Over the last few years, the Silent Hill franchise has undergone quite a few changes. It seems like ever since the radical departure from the series roots that was Silent Hill 4: The Room, the property has wobbled along on unsteady, uncertain feet, trying to get on solid ground again, and only partially succeeding. In recent times “Team Silent” has taken the exit stage right from the series, and developers like Double Helix Games for the 2008 release, and now a move to Europe with Vatra Games of the Czech Republic, have moved in to fill the empty space. This newest game is a mixed—though ultimately positive—step forward for an uneven franchise in need of some good old fashioned dread. Apparently the depressed, conflicted people of Prague, home city of Vatra games and Franz Kafka, do understand dread, and while it’s not quite the same as the Japanese sense of horror, it’s effective horror nonetheless.
The Worst Town In America
Silent Hill: Downpour goes back to the source in many ways, taking a long, hard look at when the series was at its height and trying to emulate that. The story is about Murphy Pendleton, a convict caught in a prison transfer gone awry, when his bus overturns on the outskirts of Silent Hill. As fans of the series know, this is an Incredibly Bad Thing, and in a nod to Silent Hill 2, the various manifestations of Pendleton’s own fear, guilt and shame begin to take on physical and environmental forms as the town of Silent Hill once again does its damndest to… damn someone. To say anything more would be to give away what is one of the strongest stories in the series in recent years, but it is safe to say that Vatra and Konami have mostly looked to Silent Hill 2 for inspiration. The random characters—each with a dark secret—the subconscious impulses as antagonists, the foggy streets, all of these things are taken straight from the playbook of one of the most popular title in the series, and they are handled with maturity and appropriate darkness. Perhaps most surprising of all is that this may be the most narratively coherent entry in the console series, with clear endings that don’t feel quite as ambiguous as previous titles.
Unfortunately where the story is almost uniformly strong, the graphics are not. Despite the fact that this game was delayed twice, there is still an air of the unpolished about it. The game uses the Unreal engine, and gamers familiar with the technology should already know what that means; occasional lapses into blurry textures and some noticeable screen tearing. There are also some pretty significant drops in frame rate, but that’s more prevalent on the PS3 version than the Xbox 360 version. It’s obvious that Vatra was not very experienced when it came to creating games at this scale, and the technical side of the graphics suffered for it. On the art side however, the game is evocative, creepy, disturbing and poignant, all the things a good Silent Hill game should be. Like Team Silent before them, the Czech studio Vatra has that outsider perspective that seems to give them insight on what it is about small American towns that can be so damn unnerving, and the “mundane” aspect of Silent Hill the town reflects this. When the game makes its inevitable transition to the hellish “Otherworld”—which, by the way, still uses an effect similar to that seen in the movie—the industrial gothic aesthetic is in full force, along unique, set-piece environments that feel distinctly European. There’s a clear craftsmanship and artful eye at work in the visual team of Vatra, that is unfortunately let down by Vatra’s less than accomplished technical expertise. The only significant failing in the art department would be that of the monster designs. It’s here that Team Silent are still the undisputed masters, with their bizarre interpretations of neurotic and psychotic impulses into alien, barely recognizable forms. Vatra’s own team plays it safer, with a small array of clearly humanoid monsters, and not many of them at that. The lack of enemy variety is definitely noticeable, and to some degree hurts the game a little as you’ve seen almost everything the game has to offer about ¼ of the way through your playthrough.
Sound is always going to be a sticking point with many fans of the series, and understandably so. Akira Yamaoka has basically defined the signature sound of the franchise since the first game, and has contributed to most of them since, including the last console outing, Silent Hill: Homecoming. He has not participated in this project, and instead we get Daniel Licht, best known for his work on the TV series Dexter. In some instances, Licht does a convincing imitation of Yamaoka’s own dissonant, cacophonic style, but, like Yamaoka in Homecoming, there are also moments when Licht’s composition is unexpectedly melodic, and feels out of place. The sound effects in general do slightly better, with some interesting choices made due to Murphy’s own psychological issues with the police, so the all important radio is now a police band walkie-talkie that sputters to life with cop chatter, and the signature Silent Hill sound effects for actions like picking up items carry over intact from their original, SH1 days. Voice acting is also generally an improvement with all the voice actors putting in believable, low key performances.
If Silent Hill: Homecoming was a jumbled, Silent Hill: Greatest Hits collection in HD from a gameplay standpoint, then Silent Hill: Downpour is the more focused follow up that takes very specific revisits to the roots of the series. Silent Hill and, perhaps even more aggressively, Silent Hill 2, are the chief influences of this game and it shows in much of the mechanical side. As with the earlier SH games, the focus of the game is on the town of Silent Hill itself. The more rural, small town feel of Silent Hill’s quiet, paranoid roaming is thrown into the pot with the psychological angst and random, clearly disturbed characters moments of Silent Hill 2 with a generous mix of puzzles that hearken back to the late 90s and early 00s era of survival horror. In many ways, this feels like a classic Silent Hill game, right down to the clunky combat.
