In my mind, Silent Hill stands as one of the greatest franchises Konami has produced. More or less a response to Capcom’s Resident Evil series, Silent Hill traded in shlock dialog and homages to zombie movies for more psychological approach akin to thrillers like Twin Peaks, Jacob’s Ladder and Rosemary’s Baby. Instead of having to fend off an army of zombies using military trained super soldiers, Silent Hill delighted in screwing with the mental states of regular joes who must endure torments and come face to face with their own dark secrets.
As much as I love Silent Hill, I’ve felt that the series hasn’t been doing so well lately. Everyone can agree that the franchise peaked with Silent Hill 2 and it hasn’t been the same since. Silent Hill Downpour is Konami’s latest attempt to rejuvenate the brand and sadly, it continues the downhill trend. Konami tapped Vatra Games to handle the project, an odd choice considering this would be their sophomore effort – Vatra’s first game being 2011’s Rush ‘N Attack: Ex-Patriot. As much as I had hoped Downpour would be the game that would turn things around, it simply isn’t the case. Technical problems, graphical issues, frustrating combat and uninteresting gameplay sequences hinder the game’s journey to greatness.
Taking center stage in the latest paranormal drama is Murphy Pendleton, a convict on his way to new home via a prison transfer after performing a heinous deed in the showers (wait, it’s not what you think). During the trip, the prison bus driver is forced to swerve off the road to avoid a massive abyss, causing the vehicle to crash into a nearby ravine. After an indeterminable amount of time, Murphy comes to and finds himself outside the bus, free from his shackles. Making his way through the forest and to a nearby truck stop located on the outskirts of Silent Hill, Murphy quickly discovers that all is not what it seems and must contend with the dark forces that haunt the town and come face to face with his past.
For those of you left unaware, Downpour continues the series’ trend of survival horror. You’ll spend the majority of the game wandering throughout the fog enshrouded town in pursuit of your reason for being there, encountering puzzles and monsters along the way. There is never a quick and easy path through Silent Hill, as a unknown calamity (or malevolent force) has blocked all convenient routes from point A to point B, requiring Murphy to take the scenic route through darkened alleys, worn down homes, apartment complexes and municipal buildings. Unique puzzles will often bar your way, requiring some sort of item or key before passage is granted (puzzle difficulty can be adjusted). Murphy isn’t alone in the town and he’ll share random encounters with other lost souls as well as a police officer who really has it in for our hero. Apart from these mysterious people, Murphy will also meet with Silent Hill’s terrifying welcoming committee.
One of the trademarks of Silent Hill are the creatures that inhabit the abandoned town and wander the streets. In order to defend himself, melee weapons (rocks, knives, wooden planks, shovels, axes, etc.) and firearms are found all over the town - although guns are decidedly more rare – but Murphy can only carry one of each type at a time. Weapons will break over time, so they cannot be relied on for too long. Vatra tried to inject a measure of strategy in combat by granting creatures the ability to block (a first for the series) and instead of blindly hammering at a monster until it dies, you’ll need to keep an eye on their attack patterns, striking only when you spot a break in their offense.
This may sound exciting, but it really isn’t. Silent Hill was never known for its combat and opted to make up for such shortcomings with atmosphere and Downpour stays the course. Combat feels more like a chore than normal which makes for an overall frustrating experience. For one, you cannot block enemy attacks if you’re carrying anything smaller than a kitchen knife, so defending yourself is a poor prospect. Even if you can block, the fights tend to favor the creatures especially if you have the misfortune to come up against a group of two or more. There is no proper crowd control and turning the joystick in one direction to block attacks from the side is clunky and awkward. Your best bet is to simply run away because after a decent chase, they’ll give up and leave you alone. You’ll eventually get used to combat, but expect a bit of a curve that will expend most, if not all, your health kits (interestingly enough, if Murphy is near death, he will run very slowly but in combat mode, he moves at full speed. Use that to your advantage).
It wouldn’t be a Silent Hill game without a trip to the nightmarish Otherworld. At certain points in the story, Murphy will be forced to enter the alternate reality, where the foggy streets melt away to reveal a water filled industrial nightmare. In order to escape, he must trudge through a linear path filled with puzzles and chase sequences involving a malevolent red orb that will kill Murphy if it gets too close. Water plays a larger role in the game as periodic rainstorms have an effect on creatures roaming the streets and when a downpour sets in, they become more aggressive and appear in greater numbers. The game’s load screens prompt you to take shelter during these rainstorms, but it doesn’t tell you where these safe havens are. You’re more likely to stumble upon them as you explore the town.
