Downpour is finally pushing the series in the right direction.
This isn’t the first time that the Silent Hill franchise has been developed by a non-Japanese development team. Climax Studios and Double Helix Games have both had attempts withOrigins, Homecoming and Shattered Memories. While I didn’t think much of Homecoming, I really enjoyed what Climax Studios did with Shattered Memories; I felt that it was a brilliant retelling of the first game’s story, but they also managed to twist in their own unique style, creating a compelling, highly tense and atmospheric Silent Hill. Downpour is the latest title in the series and is developed by Vatra Games, a new studio based in Czech Republic. First impressions weren’t all that great when I saw the unveiling of the game; to my surprise,Downpour isn’t as bad as it could have turned out to be, and while it does have some problems, the overall experience is compelling enough to keep you interested throughout the course of the game.
Downpour’s protagonist is one Murphy Pendleton, a convict who seems to be an honest prisoner, though he has a dark side. This is introduced at the very start of the game through a brutal tutorial that will remain unspoilt. After that, Murphy is sent to another prison facility. On the way, Murphy’s transport bus is involved in an accident allowing him to escape from the wreckage. Thinking he’s free, Murphy runs for it, only to find out he has been lured into a town known as Silent Hill.
I found the story for Downpour stimulating, and while not quite as clever as Silent Hill 2, it’s still interesting to find out the pieces of the puzzle. You aren’t told much about Murphy or why he’s in prison at the start; it’s down to the player to find out as the game progresses, feeding you little by little about what kind of guy the main character really is. In the end, you shape Murphy’s character by selecting a few choices throughout the game, moulding him into one of the five (plus one secret) different endings. A little strange is the effect these choices have on the particular scene where they are introduced. No matter the choice, they don’t change the outcome. It always ends the same, with the choices only affecting the ending; this could have been done better so that these choices don’t seem obviously included as an ending selector.
One thing that is always up for debate with Silent Hill games is the combat system. It’s never been all that great to be honest, and Downpour still suffers with mundane fighting that once again focuses the series on melee combat, something that Silent Hill: The Room did before it. Guns are few and far between; instead, you’ll picking up objects that litter the environment, such as bricks, pipes, axes and hammers. Weapons will break, meaning you need to keep an eye out for new ones to replace the one you have equipped when it shows signs of breaking. Be prepared to use your fists if you don’t. Certain weapons will be able to interact with environmental obstructions, like how an axe will chop through bordered up doors. One detail that irritated me while playing Downpour was how the user interface doesn’t specifically indicate what item you are picking up. I picked up wrong items that replaced my weapon with one that wasn’t as good countless times, all because I couldn’t tell what the game was alerting me to pick up. All it does is display the text “pick up” with the A button next to it, which is not helpful at all when you are hunting down key items.
Attacking the abomination of creatures that are out to get you in Downpour doesn’t feel good. Unexceptional is a word I would use – attacks just seem so robotic and stiff, like straight from aPlayStation 2 game. You get no sense of feedback from combat. It’s boring and uninspiring as you fling yourself in a clunky manner at the enemy with the game’s one attack button – which can be held down to do a stronger move – and a block to protect you. There isn’t much in terms of enemy types either, with all but one disposed in the same way. Damage to Murphy is represented by blood on his face and shirt, with heavy breathing indicating he is near death. The traditional first aid kit will patch you up back to full health, and of course you can still stash up on these in your inventory.
The combat might have not gotten the improvements I wanted, but one aspect that’s been enhanced is the exploration of Silent Hill. Taking part in a never seen before south-eastern region of Silent Hill, the game invokes players to explore because Vatra Games have included side quests that get added to your journal when you encounter them, be it by entering derelict houses, finding items hidden in the streets or meeting a homeless dude in the subway. Side quests aren’t just fillers to extend the game; rather, they reward you with better weapons or more insight to the story and history of Silent Hill itself. It’s one of the new features that I feel could remain in sequels to come.
If there’s one thing every Silent Hill game must do, it’s that it needs to submerge players with its atmosphere. At first, Downpour doesn’t appear to be all that gripping, but it’s not till you reach Silent Hill that things turn up a notch and the game’s set pieces come into play, setting up for some genuinely compelling moments that might just creep you out a little. I’m trying to avoid spoilers so you can play this game with no idea what to expect, but I don’t think I’d be spoiling much if I said that the famous fog is here, negating any chance to see enemies much more than a few feet in front of you. There’s some emptiness to the encounters as well; the absent emphasis on the crackling radio is something fans will notice is missing. Instead, players gain a walkie-talkie that fills the air with police chatter and ambient static. Enemies will appear almost without any warning, unless it’s some key section, and then the high tension sound comes into play building up to a crescendo, something you’ve heard in recent horror and thriller films.
Transformation to the Otherworld is something that doesn’t feature as much as I would have liked. Otherworld feels inspired by Shattered Memories. What this means is you spend less time exploring and more time running away from some bizarre floating red ball of energy that can pass through walls and other objects. While running, you’ll pass metal cages filled with deformed people that you can use to obstruct the energy ball, like how you threw down objects in Shattered Memories. It seems almost pointless since the ball of energy can go through stuff, and it doesn’t seem worth the time to stop and push a cage to the floor, basically making that feature pointless. If this red ball gets near you, the game employs slow motion to show that the ball is causing damage, which is extremely annoying when you’re in a part where it’s almost always behind you. There are instances where you are given a chance to explore the Otherworld setting during a puzzle solving part, but mostly it’s just run to the safety zone and then you’re done. At least the setting itself is just as hellish as any of the other games, with blood spewing monsters making a frequent appearance along with other nastiness.
Disappointingly, the atmosphere is broken by some performance mishaps. For one, the framerate can chug when the game auto saves. It’s even worse when the game loads the environments on the fly, making the framerate dip to what seemingly seems like single digits. In one section, the game just froze for a couple of seconds and then placed me where I would have ended up if it hadn’t had stopped to load. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a real immersion killer when it does. Downpour uses Unreal Engine 3, and what comes with that is the typical delay in texture loading, which is kind of amusing in a game like Silent Hill. It’s spooky to look at a map and watch it fade into detail from a plain texture.
Legendary Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka is nowhere to be found in Downpour, as he’s replaced by Daniel Licht, the guy who scored the TV show Dexter. His take on the soundtrack is well thought out, not out of place, and full of eerie sounds that – while effective – aren’t as powerful as the industrial themed sounds of Akira’s work. Licht has gone for more of an organic sounding atmosphere that fits well with the infused rain theme that the game has going on.
Silent Hill Downpour is a good game that I feel slots in between the mediocre Homecoming and my personal favourite of the western developed Silent Hill games, Shattered Memories. The ideas and creativity are there, and I like the inclusion of the side quests, giving the player a reason to explore the foggy town. It’s just a shame that the atmosphere is spoilt with some unnecessary framerate drops and basic combat. Fans are probably already heading into this with low expectations, and that’s probably the best way because you might just like what Vatra Games have tried to accomplish with their personal take on the Silent Hill series.