The combat itself is probably my biggest, lingering question mark. It very much feels like a throwback to the original Silent Hill, which, if you do the math, means it feels and plays like a game from 1999. Where my confusion lies is in whether this was a deliberate control decision that they iterated on over and over again to get the feel just right, or simply sloppy design. Murphy, like Harry Mason years before him, is terrible at melee combat, and possibly even worse at gunplay. He also, like most normal people, does not have regenerating health, which will probably come as a huge shock to modern gamers. Combat commits you to long, slow animations that are easy to misjudge in terms of distance and aim, leaving you open to combo attacks yourself. The secret to handling combat—at least one on one—is to be cautious, to get in only one, maybe two hits, and then back off, circle around your opponent and move in for another strike. When shooting, players will immediately notice Murphy’s firing reticle swerving unsteadily to show his inexperience with guns, so at longer ranges, it’s quite possible Murphy will miss the shot simply because he doesn’t have a steady hand. All of this is seems to be part of the game’s agenda to reinforce one simple concept; in the town of Silent Hill, it is better to run than to fight. This was also true of the first two games, where, especially during “normal” town sections, there were far more monsters than there were bullets available to you, and it was more efficient to avoid fights rather than find yourself in a, fixed, unavoidable confrontation with no bullets left because you got trigger happy on the way over. This is further reinforced by the fact that Vatra has introduced limited use melee weapons into combat that break after a predetermined number of hits. Vatra has balanced this by making stones, rocks or even beer bottles available in just about every single area if you’re really desperate, for an improvised weapon because your own sledge hammer just broke. That still doesn’t quite negate the experience of suddenly standing toe to toe with a Witchy Woman creature while being unexpectedly defenseless, but it gives you a chance to claw your way back if it should happen. Combat does not work very well in Silent Hill: Downpour, but on some level, that may be the point.
The puzzles on the other hand, are a pure, classic, old school joy, with the right thread of darkness for a Silent Hill game. They maybe actually be the highlight of the game, showing a creativity in some sections that has never appeared in the series. While old standbys like finding numerical codes to unlock keypad controlled doors still make an appearance, there are also scavenger hunts, shadow-based puzzles and even one particularly elegant puzzle involving acting as the stage hand for a children’s play. With the increasing emphasis on action, particularly Resident Evil’s ironic adaption of Gears of War style combat, when it was Cliffy B. himself that was inspired by Resident Evil 4, it’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t equate fear with nothing but jump scares and horde mechanics. The puzzles in the town of Silent Hill add to the ambiance of the town with some interesting information—often revealing something about either the town or Murphy himself—or simply contribute to the mood of a world where things are, at best, not quite right, and at worst, hellish.
The game continues in this vein, bouncing back and forth between moments of startling effectiveness, and others where you wonder how such a blunder could have occurred when this developer is clearly talented. Pacing is another area that suffers from a conflicted, disjointed sense of flow. The strongest parts of the game are those that occur in the town of Silent Hill itself, but that’s actually only about half the game. The other half is approximately ¼ spent on the outskirts of town, trying to get to Silent Hill proper, and the final ¼ takes place at new location. In both instances, the game is hamstrung and feels weaker when it’s out of its element. The section in Silent Hill is strong because it falls back on the sense of exploration mixed with fear that the early entries in the series were so good at. Vatra have even included side-quests in town, expanding the original temptation from early games to explore beyond the next objective in the search for more ammo or first aid kits. These side-quests add a lot of substance, and the largely open world quality of Silent Hill itself gives the game an unexpected hint of dark, dangerous adventure. There are enemies everywhere, and they become more numerous when it rains, but there are also items and quests that will enrich your experience if you’re willing to brave what’s out there. This is in stark contrast to the linear experience of the introduction and conclusion, with the closing levels in particular forcing the player into more frequent, occasionally mandatory combat sequences. As previously noted, the combat is not particularly effective, which can make the final levels more of a chore than they need to be. The game manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat however, with some surprisingly good closing gameplay—and a truly creepy final boss—that works perfectly in tandem with the story it is trying to conclude.
One other thing of note, perhaps the most surprising thing about Silent Hill: Downpour, is the scarcity with which it deals out its ventures into the “Otherworld” or Hell. Of all the Silent Hill games, this is perhaps the most spare of the series, relying mostly on the danger of Silent Hill itself rather than the outright danger of the freakish industrial landscapes the series is known for. This might at first seem like a criticism, but in truth, it works to the advantage of the game, making the forays into the Otherworld that much more effective because of their rarity. Again, this is not quite an unqualified plus for the game, as the Otherworld sections can also involve a poorly implemented chase sequence that can start feeling repetitious towards the end.
Ultimately, Silent Hill: Downpour is a game that manages to outshine its vices with its virtues. The technical problems and pacing issues are significant, but there’s an atmosphere, story and “Silent Hilli-ness” that the game manages to nail more often than not. Fans of the series are recommended to pick this up, as it will feel familiar, frightening and fun, though marred with some problems. People new to the series may appreciate the dark, mature nature of the game, but may also find the technical problems too large to easily forgive.