Silent Hill Downpour Review
Outside of developer Vatra Games there wasn’t a whole lot of hope for Silent Hill Downpour. The last PS3 installment, developed by fellow westerners Double Helix, hadn’t exactly dazzled.
Old devs Team Silent were scattered to the winds, the new devs were a bunch of nobodies, and famed series composer Akira Yamaoka had finally bailed. Which, after participating in some of the nonsense that followed the mesmeric Silent Hill 2, surely meant that this was going to bear as much resemblance to Grange Hill as it was Silent.
These worries are unfounded. Silent Hill Downpour is impressive in almost every regard. It can’t match Silent Hill 2, but don’t worry about that. Not a lot can.
What Downpour can do is take the Silent Hill template – dreamlike unease, the creeping, nameless dread, blinding fog, surreal imagery – and make it seem appealing for the first time in years.
Most of this is down to the fact that Vatra has absolutely nailed the look of the game, and as such got the ‘feel’ down in the process. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories on Wii drew raves for its unusual narrative structure, but there’s no doubt that its last-gen look harmed the game’s impact.
No such worries here: Downpour’s HD art direction is exemplary, with muted blues and greys (and dirty browns) bleeding together to create environments that feel both empty and oppressive, open and claustrophobic. After an assured, deftly directed opening couple of hours or so that see main character Murphy Pendleton escape from his prison transport into the quasi-real town of Silent Hill, Downpour really hits its stride.
Running around fog-ridden streets in the pouring rain, exploring a gigantic municipal building, poking around a ruined orphanage: each is as pleasingly disorientating as the last, making for a rare instance in modern gaming where the player is as confused as the character. He’s you, you’re him, and you’re both as desperate as each other to get out of town.
It makes for deeply unsettling experience, doubly so when you consider that it’s defiantly old-school in its gameplay. This is true survival horror: firearms and health packs are a rarity, weapons need to be appropriated from what’s around you (and will break), your surroundings need to be investigated for clues and tools to help you progress.
There’s no handholding here. It’s possible to become ‘stuck’, either on a puzzle or in the game’s well-designed, pleasingly non-linear environments, a situation made all the worse by a well worked, disturbing story that drags you through the game.
Frustrating, especially when certain puzzles don’t appear to follow any real logical path. That said, not many modern games can boast that ‘ah, that’s it!’ moment of clarity when they tell you how to do everything, all the time. It’s an inelegant middle ground, but in a perverse way plays into the games surreal appeal. Also, in fairness, you can adjust the puzzle difficulty.
Less forgivable is the game’s combat, which is extremely poor. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of using everyday items – chairs, beer bottles, fire axes – in a desperate bid to fend off foes. When those enemies are poorly designed however it all falls apart, and this is the case. Encounter design is spotty, character design poor, attack patterns rote and uninvolving.
We’d have preferred Downpour took a leaf out of Shattered Memories book and did away with the combat altogether, forcing players to imagine their foes lurking in the corner of their vision. It’s not gamebreaking, as most fights can be avoided, but it’s fairly laughable stuff.
Also rearing its ugly head are arbitrary mechanics that see you needing specific weapons to open different doors/access different areas. Fire axes open boarded up doors, but can’t be used to pull down a fire escape because, er, we don’t know. Instead you have to find a boat hook to do it. A bloody boat hook.
Both of these elements feel like tacked on, box-ticking bullshit designed to extend the experience artificially. Thing is, Downpour doesn’t need to do any of this. When it’s playing to its strengths it’s a fabulous ride, intimidating in its atmosphere and impressive in its environments: the Otherworld sections, which see you running from a supernatural black hole or negotiating environments that would make Dali and Escher blush, are sensational. The story is darkly engaging, taking in child molestation and revenge amongst many other elements. There are stark moral choices, multiple endings and a whole host of sidequests. Silent Hill Downpour won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting games of the year.