Silent Hill: Downpour
Playing Downpour is to suffer the effects of food poisoning. That's not just an easy metaphor, but an apt one as well.
That low level stress that sank into my bowels was initially and incorrectly tagged as vexation over a tired concept, that the game didn't agree with me - or more accurately I didn't agree with the game.
I was only partially right. What I finally realised is that there's some horror staples that are far too bloody effective on me. I haven't visited Silent Hill in eight years. The continued twisting of my gut while I played Downpour reminded me why.
The eighth game in a franchise now thirteen years old, the fourth title released by a studio other than creator Team Silent and the first untouched by any of the original team (2009's Shattered Memories the last featuring celebrated composer Akira Yamaoka) , Downpour offers little in reinvention.
And by that, I mean in the broadest of strokes that this latest Silent Hill is still a third-person horror adventure with awkward combat, infuriating puzzles and a fractured and bizarre narrative. And still very much unique in a genre more interested in crowbarring action into the fray.
It's successful in matching the 1999's original formula that equates to a deeply disturbing trek through the town of the title.
Thirteen years of ingesting cinema, TV and other games' attempts at horrifying us means Silent Hill's darkest excesses in character and themes would no longer unsettle us as it once did. Developer Vatra Games thankfully doesn't try to match what's went before, but does latch onto the disquieting atmosphere brewed so strongly by murky streets and a soundtrack that draws razor blades over your intestines.
Thus the story's not as bizarre - fractured though it is, a prisoner escaping jail and the memories of his murdered child is relatively straightforward - nor is the game as strong - but then, whenever has a seventh sequel been that? - but Vatra Games takes a decent stab at what it thinks a Silent Hill game should be.
You're still the everyman, drawn to the fog-covered town for reasons and reveals that unfold as you progress. Encounters with what few residents there are will always seem slight off. Puzzles will seem baffling. The game will taunt with shock horror tactics, and what combat there is with makeshift weapons will be ungainly.
It's the latter that's the game's weakest element. It's understandably difficult to create a satisfying game mechanic which also needs to accurately convey combat inexperience on behalf of the character. Downpour goes for a two button approach - one to strike, one to block (and arguably a third that lets you toss your chosen weapon) - that portrays Murphy's clumsiness well.
But in mapping the same system to the enemies, then programming them with a very basic set of movement commands on top of poor (and in the case of the Weeping Bats, outright hilarious) animations, these clashes are sucked dry of any fear. Fear that at times is replaced with frustration, as the camera unhelpfully pans round to Murphy's front, and looses track of the combatants when in tight spaces.
Design-wise Silent Hill and its surrounding areas are still as filthy as you remember, though you'll unlikely be enamoured with the detailing: murky colours means everything fades into the general background. It's supposed to emulate Silent Hill's aversion to signposting interactive scenery or objects, but makes the concession in giving every room at least a low level of illumination, and thus losing the dual purpose of atmospheric lightning/tension builder that's supposed to be the work of the returning flash light.
It's when Vatra crank open the Other World, that hellish alternative reality overlaid on Silent Hill, that we get to see the developer having some fun, and the sights it creates are worth pause to drink in. These points give rise to the game's best moments, and its most sickening foes - hilarity takes a back seat to revulsion.
But the embodiment of the game's unpleasantness is in the series' new composer Daniel Licht, whose industrial-tinged score is completely distinct from original composer Akira Yamaoka but no less effecting: it's perhaps only poorer by a comparison between the two that needs not be made.
The music unnerves and strikes out similarly to Limbo. But where, say, Limbo's was haunting, Downpour's is unrelenting, and even without a bass system the chords and ambience burrow painfully into your stomach and linger.
Odd then outside the score the audio's mix is flawed, muffled even. You can tell the game was built for surround sound systems in mind - turn away from radio or characters with just a TV's in-built speakers and the voices drop off considerably. It's a hindrance when audio cues are such a big part of the series.
You'll likely miss hearing the recurring station MC who dedicates songs to your character and is a pivotal story point early on, while the crackle of your walkie-talkie indicating incoming monsters is desperately weak, lost against the roar of footfalls and wooden board creaks. The mix is simply unbalanced.
Silent Hill remain as potent as ever as a place to tell horror stories from: however the quality of each rendition is entirely down to the developers who tell them. Varta does better than those that have went before, as rigidity in sticking to Team Silent's formula means this is truer to the franchise's origins. But this also means the comparisons are more heavily stacked against it.
It's by no means a weak take on the series, but if you're a fan wanting to revisit the town, and you're happy with a double-dip, then you'd be advised to stop off first with the HD Collection, also released today. It's decade-old content means combat issues can be forgiven, and both 2 & 3 offer the superior stories - a fact that'll make them both better attraction to newcomers curious about the series. But once they're done and you're eager for more, then Downpour's the strongest of the latter day Silent Hill returns.
- System:PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer:Vatra Games
- Offline players:1
- Age limit:From 18 years
- Release date:30 March 2012
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- Silent Hill HD Collection PS3/Xbox 360
- Silent Hill 3 PS2
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