Posted on March 26, 2012 AT 04:40pm
Surprisingly, I can stand the rain
It’s games like Silent Hill Downpour that make people like me hate attaching scores to reviews.
Back many years ago, I reviewed another survivor horror adventure: A PS2 release called Rule of Rose. So many of the game’s core concepts were utterly terrible—and yet, its story, its characters, its scenarios, its atmosphere, and its music were all amazing in their owns special ways. (In fact, I had the chance to speak to the man responsible for most of those very elements—Yoshiro Kimura—at GDC, and he didn’t hesitate to agree with the game’s failings.) When it came time to review Rule of Rose and give it a final score, I was utterly torn. My head told me that I couldn’t give it any sort of decent grade, because it wasn’t a great game; at the same time, my heart begged me to do the right thing and give it a higher score, because it was a fantastic experience.
Silent Hill Downpour isn’t quite the mess that Rule of Rose was—and yet, because of it, I find myself in a very similar predicament.
The first official launch of the Silent Hill franchise for HD consoles was 2008’s Silent Hill Homecoming. Unfortunately, for all of the pent-up demand that existed for a new chapter of the series to be released for current-gen consoles, Homecoming was seen as a huge disappointment by fans and critics alike. After a few play-throughs, the game did end up somewhat growing on me—but it was still painfully obvious that everything about it felt like an uninspired and by-the-books attempt at making a major new Silent Hill chapter via a Western developer.
A year later, we got Silent Hill: Shattered Memories—a game which would become hugely divisive among the community. Shattered Memories took gigantic risks, eschewing game-spanning combat for segments where protagonist Harry Mason had no option but to run from his foes—and then focusing the rest of its efforts around exploration, story revelation, and character drama. The ideas presented in Shattered Memories were daring and dramatic, but the end result was a project which—for me—utterly failed to present or understand most of the things I as a fan was wanting from the game (and the series as a whole).
It’s important to remember those two games, because they set up the world that Downpour found itself in: That of being seen almost a restart for developing a high-definition Silent Hill, and a return to the more traditional ideas of the franchise after the previous game’s radical shift.
Silent Hill Downpour has problems—the most glaring of which is nearly everything centered around its combat offerings. Shattered Memories tried to answer complaints of Homecoming’s combat-heavy gameplay by getting rid of it entirely, but that idea never panned out as it should have. Did that experiment at least lead to better combat concepts here in Downpour? Sadly, no—though the game does throw far fewer encounters at us than I was first expecting. Unfortunately, when lead protagonist Murphy Pendleton picks up a melee weapon and chases after the closest hell spawn, attacking feel awkward and just never quite right, and you’ll find yourself wishing for options like better lock-on and the ability to side step.
Really, though—combat has always been mediocre at best in the Silent Hill series. Here, it would be excusable if at least what you were fighting was fun. Downpour suffers from a horrible lack of enemy offerings; outside of a couple of bosses, you’ll only ever encounter five different kinds of standard monsters in your travels through Silent Hill. Making this worse is that with one notable exception—the very cleverly designed Dolls—they’re all not only boring in concept, but too individually styled to be reused as often as they are. Previous chapters of the series knew to have monsters that looked more generic, so that seeing them over and over wouldn’t feel like you were running into the exact same individual enemy. In Downpour, it only takes until the second time you see the game’s very first demon to be bored of her.
And then there’s the breakable weapons. Oh, breakable weapons—how I hate you. There are few and very select times when this concept works in gaming, and Silent Hill is not one of those times. Ever since its beginnings, the series has been about a character being in a terrible situation with little hope and few things to rely on. One of those things that players could rely on, however, has been weapons. From the fire ax in the original Silent Hill, to Heather’s slightly-out-of-place-yet-still-awesome beam sword in Silent Hill 3, those weapons you found during your travels became like friends you could count on when no human was around to provide you that comfort.
I understand the concept behind breakable weapons: Never knowing when a weapon will suddenly become useless is supposed to help raise that feeling of helplessness inside of us. Except, it doesn’t—it only makes the fires of frustration burn stronger and hotter. To be fair to Downpour, a wide selection of weapons are almost always provided—with the way they’re offered to the player usually being very ingenious and fitting to the current surroundings—and the actual variety in what you can pick up and use is wonderfully diverse. Still, the idea doesn’t work. When a piece of wood breaks after continually using it to smash horrific monstrosities over the head, that I can accept; when the same situation causes a fire axe to snap in two, the ridiculousness of the situation becomes apparent. I hated the concept in Silent Hill 4, I hated it in Silent Hill Origins, and I still hate it here.
