Horror games don't always do well, it's a hard genre to make work just right; unlike, say, racing games or action games where aesthetics and atmosphere are secondary to the mechanics horror is all about atmosphere; a game can be great horror but have piss-poor mechanics or vice versa have great mechanics and play well but not really feel very scary. Just having an axe-wielding murderer in your game doesn't instantly make it good horror. You have to carefully craft the experience so the player feels like they're really a part of the world and feels as though they really are in danger if you want to create really good horror – which, needless to say, is difficult to do.
For awhile atleast, the PS2 provided the right sort of space for these types of games to flourish, a mix of the right sort of technical capacity and a sub-set of developers morbidly inclined enough to want to scare people silly. The result was a slew of really successful horror games - many of them from Japan - that really defined the decade, including, but not limited to, the likes of the Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Siren series', and it's Siren I want to talk about today.
The original Siren game - or Forbidden Siren as it's called in Europe - was an exemplary piece of survival horror, it took the familiar premise of survivors trapped in a zombie apocalypse and added realism, depth, challenge and atmosphere to create a really innovative horror experience, atleast for the really diehard survival horror fans. For some however it was a very troubled and problematic game.
I remember Siren being one of those games that if you had no interest in survival horror or Japanese games it might easily have passed you by, it wasn't really at the top of anybody's list when it came out, obviously got some attention but not a stack, and the reviews for it seemed to be a mixture of praise for the atmosphere and hysterical ravings about the terrible control system and overall frustration the gaming experience produced. For a long time I was on the fence about buying it, anybody who's read the Amazon customer reviews of the game will probably understand why, reaction was extremely mixed from consumers, some saying it was ok but didn't work that well, others complaining that it was just a shit game and broken and a small but very vocal minority lauding it as one of the best pieces of survival horror in years. Now, I'll be honest, I probably sit somewhere very close to the last group, (obviously I wouldn't be writing a retrospective if I didn't think it was worth it!), but at the same time I can appreciated how flawed and frustrating the game is at the same time.
So what does the game do well?
In brief: It makes the player feel helpless, it creates a good sense of atmosphere and has a very weird and unnerving narrative.
One of the first things that strikes you playing through Siren, especially in a darkened room, is the atmosphere. It has touches of what made Silent Hill so great - the dull oppressive atmosphere, the all-consuming fog, the feeling of being watched (even when you aren't sure there's anyone to watch you). From the way environments look, to the way enemies seem to pursue you relentlessly, to the sounds, everything seems to fit about the atmosphere, even the way your character moves so uselessly and the fragility of your character, all add to your sense of helplessness.
Predominantly Siren relies on a 'sneak and avoid' mechanic, with the player able to engage in combat but discouraged from it by their limited health and stamina and the relative ease with which the Shibito (the game's zombies) can alert fellow shibito to your presence and swarm you. Instead the player must creep around in the dark in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations, looking for ways to proceed and then searching for the clues that will help them move onto the next stage, all while evading detection. Metal Gear Solid it's not, but you do get to feel as though you're always on the outside looking in, not in control, not really capable of doing much other than hiding and sneaking. Even when you do finally get a gun you hardly feel like Rambo.
Part of what makes it work so well is just how much you're made to feel as though you're really as helpless and weak as an ordinary person would be in some sort of zombie apocalypse. When you hold your weapon up to attack you move sluggishly - like somebody not used to fighting; when you run you tire easily; when you're attacked you die after a few blows (for some characters even just one or two blows). And though these aspects will undoubtably annoy some (something I'll come back to later), they all help to add to the sense of who you are within the game – a weak and helpless character. I guess those last few points are more aspects of how well the game immerses the player, but it's obvious a ridiculous amount of time has been put into helping the player relate and feel like the ordinary people they play as, which itself helps sustain the game's atmosphere, and atmosphere is key to the game.
I have mentioned the sense of helplessness you feel as you play, and the sense that you never really feel completely in control (particularly since Shibito can't die permanently so you have no real way of permanently removing the threat they pose), but a lot of what permeates Siren's atmosphere is more subtle. For example the Shibito are unpleasant to look at and the strange noises they make are almost inhuman but they aren't scary by themselves, infact they're easily handled most of the time, it's only in conjunction with the complicated control system, the relative difficulty and cryptic nature of the puzzles that you need to progress and the drab, dark feel of the world you inhabit that makes them scary. The way that the music unnerves you as you slowly creep round a Shibito, waiting, carefully watching till you see a gap in their patrol pattern and take your chance. In this sense it's not so much one thing that makes Siren's atmosphere work but everything in concert that really makes Siren scary.
