Experiencing the Horror- Silent Hill Downpour.

Silent Hill is kind of a big deal. I`m on record since even before I started reviewing games as stating that Silent Hill 2 is my personal favorite video game of all time. So when a new Silent Hill game comes out, I- and a lot of other horror fans- pay attention. Because it has pretty big shoes to fill.

I guess it’s difficult working on a new iteration of an intellectual property as beloved and iconic as Silent Hill. No matter what decisions one makes on the design side, the new version of the game is almost certain to be compared negatively to the older games in the series by the vocal and notoriously difficult to please fanbase. I can understand and appreciate the stress that must put on a developer. As a consumer, though, I don`t feel as though I should be obligated to take that into special consideration when purchasing a game, because it seems like if you buy a new iteration of an intellectual property, it should conform to the same standards of quality set by the prior games in the series. As such, it might seem to some readers as though I`m being exceptionally harsh on this game as this review progresses- and they would be correct. I am going to be extremely brutal on this game, because this is not just any horror game; this is the new Silent Hill game, and the bar for quality was set extremely high by it’s predecessors.

The title screen of Downpour, ready and waiting to mug you.

When you first push start on this game the title screen careens wildly toward you in an odd manner that serves as a visceral reminder that the game is 3D-enabled. Since I don’t have access to a 3D tv I can’t review that particular aspect of the game, but I’m sure it’s probably beautiful and well-integrated. Since few households actually have a 3D TV (fewer than 1% according to the Consumerist), I think it unlikely that most of my readers will be making use of the 3D component of the game.

Anyway, Silent Hill Downpour introduces us to Murphy Pendleton. Mr. Pendleton is a prisoner, and when we meet him he is in the process of being transferred to a new facility.

Maybe Silent Hill wants him because he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?

Apparently the guard driving decided to avoid the highway and take the scenic route instead, because he’s driving down a country road when the bus crashes and Murphy finds himself thrown from the window of the bus into the woods near Silent Hill.

Betchya Murphy wishes the prison issued him some insect repellent and a tent…

This introduction hearkens back to Silent Hill 1, which, of course, also began with a car accident. It’s a nice touch for old fans who will be able to remember booting up the original Silent Hill on their PS1’s back in 1999.

Welcome to Silent Hill. You’re screwed!

The load screens in the game are sort of weird. The screen icon flashes ‘loading’ and ‘saving’ with the autosave, but it switches back and forth rapidly each time- loading/saving/loading/saving, etc. It`s not something that I recall having seen any other game do in the past, and speaking as someone who has no experience with how file access systems are coded, I can’t say if it represents some sort of error or if the game works as intended, but it certainly seems very strange.

The enemies in this game are a major failing. There are only a few enemy types, and while Silent Hill games were never known for including a wide array of monsters, Downpour feels particularly enemy-light. In all of the other Silent Hill games the enemies represent some particular, usually repressed, fear or personal failing of the protagonist- but the enemies in Downpour seem particularly ‘stock’. If most of them do represent anything special for Murphy Pendleton, it is not immediately clear upon playing the game what that might be. There are a few exceptions- one enemy tied to a rack, for instance, obviously represents a fear of or a trauma associated with confinement. The major bosses in the game are obvious in their symbolism. But the majority of the mook enemies seem like they are just that- mooks.

Murphy goes from dodging shivs in prison to dodging them in Silent Hill.

Furthermore, some of the mooks are derivative of other works of horror fiction. The enemies in one of the later stages show a great deal of obvious similarity to enemies found in the The Suffering as well as a particular Cenobite in the film Hellraiser: Hellseeker.

Mook enemies from the later levels of Downpour. Note the blanched, hairless skin, scarifications, and peeled back, exposed teeth.

The ‘Surgeon Cenobite’ from Hellraiser: Hellseeker.

When I noticed the similarity of this enemy to the enemies in The Suffering, it drew my attention to other similarities with The Suffering- similarities in setting and tone that, upon reflection, become glaringly obvious. It is worth pointing out that The Suffering itself seems to draw a great deal of aesthetic inspiration from the Hellraiser series of films, but that is something better explored in another review.

The ‘Slayer’, a mook enemy from the PS2 game ‘The Suffering’.

