Survival horror as a genre has lost its way. We’ve seen at least two trends that stray away from the original idea come to light in recent times; namely Resident Evil’s more action orientated approach and other survival horror games lose their identity by relying on cheap scares. But then again, horror as we knew it is changing in similar ways. Even the arbiter of perhaps the scariest Science Fiction/Horror hybrid – Ridley Scott, is returning to the genre with the bleak looking Prometheus. We’ve seen signs of the more psychological horror games resurfacing over the years, but they never match the truly horrifying scale of terror that films and books can achieve.
Where have we deviated away from the primal fear of the mind in favour of cheap thrills and scares? Traditionally the Silent Hill series has been to the Resident Evil series as its polar opposite. But it doesn’t take much observation to note that since development was inherited by various third-party developers, the series has become a wayward soul. It is as if the original vision has been discarded in favour for Hollywood’s interpretation. Nowhere is this trend better represented than the abysmal Silent Hill: Homecoming, which for many was the final nail in the coffin. Not even a complete shift in the design of the genre in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was enough to bring back the horror. So once again the mantle has been shifted to little known Czech developers Vatra Games, who have come up with Silent Hill: Downpour. But has a possible return to form been called off due to poor weather conditions?
Previous games have merely hinted at dark secrets behind the protagonists; but Downpour chooses to instead hit you with the idea with a plank, by forcing you as convict Murphy Pendleton to kill a fellow prisoner. He is later moved along with a few other prisoners to a Maximum Security Facility when the transport vehicle crashes outside the fabled town of Silent Hill. While initially relieved to be freed from the shackles that bound him, it soon dawns on him that this town is far from normal, and he subsequently wants out. While not quite a return to form, the story is at the very least engaging up to a point. People Murphy stumbles upon are needlessly cryptic to the point where it initially sounds like a government conspiracy is to blame for the monsters in Silent Hill. Its conclusion is perhaps way too convoluted for its own good; but the occasional choices round off Murphy’s character, giving him either the persona of a vengeful father figure or a homicidal psychopath, which in turn influences the ending you get.
Things begin in a disappointingly linear fashion, with Murphy exploring the outskirts of the town and venturing into one of the creepiest tourist attractions in the series’ history. There’s something particularly off-putting about an on-rails train ride that stops partway through to have mannequin miners appear closer with each flash of the light in the same way the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who do. But as this scene proves, Downpour relies more on jumps in general more than actual suspense and paranoia. Things get only slightly better as the town opens out to you, with the return of the desolate streets that bring along with it many side-quests to sink your teeth into. As you wander through the town, the weather can change, which is bad as it makes enemies more aggressive and more likely to turn up in numbers. The thing that really should work is the Other World sequences, but they follow a strangely linear path that is devoid of any tension beyond the initial chase, culminating into places you would want to escape from for all the wrong reasons.
So the main game is a bit of a dud so far, but the puzzles are a particular highlight. Puzzles in general may feature the occasional repeated task that can be a little irritating, but the execution is mostly fantastic. General puzzles you must solve as you make your way through the haunted areas even throw curve balls on higher difficulty settings, such as a faulty dial you must work around in order to solve the puzzle. As you branch out into the suburbs of Silent Hill, eerie side-quests become available to you which range from survival fights against foes to solving the mysteries surrounding the inhabitants of flats. One shining example is a side-quest involving playing a record backwards to rewind time and solve a murder. For me at least, the puzzles are fairly repetitive in instances, but the side quests alone are enjoyable enough to warrant appreciation, even if one of them isn’t available until the second play-through.
If only the same could be said for the combat and controlling of Murphy. Once you do decide to get into a brawl with other-worldly inhabitants, it becomes apparent that the combat is uninspired and unfinished. More often than not, it actually makes sense to just run away as guns are next to useless unless you have a long time to aim and melee weapons sometimes fail to connect, though spades and poles fair a little better than bricks and bottles. Each weapon degrades with each use, and before long they will break, leaving you incredibly vulnerable. Perhaps the awful combat is supposed to convince the player that flight is better than fight, but when Murphy runs about as fast as a legless dog compared to nimbler enemies you can encounter, neither option seems at all great. Even getting him to turn handles or go up and down stairs is a case of trial and error as he will often get stuck.
“It isn’t as much of a train-wreck as the Silent Hill: Homecoming was, but Silent Hill: Downpour is still a far cry from the glory days of the in-house developed games from Team Silent”
As for the presentation, it is amazing just how badly the game handles its own engine on the hardware. Frequently stuttering while simultaneously saving progress and loading the next area are just the start of the problems, as poor rendering in certain areas is quite frankly a depressing immersion breaker. If some more time had been put into making this a more seamless transition, I would probably be a lot more forgiving about the fact that Silent Hill: Downpour feels dated in almost every way. Some of the emotions that characters experience aren’t synced with the voice acting. Whether this is the melodrama that features heavily in the delivery of the script or just poor animation is anybody’s guess, but it is baffling to say the least. When the game does feature music, it is far from lamentable, but I did find myself wishing that the composer hadn’t changed from the iconic work of the series’ virtuoso composer Akira Yamaoka. The inclusion of Korn for the theme song is the most baffling inclusion in the series to date, rounding off a game that comes across as inferior compared to the in-house developed ilk.
It isn’t as much of a train-wreck as the Silent Hill: Homecoming was, but Silent Hill: Downpour is still a far cry from the glory days of the in-house developed games from Team Silent. While Homecoming felt a bit safe, yet needlessly intricate in many places; Downpour is slightly more worth the Silent Hill label because of the more traditional pacing and atmosphere it uses and excellent puzzles and side-quests to solve. This doesn’t stop the latest trip to the haunted town from being a dilapidated mess that for the most part is devoid of the creepy atmosphere the series is best known for. Downpour in general rains on the series’ sinister parade, putting the fate of a franchise at serious risk.