Probably a minor point but worth mentioning in addendum anyway is that the plot also has some really innovative aspects to it, relating to the cause behind the events of the game. Without giving too much of the plot away, what you do find out about the cause of it all is seemingly more like something from a Lovecraft horror story than a modern horror game, and not only adds to the sense of originality about Siren's story but also adds a unique sci-fi twist to the story - which you really don't expect in a zombie game!
So what doesn't the game do so well?
Probably the most obvious negative is the game's abysmal English language track, which really does sound like it was done by a bunch of people who've never acted before – many of them with obviously very English accents, and little or no attempt to seem Japanese. The translation itself doesn't seem dire, just poorly acted, and the end result detracts significantly from the sense of immersion – I really can't stress how much this is the game's one biggest flaw, everything else seems potentially forgiveable but the awful voice-acting really does take so much from the atmosphere. The voice acting is especially punishing at times because hearing certain lines read you get the sense that in the original Japanese slight intonations and aspects of character motivation were being conveyed which are all but lost in the 'omg I just left drama school and got my first acting job' style dub.
Then there's the control and action system. For the most part the control system is alright, it's not the slick relatively free movement of games like RE4 or Dead Space but it's not tank controls either, it's quick enough that you can mostly do what you want, without failing miserably. That said there are moments when it can be quite rigid and relatively unresponsive, not so much because it controls poorly but because it's not that flexible and the game itself is relatively unforgiving if you don't manage to press buttons at the exact moment you need to. A good example of this is the way you can climb up some ledges, now the animation for this is fairly slow and laborious and basically involves your character catching hold of the ledge, then slowly lifting themselves up; not so bad you'd think, and when you're in a safe environment it's perfectly fine, but it becomes annoying once the game gets dangerous and you're either running from enemies or trying to avoid their attacks.
When you do try to grab a ledge the animation starts and it takes several seconds to complete, now obviously, like I've said, this is ok when you're safe but when you're being chased or attacked by an enemy it becomes particular unforgiving, because no matter how hard you mash buttons your character really won't climb any faster and will more than likely get knocked down or killed if you're not quick enough – this coupled with the fact characters die after relatively few hits (compared to characters in most games) means the controls feel frustratingly slow at times. Attacking is similar, with very rigidly animated attacks, sometimes you can catch an enemy off-guard but if you don't time your attacks just right it's very easy to find yourself dying because of how inflexible the controls are.
The problem in both instances is that, more often than not, you can see attacks coming or react quicker (like in the instance of trying to climb a ledge to escape an enemy) than the controls themselves will respond; the game gives you no ability to 'hurry' certain movements or to choose between making full attacks and just defensive attacks to push an enemy away. So it ends up feeling quite frustrating.
The game also has problems in terms of difficulty and the continue system. These aren't so much weaknesses in the sense that they were poorly done but more than they seem to favour a more old-fashioned style of 'trial-and-error' gameplay that modern gamers are less comfortable with – and in some respects it's vaguely reminiscent of the punishing trial and error 'fumble around until you find what you need to progress' style gameplay of a lot 90's console games. You sometimes know what you need to do to progress, but often you're looking for random items that can be combined to somehow help you to proceed, which, combined with how weak your character is, how difficult they are to control, how limited items are, how loose the continue system is and the fact Shibito get back up again real soon after you put them down, can lead to some 'awfully' frustrating moments. And when I say 'awfully' I mean incredibly
This is especially true in some of the later stages – atleast one of which has a very tight time limit (undisclosed within the game), where you're often assailed by multiple foes, some of whom may be armed with deadly rifles. Have I mentioned they're ridiculously accurate with said rifles and one-to-two shots will kill most characters? Yeah, it's that hard. Much like with the atmosphere, what makes Siren so frustrating is not so much one single aspect of the game but the cumulative effect of all the different aspects of the gameplay that make it so frustrating – indeed, much of what makes it a really good piece of horror and excellent survival horror is also what makes it so frustrating to play and potentially unappealing to the vast majority of gamers.
Siren's a flawed game in some respects but it's also an excellent piece of horror, I can't help but feel that putting the control, continue and difficulty problems aside the only thing that really mars the game, the EU release atleast, is the god awful vocal talent, everything else, though terribly punishing, is atleast forgivable. I know I'll be playing the game for years to come ...just maybe on mute a whole lot ; )