Silent Hill isn’t so much a game franchise as it is the most sophisticated, mature journey of terror for people who too easily see the fake blood, the bad make-up, the bad guy around the corner. It’s a series designed to creep beneath the skin, curl around your veins, stick a finger in your heart and play you like a meat puppet to the tune of its own sick design. You don’t play Silent Hill to kill zombies or fight monsters; you don’t play it because you enjoy solving puzzles or enjoying the pretty background. No, you play Silent Hill to discover the dark places we go as a species, as creatures who still retain a belief in astrology but are able to travel to the moon. What’s more terrifying than any monster are the horrid places real humans go and what they become when the world becomes a mirror of their own Hell.
The question though is whether Silent Hill: Downpour, the eighth instalment in the franchise, manages to sustain this. After the rather moderate release that was Silent Hill: Homecoming (which I actually loved), many fans have been sceptical about Konami bringing anything remotely horrific to the table.
I’m glad to say they have, with much squealing and bleeding.
Story and Gameplay
You play Murphy Pendleton, a convicted felon, who is being transferred from one set of bars to another because… yes. Just. Whatever. You don’t know much about this mysterious character, but that’s always been one of the joys of the franchise: discovering exactly what kind of person you’ve been vying for (anyone remember James Sunderland’s lethal secret?). Halfway through the transfer, your bus crashes in a very Harrison Fordian Fugitive fashion. You wake up, basically unharmed, with your cuffs mysteriously off. You head for the road, which, strangely is shrouded in mist. And things go a bit, well, insane from there.
Perhaps the two most iconic aspect of the Silent Hill franchise are the mist and the Otherworld. The Otherworld is a twisted, rusted-metal, dry blood and flesh-on-walls version of reality. Physics has taken a nap, spooning with gravity, in a bed made of nightmares. You run through this place, usually trying to escape a massive orb thing that destroys the world around you.
Murphy, unlike many of the previous games’ protagonists, reacts exactly as I imagine I would if I saw such awful, horrible, and weird things happening. When a giant, scary monster swims around your flooded basement in Homecoming, Alex Shepherd barely acknowledges there’s a demon in his home. I know Americans have weird creatures over there – I think they’re called conservative Republicans – but come on.
In normal Silent Hill fashion, you solve puzzles and use maps, travelling from one part of the large areas surrounding the town to the other. You read creepy notes, horrible diaries that pry into the lives of others, and endure horrible poetry written in awkward verse and in awkward places. Basically, it’s like being trapped in an all-girls high school.
(Also, I’ve never understood who bothers to take the time to write awful poetry that is actually a riddle. What is this? A Dan Brown novel? Of course, in this instance, the writings are sometimes from your own mind being projected onto the meaty canvas of Silent Hill.)
So, there’s nothing completely new to report in this area of the game. Same third-person, action adventure, survival horror. Describing this part of Silent Hill would like describing gameplay in FIFA. It’s the same, just updated. The updates here include the weapons breaking, more solid contact with enemies, and side-quests. Instead of mist, the problem is rain: when there is more rain, there are more monsters and they become harder. The creatures are fairly varied, but not particularly terrifying. There’s no giant, silent pyramid-headed fellow – though there is a giant, gimp-like gasmask guy. Still, they are not horrifically creepy.
Another great and I think essential addition is the occasional “morality” points: choose something nasty and choose something nice. For example, in the beginning of the game, you can choose to try save or ignore a character falling. Whether you decide to show your helpful side will come back to bite you in the ass, along with other choices you make in a game that has six different endings. It surprises me that it’s taken this long for morality – or at least, video game morality – to finally come into play on the higher-end console version of Silent Hill. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (for Wii, PSP and PS2) had a very sophisticated game dynamic, which read minute interactions and details from your playing, which gave you different endings and shaped the game according to what would freak you out the most. This is the point of the series, not so much the puzzle solving and brain bashing.
Setting and Sound
One can’t talk about Silent Hill without discussing the soundtrack. As someone who owns and regularly listens to the previous games’ soundtracks by the genius of Akira Yamaoka, it was surprising to see a Westerner in the shoes of composer. However, they did choose Daniel Licht, the same composer for the TV-series Dexter – so it fit perfectly. It is also, um, interesting they chose to have a metal song for the intro movie, sung by creepy metal band frontman Jonathan Davis (of Korn). He does a good job, but I’m not sure it works with the theme of the whole game.
Ambience and random banging, creeping floors and so on, all manage to heighten the experience. The soundscapes for mist drenched forests works especially well. It’s a very absorbing experience, overall, and I congratulate them on finally adding this essential element that was lacking in Homecoming.
Criticisms and Conclusions
It’s not Silent Hill 2. This will always be the problem of any Silent Hill game, on a hi-end console. Silent Hill 2 is one of the greatest games ever created and trying to even match up to this has been Konami’s bane since releasing it. They’ve been occasionally innovative, as I indicated with Shattered Memories – and that’s what they should be doing now. Though Downpour improves on the problems of Homecoming, with, as I said, a better main character. The story is also interesting, but not inviting or well-executed in its revelations. But I don’t want to spoil that, too much, since it is a very interesting one.
So, it is definitely worth purchasing if you are a fan. Also, if you want a third-person survival horror, then there’s no doubt you must purchase it. However, the formula is getting tired, it’s shambling, it’s walking into walls. We need to pick up the pace. We need something new. I think it’s a good game, but it can, from certain angles, look like merely the same game (Silent 3, 4, Homecoming, etc.) dressed in sexier skin. If Konami and their respective developers want us to be interested in what is a brilliant background, they need to do something unique. Perhaps some Heavy Rain with Silent Hill might do something.
Same as always. Sure, you have to pick up weapons that break easily, which adds a sense of dread – but still, you swing and hope for the best. You solve puzzles and walk really long distances to put McGuffin A into Object A, to get McGuffin B for Object B, so you can travel to Location 2. Side-quests and morality add a nice element, but not enough to fool us that the flesh beneath is the same as it’s always been.
This is certainly better than it’s predecessor, but that’s not exactly a compliment. For some (but not me), a Justin Bieber concert would be better than predecessor Silent Hill: Homecoming. It’s worth owning if you are already a fan, without a doubt. And if you want a good third-person survival horror, then there is no better one at the moment. Does anyone still play Resident Evil?
It’s a good, mature story. It’s enveloping and powerful in some parts, triggering horrible impulses and confronting you with the dark side of humanity. It’s creepy and beautiful and characters act like people. This game is more about dread and horror, than action or puzzles. As long as you remember that, you will have a great time though I doubt you’ll play it a second time.
[Reviewed on Playstation 3, also available on Xbox 360]