Publishers: Konami Digital Entertainment
Developers: Vatra Games
Release Date: March 13, 2012 (NA) – March 30, 2012 (EU) – April 5th, 2012 (AUS)
System: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Silent Hill is one of those franchises that have become so dear to its fanbase that any single change made to its gameplay templates can result in a tremendous backlash. In my time lurking message boards I have, in fact, seen the Silent Hill fanbase compared to the Metroid fanbase, except a little worse. Judging by the backlash Other M received (which I still believe was more of a product of the industry media than the players themselves), this can’t be a good thing.
So how does Silent Hill: Downpour stack up? That’s a very difficult question, and the answer depends entirely on your own tolerance to strange game mechanics and less than phenomenal pacing. The game brings back many of the older Silent Hill mechanics very well, but also introduces a few more that don’t entirely blend smoothly. Still, it is a very high profile game whether judged in its own right or as a new entry in the Silent Hill series, so let’s take a good look at it.
Visuals and Audio:
Downpour looks just like you’d expect a Silent Hill game to look: muted, foggy, rusty, muddy, and generally a little rough around the edges. I’ve never been a graphics whore, so I can’t say I have real complains about the way the game looks, technically speaking. The facial expressions of the characters are particularly well done, once again maybe not technically, but in the sense that they fit perfectly well in the Silent Hill universe, both by the emotions expressed and the kind of realistic detail you would expect from a horror game.
The music is a completely different talk. Every fan of the series knows that the music of Silent Hill is some of the most iconic in the world of video games, thanks entirely to composer Akira Yamaoka. No matter what you personally thought about Silent Hill 1, 3, 4, Homecoming, or Shattered Memories, there was always something that could not be doubted: the music was amazing. This time around, Konami had the dubious idea to do away with him, or maybe he didn’t want to do it anymore, who knows. In any case, the tremendous responsibility of composing the music for Silent Hill: Downpour fell on the shoulders of American composer Daniel Licht, who has scored movies like Amityville 1992, Children of the Corn 2, and Hellraiser IV, as well as TV shows like Dexter and Body of Proof. While his work does offer Downpour some very adequate ambient rhythms and dynamic themes that change depending on your enemy encounters, I don’t feel that it lives up to the incredibly high pedigree the series’ music is known for.
Still, it is adequate and serves its purpose well enough, so I don’t have complaints as much as I have disillusioned hopes. But seriously, Korn performs the credits’ music. I’m just going to let that sink in.
When it comes to Horror games, few have stories as memorable or shocking as the Silent Hill series. Starting from the very first one, strange concepts and unexpected twists have been the seasoning of Silent Hill, weaving ideas like pagan cults and psychological repression if not always expertly, then at least in a very unique way.
Silent Hill: Downpour mentions the cultist stuff only marginally, and instead retreads entirely into the idea of psychological repression. The entire story centers around our questionable hero, Murphy Pendleton, coming to terms with the bad things he’s done – and that’s really it. There are other characters like Murphy in Silent Hill, each also atoning for their own sins in their own particular way. They are also only marginal, and barely add anything to the story.
One thing that is worth pointing out is how the entire story can take on a different meaning depending on which ending you get. Like in previous Silent Hill games, there are multiple endings to be discovered, and each can potentially spin the entire journey you just played in a different direction. For example, questions like “what is Murphy atoning for?” and “how is he atoning for that?” have completely different answers depending on a few choices you make throughout the game. This is only possible because the world of Silent Hill (gamers familiar with the franchise will know I refer to the “real, “hell”, or “other” world) is entirely surreal and representational, the interpretation of which is dependent on a number of missing cues that are only delivered as the games near their end.
Overall, the story is intriguing when it comes to finding out exactly what Murphy is atoning for, and though it isn’t hard to see the twists coming, they still provide enough shock to be memorable and beneficial to the story. The fact that the entire story can be reinterpreted in a different manner in retrospect is an enjoyable plus, though expected from Silent Hill games at this point.
Anybody that has ever played a Silent Hill game knows that controls have never been their strongest suit, to put it mildly. Originally a little less awkward than in early Resident Evil games, the controls of later Silent Hill games changed into a now-typical 3rd person shooter setup, with the camera hanging always behind the player’s character’s shoulder, the camera rotating freely with the use of the right control stick. This has always been a deliberate design choice, with the limited combat, for example, enhancing the danger the enemies present.
In Downpour, this design choice has yet again been made, with the combat being like a very limited brawler – think of Condemned, if the player’s character wasn’t a trained police officer but a run-of-the-mill grown man. To put it plainly: you can move around, you can attack, and you can block. Depending on the weapon you are currently using your defense might be weak enough for enemies to punch right through, or strong enough for you to merely recoil from a tremendous impact. I should mention that you are able to change weapons at any time, though you never need to do this from an inventory screen; you merely need to find a weapon in the ground and you will automatically throw away yours to pick the other one up.You can also find a pistol or a Shotgun, and carry either both at the same time or one of them and a melee weapon.
I know it sounds like the game is trying to make you into a hulking murder-beast, but you have to keep two things in mind. First, your melee weapons wear out and eventually break, so you’re always fairly limited to a narrow selection of weapons depending on the area you are in. Secondly, your enemies also often carry weapons, block, and sometimes even dodge your attacks, making your life a lot more miserable. The combat is more developed than even in Silent Hill: Homecoming, but that doesn’t make enemies any less scary. It makes them rather frustrating, in my personal opinion, but not less scary. The enemis are indeed less scary in general, but it’s a different problem altogether that I’ll approach later.
