Silent Hill: Downpour
May 14, 2012, Author: Stephen King
The fog has descended and the rain is beating down hard. From the nothingness, the enemies begin to approach. This can only mean one thing; you are in Silent Hill now, and it doesn’t want to let you leave.
The Silent Hill game series sates a particular hunger for me, as I was a huge fan of this style of horror games as soon as consoles could support them. It came to the forefront for me once Resident Evil (my previous favourite) began to take a more action-oriented approach to things. Meanwhile, Silent Hill attempted to remain as true as ever to the original formula by barely iterating over the span of eight games. I find myself pleased that there are still people who insist on maintaining some of the classic styling of the series, but at the same time, I am concerned.
Silent Hill: Downpour is the latest in the series and once again, the production of the game has been farmed out to a team who have no experience in this game style. So will this bring a fresh approach to how we play Silent Hill, or is it going to be a disappointing experience? Keep reading, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Welcome to Silent Hill….
Our protagonist is named Murphy Pendleton, a convicted criminal who is in prison, but you are not sure why. Following a riot in the prison, several inmates are scheduled for relocation; Murphy is one of them. However, during the bus journey the driver has to slam on the emergency brakes as the road disappears from in front of him. The bus crashes, Murphy is freed and so begins our descent into Silent Hill.
Atmosphere is something that has to be handled expertly in these kinds of games to give the player a truly scary experience. Of all the problems that Downpour has, it at least has the redeeming feature of having a fairly spooky atmosphere. Some feels a little borrowed from other horror games such as Condemned, but it still manages to keep a firm grasp on making it an original experience.
As always with Silent Hill, the majority of the tense feelings are built up by using the radio. For those of you who have never played a Silent Hill game before, the radio is an item used to give the player an idea that danger is close. As enemies approach, the radio will start to howl with static, which I must admit had me on edge sometimes. At a few points the scares actually had me jump out of my seat, which is no easy task, cause I don’t scare too easily. Maintaining a good sense of atmosphere is certainly aided by the level design. Rooms look dank, hallways are long and terrifying, and the fog is thick and creepy.
Despite having a great atmosphere, there are things that get in your way of enjoying it too much. The first time you have to use the combat system, any feelings of fear and unease will soon become rage. Even though combat has always been a sticking point in the Silent Hill games, no one seems to have bothered to update it. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which was my game of the year a few years back, saw the combat as a weakness and removed it all together, which worked a treat. Instead of that, Downpour leans into the crummy combat controls and makes the game almost unbearable at times.
As if using the weapons wasn’t bad enough, picking them up can be a task all by itself. Weapons are not labelled when you are in a position to pick them up; all you can do is just that. This is infuriating when you think that what you are picking up is an item of significance. Instead you are picking up a broken beer bottle and you have just dropped the fire axe you were using into a place where you can no longer reach it!
The game does, however, give you the hint that maybe it is better to run away from the enemies rather than take them head-on. I am not sure about anyone else, but if I am given a weapon I usually try to take on the enemy. It could be that my play style is at fault here, but my gut reaction says otherwise.
They did, however, bring some of the elements of escaping enemies into the game during these bizarre chase sequences. You are running away from what I can only assume is a hole into Silent Hill which tears the flesh from your bones the closer you get to it. The idea is to run away from the enemy and try to slow it down by tearing down objects into its path. To me it feels like they have shoe-horned this part of the game in, purely because it worked in a previous title. Unfortunately it comes across as frustrating rather than an interesting game mechanic.
Something the game attempts to make an interesting skill to perform is balancing across platforms. I will give them this, that it certainly looks interesting, and definitely gives the feeling of height and vertigo, but I have fallen off and died more times than I can count. There was a particular segment in which I reloaded my save around ten times before I managed to get across. This could just be user error, but you would think I would have learned after the second time, let alone the tenth.
I appreciate the lengths that Silent Hill goes to in order to give a rich story full of information about the world and its inhabitants. Newspaper clippings and other such pieces of information are littered through the game, each of them with the ability to give you a little more from the story. On the downside, you have to view them from the book you use to read the map, which has limited viewing perspectives. So, instead of letting you use the control to view any part of it as you want to, there are fixed areas with which the camera will display from, making reading that extra information a chore. Since the material is quite interesting, it is a really a toss-up as to whether you want to go throw the hassle of using the annoying controls.
In Silent Hill games, the enemies are typically one of the most important parts of the game. So, finding out that there are very few enemy types in the game is a little disheartening. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were all excellently designed, but they are pretty generic when you boil it down. There are no variances in how to kill them either. You just swing or shoot away until they drop to the ground; then you beat them until they stop moving, or at the very least are twitching uncontrollably.