For any aspect of a Silent Hill game to be derivative of another video game is a serious flaw. Silent Hill, for the most part, represents the gold standard of the survival horror genre of video games. There is absolutely no reason that any element in a Silent Hill game should be similar to another game of the same type because Silent Hill historically has always been the most innovative of the horror game franchises. I might clarify that I in no way am inferring any conscious attempt at plagiarism on the part of the developers of Downpour- I simply point out what seems to be a similarity.

Furthermore, I understand not wanting to overuse Pyramid Head by placing him in every game in the Silent Hill series, but to keep including all of these thinly-veiled expies of Pyramid Head in every succeeding game is a weak cop-out to avoid putting the original back in. In Silent Hill: Origins we got ‘The Butcher’, and in Downpour we get ‘The Bogeyman’, but it`s all just ‘big-guy-carrying-a-heavy-object-to-hit-you-with-who-is-not-Pyramid-Head-but-might-as-well-be’. If the devs are really so insistent upon using that archetype, I see no reason not to include Pyramid Head himself.

When things are this messed up, do you really need Pyramid Head too?

The sound design in Silent Hill Downpour is fitting, and the score by Daniel Licht (who horror fans should be familiar with for his work on the Showtime series Dexter) is excellent. The only real criticism that I could apply to the audio portion of the game is that the soundtrack does not feel as though it takes quite so active a role in unfolding the story as the soundtracks from former series composer Akira Yamaoka did for the prior Silent Hill titles. I found myself missing some of the industrial portions of the soundtrack from Silent Hill 3 during some of the more tense scenes. That is a very minor criticism though and should not detract from Mr. Licht’s score, which is one of the best parts of this game.

During the runup to the release of Silent Hill: Downpour, a great deal of hay was made of the fact that the nu-metal outfit Korn would be contributing a song to the soundtrack of the game- and I must confess to having harbored a great deal of concern about that fact as well. I have nothing personally against Korn- actually I enjoy their music to a degree- but a number of fans were vocal in their opinion that Korn’s music was inappropriate to the setting and tone of Silent Hill. Thankfully I can report that the use of the Korn track in the game is totally unobjectionable- it does not appear until the credits of the game roll.

The game’s level design varies in quality. Some of the otherworld sequences are intriguing, and Downpour does make good use of the same type of irrational and non-euclidean spaces that we saw in Silent Hill 2. Murphy will encounter narrow walkways at times that he will have to balance himself on as he crosses over, which requires the player to make minor rapid adjustments to the analog stick to prevent Murphy from losing his balance.

Don’t look down.

The transitions to the dark world sequences in this game are absolutely stunning, just as they were in Homecoming. It seems that with each successive Silent Hill title the transition to the nightmare version of Silent Hill becomes more beautifully rendered.

Ever been so drunk the room starts eating itself?

One new feature of the otherworld are chase sequences in which Murphy must run from an advancing red orb of doom that burns Murphy if you allow it to overtake him. These sequences feature branching paths, and choosing the wrong direction leads back to the red orb of doom. These chase sequences are generally fun and could be seen as an homage to a brief similar sequence in Silent Hill 3.

There is no escape from the bouncy red superball of doom!

The game is full of fetch quests, but instead of obtaining a certain item, usually here you`ll just be looking for a password or a number to unlock the door to the next room. One mechanic for doing this involves using an item new to the series- and it’s actually pretty neat. The police UV light is a special item that replaces your existing flashlight when you receive it, and when it is shined on a surface it reveals hidden messages or footprints. Some of the messages are sort of interesting or scary, but none of them rise to the level of the extremely disturbing hidden messages found in Silent Hill 2.

The environments are pretty disturbing all on their own, though.

You also have the option to use a cigarette lighter for light, and you can use it simultaneously while using the flashlight, which comes in handy in extremely dark spaces.

The game also features a number of sidequests, but they aren’t always clearly marked as being optional. At one point in the game I found myself outside an abandoned movie theater and assumed it was the next location in the main quest, so I walked inside and spent a great deal of time completing the puzzles therein, using most of my recovery items in the process. It turned out that the entire theater level was only a side quest, and the reward for completing the level was early access to a weapon that, while useful, was not game-changing. This was a bit irksome, and had the theater borne some sort of external hint that it was not required to progress through the game, I might have chosen to skip it for my first playthrough. For completionists, though, the sidequests will add longevity to the game, so one should bear their presence in mind considering your playstyle.

