending.(Yes, this is all going to be spoilers.) The narrative really builds at the end of the second act (episode 8) through until the ending. The second act has a very dissonant, rushed conclusion which is echoed in the final few encounters. The first time through, you play as Howard, and slowly discover that the other survivors have become shibito one by one, until you get to the nest core of the shibito. There is Bella, the little girl, turned into a shibito brain, her face insectoid. Moments after this discovery, you are shot and killed by her now-insane mother. This triggers Amana to reboot the reality, as the circle can't continue with Bella turned. The second time that you get back to this point, things are different. Bella's with you, still alive, and this time Melissa, Bella's mother, is one of the end bosses, having converted into a giant maggot shibito. Things get very Silent Hill as you play as her separated husband, Sam, stabbing her with television antennae, trying to stop her from murdering her own daughter. The nightmare scenario continues as Miyako is finally sacrificed, but turns instead of being a vessel for the god Kaiko, into a force of his undoing, due to the previous actions of Howard and Seigo. There is a fight against Seigo that at first doesn't make much sense, where he gives Howard a weapon and then attempts to kill him. Only after killing Seigo, taking the Uryan (a holy device), and then going into Space Harrier world to kill the final boss do things click into place like a decent M. Night Shyamalan film. Seigo's role had been as a sort of protector, but he wasn't strong enough to beat the God. He was the only one to return unconverted to shibito in every time loop. It is Howard who takes his place, becoming the protector. The other plot point, revealed in the strange full-motion video of a little girl eating something, is that Bella is in fact Amana. I was initially confused by this, but through the final archive items, you find out that the time loop is caused by Bella returning to the 1950s. Here's where things go off the deep end a little bit; Sam also lands back in time, in 1976, and takes it upon himself to keep the loop happening. He instructs Howard by email to go to Hanuda, while he could have stopped the entire time loop by preventing this. Sam's reasoning is that he wants his daughter to live forever, and being trapped in this loop, she will. The bizarre logic of it all makes me smile.
Howard's gonna be doing a lot of this.
What Siren Did Wrong: - Repetitive music. The sound effects and ambient noise are great, but the chanting can get very, very old. It could have done with a few more tracks, and a little less chanting. The theme is used well for very dramatic moments, but tends to get trotted out a little to frequently.
- Not enough carrots for plot progression at times. Having reduced dialogue can be great, but you also need to know, to some degree, why characters are doing what they are doing. Seigo's mystery, as an earlier resident of the village, is fine, but you don't get much sense of what the survivors are trying to accomplish. There isn't enough narative reward to encourage continuing sometimes, as the first seven or so chapters are just consisting of the main characters being pushed somewhere, with little purpose. There aren't enough concrete goals for you to really identify with what they are doing. A short conversation for each character establishing what they're trying to do would have helped identify more with them, especially initially.
- Not following through on cliffhangers. The episode ending cliffhangers are awesome, except when they aren't resolved. The worst offender is (spoiler) the death of Sol in the second run-through. It's another gripping moment, as Sam and Sol, finally reunited, leave the mine, only to be surrounded on all sides by the shibito. And in the next episode... well, nothing really happens. You don't know until much later that Sam fell, narrowly avoiding being killed. The only clue that things didn't go so well is the introduction again of the always-pesky shibito Sol. You can only use cliffhangers so many times without rewarding the viewer for the tension they generate. Otherwise it's a narrative tease.
- Leaving character growth to the final few chapters. You don't always expect character development arcs in a video game, but the nuanced approach to structure and pacing of this game gave me hope that it would have something of a Lost style treatment of its survivors. Something out of an Indigo Prophecy or Dreamfall. In a word, no. While the characters do reveal themselves more in the final few episodes, other than their detailed backgrounds which are spelled out by the archive, there is no arc or development. They are either: dead, crazy, or running for their lives.
- One shitty puzzle. There is one out-of-place, Resident Evil or adventure game style puzzle in one episode featuring Amana. I didn't get it. I still don't get it. You basically just keep turning wheels until things pop into place. Maybe I'm missing something. Unlike all the other puzzles which were integrated masterfully into the environments, this one was awkward and intrusive.
So, that's it. It's a great game, one that left me thinking, and one which I do think I will play through again in order to get all the archive pieces, and also to see how things make more sense once you understand the broader scope of the action. I recommend anyone who is on the fence about downloading it, and who is a fan of the genre, to take the plunge.