Silent Hill: Downpour (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Vatra Games
Released: March 13, 2012
Silent Hill: Downpour tells the story of Murphy Pendleton, a convict with a bad reputation and a seemingly violent streak (though to say more would spoil it). As we join him, he's on a prison transfer for reasons unknown, but has the grave misfortune of passing by Silent Hill on the way. As one would expect, the transfer bus meets with an unhappy accident, crashing in the woods and freeing Pendleton. Naturally, all things happen for a reason in Silent Hill, and as Murphy fights his way through the supernatural town, he realizes that someone -- or something -- knows about his private life and is intent on forcing him to face his past.
While fans of the series know many of its tricks by now, and the plot twists seem incredibly familiar, Downpour still crafts an engaging story populated by intriguing characters. Pendleton is by far one of the more charismatic protagonists we've seen in a while, and as more of his history is revealed, it's hard not to sympathize with the path he eventually took. At various junctures in the game, minor "moral choice" moments influence the outcome of Murphy's journey and ultimately decide what kind of person he is.
A series like Silent Hill is faced with a constant pressure to evolve, as many of the things that once made survival horror scary are considered obsolete and undesirable by modern standards. With that in mind, it is interesting to note how many contemporary concepts Vatra Games has ignored. Combat is unwieldy and inelegant. There are moments where fixed camera angles limit the player's ability to see too far ahead. Exploration takes center stage, with only a vague map to rely on and no compasses holding hands. Downpour is as close to old-school survival horror as a mainstream retail game has gotten in a long time, and could possibly be allowed to get away with.
Fortunately, it does just enough to not feel too outmoded, making the slightest of compromises to skirt the line between acceptable and disagreeable. Pendleton moves like a modern videogame protagonist would, without the wild forklift-truck turns of old-fashioned horror characters. Fixed camera angles exist only in select areas, with a user-controlled view for the bulk of the journey. Modern conveniences such as one-button item heals and an on-screen inventory menu remove much of the hassle of supply management. By implementing these concessions, Vatra has made for a less stuffy, awkward experience while still maintaining many of the things that lent classic survival horror titles their power.
The town of Silent Hill is not exactly an open world, but there's a little more freedom here, with many houses that can be entered and paths to be uncovered. These environments are not part of the main quest, often containing their own little side missions that can be safely ignored. Most of the optional houses have self-contained back-stories and unique puzzles to solve, with extra supplies as a reward. In this regard, the game is more akin to The Legend of Zelda than Grand Theft Auto, providing an incentive to explore without creating a sandbox. The best part of these optional areas is just how much extra flavor they lend to the mythos of Silent Hill. From the junkie who stole from his neighbors to the woman who dealt with monsters in a mirror, there are many urban legends to uncover, and they regularly provide some shudder-inducing scares.
It's an interesting dynamic: although exploration can yield fruit, Vatra has done an amazing job of making Silent Hill a genuinely terrifying place to inhabit. Monsters are swift and merciless, while ghostly police cars patrol the streets, blasting out threatening sirens and encouraging the player to hide. Should they be spotted, a pack of brutal creatures will spawn. Then there are the moments that lend Downpour its name -- thunderous storms that drench the roads and cause enemies to become more aggressive. Subway tunnels make travel more efficient, but be warned that the town of Silent Hill is more oppressive than ever.
It's not much better indoors, either. Downpour's intricate interiors are stunning in their spookiness. Murphy's journey will take him through a subterranean tourist attraction, a twisted orphanage, and a demented apartment complex full of intense set pieces and truly terrifying seqeuences. One moment Pendleton will be stuck in a prison cart, dragged through a mocking representation of his old jail. Another moment, he'll be on a rail car, with creatures howling at him from rocks as an automated narrator explains the history of Silent Hill's old mine shafts. Downpour brings back that "ghost train" feeling of classic horror games, where grand set pieces and unnervingly atmospheric arenas are punctuated with the occasional self-indulgent jump scare. It's an intricately crafted roller coaster created by a studio that clearly respects the series and remembers what used to make horror games great.
Silent Hill's "Otherworld" regularly makes appearances, shoving players into a Hellish and gruesome parallel dimension. These sections usually herald a chase sequence against a glowing red light that pursues Murphy and drains his life whenever it gets too near. Players will need to run like crazy to escape this entity, hammering buttons to knock down objects in order to slow the pursuer and making snap decisions about which direction to turn as doors slam in Pendleton's face and moaning torsos spit their intestines across corridors. While these sequences can be very intense, they all too frequently rely on trial and error, forcing players to replay sections until they learn the correct directions to turn and the right moments to pass through a trap.
