Horror is a subjective genre in that it takes varied techniques to make different individuals’ nerves tingle. One loud jump scare may be all it takes for some, while others will prefer a tense, slow-burning effect. After all, there’s no substitute for good, edge-of-your-seat horror, where abated breath awaits the next shadow sighting. It’s that last category where Konami‘s long-running Silent Hill franchise has been incredibly effective, by creating a fog-filled town that is full of the unexpected. Anything can happen in this setting, which is painted anew by each artist’s brush, and that can surely be said about the series’ latest release: Silent Hill: Downpour. Within its labyrinthine confines, fog isn’t the only form of precipitation one should fear.
Carrying on a long-running tradition of creating a new character study with every iteration, Downpour introduces Murphy Pendelton, a troubled convict. Having suffered a terrible loss at the hands of another, the mild-mannered and order-following inmate has found himself as a corrupt guard’s lackey after making a deal to silence the man responsible for his grief. Even a transfer to a new institution doesn’t go our new pal’s way, as the bus he’s riding on turns over on the outskirts of pixel art’s favourite ghost town. Thus begins a nightmarish journey through a gloomy and forgotten surface world, as well as the Hellish underworld we all know well. Murphy’s chance to learn the truth lies within the gaming community and its button-covered controllers.
Upon approaching this ten to fifteen hour-long adventure along sanity’s fault line, one must understand that it presents a standard survival horror experience. The envelope is there, but its seal isn’t tested much by a Vatra Games production that borrows from its predecessors, as well as its popular genre. Those who like edge-of-your-seat romps through darkened rooms and eerie locations will feel at home with Silent Hill: Downpour, which relies on those gameplay mechanics throughout most of its run time. Occasional quick-time events and run-for-your-life chase sequences pop up to add variety, but there’s no denying that this title is more of a culmination than a revolution. Gamers who’ve been turned off by these types of games in the past won’t be converted into believers, but seasoned sleuths, monster battlers and puzzle solvers will find a solid digital venture on this disc.
Although the previous description does hold true for a lot of the mechanics implemented into Murphy’s nightmare, there are areas where it strives to deliver something a bit different. Tying into the Downpour subtitle is a dynamic weather system that will fluctuate between different shades of precipitation. When the town is full of standard fog, it’s in a state of rest. Enemies are around, but they’re not overbearing or incredibly violent. One-on-one melee combat battles are the norm during these times, but that all changes when the rain starts to drop. It’s at those times where running and hiding become a gamer’s best friend. Then, once the drizzle turns into a violent storm, enemies will be much more violent than they normally are, having created a pack-like mentality. Dodging, blocking and swiping is a recipe for survival against one foe, but it’s tough to do that against three or more. This fact solidifies when you take into account how weapons will gradually break down.
Getting to know the town and all of its back alley shortcuts is important, especially when storms pop-up. Finding a safe place to duck into until things cool down is key, providing an opportunity for the game’s side quests to steal you away from its main quest. Approximately fourteen optional side ventures are present, needing to be instigated or discovered. Most borrow the fetch quest motif that is present within a large majority of the survival horror genre. These tasks include setting caged birds free, returning stolen goods to their rightful owners and putting spirits to rest. The most memorable one happens to feature a broken projector, a necessary light bulb and three film canisters that open up fixed camera homage worlds.
While their end goals are almost always different, the above-mentioned secondary goal set does become a bit repetitive due to the similar mechanics that run throughout its list. It would have been appreciated if more of a divergence was provided, in order to add some variety into the pixel-perfect sleuthing that is a regular requirement. In the end, you can either take or leave these goals, although their extra ammunition and health packs are helpful. Of course, having the opportunity to explore unique locations is another notable plus.
Regardless of which mission type the player is pursuing, one thing is for certain: exploration is key. Finding the needle in a structural haystack will let one progress. At times, this goal may be as basic as finding a key to open a locked doorknob, but things do become much more complex later on. Although getting stuck is tough to avoid due to the inclusion of some tough to find objectives and vague clues, meeting the required goal is a rewarding achievement. Silent Hill: Downpour is far from a walk in the park, even on its normal difficulty, with some brutal enemies and challenging puzzles. An occasionally clunky combat system, suspect enemy A.I. and poor bullet detection don’t aid things. Then again, nightmares are never friendly.
Now that we have all of the structural components out of the way, it’s important to focus in on what is essentially a character study under surreal terms. That would be the best way to describe a storyline that is full of complexities, along with intrigue. It’s tough to go into detail about it without spoiling anything, and I wouldn’t want to do that.
From the beginning, investment within Vatra‘s version of Silent Hill was easy, and it remained that way until the end. Finding mysterious news clippings and other story-related documents kept things interesting, and I was always looking forward to finding the next piece of the interesting puzzle. One might think that the big reveal is easy to figure out after several in-game hours, but that type of assumption would be a mistake. Shocks, creeps and surreal delights are all highlighted upon, in order to create a relatively memorable story arc. The only downside is that there’s no wow factor to be found, which is something that some of this game’s predecessors greatly benefited from in the past. Granted, it does carry on the popular multiple ending structure that many fans enjoy, which is a plus.
From a technical standpoint, Silent Hill: Downpour is a mixed and somewhat frustrating bag. On the positive side of things, Daniel Licht‘s score is fitting and poignant, adding surreal oomph to strange proceedings. The voice cast is also quite talented, working from a script that is better than average, although a few of their fictional characters could have been fleshed out more. Their audio is usually easy to understand, although there are a couple of times where a volume boost could have helped. Those are minor complaints regarding a game that sounds quite good overall. Its melodies and spoken words won’t blow anyone away, though.
Now, here’s where the wagon’s wheels fall off. Performance bugs are certainly not strangers to Vatra‘s otherwise solid survival horror romp. Frame rate issues are a facet that we must live with, at least until a patch is released. The open world segments suffer from quite a bit of slowdown, as well as some frame jarring when the engine tries to get back on track. Occasionally, things would drop down to the point where it seemed like a freeze was imminent. Although that did happen twice, most of those occurrences quickly dissipated. Complete slowdown predominantly occurred when trophies unlocked, but those moments were never frustrating, much unlike times when these issues marred combat sequences. Poor optimization could be to blame for what is a noticeable and marring issue. It’s not the only one though; a reversible progression bug appeared, alongside a strange glitch where enemies would only run away from Murphy.
When a patch is (hopefully) released, what is a pretty good-looking game will be able to show off its visual detail and surreal designs. There aren’t any grievous faults to be found with how the created digital world is represented. Sure, some of its interior locations do become repetitive, enemy designs lack variety, and some of its human characters’ facial features lack emotion; however, those aren’t things that hinder the experience too much. It’s still easy to become immersed within gaming’s latest bout of surreality.
Going in, I was hoping for the best Silent Hill experience yet. All of Downpour‘s pre-release media showed tons of promise for what looked to be a high-quality genre title. The end result didn’t quite live up to those goals, but I was still impressed and entertained. There are some great moments here, in addition to impressive hints of where this genre could go. Unfortunately, performance and technical issues mar what could have been a superior product if the mentioned facts were improved. Fans of the nightmarish genre should give this one a shot, but grand hopes will not come true. Silent Hill: Downpour is a solid game, which doesn’t achieve its full potential, although it still delivers a memorable survival horror experience.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game, which was provided to us for review purposes.
Silent Hill: Downpour is a solid game, which doesn't achieve its full potential, although it still delivers a memorable survival horror experience.