Another of Downpour’s biggest annoyances comes once again from misguided attempts at “creating fear”, and is itself a carry-over from Shattered Memories. As mentioned earlier in this review, in that game players had no choice but to make a desperate sprint for freedom once the town froze over and transformed into its nightmare self. Due to having no recourse for dealing with enemies—combined with their relentless pursuit of Harry—players would often find themselves with little to no time to actually enjoy exploring that icy world. In Downpour, that concept of forcing the player to run from imminent danger returns, but this time it’s only a portion of the game’s nightmare segments. That reduced important on the “flee or die” idea makes these sections more tolerable, but they still feel completely unnecessary and—again—far more frustrating than fear-inducing.
The rest of your encounters with nightmare Silent Hill are shockingly short in comparison to the overall time you’ll be spending with the game. What once used to be almost half of the complete Silent Hill experience now feels like almost an afterthought, and what you will encounter can feel a little over-designed and just too—well, Western. That may seem like an unfair complaint to lodge give that Downpour indeed is Western-developed, but one of Silent Hill‘s major points of attraction so long ago was that its horror was more Japanese; more psychological, more finely crafted, more thoughtful in design and execution. Downpour is less The Ring and more The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with certain elements or sections coming off as heavy-handed or cheesy given what this series was once doing.
That lack of finesse isn’t uncommon in Downpour. When switching to a ranged weapon, Murphy (very annoyingly) drops his current melee weapon to the ground. The game is based around auto-saves, but actual full saves are only recorded after key events or location changes—and with players never really being sure which kind of save has happened after “Saving…” popped up on screen, you can easily find yourself quitting the game, only to come back later and be missing progress you thought had been recorded. Brining up your collection of maps will be something you’ll need to do constantly, yet actually getting to them takes far too many steps. There’s also a strange unbalance between what is—and isn’t—marked on your map, which is especially annoying after Shattered Memories allowed players to make personalized notes themselves. A variety of characters are introduced—and then some of them just seem to completely disappear without any real resolution. Really, I could go on.
And then there’s the game’s engine. Silent Hill Downpour was built using Unreal Engine, a piece of middleware whose performance always seems to heavily rely on the hands it currently finds itself in. Previous to Downpour, developer Vatra had only made one other game (2011’s Rush’n Attack: Ex-patriot)—and that fact shows. One moment, everything will be running along fine, and then the next, screen tearing and framerate issues will become such a factor that it’s shocking. It doesn’t even seem to always be a case of too many things going on; I had countless times where all that was on screen was Murphy and the empty streets of Silent Hill, and the simple act of turning the camera to look another way caused the framerate to momentarily dip into what I’d swear was single digits.
So—I’ve just spent a decent chunk of this review saying how Downpour’s combat sucks, its monsters are boring, its weapon system is terrible, its nightmare sections are lackluster, and the very engine the game is built upon is at times a complete mess. And now, in a very M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist, I’m going to tell you how none of that stops Downpour from being one of the most exciting things to happen to the Silent Hill series since Silent Hill 2.
For a personal podcast I do every week, last year my co-host and I put together lists for our 50 favorite video games of all time. At the very top of that list sat the original Silent Hill—a spot it had always held for me since its release 12 years earlier. As of now, it still sits in that #1 spot, and each passing year convinces me just a little bit more that it will never be bumped from that position. To say that Silent Hill means a lot to me is an absolute understatement, and my passion for the series is only matched by my at times ridiculous expectations for any new chapter added to it. Where as most fans of the franchise consider Silent Hill 3 to be a beloved release, I could provide a long list of complaints I have with it; thought I now consider it to be a timeless classic, I was even disappointed with Silent Hill 2 after my first play-through.
After time spend with Silent Hill Downpour at last year’s E3, I was sure that I knew what to expect from the final product: Another misguided attempt by the West to continue on a series that might really be better off being put out to pasture. And yet, despite all of its faults and failings, this game has completely won my heart.
Silent Hill has always been a series about exploration. Not just in a general “figure out where to go next” sense, but also in the exploration of ideas, emotions, fear, and humanity. However, that first part—actual, old-school exploration—has seemed to become less of a priority as the series has gone on. I’ve hated the change, because one of my biggest pleasures in the original Silent Hill came from wandering the streets of the town. Checking down alleyways, reading store names, venturing into residential areas or commerce parks, it was elements like those that made me feel as if I was in actual small-town USA, versus just a studio back lot set up for the purposes of staging a video game.
While Downpour may not be a fully open-world experience, the Silent Hill we’re let loose in here feels like a return to a hometown I’ve not been able to visit for many years. The streets of this piece of Silent Hill set on the southeastern shores of Toluca Lake may be eerily desolate and decaying, yet they’re teeming with life when it comes to personality and architecture and places for the player to poke around in. Simply traveling them is an exceptionally enjoyable experience, but the true power of the world that’s been created here begins to be revealed once you journey off of the path that takes you to the next major step for storyline advancement. Exploration here isn’t just encouraged, it’s rewarded—in the form of side-quests that not only aren’t required for beating the game, but which also will never be revealed to you unless you’re keeping your eyes open fro them.
