Originally playing second fiddle to the king of survival horror Resident Evil as the spookier, psychological contender to the throne, Konami’s Silent Hill has accumulated a cult following (pun intended) for bringing a rather more dark psychological edge to the genre. After over a decade of faceless nurses and tortured souls, the outstanding Silent Hill 2 and a rather dodgy feature film, the series returns with Silent Hill: Downpour, the eighth installment that puts the franchise in the hands of relatively new developers Vatra Games. What with a relatively poor track record to date, could Silent Hill: Downpour provide the redemption the series sorely needs?
On his way to a maximum security prison for murdering a fellow inmate, convict Murphy Pendleton is caught up in a bus crash on the outskirts of the mysterious Silent Hill. Aided by a mysterious wise mailman, and hunted by a correctional officer hell-bent on revenge, Murphy must now traverse the dangers of Silent Hill, battling both the physical and psychological demons that manifest themselves along the way and discover the shocking truth behind his incarceration. It’s a plot that doesn’t quite live up to the twists and turns that came with Silent Hill 2, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
It’s back to basics gameplay in Silent Hill: Downpour as players rely on their instincts and gut wrenching fear to guide Murphy through misty ruined streets, claustrophobic corridors and eerily dark caverns in order to make their escape. One of the biggest Silent Hill maps to date, there are plenty of iconic sights to see from the Devil’s Pit caves and Toluca Lake to the very fitting Overlook Penitentiary. As always, there’s also the dreaded “Otherworld” to explore, transforming the scenic town into the rust-infested industrial hellhole that helped make the franchise famous to begin with. Sometimes the map gets the better of players and with that much to explore there are times when it seems like you’re running around aimlessly with no sense of direction. Some boarded up houses can be broken into with the use of certain weapons, but with the whole town locked up tight it’s very hard to distinguish the accessible doors from the background scenery.
It wouldn’t be a survival horror game without those noodle-scratching puzzles and Silent Hill: Downpour has plenty of them. Once again being allowed to choose the difficulty before the game starts, these puzzles are vital in order to unlock quest items, or access new parts of the rather large Silent Hill map. There are also a number of side missions scattered throughout Silent Hill that will aid both Pendleton’s journey, as well as fleshing out the lore of the residents of the damned town itself. Whilst some of these missions aren’t essential to the game’s completion, they do have a bearing on the ending, with six possible scenarios to unlock, giving the game plenty of replay value for the die-hard Silent Hill tourist. They can also provide Murphy with some much needed additions to his inventory, whether they be weapons or quest-related items so it’s well worth taking the time to explore the darkest regions of Silent Hill, if you are brave enough.
Silent Hill: Downpour brings several new additions to the franchise. Firstly, a series of quick time events make up the new moral system. With the ability to choose the fate of his fellow escapees, tormented survivors of Silent Hill or even the law enforcement officers that hunt him, players can put their own spin on Murphy’s moral compass and once again impact the ending of the game. However, these decisions rarely change the fate of those involved and it often feels like an addition to the game that has been wedged in only in order to suit the morally ambiguous background of the escaped convict. A real-time weather system is the big draw for this game, hence the subtitle Downpour, with enemies becoming more frequent during the thunderstorms often forcing players to take shelter until the rain dries up. It’s a nice idea, but can prove to be more of a nuisance than what it’s worth, not really adding much to the games scare factor.
Silent Hill games have another been ones to brag about the combat system. Utilising the tried and tested over-the-shoulder view that put survival horror games on the map, Pendleton must rely on the sticks, stones, tools and the odd piece of makeshift weaponry in order to fend of the demons of that lurk in the cursed town. The controls as a whole are the game’s weakest feature, to the point where it just becomes frustrating. Clumsy, awkward, and unresponsive more than often the player will find Pendleton easily knocked over by one of these beasties, with little chance of getting your own back. Unlike the Resident Evil series, which has adapted its gameplay to suit the fast-paced demands of the Call of Duty generation, Silent Hill’s combat hasn’t evolved much over the years and even the use of the rare guns and ammo feels more like a chore than a reward. It’s a system that bears striking resemblance to Silent Hill: Origins. Accessing the inventory also is also rather tricky, particularly when you’re in a bit of a panic, and more than often you’ll find yourself shining a torch at your attackers rather than firing your weapon. There is a knack to mastering the controls, but for those who can’t quite get to grips with it, there’s no shame in running.
One of the biggest draws of the Silent Hill franchise has been its ability to create the perfect atmosphere for a survival horror game. Silent Hill: Downpour still relies on this, but perhaps after eight games the formula is starting to grow a little stale. The town itself is gone from downright creepy to just plain dull at times, with hidden doorways and ladders lost amidst the row after row of boarded up housing and blocked off roads. The game suffers from a stuttering frame rate, particularly at times when you need it to behave itself. The character models are probably the best looking we’ve seen from a Silent Hill game in quite a while, but compared to the ghostly pale faces of the first few games, they perhaps seem a little too well polished. The enemies in this particular game lack the imagination and nightmarish qualities of the previous installments. Screamers seem to have been ripped straight out of J-Horror cult classic Ringu, whilst the hulking Weeping Bats share similar wall-crawling traits to those infamous lickers from the Resident Evil series. However, there are moments of pure horror with boss enemies such as the Wheelman, a wheelchair bound demon that plays quite a large part in the overall redemption of Murphy.
The sparse soundtrack makes a welcome return, only making an entry in order to scare the player or highlight the drama throughout the plot. The sound effects of screaming women and crying babies are genuinely frightening as are the “Otherworld” sequences which contain some disturbing off-key industrial instrumentals. Static TVs and radios also return, with the occasional creepy interlude from DJ Bobby Ricks who seems to taunt Murphy by playing songs from his past over the wireless, despite not meeting the character until well into the game. The game’s theme theme song provided by Korn’s Jonathan Davis doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the soundtrack, also feeling rather wedged in to appeal to the legions of nu-metal fans that seem to go hand-in-hand with the survival horror generation.
Silent Hill: Downpour is ultimately a frustrating experience. Deep down beneath all the flaws Vatra Games have included pieces of a genuinely well-made game that is clambering to escape. Overall the plot is rather drab and a you sense this is a desperate attempt to return the franchise to its former glory. However, if you have the time and the patience to get to grips with the gameplay then you’ll witness some scenes of revelation that show some promise. The new additions, such as the weather system and the moral-based quick time events, become more of a burden than a thrill ride and don’t quite fit in with the rest of the experience. The enemies and atmosphere don’t quite live up to the Silent Hill name and the controls, particularly during combat, are unforgivingly awkward to the point where they may just be the most off-putting feature in the game altogether. We’re not mad at you Silent Hill, we’re just deeply disappointed.