Silent Hill Downpour Review: Revenge is a Long Road
Silent Hill, once the jewel of the Survival Horror genre, has suffered a terrible decline since the series left the hands of Japanese developers. The successive weak entries in the series comprising The Room, Origins and Homecoming have taken the psychological nature of the series horror away and replaced it with continuously more action focused elements, with a massive reduction in the genuine fear that the games have been capable of inducing. New developer Vatra Games had a huge task on their hands, especially for a developer without a strong record or resources being given a beloved but declined series to restore. Amazingly Vatra games have managed to craft a pretty strong Silent Hill game in Downpour, making steps in the right direction on multiple fronts despite a few disappointing failures in other areas.
The story of Silent Hill Downpour puts us into the role of Murphy Pendleton, a convict incarcerated within a prison. The game opens with Murphy being transferred to another prison after an unexplored incident, and after an initial perp walk we are whisked into a bus and a journey into the encroaching night begins. Unfortunately for Murphy and everyone else on board the journey does not go smoothly and after a crash Murphy finds himself on the outskirts of the former resort town of Silent Hill. Of course, Silent Hill only calls to those with a dark past to face, and Murphy is no different in this regard.
As the game progresses Murphy's story unfolds in well paced parts and flash backs, and we encounter other characters who are being haunted by the infamous town. Silent Hill Downpour succeeds in creating an air of dread and mystery in its depiction of the titular town, with its abandoned streets and dark locations. Besides the main story revolving around Murphy, the game also has a selection of side quests littered about, all of which have some small story of their own to tell. This not only adds variety to the game but it also adds to the sense of history and power that the dark town possesses, and enhances the narrative structure of the game. While Downpour is not the best written story in the Silent Hill series and it is somewhat predictable with its twists and turns I still found it to be an effective and interesting tale that was worth seeing through to the end. The multiple endings were also a rewarding feature as they gave some, if limited, consequences for your actions throughout the game.
Silent Hill Downpour is certainly not the best looking game on the market, but it does have some great visuals and art design at points. The opening areas of the game perfectly capture the look and feel of a mysterious and haunting forested lake side. Mountain mines, rich forests and rural outskirts all look fitting in the first quarter or so of Downpour. The game has rain as an indicator of monster activity when outdoors, and this in conjunction with the more damp and organic looking mist add a lot to the visuals of Downpour. The town itself is also very run down, with largely abandoned buildings creating a sense of isolation and loneliness for the player. Downpour also sees the return of the Otherworld, and retains the flashy transition that Homecoming brought to the series. Generally I found the Otherworld itself to be far too bright and over-elaborate to be scary or fitting for the tone of the game, coming across as more of an annoying segment of the game than anything else.
The enemy design is also rather weak, with monster designs that are not found anywhere else in the series but which are largely completely lacking a fear factor. They are mainly just deformed humanoid creatures, and they are not at all unsettling the way past monsters in the series were. Character models look pretty good and the environments definitely have an Alan Wake feel about them at times, but Downpour also manages to be fairly drab at times with its repetitive indoor industrial areas being completely uninspired. The technical frame rate drops are also an annoyance that is very noticeable as the game goes on.
The music of Downpour is lacking the expertise of series veteran Akira Yamaoka, but Dan Licht of Dexter frame adds a lot to the musical prowess of the game. Latin like tracks are excellently mixed with industrial pounding and this makes for a surprisingly effective score. The theme music by Korn lacks any subtlety and will certainly not be to everyone's taste but personally I found it unobtrusive and actually quite fitting with the game. The sound effects really set the sombre tone for the game, with the environments being suitably sinister and the town feeling empty of friendly life. Monsters sound good and the voice acting is solid throughout for all the characters, something which past Silent Hill titles have been unable to achieve to the same extent. Murphy in particular hits all the right reactions one would expect from a sane person thrown into this nightmarish scenario, helping endear him to the player in a natural fashion.
The gameplay of Downpour is, at its core, the same as the rest of the series, albeit a version that takes modern conventions into account. The game is still completely third person based, with a mix of melee focused combat and puzzle solving being the staple gameplay. Exploration is a major part of Downpour, with side missions and extra items being the players rewards for this. Despite some refinements combat is still very stiff and unresponsive in Downpour. Murphy is not as capable as Alex was in Homecoming, meaning that enemies can pose a serious threat to the player, especially in groups. The poor clunky and imprecise combat does not help in this regard, but the game generally allows and encourages running from combat as a legitimate tactic for getting out of trouble. The puzzles add some variety to the gameplay and break up the potentially monotonous combat. Unfortunately the game forces the player into long and drawn out combat sections in the late stages of its length, really impacting the title in a negative way as it removes what the game built upon throughout the rest of its 8 hour length.
Silent Hill Downpour takes lessons from Dead Space and minimises its HUD elements, adding to the organic feel of the game and making it a more accessible experience. The items menu does not pause gameplay but is relatively simple to navigate and get around. The map and clue sections of the menu are presented in a really natural way, as they are all wrapped up into Murphy's Journal along with the overall objectives of the player at any time.
The pacing of the game is truly excellent in the first half or so, with a good 25 minutes lapsing before the player ever encounters a monster. The game understands what it is to be subtle and actually builds genuine tension with its strength of presentation and play with lighting. Unfortunately the game completely loses this in the second half in a way that feels as if the developers ran out of money. Ridiculous sequences that make a mockery of the promise of the early game are abundant in the final hour or so, and Downpour also has some miserable boss fights. The game also has a very poor save system and allows only one file to go at a time. Technical flaws and sub par combat add plenty of frustration as well.
On the more favourable side, Downpour has some really strong presentation elements. Ironically, it borrows a lot of aesthetic ideas from Alan Wake, with a shockingly similar forested setting for a section of the game. The addition of a quick button tap to look behind the player is a smart move and one that the game certainly takes advantage of. The game also jumps to a first person view when going through doors, adding to the sense of tension and feeling if vulnerability, both of which are crucial to a survival horror game.
Despite its issues I had a lot of fun with Downpour, especially the first half of the game. It builds a strong sense of tension and has some genuine creativity and innovative concepts that, while not reaching the heights of 2 or 3, definitely takes significant steps in the right direction. Downpour is a good game and the best entry in the series for quite some time thanks to its fantastic concepts, satisfying exploration elements and lovely visual design. It has limited replay value but the extra difficulty settings certainly add to the challenge and are worth a try for fans of the genre. Silent Hill Downpour is tough to heartily recommend at full price, but fans of the series or genre should definitely give Downpour a fair chance, it may just surprise you. It is a charming and tense game that weakens in its second half for reasons I suspect were to do with budget and time constraints rather than any fault of the developer, and represents an encouraging step forward for the series.
- Strong soundtrack
- Tense atmosphere
- Returns to the classic Silent Hill style
- Creative lore and environments
- Annoying technical issues
- Poor save system and terrible menu design
- Pacing falls apart in the second half of the game
- Clunky combat and some uninspired monster designs
- When the game tells you its "saving" don't believe it
- 6/10 - Decent