Siren (AKA Forbidden Siren) is a survival horror game developed by SCE Japan Studio and published by Sony on the PS2 in 2003-2004. It was later remade as Siren: Blood Curse for the PS3 in 2008 and received an upscaled port on PS4 in 2016. In the remote Japanese village of Hanuda, a ritual gets interrupted by the occult-obsessed teenager Kyoya Suda. He runs away, but soon hears a siren which signifies Hanuda being cut off from the rest of the world and the dead rising as Shibito all over the village. Now he and 9 other people are stuck in Hanuda and must struggle for 3 days if they want to survive.
The story of Siren is its best feature, but it's not an easy thing to understand and enjoy. I chalk that up to two major things, the first being its non-linear and obtuse nature. The game is framed through its Link Navigator system, which is a timeline connecting all the major characters as the game goes on. It features a mix of missions and cutscenes spread across the 3 days that can be replayed at your leisure as soon as you have full access to the Link Navigator a bit into the game. As such, you jump backwards and forwards in time and between characters constantly,
This is often confusing, as the reasons for jumping between certain events are tenous at best, even if the story generally moves forward in time. I'm not sure what there is to gain by presenting the story in this non-linear way. It's cool to connect the pieces, but the game is full of a lot subtle details even when you follow a character's story in linear fashion after unlocking all of their missions. It feels more like a gimmick meant to make the game unique, not better. Not to mention that due to the way the missions are linked, it takes an eternity for the plot to kick off as the game needs to introduce everyone first.
The second issue beyond the presentation of the story is the presentation in general. The game uses this weird style of cutscenes with less than stellar framerate and very flat faces on the characters. This is because everyone is based on the actor who portrayed them in the Japanese version and has their scanned faces pasted on them. It looks ok when not in motion, but it just looks terrible whenever characters speak, as their faces just fade between facial expressions. It reminds me of the Harry Potter games on Playstation. And the western version presents an extra hurdle to get over in the form of the incredibly English voice acting. I warmed up to it after a while, but it is very jarring to listen to Japanese people speak like they are in dire need of some tea and crumpets.
But, if you manage to get over all of those hurdles and give the game a few more hours than it deserves, you are treated to a story that feels like a spiritual successor to Silent Hill. Which isn't strange, seeing as the games share directors. But while Silent Hill is themed around a western cult and western media, Siren's story is best described as a Lovecraft cult story heavily filtered through Japanese culture.
The end result is this dense and properly layered narrative full of despair and struggle that really won me over by the end. I think it's even better than the story of Silent Hill. There was just so much work put into making the setting seem real, as the game is littered with more than just weird letters and scary notes to find. There are also small posters and items describing the culture of Hanuda, with special attention give to its religion, which has absorbed aspects of traditional Japanese mythology and a bit of Christianity. This is a great way to really sell how old the village traditions are, which ties into the main plot as well.
And even if you ignore the main story, the story of the various characters are pretty good as well. Some of them have important ties to Hanuda, whereas others are just there and want to get out. But they all have at least one good scene to their name that either serves to really sell how horrific the situation is or make them memorable. Hell, just the inciting incident of the game's backstory is an awesome setup for a story!
Tying into how slow the story is to get going, the same holds true for the horror as well. You spend an eternity running up against the game's main antagonists, the Shibito. Their regular form are about as scary as the Ganados in RE4, since they are also gray-skinned peasants who retain some human function until you disturb them, at which point they attack. It feels like they could have just been cultists of Hanuda and not zombies and they'd be just as scary.
After a while, you do get to run up against more mutated forms of Shibito, but thanks to the game's focus on repetition of missions, even those ones quickly become the norm. On the whole, I don't find the game scary in the moment, as it's more scary on a conceptual level. The ultimate fate of a few of the characters really sell what despair this situation would put a person through. It's a shame that actually playing the game rarely makes me feel that. It's only by understanding what each character goes through from beginning to end that I started to appreciate the horror.
Still, I gotta give props to the Shibito hive in the last part of the game for not being yet another meat corridor and instead making twisted wooden ones seem claustrophobic and threatening. It's not something I'd expect to work so well in a horror game.
