Silent Hill: Downpour Review
When it comes to quality, the Silent Hill franchise is all over the map. Certain iterations are praised, others reviled, while fans remain convinced that the next great Silent Hill game is somewhere just over the horizon.
Despite not having played any of the previous games, I can say with confidence that Silent Hill: Downpour falls somewhere in the mediocre middle. Published by Konami and developed by Czech studio Vatra Games, the eighth installment in the series combines surprising successes with frustrating failures.
Silent Hill: Downpour (2012)
Platforms: XBOX 360, Playstation 3 (reviewed)
Developer: Vatra Games
Publisher Konami Digital Entertainment
Released: March 13th, 2012
The game’s tutorial sequence is certainly a statement of intent — Downpour introduces itself by giving players control over a grisly revenge murder in a prison shower. Protagonist Murphy Pendleton is an inmate when the game begins, and like many characters in the series, he has a complicated, violent past that is gradually revealed as the game progresses.
In contrast to its title, Downpour’s story is delivered drop by drop. This restraint and efficiency is a strength; the writers never try to do too much, keeping themes consistent and convincingly depicting a story of grief, self-loathing, and redemption. The voice acting sounds smooth across the broad, and Murphy is a likable and laconic presence.
Stranded in Silent Hill after a supernatural prison bus accident, the tousled convict must come to grips with his uncanny surroundings and find a way to safety. Downpour is mostly a linear game, though players are also given ample opportunity to explore the town in search of side-quests, which range from developed mini-narratives to half-baked “find X of Y” ordeals.
Vatra nails the Rust Belt creepiness that Silent Hill has made its own, shrouding the town in fog and decay. During the Downpour’s titular rainstorms, the streets fill with staggering, drowned she-ghouls and muscly, knife-wielding maniacs, forcing Murphy to take refuge indoors. In contrast to previous games in the series, many of Silent Hill’s buildings can be entered. Unfortunately, gaining access to some requires the use of a special, hard-to-find item that the developers could easily have done without. The town’s layout often proves similarly irksome, bristling with arbitrary blockades that shunt players into predetermined pathways.
For every deft design move, Downpour provides an avoidable mistake, like the unskippable cutscene that precedes its most difficult gameplay challenge. On the most basic, technical level, the game is also marred by persistent frame-rate issues, a mortal sin for any console-exclusive title. Action slows to a crawl for several seconds before and after auto-saves, or when game changes from the player-controlled camera to a fixed perspective. Lucky, then, that these fixed-camera sequences are relatively rare, unlike in previous Silent Hill titles. They’re also relatively bloodless, which means that players won’t have to battle against an uncooperative camera and a bloodthirsty ghoul simultaneously — another series hallmark.
Designing the combat for Silent Hill games is a challenge — the feeling of helplessness and incompetence is part of the terrifying fun — and Vatra struggles a bit. Though pressing the attack button elicits wild, amateurish swings that ratchet up the tension, it’s still possible to disinterestedly button-mash your way through much of the game, at least on Normal difficulty. Enemy attacks feel rote and repetitive — I didn’t discover the “block” or “lock on” functions until about eight hours in, nor did I need them much after. Weapons consist of whatever happens to be lying around, from rocks to table lamps. Murphy can only carry one weapon at a time, so most players will opt for the omnipresent red fireman’s axe whenever possible.
Pistols and shotguns are also available, though their usefulness can be inconsistent. Vatra opted for an extremely generous auto-aim system, which is fine, except that it makes the game strangely reluctant to assign credit for player-aimed shots. There is no gameplay experience more frustrating than loosing an on-target shotgun blast at point-blank range, only to get devoured by the onrushing enemy it miraculously missed.
Puzzles are generally creative and amusing, though players will often find themselves figuring out the solution long before they’ve found the specific combination of items and button-presses necessary to achieve it. The fact that the game has multiple puzzle difficulties might be to blame for the confusion. Nevertheless, the game’s puzzles provide some of its best gameplay. One sequence, in which Murphy must stage-manage a ghostly school play, is particularly well-imagined.
Downpour has no HUD to speak of — when Murphy takes damage, blood begins to show on his clothes. This system is fine in theory, but breaks down when you realize that more than half of the game takes place in darkness, making it impossible to see red stains on a dark-green shirt. On the other hand, the game’s lighting system also provides some of its best thrills. Murphy’s belt-mounted flashlight swings wildly when in combat, and trying to keep the beam focused on a quick-moving enemy in a dark room elicits a satisfying sense of panic.
Real fright, unfortunately, is all too rare. Vatra scares best when making use of the medium’s natural strengths — video games are very limber when it comes to depicting sudden, hallucinatory changes in the environment. The contribution of new composer Daniel Licht is also valuable, adding a soundtrack full of haunting melody, stabbing high notes, and processed, industrial noise. Other, less effective scare tactics show their roots in older games and modern horror films — jump cuts and loud noises. Downpour needs more building horror, and less sudden terror.
The visits to Silent Hill’s hideous Otherworld exemplify this problem. Intended to discomfit the player, they lay it on thick with vivisected corpses and mind-bending level design. Born from the tortured history and psychology of Silent Hill and its denizens, these areas shed interesting light on the story, while also providing deeply uncanny visuals. The effect is ruined, however, by the introduction of “The Void” a satanic black hole that chases Murphy through the Otherworld. Rushing headlong down an endless series of corridors, players neither notice their surroundings, nor experience the unsettling effect they were designed to produce.
More than anything, The Void is an annoyance, not a challenge. Silent Hill: Downpour’s most pernicious problem: much of the gameplay is simply a little bit dull. Too often, progression depends on exhaustively searching darkened locations for hard-to-spot items. There’s not nearly enough enemy variety, and the enemies themselves are more of a distraction than a danger. Having taken over one of the survival horror genre’s tentpole franchise, Vatra Games can take pride in their taut narrative and a number of inspired touches. When it comes to gameplay, however, Downpour is not an experience that must be survived — only endured.
- Interesting, well-told story that players can actually understand
- Some clever puzzles
- Creative, horrific visuals
- Combat feels like a chore
- Too many mistaken design decisions
- Frequent frame-rate issues slow game to a crawl
- Not scary enough
Final Score: 60