Side quests run hot or cold in gaming. When used as a crutch to prop up an under-developed game, they can infuriate us. Here, they are ways for us to interact with and learn more about Silent Hill than the base storyline has the ability to show us. For that, they’re fascinating. In fact, it is these side quests when Downpour is at its most enthralling. I think it’s that freedom of being away from feeling the requirements of offering the “basics” of the game; here, Murphy’s personal growth isn’t at stake, players don’t need to be satiated with X amount of encounters or interaction, and one-shot concepts or rules can be allowed to surface.
It’s hard for me to tell you what makes these optional pieces of Downpour so fascinating without getting into spoiler territory, but I found myself wishing that the uniqueness present in them had also been expressed in the main portion of the game. There’s one particular quest that I’ll simply reference as “turn back time”, and the foe you are faced with here—a one-shot encounter that never happens again—displays more creativity than Downpour’s entire roster of monsters combined. Experiences like this are what Silent Hill needs to be more of, not meaningless encounters that lose their impact due to over-exposure. Games like Shadow of the Colossus show us just how emotional and enthralling video games can be when every encounter, every battle, every kill have real weight to them. Imagine a Silent Hill where you run into threats far less often, but when you do, you simply have no idea what you’ll be facing—or the danger they’ll pose.
Hope for the franchise also shows through in other ways. Yes, at times Downpour indeed does feel like B-movie slasher shlock—and then it’ll do something completely brilliant that’ll leave you in awe. It could be something small, like the little touches in a room’s design, or a particular comment one of the city’s residents makes. Other times, it’ll be something of far bigger value—a specific storyline twist, a previously-teased connection finally being made, or the solution to the puzzle that you just solved.
If exploration is one of the three core tenants of the Silent Hill series, another is puzzles—and here, Downpour also excels. This trademark of the survival horror genre has had its ups and downs across the various chapters of the franchise, but in Downpour, not only are they plentiful, but they’re also satisfying. You’ll find no silly Resident Evil-style unlocking of doors with chess pieces—puzzles are natural parts of their environments, built using real-world concepts and materials, and solutions are completely logical yet often very creative. Not only may Downpour be the most fun I’ve had puzzle-solving up to this point via a Silent Hill game, but its puzzles may also be the most consistently crafted selection the genre has ever seen.
That’s a bold statement to make—but it’s also one I’ve come to feel comfortable with making. I said earlier that this was the first time since Silent Hill 2 that I’ve truly been excited for the Silent Hill franchise, and that’s the absolute truth. Yes, Silent Hill Downpour is ridiculously terrible in some ways, and utterly mediocre in others. And yet, at the same time, it’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s emotional, it’s inspired, and most of all, it’s enjoyable. The game’s failings tried as hard as they could to stop me from enjoying Downpour, but they were never once successful. No matter how bad combat may have been, or how much the game’s engine stuttered and struggled, or how much stupid design choices made me want to strangle somebody, I never once stopped wanting to play.
Sure, part of that was because I was seeing a game that made me giddy with hope about how amazing a follow-up to Downpour could be—but more than wishing for what might come, I was enjoying what I had been given. I keep going back an forth on how much of the game would need to be yanked out or drastically changed in order to make Downpour what it should have been. 25%? 30%? 35%? More?
Whatever the answer, what I do know is this: Silent Hill Downpour—for all of the reasons I could give you to not play it—is a game that you absolutely should play. Other people may tell you it’s horribly flawed or frustrating, and they’re right. However, when you come to the acceptance that we may never have a Japanese-developed Silent Hill title ever again, and once you’ve faced Downpour’s gameplay demons and decided that you’re not going to let them win, you’ll find a journey that is unquestionably worth going on. Just like Rule of Rose so many years ago, I can’t bring myself to give this game the score my heart would like to give it; I also cannot ignore everything it does do right, giving it a score that refuses to embrace its positives while still admitting its negatives.
For the first time in a long time, my heart truly believes that there’s still hope for Silent Hill. Given the fact that, at this point, I look like an abused wife after all this series has put me through, I keep telling myself not to get my hopes up—and yet, after playing Downpour, I just can’t help it.
I just hope that the powers that be—and you know who you are—are willing to listen. If they are, then this series could have a real future again.
SUMMARY: Though at times plagued by faults that might scare away some players, Silent Hill Downpour offers an absolutely engrossing experience—one that gives longtime fans true hope for the future of the franchise.
- THE GOOD: Some really fantastic concepts and creativity, very satisfying exploration, well-crafted puzzles, and superb art and visual design.
- THE BAD: Un-inspired combat and enemies, a few inexcusably bad play mechanics, framerate and screen tearing issues that happen far too often.
- THE UGLY: The utter lies this game is telling you whenever it whispers words about “saving” into your ear. That, or hearing Korn play as the end credits roll.
Silent Hill Downpour is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Primary version reviewed was on Xbox 360.
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