Silent Hill has the second largest number of non-euclidean angles of anywhere in the world after R’yleh.

The combat in Downpour is sort of unwieldy. Melee consists of blocking the enemy’s blows and returning hits of your own when the monsters drop their guard. This blocking mechanic is cumbersome when compared with the more stiff combat of the earlier games in the series- in an odd way, the less-advanced games seemed to have faster melee combat. Firearms are of course present in Downpour as well, and the game is not quite so stingy with ammunition for them as the older Silent Hill titles were. Aiming the guns takes a bit of practice, but the gunplay overall is more than sufficient, certainly an improvement over the shooting mechanics of former Silent Hill games. I did find it strange that I was able to carry a pistol and one other, larger weapon, but the game was unwilling to allow more weapons than that to be carried by the protagonist- particularly considering that the shotgun comes with a shoulder strap. I can understand the game aiming for realism (in not allowing the protagonist to carry dozens of weapons at once as some of the other Silent Hill titles have), but I would think any adult would be realistically capable of walking with a holstered pistol, a shotgun strapped across their back, and a crowbar in their hands.

The shotgun might have come in handy here.

It is also odd that most all of the melee weapons in the game are destructable- hitting an enemy (or a wall) with them enough times causes the weapon to break. This is totally realistic in the case of a 2×4, but watching an enemy smash the aforementioned metal crowbar into tiny pieces when you use it to block his blows falls into the realm of absurdity.

I did bump into a few glitches during my playthough of Downpour. In one instance, a weapon that Murphy was walking toward to pick up abruptly levitated straight up into the sky as though it were abducted by aliens before Murphy could reach it. In another instance, an enemy suddenly started creating clones of himself- with each step he took, he would leave a copy of himself behind. I really wish I had video of this, as it was quite possible the most unexpected and hilarious glitch I have ever encountered in a video game, but regrettably I do not; however, Youtube user SgtTimeMonkey has a video of the result of the glitch here.

Silent Hill games traditionally have featured a number of possible endings, and in most of the prior games the ending you receive was determined by a number of actions that you took at various places in the game. Downpour subverts this insomuch as it allows a single decision made at the very end of the game to determine which of three different endings you might receive. This is perhaps my largest complaint with the game. Allowing a single choice made in one instance to determine the fate of the protagonist shows a lack of understanding of- or a conscious disagreement with- the unspoken philosophy of the prior Silent Hill games, which were about the irreducible complexity of the repercussions of one’s decisions. Maybe that was a conscious decision on the part of Vatra, the developers of Downpour, to state that whatever choices one has made, redemption might still be available in the end through a single action in a moment of crisis. But that stands at odds with the philosophical tone of the prior games, which seemed to teach that every decision one makes have unavoidable repercussions. I don`t know- but I think the point itself is worthy of consideration.

Being in the slammer probably gave Murphy plenty of time to think about his choices.

I wonder if Downpour may be viewed most harshly in light of the fact that it is not part of the original quadrilogy- and indeed, is not trying to be. I do not know if I can state that this game meets the same standards of quality that were set by the older Silent Hill titles, because it is very difficult to extricate the influence of nostalgia from the standards of objectivity. Overall, Downpour is a fair addition to the Silent Hill franchise, and worth owning for Silent Hill fans.

Images of Silent Hill: Downpour used in this review were sourced from the Silent Hill Downpour TGS 2011 trailer and the Downpour Konami E3 2011 trailer.  The image of the Slayer monster from The Suffering was sourced from Tsiripas’s The Suffering fan video. The image of the Surgeon Cenobite from Hellraiser: Hellseeker was sourced from the auction for the actual prosthetic used in the film on Icollector.com. As stated in the site description of RedgoateeRob’s Horror Pages, all works are copyright their respective owners and are used here in compliance with applicable fair use law for the purpose of review. 

~ by Redgoateerob on June 9, 2012.

One Response to “Experiencing the Horror- Silent Hill Downpour.”

  1. […] Eurogamer, Vatra, the developer behind Silent Hill: Downpour, may be closing, though the report states no final decision has been […]

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