The original Silent Hill was one of the most terrifying games I’d ever played, and I distinctly remembering taking it back to the video shop after being unable to make it past the first pitch-black alleyway filled with blood and corpses. However, it was the second game that really struck a chord with both myself, and the gaming community. It was a melancholy tale of love and loss, but it introduced the absolutely genius idea that the town of Silent Hill is subjective. To the characters wandering its streets, the town could be filled with hideous monsters, laughing figures or even nothing at all. Not many of the following games have really picked up on this idea and run with it as much as Silent Hill Downpour has, the eighth and latest title in the series, developed by Vatra Games. It’s a very different look at America’s worst holiday destination, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be leaving your pants unsoiled by the time you’re finished with it.
Silent Hill Downpour tells the tale of prisoner Murphy Pendleton, who is on his way to be transferred from Ryall State Prison to a maximum security facility. Unfortunately, the bus he’s on chooses to drive past Silent Hill, and promptly crashes after the road opens up on the town’s outskirts. Taking the opportunity to escape, Murphy soon wishes he hadn’t as he finds the town filled with hideous monsters, mysterious symbolism and weird characters. The story unfolds as we learn why exactly Murphy was in prison, why he was being transferred and what Silent Hill wants with him. You can make choices throughout the game that influence these answers, although they’re fairly artificially wedged in as the game pauses and offers you two choices, often to ‘save’ or ‘do nothing’ to certain individuals.
Downpour‘s story is actually pretty great, and it has a few unexpected twists and turns. There are several characters introduced who seem to have a much larger importance to the town, and we’ll undoubtedly see again, such as a postman who endlessly delivers letters around the deserted streets. However, the original Team Silent-developed Silent Hill games were all about abstract subtext, and if I had one complaint about Downpour it’s that a lot is too overt and obvious. Characters actually comment on reality in Silent Hill being different, or the forces at work around the town, whereas before everything would be a bit more subtle. If you’re a fan you’ll remember the power of that single line in Silent Hill 3 - “They look like monsters to you?” There’s nothing in this game quite as clever as that, but it’s still a well-told and intriguing tale.
As I mentioned before, Silent Hill can change its form depending on who’s visiting, which means you’re getting a slightly different take on the town this time around. While you’ll still be running around fog-filled streets with run-down houses, the town looks like an earthquake’s hit it. Giant chasms are everywhere and buildings are split apart, which makes navigating the town a bit more of a puzzle this time, as you search for alleyways and alternate ways of getting around. The infamous ‘Otherworld’ that the town periodically shifts into has also undergone a redesign, now appearing as a water-soaked M.C. Escher-esque maze with gravity-defying rooms and giant clockwork components whirring in the background. There’s a lot of detail in both forms of the town, and you’ll constantly be zooming into various signs, documents and elements of the environment to check out what exactly they are and how they might relate to Murphy. There’s also a whole bunch of easter eggs thrown in (just in time for Easter, I dare say), including a visit to Room 302 from Silent Hill 4.
Downpour has an odd pacing about it, as it takes several hours before you even arrive at the town. Here, the game is a linear walk through woods and mines, very reminiscent of the recent Alan Wake. However, once you reach Silent Hill, the game-world opens up as you become able to explore the town and complete side quests. Many of these are creepy, such as one that requires you to reverse time to witness a horrific murder, another that sees you following the trail of a lost young girl and a particularly terrifying search for a missing heart in a house’s basement. Being able to enter many houses and locations that would ordinarily be blocked off in past Silent Hill games goes a long way to bringing the series forward into the current generation, although many of the old scares return. Remember how you’d often hear monster noises emanating from otherwise completely safe rooms, putting you constantly at edge in Silent Hill 3? They’re back. Oh God, they’re back.
Most of your time in-game is spent exploring each location, although there are hefty amounts of puzzle solving and combat involved as well. For their part, the puzzles are actually pretty good, with some memorable gravity-twisting Otherworld brain teasers and some traditional ‘the clue to the combination is in that memo you just picked up’ vexers too. The combat is a bit of a mixed bag. You can attack and block, as well as lock onto targets with the left trigger, but your accuracy is pretty abysmal, especially with guns. Most of your weapons are breakable as well, but the biggest problem is that you can only hold two weapons at a time (assuming one of those is a firearm). This means that if you’re holding an awesome double-edged axe, but need a poker to bring down a ladder in a different part of town, you’ll have to give it up and return for it later (if you can be bothered). I can see what they were going for here, by depriving you of the comfort of having the best weapons all the time to increase scares, but it really just comes off as annoying. Also frustrating is the way Murphy will throw his weapon if you tap the right trigger. This can lead to some hideous situations where you set the controller down, accidentally tapping the right trigger and sending your valuable tomahawk sailing to the bottom of an endless chasm. Damn.
The chase sequences from Shattered Memories also make a return, and appear in every Otherworld sequence as you’re pursued by ‘The Void’ – a floating red vortex. Murphy has to sprint down a maze of corridors and traps, desperately pulling down obstacles to put distance between him and death. These sequences aren’t especially scary seeing as it’s just a red ball chasing you, but change things up a bit and can get quite intense.
Downpour‘s presentation is generally quite good, but there are problems. Let’s start with the good – as mentioned, the environment design is great and characters generally look good and are quite expressive. The framerate has a tendency to hiccup but overall isn’t too awful. If you have a PS3 and 3DTV, I’m happy to report that the 3D works really well and doesn’t impact performance much at all. I actually played through the whole game in 3D, and found it very immersive and a great option for those with the equipment. However, I can’t say I’m a fan of the monster designs in this game. They’re far too humanoid and not as abstract as you’d expect from a Silent Hill title, so the only scares I really got from them were in the form of jump scares (popping out at you when you’re not expecting them) and their behaviour. Sometimes, they won’t even attack you and just keep their distance, staring at you. I’m not sure if this is a bug, but it’s creepy. The game’s saving and loading system is also a bit of a problem, randomly auto-saving and freezing up as it does so, and fading to black as you enter a new area to load it up. I also encountered a glitch that locked me out of using the town’s subway system (to fast travel between locations), even though I’d completed the relevant side-quest. There are also nice little touches in places like the loading screens. Usually they offer tips like “the lighter can be used for more than light”, but occasionally they’ll say just for a brief few seconds sentences like “everyone knows what you did.” Eek.
One area in which the game shines is in its music. Daniel Licht does a really, really good job following on from Akira Yamaoka, respecting the series’ former composer’s work while adding his own distinct themes and melodies. The opening tracks as Murphy leaves prison are especially memorable, as are the occasional chords from the harmonica which sound as you explore the town’s empty streets. The much-criticised Korn theme song is really not all that bad, and only appears in the credits. So relax.
Silent Hill Downpour is absolutely a worthy addition to the series, by providing a different take on the town and story. Silent Hill is a subjective experience, which gives developers the freedom to be creative and try out different designs and concepts in these games. Not everything works in Downpour, from the monster design to some of the scares, but overall the direction the game has taken is fascinating and engages you into wanting to explore everything and see more of this world. Some will pooh-pooh it for some of its more unpolished elements, but if you’re a long-time series follower or someone looking to try a new survival horror title, I encourage you to give Downpour a chance to make you lose control over your bodily functions.