The potential for a great game is here, just marred by some technical problems
Silent Hill is one of the granddaddies of horror gaming. It created a now-infamous town that brings out the worst side of people; a place where the true horrors are the psychological ones, not the creatures that wander the foggy streets. Many will cite the second game in the series as their favorite survival-horror game of all time, a true masterpiece of psychological horror. In more recent years, the Silent Hill franchise hasn’t been doing so well. It seems that Konami doesn’t really know what it wants to do with the series or what it should do to entice its core audience again. Ever since Origins, they have even been letting other developers give the series a shot. The latest game in the franchise, Silent Hill: Downpour, was given to Vatra Games. While it is probably the best Silent Hill game since 3, it still has some pretty glaring issues that make it a rough journey.
This Silent Hill game puts players in the shoes of Murphy Pendleton, a prison inmate. After a convenient (or is it?) bus accident frees him from his imprisonment, he stumbles upon the nearby town of Silent Hill and tries to escape to true freedom. Right from the get-go, questions are raised about his past. He doesn’t really seem like the kind of guy to be a prisoner, but several hints are given about the terrible things he might have done and what has happened to him in his past. These hints are fleshed out as he ventures deeper into Silent Hill, the place where everyone’s secrets are revealed.
I was extremely interested to learn about Murphy as I progressed deeper into the game. Vatra did a great job of teasing things about the character, making me want to know more. Why did he supposedly kill a man in the opening scenes? What happened to his son that we only see in flashbacks? Why are there so many wheelchairs in this world? The answers to these questions are trickled out to the player over the course of the eight-ish hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, these interesting plot elements start becoming more and more predictable as the story progresses. The game does have a few true surprises, but most of the moments are fairly easy to see coming. Character interactions are also pretty strange to watch, even for the standards of a Silent Hill game. One particular character doesn’t give Murphy a chance to speak and explain things, instead opting to always yell at him and point a gun in his direction. If she would just let him talk for five minutes, so much trouble could have been avoided. Another character seems completely superfluous, just meant to spout nonsense and be eerie. I was constantly back and forth between being enthralled in what was going on and shaking my head at a weird piece of dialogue or strange decision made by a character. It makes the story feel even stranger, although not in a way you may expect or even want.
Gameplay is just as you would expect if you are a fan of the series, alternating between combat with terrifying creatures and free exploration of Silent Hill. Sadly, the combat in Downpour is easily the worst in the series. While it greatly resembles combat from the earlier games in the franchise, those games have the excuse of being “acceptable” for the time they came out. This level of button-mashing and bad lock-on targeting isn’t acceptable in today’s gaming market. No skill is ever needed; just block and counter to win every fight in the game. Most of the time, it’s easy to just avoid combat with enemies. Unfortunately, Downpour has a tendency to force you into combat situations, something a game with such a bad fighting system SHOULD NOT do. The fighting is never fun and just made me groan every time I had to stop exploring to tussle with another enemy.
Speaking of exploration, Downpour has taken a big step forward since the disappointing linearity of Homecoming. There is a huge amount of real estate to explore in Silent Hill this time around and, for the first time in the series, side quests to find hidden amongst the fog. These side quests are quite creative and oftentimes fun to complete. A few of the moments from the side quests are actually some of the best in the game. I hate to spoil one, but just imagine a movie theater where the movie reels project into another world. Sounds pretty cool, right? Sadly, these side quests are also a bit hard to find without exploring intensely. Odds are, most players will miss out on them. There are a few pretty amazing moments in the main story too (especially a scene feature an interactive play production of Hansel and Gretel). The Otherworld also returns in Downpour but in a new way. These sections greatly resemble a mix of classic Silent Hill gameplay and the chase mechanics from Shattered Memories, complete with a button for looking behind you to see what is nipping at your heels. It was very cool to see this homage to my personal favorite Silent Hill game, but these segments get a little old by the end of the game. The thing chasing you is always the same, and these sections tend to rely on trial-and-error to find the right path to safety. Puzzles have also gotten much better, since Homecoming’s unbelievably easy ones. They never get as hard as some of the ones from the first couple games, but there are some clever elements weaved in here and there. I chose to play Downpour on a puzzle difficulty of Hard, which may have been the reason why they were at least good. I have no idea if they are as well done on easier difficulties.
Downpour is a decent-looking game but rarely does anything special with the visuals. Most impressive are the Otherworld sections. Vatra’s art team went absolutely nuts with these sections. I could describe them, but I really don’t want to spoil the surprises for anyone who plays them. Let me just say that they do a lot more than just using metal grating for floors and giant fans (although both of those things are present) like previous games in the series. As for the creature design, it didn’t really impress me. None of the creatures from previous games (at least to my knowledge) make an appearance here, and that is really for the worse. Most creatures resemble humans too closely with none of the creativity present in earlier Silent Hill games – even the last one. Enemy variety is also sparse, so you will see a lot of the few types that are present.
The real problem with the technical side of the game, however, is the way it runs. Texture pop-in is extremely prevalent and VERY frequent, especially when switching environments. Load times are rather long; again, especially when switching environments. Worst of all, the game is one of the most hitchy I have ever played (PS3 version). It constantly jerks and twitches when running around town as (I guess?) it tries to load things in. Interior environments fare better but aren’t immune to the problem. The whole graphics package is a little rough overall (I’m unsure if other versions fare better).
Another important thing to note is that this game has NO way to save it manually. The only option is to let the game autosave, which it chooses to do seemingly at random. Most of the time, it will save when you pick up any important item. I’ve also had it save when leaving a building but not always. It’s very inconsistent and cost me game progress once or twice before I learned to be cautious. I urge anyone playing the game to wait for the “Saving…” message to appear in the upper-right corner before turning the game off. It’s frustrating; games shouldn’t do this – period.
This marks the first entry in the series to not have the musical talents of Akira Yamaoka. If you’ve played a Silent Hill game in the past, you will immediately notice the difference. The music feels different but not in a way that I can put into words (I’m terrible at describing music). The best way I can describe it is that it just isn’t as atmospheric as Yamaoka’s tracks. It isn’t bad for video game music, but it falls into that category of game music that I describe as forgettable: I won’t be remembering these tracks 10 years down the line, while tracks from 2 and 3 are still stuck in my head.
Silent Hill: Downpour is a bit of a rough package. The technical side of the game is extremely rough, and the combat is some of the worst I’ve ever played. However, Vatra Games made some very interesting design choices in the exploration and story sides of the game that feel closer to the first three Silent Hill games than any other since. I think they are on the right track here and should be given another go at the franchise. If they can work out the technical kinks and figure out a better combat system, I could see them reviving the franchise in a way that would make the original creators proud and bring back all those fans that have been crying out for a true sequel.