Developer: Vatra Games / Publisher: Konami / Played on: PlayStation 3 (also available on Xbox 360) / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood, and Gore, Sexual Themes, Intense Violence, Strong Language)
The release of Silent Hill: Downpour marks a minor milestone in the 13 year-old series as there’s now as many Western-developed Silent Hill games as there are Japanese-developed installments. Many longtime fans have been slow to accept the ‘outsourced’ Silent Hills and my guess is that Downpour’s reception won’t be any different, as it’s been developed by Vatra Games. The Czech studio walks the same kind of thin tightrope that many Western studios have balanced when entrusted with a beloved Japanese property: It’s the challenge of providing a fresh experience while hitting all the familiar notes that will make the fans happy.
When the first Silent Hill released in 1999, playing an ‘everyman’ was still new. The ease with which one can relate to that kind of character made the Silent Hill games all the more memorable. You play a similar non-action hero in Silent Hill: Downpour with the minor twist that the game’s protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, is an escaped convict. There’s just a little bit of The Fugitive near the beginning involving a prison bus rolling off the side of the road. This prompts Murphy’s escape that eventually leads him to Silent Hill. There’s a slight deviation from the Silent Hill formula; whereas most characters in the series go to the town in search of someone, all Murphy wants to do is get the hell out. And it wouldn’t be a Silent Hill game without some psychological subtext. In Downpour’s case, Murphy’s background as a convicted murderer isn’t cut and dry. Much like past games, the town of Silent Hill is there to help sort out his emotional baggage. He makes for an adequate vehicle for the game’s narrative although he lacks the support of a strong script to make me empathize with him as much as say, SH2‘s James Sunderland.
That said, I was glad I could at least rely on the hostile inhabitants of the town to generate an emotional response. This is an unusual Silent Hill where weapons break after continued use, but thankfully there are a ton of them, from highly useful pickaxes with long reach to less effective bricks. You can only carry one melee weapon and one firearm at a time, so there’s extra tension in being ready to grab, say, a chair as your stick breaks in the middle of a fight. It shouldn’t be surprising that infrequent appearances of enemies make their encounters all the more meaningful. To developer Vatra’s credit, I lost count of the times my skin crawled, either because of an enemy falling from the ceiling or someone waiting for me at the other side of a door. I would even try to temper this by adopting the ‘Let’s get this over with!’ approach of charging straight into a room just so I can get every nearby enemy out of the woodwork. Sometimes it’s just easier to deal with a group of enemies out in the open than it is to have them scare the crap out of you one at a time.
The design has also taken this opportunity to introduce other parts of Silent Hill not seen in past games’ maps. Downpour takes its time in getting you to the town proper; I didn’t hit foggy suburbia until I was 21% into my playthrough. Much of the lead up is spent in a mine, a natural setting for creatures to appear out of nowhere, which you’ll appreciate even more if you’re a fan of the British cave horror move, The Descent.
The game flow will be recognizable to Silent Hill fans. It feels familiar to spend about an hour at a time in a specific building, traipsing from room to room, exploring each one thoroughly for items. Progress can be as simple as finding the right key or as tricky as finding a key code by solving a puzzle. Figuring out such problems can involve referring to Murphy’s notebook or performing a more labor-intensive puzzle. One task I was fond of saw Murphy managing the production of a Hansel & Gretel play, where I had to figure out the order in which to raise a curtain, play music, shine a spotlight, reveal backdrops, and make thunderstorm sound effects. These incidents can feel rewarding once solved; the downside is that a number of them feel incredibly dated, as if a 1999 survival horror game just released. It seems silly to spend 20 steps trying to find a key item to bypass an obstacle when someone in real life (let alone any other game in 2012) would have just jumped over it. I especially found it frustrating that the game requires a specific stick with a hook in order to pull down fire escape ladders even though Murphy looks smart enough to pull down the same ladder with one of the countless crowbars in the game.
One of my favorite components of past Silent Hills were the highly disturbing, alternate reality “hell” versions of many of the game’s environments. Drenched in dark red tones and rust, these areas were profound contradictions, where I felt captive by the beauty of the decay but a part of me couldn’t wait to get out of there. So it’s mildly amusing that Downpour’s hell areas often want you kicked out to the regular world. You’ll know you’ve set foot in hell when a translucent vortex starts chasing you, sucking the level into itself and hurting you on contact. So you run, and run some more, not unlike the chase sequences in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
As a side note, one issue that truly hurts Downpour is the implementation of the load screens. I get that Vatra wanted to keep the loading screens to a minimum in order to keep you engaged. The problem is that the game loads scenes right in the middle of Murphy’s exploration, triggering countless freezes in the action for up to five seconds at a time. It’s very jarring, especially when it occurs while you’re rotating the camera.
It was through technical ingenuity that both the fog in daytime and the darkness at night (and indoors) negated the need to render objects in the distance in the first few Silent Hills. This ultimately gave those games an enhanced sense of dread and mystery. So it’s a minor letdown in Downpour that there’s some very good visibility with many of the environments, even the indoor ones. On the bright side, this game offers a very detailed depiction of the town, and the artists did a fine job making Silent Hill look fittingly trashed and abandoned. What is really puzzling is why this doesn’t apply to the character models. Murphy’s face and clothes display a muddy dullness, making one wonder if the game was stuck trying to load a more detailed render of our main character.
The visual warping of the hostile vortex is impressive, but it’s hard to admire it when you’re so busy running away from it. There are a number of hellish areas where you’re not being forced out, but they feel very out of place in the scheme of the series. The display of creatures suspended on the sides of walls, spewing blood from their bellies would work better in 2010′s Splatterhouse reboot. And the game’s titling is a bit of a misnomer as there’s hardly ever any rain. Sure there are numerous puddles, drizzles, and the odd kitchen sprinkler flood, but nothing that would truly qualify as a ‘downpour’.
One significant change to the series is that longtime Silent Hill music and sound designer Akira Yamaoka is not involved with Downpour. His absence is certainly felt as his emotional, disturbing, and often-ambient compositions refined Silent Hill’s brand more so than your average game soundtrack. Series newcomer Daniel Licht, who’s best known for his soundtrack work for the serial murder vigilante TV show Dexter makes a decent effort adding suspense as you explore the town, but his work here is hardly memorable. It’s not a good sign when the familiar item pick-up sound effect is the only piece of audio that connects you to the rest of the series.
There’s a bitter sweetness in Konami releasing both Silent Hill: Downpour and the HD Collection in the same month. One game offers an adequately suspenseful adventure and expands the series’ lore, just barely making it worthy of the Silent Hill name. The other release is a two-game combo that reminds us how remarkable the series once was. As one who considers the first few releases to be some of the most memorable games of all time, I could have easily dismissed Downpour. Yet I could not ignore the numerous chills and goose bumps I felt when I spied an enemy around the corner or just had the mere anticipation that one would suddenly appear as I swung the game camera. I’m glad I had an opportunity to revisit this lonely town; I just can’t picture myself doing it in Murphy’s shoes after one playthrough.