Any long-time fan of survival horror can name the two most influential franchises in the genre’s history. Resident Evil officially coined the term, while introducing gamers to the digitised recreation of classic jump scares and atmosphere prevalent in Hollywood horror flicks. Silent Hill took a more subtle but arguably more effective approach: an intangible, almost incomprehensible shift through a town plagued with unspeakable horror manifested by the dark psychosis of several different characters. Where Resident Evil felt like playing through a horror movie, Silent Hill was like walking through a living nightmare.
Obviously, the latter concept takes considerably more effort to create, which is why the Team Silent developers deserve praise for their intricate work on the first four Silent Hill games… and why Konami has yet to find an adequate replacement to keep their bone-chilling series from becoming the equivalent of a direct-to-video washout like “Hellraiser”. While Silent Hill: Shattered Memories received cult recognition for trying something bold and new, other games focussed too much in trying to recreate the atmosphere and tension of the original games, to the point that something that was once legitimately terrifying as Pyramid Head has now become as tired and ineffective as Freddy Krueger or Chucky.
Now it’s developer Vatra Games’ turn to step up onto the high-definition plate, after the last team struck out with Silent Hill: Homecoming. With Silent Hill: Downpour lacking the last remaining mainstay from Team Silent (composer Akira Yamaoka), long-spurred fans are now waiting to see if a completely new team can win back a jaded fanbase, or risk the series becoming as desolate as the fictional town itself. Our tormented protagonist for Downpour is Murphy Pendleton, a convict serving a jail sentence for a purposely unspecified incident. While being transferred to a maximum security prison, the bus transporting Murphy and several other cons suddenly turns over in the most asinine blunder possible (the driver veers off the road while distracted), allowing Murphy to escape amidst the wreckage and soon winds up in… yep, you guessed it.
Though every game features a different protagonist and the circumstances they arrive at the titular town, the underlying theme is always the same: Silent Hill is less of a cursed town and more of a living entity that haunts wayward travellers with images both cryptic and creepy that reflect on the dark secrets buried within each character’s psyche. In previous games, such imagery would be subtly placed in the background (such as a broken wheelchair in SH1) or to create a link between the misshapen monstrosities (the all-female creatures in SH2).
In Downpour, the town haunts Murphy with partially torn newspaper articles, police reports and expositional flashbacks during his incarceration concerning a deal with a crooked cop and a hapless prisoner murdered in the shower, all while detailing the apparent murder of a young boy that is so very obviously his son. It seems this time around, the town’s real victim is subtlety. But even the most generic of horror stories can still prove effective if the execution is well done. In a series infamous for its unnerving sound effects (such as the unseen horror pacing across a jail cell in SH2) and disturbing imagery (the organic transformation of a mirror in SH3), what tricks does Downpour utilize to unnerve the high definition console audience?
How about black birds screeching by? Or a bathtub filled with blood? Or perhaps a loose pile of rubble suddenly giving way at the last second? Maybe the dozens of canned screams you’ve heard in nearly every movie made in the last twenty years? Ooh, scary! As if to add insult to injury, the monster designs in this game are just about the laziest seen in series history. Any horror aficionado will tell you that the scariest monsters are the ones you can’t immediately identify. That is why the first “Alien” is often considered the scariest in the franchise, as are the faceless and formless horrors that defined the original Silent Hill games.While Downpour occasionally surprises you with the sudden ambush of enemies, that initial tension quickly vanishes once you get a good look at their uninspired designs. Such mundane monsters include screeching demon women that look like a high schooler’s interpretation of the Blair Witch, a giant rat-like creature that tends to annoy more than terrorize with its penchant for constantly hiding in the ceilings, and one particular enemy type that can only be described as a shirtless Predator that uses martial arts. About the only creatures that come close to a “proper” SH enemy are ghostly shadows that can only be viewed with a UV light, and can only be destroyed by going after their physical “bodies” (mannequin dolls), as well as a hazardous beam of light that results in a number of chase sequences (yet for some reason knocking over tables and desks somehow cause it to get stuck).
Sad to say, the enemies in Silent Hill: Downpour are the worst thing about the game, in more ways than one. In addition to their non-threatening appearance, they also make up the game’s combat mechanic. The fact that there even is a combat mechanic should be telling enough for long-time SH fans, who know full well that fighting is both the worst thing to do in the games as well as the last resort for survival. Rather than emulate Shattered Memories’ universally praised removal of combat entirely, Vatra instead created a combat system that lacks even the most basic fundamentals (such as dodging and lock-on targeting, both which Homecoming at least had the decency to include). While running away is still an option, there are also times where it becomes necessary to clear all shambling distractions in order to properly investigate an area.
One thing they did take from another SH game is the ability to pick up nearby items to use as weapons, as seen on Silent Hill Origins. Unfortunately, Murphy can only equip one mêlée weapon and one ranged weapon at a time, which means that having the former break or the latter run out of ammo often results in running around trying to find an alternative weapon while the monster knocks off chunks of health with each slash. While fumbling in the dark trying to defend against creatures sounds like a recipe for effective survival horror, the disappointing monster designs, stiff control and inventory systems make this practice more of an annoyance.If there is one upside (finally) to all this, it’s that Downpour features the largest in-game interpretation of the haunted town yet; whereas previous games featured seemingly open streets blocked off by rubble, as well as numerous buildings closed off from entering, the town in Downpour offers a bit more freedom. While certain streets feature the usual roadblocks (such as massive holes in the ground stretching beyond the player’s sight), there are additional buildings that can be broken into that contain additional items and/or side-quests.
Yes: there are side-quests in a Silent Hill game. While not exactly a requested feature, it’s an intriguing idea that potentially opens up more of the town’s sordid history, with several houses and apartments containing exclusive hauntings outside the main narrative. While the rewards are usually nothing more than unlocking a Trophy on your PSN account, the distractions do occasionally pay off with some fairly interesting storylines that often lead to a gruesome outcome.
But a lack of genuinely creepy aesthetics make these random home invasions feel like stumbling into an abandoned piece of architecture. These side-quests also share the same type of puzzles found in the main storyline, which are often uninspired (find the ID card) and illogical (one puzzle requires you to turn on a television in order to open a locked cage… what?). Once again, the developers have chosen to ignore the ground rule that every aspect of a Silent Hill game must be focused on delivering a never-ending sense of tension and dread. Visually, the game is competent enough, featuring detailed interiors that deliver a “lived-in” feel that is often synonymous with horror settings. The “otherworld” segments (in which the town transforms before your very eyes into a grime-filled hellhole of jagged steel and monstrous machinery) feature the most impressive visuals, almost matching the look that Team Silent established years ago on the PS2. Too bad the fog has once again downgraded into a pea-soup effect, rather than the volumetric effects that made SH2 so stunning back in the day.
Character models are uninspiring but not offensive. Their animations during cutscenes, however, are both exaggerated and lifeless (if that was even possible); and while the SH series has never been known for its stellar voice acting, the stilted performance of main characters like Murphy (made worse during his frequent screaming, which sounds both forced and often girlish) make his interactions with other human characters awkward rather than ominous. On the other hand, though Akira Yamaoka’s highly memorable soundtrack can never be replaced, the score by newcomer Daniel Licht (of “Dexter” fame) is an adequate alternative.
While Silent Hill Downpour is far from the worst horror game released this generation (that dubious honour belongs to titles like 2011’s Amy), its lack of scares and substance make it little more than a mundane horror game… which is an unforgivable pedigree for any game that carries the Silent Hill brand, once again proving that the most horrifying nightmares cannot be recreated so easily.