Another grievous flaw with Downpour is its insistence on forcing combat into the endeavor. The combat system is old-fashioned and consists mostly of sluggish hack-n'-slash attacks. This wouldn't normally be an issue, since combat's been designed to represent the flailing attacks of an untrained human being and encourages flight over fighting. Yet the game too frequently forces players into situations where combat is practically a necessity, pushing one to deal with a horrible, unrefined system that was never improved because it was never supposed to be crucial to survival. It doesn't help that weapons -- including solid steel wrenches and fire axes -- break after only a few hits, requiring players to run around looking for something else to shatter. The lack of a targeting system (outside of a rudimentary and unreliable "locking" feature) is another nuisance, with Murphy perfectly happy to swat the air next to a monster... as opposed to the monster itself.
For this reason alone, much of the game's final act is miserable, as it attempts to become more beat-'em-up than horror game -- complete with respawning enemies. This last chapter of an otherwise thrilling journey is an exercise in pure frustration, and threatens to ruin the entire journey. All of the combat's clunky imperfection would have been fine had it remained a last-ditch option for players in a bind, but it seems the developers ran out of steam toward the end and attempted to hinge everything on sub-par melee scenarios, just to shunt players toward the end credits as soon as possible.
It pains me to say that the bestiary is not exactly enthralling, either. Gone are the perverse animated Giger paintings that infested earlier games; gone is the sickening symbolism that past monsters brought with them. Instead, Downpour prefers rather literal and infinitely more mundane beasts, such as mutant prisoners and giggling ghost women. So much imagination went into Downpour's environments that it's a little disappointing to see an unvaried host of humdrum adversaries that could easily have populated any other game. They can be capable of providing a fright and are certainly intimidating in numbers, but they're disappointingly ordinary all the same. One expects a higher class of nastiness in Silent Hill.
At the risk of complaining too much, I should also add that Downpour would have benefited from a way to distinguish between weapons and other items, such as med kits or notes. An icon flashes for everything you can pick up, but it's the same icon no matter what type of object it is. This proves problematic because Murphy can only carry one weapon at a time, which leads to exasperating moments where he keeps dropping a fireaxe and swapping it for a ketchup bottle. Using another button for non-weapon pickups, or at least a separate on-screen prompt, would clear up the confusion.
All these stated blemishes are quite significant, and your tolerance for them may vary, but Silent Hill: Downpour ends up doing so much right that it's difficult to let the bugbears spoil the whole show. Silent Hill hasn't been this powerful in a long time, and it's truly wonderful to see the series in the hands of a studio that actually gets it, for the most part. It certainly stumbles along the way, but this is the closest Silent Hill has come to its roots in a long, long time, with Vatra retaining the old survival horror elements that work while discarding most of the ones that don't. It is a remarkable balance between new and old that reminds me why I loved this series so much in the first place.
Special mention must be made for the soundtrack, which comes courtesy of Daniel Licht. In short, it seems that the perfect successor to Akira Yamaoka has been found. Licht's blend of latin sounds and sinister industrial pounding couldn't feel more at home, and it was a genius move to bring the Dexter composer on board. Skeptics will have their cynicism washed away during the game's interactive title sequence, where Licht sets the tone with an utterly sublime tune.
When it's not forcing a sub-par combat system on players, and when it allows itself to be as imaginative as it can be, Silent Hill: Downpour is a stylish, slickly produced, beautifully foreboding game. As haunted cop cars roam the streets and unseen women cry in darkened basements, few players will absorb themselves in this eerie adventure with their nerves intact. You'll get around eight hours of gameplay for your money, and more than that if you choose to explore Silent Hill fully and complete the side quests. For the true fan, Downpour also provides more than enough incentive to replay it, just to enjoy the peaks of its thrill ride once again.
It does not approach the triumphant creative heights of earlier games, but nevertheless manages to keep its head well above the pitiful lows that recent installments have sunk to. All told, this is a return to greatness for a classic series, proof that there's life in the old town yet -- provided a studio with the proper respect for it is allowed to work its magic. Once again, it's a very good time to have a bad time in Silent Hill, and I couldn't be happier about that.
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