In terms of actual running, the game handles it well enough. You run slower when you are hurt, yet this is oddly balanced by giving your character an adrenaline boost when enemies are very close, making it very difficult for them to ever catch up with you. This is definitely better balanced during specific chase sequences, in which it is very easy for the inexplicable entity that follows you to actually catch up with you and kill you promptly. This is great, because that’s exactly what you want from a game you expect to force a ‘flight’ response from the player more often than a ‘fight’ one.
Overall, the controls are responsive and only suffer slightly due to not being a perfect fit for the design template used in the game, which is rather understandable.
Like I said above, I find it understandable that this game’s combat doesn’t exactly mesh in with the design at all times, and that also goes for several other elements of the game. What’s happening here, is that Silent Hill: Downpour attempts what is probably the most ambitious design of the Silent Hill franchise to this day, being a total mish-mash of new and old concepts from this and other horror game series.
To put it as simply as possible and in context: Downpour has the Town of the first Silent Hill, but bigger, more open, and with a few collectables and sidequests thrown about; it has the combat of Silent Hill: Homecoming, minus dodging and with the weapons mechanic of Condemned, where you can pick differente weapons as older ones break; there are the classic 3-floor areas (plus parking lot, smaller top levels, etc) of the first 3 Silent Hill games, and you will still need to find keys, solve puzzles, and so on; there are the typical “nightmare” or “otherworld” sections, though they are highly linear with no backtracking this time around. These areas are once again industrial in design, though with the addition of water and no-gravity motifs (the no-gravity is only for looks and doesn’t affect gameplay at all), as well as some other “inception-like” surreal geometry and architecture elements sprinkled here and there; you also have chase sequences very much like those of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, where no combat is involved at all and you can be trapped running in circles until you find the semi-hidden exit; and finally, you have a typical linear action-adventure layout capping off the beginning and ending of the game.
If the Silent Hill franchise is the “Gothic Horror” of Horror video games, then Silent Hill: Downpour is Frankenstein’s Creature, a strange amalgamation of the good and the bad of the genre. It is certainly an ambitious and impressive design, and though I’m not in love with the entirety of it (combat is weak , chase sections should have had a more meaningful pursuer or group of pursuers, sidequests should have been more easily accessible as well as more easily ignored by those that couldn’t care, and enemies should have been stronger), I do really want to see a sequel that refines all these elements, as they could make for a truly amazing horror game. As it stands, this game goes back and forth between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and rarely into “that was freaking awesome why can’t the whole game be like this” territory.
It took me a little over 10 hours to finish this game (at least that’s what the game says, but I could swear it was more like 14 hours based on my own advanced math mis-calculations). I played it in Hard Mode with Normal-difficulty puzzles, as the game offers you options for both settings. Previous Silent Hill games would give you a grade and some extra weapons at the end of the game, which is unfortunately missing from this game. However, there still are multiple endings to be earned (6 in total), and seeing them all requires 2 or 3 complete playthroughs. In addition, there are quite a few sidequests in the game, and while I only finished 3, I already got to see a bit of a nice reward from doing them, including a very memorable mystery of a family that died under mysterious circumstances, and which you actually see play out in a very brutal fashion. Other sidequests require you to find pieces of a map, or free some birds from cages hidden around the Town of Silent Hill, which might prove tedious for players eager to get to the next main area, but certainly offer some decent incentive to play the game multiple times. I myself already started the game a second time, and the fact that I now know roughly where to find these sidequests, as well as how to access them, is definitely going to make the whole process more enjoyable than it was during my first playthrough.
In the end, I am somewhat conflicted with this game. While it would be easy to simply get offended by some of the new mechanics that don’t live up to their potential, the truth is that the ambitious design was guaranteed to have this outcome. Yet, this ambitious design is also what brings together some of my favorite elements of different Silent Hill games (traditional Silent Hill 1 areas followed by Shattered Memories chase sequences, for example) in a very satisfying manner, and that shows a metric ton of promise for a potential, more refined sequel.
+When the game hits high notes, it hits them really well. There are two large areas that are as well made as anything in either of the first 3 Silent Hill games, but there should have been more.
+Though not as good as in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the chase sequences are still a lot of fun and do a lot of good for the game’s pacing.
+The blend of old and new mechanics is highly ambitious and commendable, even if not all of them were implemented that well.
-It takes a bit too long to really start, in the true Silent Hill sense of the phrase.
-The whole Town mechanic is not as well-realized as it could be, instead potentially hurting the pacing of the game.
-Enemies in the Town are total pushovers, as they can’t even catch up to you as long as you keep running. Even when the rain is at its worse, these enemies pose practically no danger as long as you don’t engage them directly.
-Another complaint about enemies: they are not as scary as I’ve become accustomed to from previous Silent Hill games. Other Silent Hill games had dog-beasts, flying demons, deformed mannequins, razor blade monstrosities, and other such disgusting creatures. Downpour has a ton of crazy chicks, raging dudes, and bulky raging dudes. The two truly scary enemies in the game appear rarely, coincidentally in the best areas of the game.