This is of course with the exception of the Shadow, an enemy which can only be seen under the UV light you attain in the game. The way to kill them is to hunt down the mannequin that they are being projected from and beat… actually, I guess that is kind of the same too.
As if the game didn’t have enough material to deal with, there are a series of side quests that were designed clearly to pad the game out unnecessarily. None of them are all that fun to play through, even although there are some cool moments. Your reward for completing them is usually a health pack or two, followed by some shotgun ammo. Useful, but not really worth the time you spend on them.
One thing I find particularly annoying for games in this day and age is when there are serious performance issues. Silent Hill is sadly full of them. Practically every time there is an abundance of fog on screen (which is a lot of the time) or the saving logo appears, the performance locks up. This can be especially annoying since you can be involved in a fight during these lapses in performance, which can, and have, cost me my life and some progress in the game. During my playthrough I even had a save point trigger while close to an enemy that has killed me several times on continuing.
If you have made it to the end there is at least a little bit of good in store for you. Well, that is of course if you have the correct ending. Most of the varied endings are quite interesting and are a reasonable pay-off for putting so much time into the game. However, others are a little bit of a slap in the face. If you are a real glutton for punishment, you could start your second play though and complete the last of the side quests. I am not that way inclined…
What was that!?
Silent Hill is a cerebral experience, brought to you in part by terrifying visuals and eerie scripting. Let’s not forget the audio side of things, though. The sounds and music of Silent Hill are huge parts of what makes the game work on such a core level. Two things managed to shake my confidence in this regard: firstly it was announced that the nu-metal band Korn would be creating the theme tune for the game and secondly, the series composer, Akira Yamaoke would not be reprising his role.
Now, I don’t hate the band Korn (in fact I am a huge fan of their latest album); however, if you cast your mind back to previous outings in which they have performed some sort of soundtrack you will find a bad omen. They provided a song for the movie Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life, and the theme song for one of the biggest flops in gaming history, Haze. The worst part is I don’t particularly like the song they have written, but fortunately it doesn’t feature prominently.
Now, I am a big fan of Silent Hill and its music, so having someone new take the helm on scoring the games did upset me a little. That being said, I think that Daniel Licht does a pretty decent job of things. His compositions are very different from anything in the previous games, grounding it all in a very earthy, industrial style. Parts of the game reflect this really well, but at other points it seems to be a little much. His music certainly gives the creepy vibe, but just not in the same way. I would definitely recommend giving the soundtrack a listen.
Admittedly the sound does work quite well in the game, as there are a few moments where I have found myself a little jumpy, but there is a reliance on this type of audio scare in some parts. The ambient sound effects do quite well in maintaining an air of discomfort though, especially when the scenes take place indoors. It would have been nice to hear a little more put into the general ambiance, but other than that I found the sound design quite effective at setting the mood.
Today’s weather… foggy with a chance of rain
As with all of the Silent Hill games, the key is to make it look pretty while it is dark. Downpour achieves this for the most part. The character models are not bad to look at, but the animation is a little iffy at times. With that said, some of the enemy animations detract a little from the scary vibe that the game is trying to put across, and there is nothing worse than being dragged screaming out of the experience by impromptu laughter.
The game is at its best when it is showing off the scale of the level design. Some parts of the game are incredible to look at; one mention should be the monastery, which is beautiful to see in its half-destroyed state. With a great mixture of lighting and water effects brought out by the frequent storms, even the duller parts of the game begin to take shape and look better. The weather effects in the game do a pretty decent job of conveying the atmosphere too. Downpour isn’t just a name; the rain becomes torrential at points and makes things downright creepy. To add to this you have some pretty cool lighting effects from the lightning.
On the downside, it is really, really, really dark… all the time. Sometimes you can barely see a few feet in front of you.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Silent Hill: Downpour, to be absolutely blunt, is not a great game. The controls are frustrating at the best of times; both the action controls and even trying to navigate the notebook give a slight rise in my blood pressure. The story is actually compelling the further you dive in, but that of course means you have to slug your way through the rest of it to get any pay-off. Even with a pretty good selection of different endings, I am not even sure I can justify my time. I didn’t hate it, but it was hardly the highlight of my year.
The worst thing is that there are times when things look as if they are going to shape up, and that you are going to get that Silent Hill experience you so desperately want. Unfortunately you only ever get close, and never quite there.
I don’t like to give things a bad review, because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. So, after playing through the game, I went onto YouTube and watched someone else playing the game through, and the interesting thing was I enjoyed that more. Now whether that was because of the person playing the game, or that I personally didn’t have to deal with the mechanics is unclear.
If you are a Silent Hill enthusiast then I think you should pick Downpour up, because the story is pretty good, but for anyone else I think it is just a no.