Silent Hill: Downpour - A Franchise Lost in the Mists
In this game, you play as Murphy Pendleton, a prison inmate who is sidelined into the surreal town of Silent Hill when the bus for his transfer to a supermax prison crashes off the edge of one of the town's many bottomless ravines. Throughout the game, Pendleton tries to run from his fate, but is perpetually pursued and seemingly punished, not only by the bizarrely behaved people that he encounters, but by the town itself which seems intent on driving Murphy toward's confronting some dark secret from his past. We are not privy to Murphy's history from the onset but by the end we've learned exactly the nature of the demons he is coping with, as well as those of his fellow "inmates" in his supernatural rehabilitation.
After the first few sections, the game opens up into the city proper, which, interestingly enough, is actually something of an open world, or more accurately a hub world that you are free to explore. Main quest missions spoke off of Silent Hill proper, which slowly opens up more of the town to explore as various sections of the game are completed. Unfortunately, aside from the main quest, very little direction is given to the player throughout the hub, which resulted in many a tedious hour spent wandering back and forth, hugging walls and trying desperately to find a handful of vital puzzle pieces that I missed the last two times I came through. The side missions these found items are associated with are, roughly half of the time, glorified fetch quests: Find all of a set then go to the place that you use the set. Precious little is added to the story of the game through these sections and only a couple were at all memorable.
In this installment, combat takes on a more action-oriented bent, utilizing an auto-lock on targeting system and a block/attack fighting system. As other reviewers have mentioned, the combat does tend to get a little repetitive as defeating most enemies follows the same strategy of "attack them until you aren't allowed to hit them anymore, then block their attacks until you are allowed to hit them again". The monsters do feature some variance in their attack patterns; Given that there are only five monster types in the entire game and two bosses, this is a necessary change up. The creature designs here seem tame by Silent Hill standards, but that may simply be due to their increasingly derivative nature as the franchise enters into this, it's eighth installment. Perhaps if the roots are getting too stagnant, someone should hire H.R. Geiger or someone analogous to give the visuals of Silent Hill a breath of fresh style?
The game also features two "moral" choice options, relegated into the beginning of the game and its ending, each with a "help or hinder" dichotomy. These choices influence the ending of the game, though their lack of dispersal throughout the rest of the story is symptomatic of a greater tendency towards taking ideas and implementing them in frenetic bursts rather than incorporating them into the whole. (More on that later.)
More than the creature types, your combat options in this game are limited by your inventory. You only have one firearm slot (with scarce little ammunition) and a secondary slot that is filled by a melee weapon. Melee weapons break after limited use: The best, most common weapons will dispatch three or so monsters before being damaged beyond repair. Fortunately, the environment is rife with improvised weapons for the taking. Unfortunately, these weapons clutter the "A to pick up" prompts when exploring the world map, meaning that trying to find the side quest miscellanea is an exercise in nausea as you jump the camera up to see where you're going, down and back to where you just ran from to see what triggered that A prompt you just saw, then back up again and spinning around to fight the locked up camera and figure out where you were going again.
Far more troublesome is inventory management, specifically the lack of delineation between your combat inventory and your quest items inventory wherein anything new is added at the end of the stack, and so, if you recently got a lighter, you'll have to wait a full minute of pressing left through your unforgivably slow inventory slots just to get back to your gun when you're in a pinch; Why the inventory doesn't simply cycle around to the other side as it has in previous installments (Silent Hill 3) boggles the mind. More than once has combat ended me, not because I wasn't moving strategically, but because I ran out of ammunition and switching weapons took a fortnight.
Breaking up the combat of the game are the fleeing sections, which are well-realized here with perpetually changing environments. In this game you're fleeing from a floating, ethereal black hole that disintegrates everything that it sucks into its nebulous mass, including Murphy if he drags his feet too much. The mechanic of knocking over objects and things in cages to buy time reappears as well, though much like a Mario Kart race, it felt like the entity was pretty much on my heels the whole time anyway regardless of what I tossed in its way. Absent were the hiding mechanics as well as the terrain traversal while running away that gave flesh to Shattered Memories' own interactive terror.
Silent Hill: Downpour
Beyond all those unoriginal elements, what is left to distinguish Downpour?
Hardly a visually stunning game, Downpour manages to deliver mediocre, repetitive graphics (compared to its peers on the same console in the same price range) while also failing to produce them reliably: Severe frame rate drops as well as unclosed and missing textures abound. The frame rate issues can be traced to aggressive anti-aliasing techniques that seem hardly worth their cost in obstructed gameplay. The missing textures were more intrinsically troubling. More than once, a vital object to interact with in a puzzle was absent when the area loaded, requiring a lot of guesswork that further diminished my good faith: There's no way of knowing how many key items I've missed as a result of the game simply not loading in the textures when I walked in to hunt for them. You can tell that the game really struggles to keep up when you're wandering the netherworld crossings between the chunks that the game preloads--doubling back can throw the game's visuals into fits for a half minute if you don't stop and let it catch its breath. Other major glitches included and overworld subquest that--theoretically--would have allowed me to traverse the city quickly using a tunnel system; Instead of opening more passages, different routes would be locked or unlocked seemingly at random as I played and completing the quest broke the tunnel system entirely, locking every entrance and exit and forcing me to run across the whole city while hunting to complete the side fetch quests.
The eighth excursion to Silent Hill does away with Akira Yamaoka as sound designer (though his work is, unsurprisingly, replicated in several points of the game) and brings in Daniel Leicht, who composed the score to the hit HBO series Dexter. Leicht does a serviceable job with the score, but in many places fails to capture the ambiance of Silent Hill's particular aesthetic in the way that Resident Evil features sweeping orchestral works. One particularly overt part of the score featuring repeated (violin?) strikes in progressively lower tones became grating by the fifth or sixth time I heard it make itself known over and above the rest of the game's sounds.
Downpour introduces side quests into the franchise, which are an interesting and novel idea that is implemented poorly, forcing the player to scour every inch of the town's quickly repetitive textures while fighting a balky camera all the way. Beyond this novelty, however, anyone who has spent time with the franchise's previous installments will see all the parts making up its body as a Frankenstein patchwork glaringly stitched together in odd ways, taking a sampling of the strongest elements of its dead ancestors without much thought given to the unity of the final design. This chimeric work of newcomer studio Vatra games is a marked improvement over its 360 predecessor, Homecoming, but only just so: It fails to exhibit any of the creative novelty that made Shattered Memories a contender for many Wii game of the year debates and with no infusion of new ideas to either the world or its burgeoning mythology, Downpour arrives as a soulless, hodgepodge creature desperately seeking its creator.