Posted on January 9, 2012 AT 11:54am
Silent Hill: Downpour isn’t the first Silent Hill title to be released for the HD generation of consoles—sometimes, however, it’s easy to forget that fact.
That title goes instead to 2008’s Silent Hill: Homecoming. Homecoming was a game that had a huge amount of expectations placed upon its shoulders before release: it was the first HD-era Silent Hill, it was the first new console Silent Hill after the disappointing Silent Hill 4, it was to have connection with the Silent Hill live-action film, and its developers were promising an experience that would “go back to what made Silent Hill 2 great.”
Homecoming was released—and in a number of ways, it was as divisive as Silent Hill 4 had been. Some fans found the game felt too convoluted in trying to tie back to the origins story surrounding the history of the town, while others thought its heavy reliance on combat went against the core tenants of the earlier chapters of the franchise.
Amongst mixed reactions and expectations, Silent Hill: Homecoming never made the impact that Konami was no doubt hoping it would. After its release, the series seemed to suddenly go quiet—and it would be another four years before the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 would play host to a second attempt at giving Silent Hill fans the high-definition horror they had been waiting for.
As one of those long-running and die-hard Silent Hill fans myself, I now exist at a point where I’m excited about any upcoming release in the series—but also very, very cautious. Be it the fault of the developer or my own ridiculously high standards, the idea of being disappointed by a new chapter of everyone’s favorite terrorist town just comes naturally at this point. But then again, so does optimism.
I’m optimistic about Silent Hill: Downpour. I’m also a little concerned for a few parts—let’s be clear—but I genuinely am optimistic. It’s easy to look forward to a game due to what we’re told, as many fans were about Homecoming at the mention of any resemblance to the holy chapter of James Sunderland. We’ve been told many things about Downpour—including, surprise surprise, references made to wanting to re-capture that old Silent Hill 2 feeling—but I now also have actual hands-on experience with the game and what it’s attempting to do.
Before getting to that point, we were presented with some new tidbits of information to come along with this latest build of Downpour. For one, we’re promised a return to the days when brains are just as important as brawn in surviving what awaits us in Silent Hill. Harkening back to what became a staple for the series, Downpour will allow players to choose their difficulty not only for the game’s action, but also its puzzles. The decision to go easy—or hard—on that latter option will spill over into another element of the game, something that itself is quite a foreign concept to the series: Side quests. They’ll exist, but they won’t simply be handed to you—you’ll have to put out some effort not only to find them, but even know they’re there in the first place. How evident they are—and how clear their goals or solutions are—will come back to that choice you made in term of puzzle challenge level.
Another returning element is the idea of weapons which have a set amount of life. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the idea when it was first introduced in Silent Hill 4—and I’m still not at all hot on the concept—but at least this element will play out a bit more logically in Downpour. Players won’t be able to stockpile weapons—you’ll have what you’re carrying, and that’s it—and what is offered to you to use as a weapon is strictly dictated by your current environment. You won’t be finding a stash of pick-axes in a random house, or a cache of spiked baseball bats in a convenience store—so, at least in that regard, the developers are trying to remove some of the ridiculous situations that can often come along with this particular gameplay decision.
Yet one of the things that most hit home for me once I had a chance to dig into Downpour‘s gameplay was the town itself. The original Silent Hill was about a place called, well, Silent Hill. Yes, it was a town, a location, a setting in which characters and story lines and drama would all be born and nurtured. Silent Hill itself, however, was also a character—not just the stage upon which a tale would be told, but an actual player in that tale as well.
This was one of the points I brought up with Downpour’s producer, Devin Shatsky. During our conversation, I made a comparison between Silent Hill and the much-beloved TV drama Lost. In Lost, the island was an active participant in those six seasons of suspense, and diminishing it and its role in the story would also mean diminishing the potential of the series. This, too, what how I felt about Silent Hill, and how it bothered me that as time went on and more chapters of the franchise were produced, that importance of the town as an entity—and not just a location—seemed to be getting forgotten.
“The town is the main character, and that idea kind of got lost over the years,” Shatsky says, agreeing with my concern. “That was the big focus that we wanted to do with Downpour—bringing that concept back. It’s not all about the main protagonist, and it’s not all about the Order, it’s about the town and how it brings out the darkness in whoever is there, and sort of forces them to face their own inner demons. It could be a completely different story depending on who is there and what has troubled them in the past.”
Though I’ve only been able to see a small portion of the segment of Silent Hill that Downpour takes place in at this point, explorations is fun again. The town once again feels like a town, one that was built to serve as a community for human beings and not as set pieces for a video game protagonist. Everywhere you look, small touches show the care that is being put into these environments. Windows are dirty and smudged. Tables in apartments have half-eaten food sitting on plates. Buildings house shops or offices that mysteriously sit in various states of dilapidation.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a little touch—but it’s one that Silent Hill fans have long been wanting from the promise of what the HD-era consoles can bring to us.
Running around exploring the various nooks and crannies of the streets of Silent Hill lead me to experience one of the game’s new elements, one which gives a hint at the theme behind the game’s subtitle—rain. Again, it could be considered a minor feature in the overall scheme of what’s being developed here, but it’s another of those small touches that show some genuinely interesting thought being put into Downpour’s creation.
Storms will kick up now and then, based around no schedule other than what the game’s dynamic weather engine decides should be happening at any certain point. Rainfall can be a light drizzle, or it can intensify into a legitimate downpour. The falling rain doesn’t just change the town’s atmosphere or soak Murphy’s clothing—it also intensifies the threat presented by the various demonic creatures who call Silent Hill home. At that point, the player must decide if they’ll brave the more dangerous conditions, or find a building to take refuge in until the rain stops. The extent to which this weather engine will play a part in Downpour still needs to be seen, but even on that simple level it’s a moment of fitting creativity for a series that is in desperate need of more of that very thing.
“One of the reasons that [Konami] brought me on was that with Silent Hill—after Homecoming—[they were] really trying to bring it back to… I don’t want to say a more mainstream feel, but find the recipe of what was successful in the earlier installments, and why those were so appealing to fans,” Shatsky tells me, with a noticeable level of sincerity in his voice. “Find what happened over the years to cause that sort of, you know, slow degradation I guess you could say in its appeal to the audience. So, what could we do to bring it back to its roots and its glory?”
At this point, that’s far and away the toughest question anybody can ask about the Silent Hill series—producer, developer, fan, or otherwise. How do we get Silent Hill back to the roots that made it as popular as it now is—and do we even know or understand what those “roots” are anymore? Time will tell if Devin Shatsky, Tomm Hullet, and the rest of the team at Konami working on Silent Hill Downpour know the answers—or if us fans will be accepting of those answers when we’re presented them.
Until then, I know only one thing for sure: Sometimes, there’s reason to look forward to a little rain.
Want more on Silent Hill: Downpour? Check out the full interview I did with producer Devin Shatsky.
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