A Fifth Dimension Beyond That Which is Known to Man: Silent Hill
Approximately four years ago, Konami released Silent Hill: Homecoming, which was the second attempt at the series by a western developer and the first on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Unlike Downpour, though, Homecoming had the promise of the original music composer of the series, Akira Yamaoka, overseeing the project and making sure the game properly reflected the same sentiment as the other iterations in the series. How much influence Yamaoka had beyond the musical score is unknown, as the game resulted in a mixture of the Silent Hill movie, Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill mythos. Now, Vatra Games is taking a crack at the series, and it seems they have chosen to go the route of Silent Hill 2, which is to say that they have crafted their own narrative that does not necessarily connect to any of the other games in the series or explore the mythos of Silent Hill.
Murphy Pendleton is the unfortunate soul to visit Silent Hill in this outing, and it is not obvious what his ties to Silent Hill are, except that he is on a bus that crashes just outside of the town. However, it is apparent in the intro that Pendleton is a prisoner, which opens with him escorted down a hallway and later to the ill-fated transport bus mentioned before. Much in the same vein as Silent Hill 2, Murphy has some skeletons in his closet and what better way to expose them than a trip to Silent Hill, right? Most of the story plays out in cutscences and documents found throughout the game—typical for the series. It seems things started going bad for Pendleton when his 6-year-old son died shortly after being kidnapped. This puts Murphy’s life on a downward spiral resulting in him losing his wife and winding up in prison. While incarcerated, Murphy gets into some business with a crooked guard. Sewell is the name of said guard, whose appearance oddly resembles that of Kevin Bacon’s character in Sleepers (this can only mean bad things for Murphy).
After the crash, Murphy is left to explore and find a way out of Silent Hill. As with the other entries, his surreal, psychological journey through Silent Hill forces him to relive and accept some of the darker moments, thoughts and events surrounding his son’s death and his misguided revenge. Along the way, Pendleton runs into a few tormented individuals, with only one being crucial to the overall plot. The story concludes in six different ways based on choices made through the game and interactions with monsters. The endings vary in degree of satisfaction in regards to how they appear to tie together with the story. None felt as clever as the ‘In Water’ ending of Silent Hill 2 in terms of what had to be done to get the ending, such as examining Angela’s knife often, not healing when low on health, and reading notes that evoked James’ suicidal thoughts.
The gameplay is mostly composed of exploration, puzzle solving and melee combat. In typical Silent Hill fashion, the combat is forgettable; though most of it is completely avoidable. However, on the harder difficulties it can be frustrating to deal with monsters that are near a door, puzzle or item. Usually the game will not allow you pick something up if a monster is nearby, which is more evident if you have the option that displays the button prompts turned on—the icon will be grayed out. Often times it can be hard to discern between a weapon and an item for a puzzle. For example, it is easy to confuse rocks with pieces of paper and levers to be used in a puzzle with poles.
The game is longer than most Silent Hill games (8-12 hours), especially with the addition of side quests that encourage exploration of the town. Some of the side quests are clever and dark, such as one that involves finding a missing girl who was given new instructions on how to get home from her mother, while others are forgettable, like setting birds free or clearing enemies out of the bank.
Story beats mostly occur at areas that lock Murphy in upon entering, which are an orphanage, library and prison to name a few (no hospitals or nurses). There are not many different enemy types in the game and they do not appear to be tied to any of the areas visited throughout the game. When it is raining or lightning out, they appear more frequently. Downpour lacks any real boss battles besides the final confrontation, as well. Some parts seem like they could be or should be boss encounters, but they are hardly as elaborate as other boss fights in series’ past.
Most of the time spent in the otherworld involves running from an orange-red glowing orb that is fixed on ending Murphy—vaguely similar to the red light chase in the Silent Hill 3 haunted mansion. Occasionally, it can be frustrating and hard to figure out which path is correct, but the incorrect paths loop around in order to avoid a dead-end while the orb is in pursuit.
At its core, Downpour’s gameplay feels true to Silent Hill, but it also feels ostensibly dated in a way that might make people unfamiliar with the series or that style of game frustrated or question the game design. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls come to mind as games with a similar problem but not to the same degree. Having control of the camera with the right analog stick is a nice addition, but there are still some rooms that have fixed camera angles—most likely as a reference to old games in the series or for additional atmosphere.
For the most part, Downpour matches the aesthetic and graphical quality of past Silent Hill games, but out of all the games in the series, this is probably the weakest. Murphy’s character model and most of the supporting characters look decent enough, except for a fat man encountered at the beginning and a little girl seen at the orphanage. The frame rate is horrendous, especially when the game auto-saves (no designated save points). While it is not completely broken, the game does occasionally lock-up and the frame rate issue is not easy to ignore when the camera is inexplicably facing the sky/ceiling when the problem corrects itself. Another potential distraction is that it is easy to mistake the lightning as a glitch when it turns the screen an odd purple-blue color.
Despite those issues, which might be a deal-breaker for some, Vatra’s Silent Hill is one that is foreboding and desolate—minus the occasional monsters. An entirely new area of Silent Hill is at Murphy’s disposal and Vatra appropriately filled it with eerie, seemingly vacant apartment buildings and shops, all of which look ruined and on the verge of being condemned. References to past games are sprinkled throughout for those that pay attention or are seeking them out.
Daniel Licht had big shoes to fill when he took over as composer after Akira Yamaoka left Konami to work at Grasshopper Manufacture, and he did a fine job for the most part. It is hard to work in the shadows of the original Silent Hill Theme, Theme of Laura and Promise from Silent Hill 2, just to name a few. Licht sticks with traditional industrial and ambient background noise during most of the gameplay, as well keeping sounds like picking up an item mostly consistent with previous games. The menu music is moody and ominous, but other than that, the only track that really stood out during the game was towards the beginning as Murphy is escorted to the transport bus, Licht did an excellent job of expressing the dejection felt by Murphy, coupled with what is seen onscreen. For those worried about the Korn song, it only plays during the end credits and if the game is left idle too long at the “press start” screen.
While the monster sounds are not as disturbing as past games, they do an adequate job of creating tension and dread, especially if the monsters are hard to see at first or attack by surprise. As for the voice work, it manages to avoid falling flat most of the time. Murphy has some weird lines occasionally, such as when he tries to convince a kid he is not the boogeyman, and they added a The Fog-like DJ that is a bit hokey.
Ultimately, Vatra fell short of the brilliance of Silent Hill 2, but it is nice to see the series headed in a direction that focuses more on stories that deal with individuals struggling to cope with traumatizing events of their past instead of expanding the Silent Hill mythos. Downpour is a good Silent Hill game that is hard to recommend given its technical issues and gameplay that puts the game in a niche that appeals to far fewer now than when the series originally started. For those that this does appeal to, however, Downpour will likely disappoint a little but still be enjoyable nonetheless.