Unique to this Silent Hill game are side quests, but they should really be thought of as collection quests. If you take the time to explore off the beaten path, you’ll come across objects that Murphy can pick up and if you manage to collect all of the required items in a quest or perform a task, you’ll get additional supplies as a reward. You’ll also find documents lying around that feed into a Mysteries folder within the in-game journal that doesn’t add to the main narrative, but serves to flesh out the history of the town and those who inhabit it.
Visually speaking, Silent Hill Downpour is a strange beast because it looks fantastic during the initial moments but soon the quality takes a noticeable dip. The textures applied to the models during the cutscenes and tutorial sequence look fantastic, detailed and promising. However, once Murphy finds himself on the lam from the law the visuals take a dive. Unsightly graphics are not limited to the characters but the environment as well. The fog effects appear as if they were used to hide parts of the game rather than convey any sort of fear of the unknown. In the original Silent Hill, fog was used to compensate for the poor draw distances of the first Playstation, but in later games it was given character due to little flourishes like thickness and swirling. The fog in Downpour lacks character and often bleeds through the walls of a room while making the transition from indoor to outdoor environments (the effect reminds me old Direct X PC games).
Something has to be said for the game’s monsters. One of the things I love about Silent Hill are the truly hideous and terrifying monsters the designers come up with. Not only are they intended to shock the player, but each creature maintains a significant connection to the protagonist, serving as a manifestation of their darkest secrets. Disappointingly, the creatures of Downpour are considerably more generic than their brethren and are not nearly as frightening as, say, Pyramid Head, Abstract Daddy or the Grey Child (that said, I’m glad that Vatra didn’t pander to the fanbase by adding them in). Now that I think about it, the Screamer creature looks a lot like one of the zombified ghost citizens from Deadly Premonition. Must investigate further.
There are moments when Silent Hill Downpour shows promise. It tries hard to pull off a decent atmosphere and it does a good job with putting you in some truly unnerving situations (the crying woman in the basement sequence got me out of my seat). Although Akira Yamaoka wasn’t around to do the soundtrack this time, replacement Daniel Licht has put together some cool musical cues. Undercutting the potential of success is the gameplay as it tends to just get in the way. Again, to be fair, Silent Hill never had decent combat but someone out there has to have an idea to make it feel less arduous. Breakable weapons quickly become an inconvenience, especially when you must have an axe to smash barricade or a hook to lower ladders. During one encounter, I lost my weapon trying to fight off a particularly nasty monster and my attempt to escape was thwarted by a blockade and since I lost the axe, I had no choice but to let the monster kill me, sit through an excruciatingly long load screen, ignore enemies in order to preserve the weapon, run past the creature that killed me earlier and smash through the barrier. Another moment of grief came from losing my gun just because thecutscene called for it. Hey, game? That wasn’t cool, especially because I chose to not use it thinking I would need it for later.
The Otherworld sequences, while interesting to look at and walk through, are fine until Murphy has to run away from the red orb of light. In order to escape, he must run down several hallways, dropping down objects to block the path (how would this work against light exactly?) and must contend with trap doors that force him down alternate routes, some of which requiring him to backtrack past the red ghost, whose energy can cut through walls and hurt you (cheap!). If you get too close to this damage dealing entity, Murphy will let out a laughably bad scream.
Framerate eventually becomes a problem but I suppose I can be thankful that it only occurs during the autosave checkpoints. It remains a severe pain because the game will slow to a crawl or in some cases completely lock up for a moment before getting itself going. Load times are a hassle because they are way too long. Granted, I’m playing on the PS3 version, so I have no idea if these problems affect the Xbox version.
Speaking of autosaves, I don’t like being at the mercy of it in this type of game. Other Silent Hill games had designated save points that worked well enough, so why fix something that isn’t broken? In a survival horror game, it seems to me you’d want the freedom to save whenever and as often as you want in the event things go really bad. There’s a good chance I could get screwed over if the autosave kicks in right when I enter a zone with lots of enemies, no health kits and one hit away from death.
Downpour could have been good, but any shot at greatness gets bogged down by a laundry list of problems. A shame, because there are times when the games gets tense and unnerving, a big plus for this genre. If you’re looking for a good Silent Hill experience, you might be better off pursuing older titles in the series (Silent Hill 2 and 3 are currently available in the Silent Hill HD Collection). While the gameplay won’t set the world on fire, the maturity and psychological slant of the narrative combined with a terrifying atmosphere is what makes Silent Hill a richly entertaining experience – well, in my opinion anyway. Silent Hill Downpour certainly tries hard to do this, but ultimately falls short.