I'll be blunt. The gameplay of Siren is a textbook example of why you shouldn't make a game out of ideas that piss people off even when they are relegated to a small portion of a game, nevermind all of it! When I think about this game, the words that come to mind are trial and error, obtuse puzzles, escort missions and forced stealth sections. Doesn't that just sound lovely?
Ok, just to back up slightly, let's talk about the way the game is structured. It's divided into missions that take place in one of the game's areas. Your goals differ, but usually it's a matter of escaping the area without dying, defeating something, or picking something up. To do that, you must make your way through patrolling Shibito, defeating them or evading them in any way possible, while solving some really obtuse puzzles. This is tougher than it sounds, as a single mistake when fighting or sneaking is usually enough to get you killed. So even the most basic of missions (like those that only take 2 or 3 minutes) are very capable of wasting a lot of your time, which really undermines the horror. Not to mention the fact that checkpoints don't save all your progress, so to get everything done in a mission, you need to complete it without dying!
Which is easier said than done with how janky the game is. Runnning around is easy enough, but sneaking is painfully slow and the combat really isn't good. How bad it is depends on what mission you're on, as your available weapon and the gender of your character really makes a difference in your abilities. Women are generally just that slighty bit worse than the men when it comes to attack speed, damage and health. Nothing worse than running up to a Shibito to hit them, mistiming two attacks and dying as a result. Of course, being allowed a gun helps immensly, as they let you kill things at range without much issue. Not to say that using a sniper rifle isn't an ordeal with these cumbersome sniping controls. And if you're afforded a gun, then it's safe to assume that the Shibito have guns as well.
Now, I don't know if this difficulty is the result of including the game's main mechanic, or if the mechanic was included as a way to balance the already difficult game. Whatever the case may be, every character has the ability to Sightjack. This is as simple as it sounds, it let's you see through the eyes of your enemy by scanning through the area until you pick up their signal. This effectively makes it impossible for an enemy to sneak up on you as long as you're vigilant. But it also means that you're supposed to Sightjack constantly in order to stand a chance at getting through the rather strict patterns of the Shibito, which gets rather tedious. At that point, you might be tempted to rush instead, which will just lead to failure and more wasted time.
I will give props to the many clever ways the game utilizes Sightjacking though. You use it to solve puzzles, locate evasive enemies and even fight the final boss in a really interesting fashion. They really wringed everything they could out of this mechanic. A shame they couldn't put the same amount of thought into the rest of the game. I was really crying out for a way lock hands with the NPCs you need to take with you instead of praying that their pathing will work before they get hacked to bits. It's a game that could become so much better with just a few tweaks.
With all the obtuse adventure game puzzles and the combat, missions are annoying enough to complete, but to make the Link Navigator more complex, the game also requires you to replay missions in order to unlock new ones. The game is basically structured like this: You play a few levels and then you unlock secondary missions in those same levels. Completing secondary missions then unlocks new levels, which pushes the game forward. That's an obviously artificial way to extend the game, but still not that bad to play through.
No, what's well and truly terrible are the secret objectives. Every mission features secret objectives needed to make other main missions possible. Not to unlock them, but to make them possible. So you can totally unlock the second mission in a level and find it either impossible to complete, really hard to complete, or maybe just impossible to complete ANOTHER secret objective if you haven't completed a secret objective in another level. So to beat the game, you have to go out of your way to do really obtuse and senseless tasks (freezing a towel, turning a valve, knocking over a rock) for the sake of another level when the current character should only really care about surviving.
And the game doesn't even hint at these secret objectives being a thing until they become relevant! So you can totally complete both main objectives in a level and then have to return to it two hours later after having become stuck on another level and needing to trace links between levels in the navigator, at which point the game is nice enough to give you a cryptic hint at the start, which you must then puzzle out without dying once, lest your progress be lost. I played through the whole game with a guide, which let me clear secret objectives as soon as possible, but even that was arduous thanks to how confusing it is to keep track of progress if you die and forget to redo a secret objective, especially when the game doesn't mark off secret objectives as being completed!
If the game wasn't so preoccupied with being complex and difficult, it would be so much more enjoyable to get through.