The Silent Hill series certainly started out on a high note. The 1999 original was a big step forward in the survival horror genre, doing away with Resident Evil‘s pre-rendered 2D environments in favour of a fully 3D world with a dynamic camera. Coupled with this leap forward in technology was a fantastically creepy, more psychological horror. Yes, it had monsters and more traditional scares, but it also had an ever-present ominous feeling, a much creepier story with some excellent sound design.
Whilst Resident Evil would happily jump in front of you and shout “boo!” Silent Hill instead chose to be a little more subtle, using audio hits, moody music and the fear-including air raid siren to excellent effect. It was, in my opinion, far more effective at inducing scares than RE, and the feeling stayed with you long afterward, just like any good horror movie.
With such an excellent first entry, the series would, of course, continue, and we had a string of Silent Hill games on a number of platforms. The problem is, although Silent Hill 2 and 3 were quite good (not as good as the first, though, in my mind), the series quickly lost its mojo, and later entries dropped the ball.
Now the game is in the hands of a different developer, Vatra Games, it’s time to see if an Unreal Engine-powered Silent Hill can bring the series back to its spine-tingling former self.
Silent Hill: Downpour sees you take control of new protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, a prison inmate who, whilst being transferred to another lock up, is stranded on the outskirts of everybody’s favourite holiday destination, Silent Hill, after his prison bus crashes. Seemingly the only survivor, Murphy takes the opportunity to escape, and heads off toward the town. If only he played more games, he’d know to give this particular town a very wide berth
After an initial couple of hours, a visit to the Otherworld and a jaunt through some murky caves, during which time the game reveals the basics, some of the town’s back story and traditionally odd characters, you’ll end up on Silent Hill, and it’s here where the initially liner, A-to-B gameplay opens up into the open town we’ve come to expect from the series.
As with previous outings, Silent Hill has seen much better days, and not only is the place apparently deserted, aside from the horrors stalking the streets, that troublesome fog (and as luck would have it, a optimisation programmer’s best friend) has rolled in. With no real goal other than escape from the area, you’re set free in this nightmarish town.
In the thick of it
Oozing with atmosphere, it doesn’t take long for the creepiness associated with Silent Hill to permeate your being. Visually the game may not be a technical marvel, but the presentation here is very good, and it does everything it needs to do .Silent Hill is as daunting as ever, and the empty streets, now patrolled by monsters are as unsettling as you expect. New additions like the panic-inducing police patrol cars (trust me, you’ll learn to fear that siren bleep very quickly) add to the tension, and make wandering around the town a nerve-jangling journey.
Exploration is paramount here, and you’ll need to poke around every nook and cranny to uncover not only the main plot path, but also a selection of side quests you can undertake. And, as this is Silent Hill, there are plenty of puzzles to be found, some of which are pretty challenging (especially if you set puzzles to the hard difficulty). What’s more, these puzzles are not simply cases of ‘open this safe with a code’, or ‘figure out the order of buttons to press’. Working with objects, and correctly using them with each other adds to the challenge, certainly if you opt to forgo the option of having usable and collectable objects to glow and glimmer. Leave this option off, and you’ll have to really scrutinise the environment for anything useful.
The heavy atmosphere and exploration works hand-in-hand, and Silent Hill downpour is at its most unnerving not when you’re facing down and enemy, but when you just don’t know if anything’s there at all.
Exploring an abandoned apartment block, replete with empty rooms that indicate the long gone presence of life, whilst constantly worrying about what may be lurking in the dark, really makes this a whole different experience than most game of this type. It’s here where Silent Hill has always been the strongest, and it’s no different this time. When you’re walking through dark caves with nothing but a lighter’s flimsy flame to show you the way, and can hear something shuffling around in the dark, you can’t help but become a little scared.
There’s also the small matter of the Otherworld, the rust-covered hell Silent Hill protagonists have been thrown into time and again. Downpour sees this return, and this time it’s got some new tricks up its sleeve, including sections where you’ll have to run away from a strange energy field, knocking over objects to slow it down as you frantically search for a way out.
This makes for a good change of pace from the more sedate real world exploration, and the Otherworld is as odd as ever. It has lost much of its repulsive weirdness though, and the Otherworld featured in the early games was far more interesting, but it works, and you’ll still feel uneasy wandering around looking for a way out.
As atmospheric as Silent Hill is, it wouldn’t be much of a survival horror if you didn’t have to, erm… survive. And so, in true Silent Hill fashion there’s a host of disturbing monsters and warped creatures to contend with.
In order to do this you can use a variety of makeshift weapons, ranging from chairs and shovels, to crowbars and fire axes. These degradable weapons are used to bludgeon or slice your foes, as well as enabling the blocking of damage.
Take too much damage whilst blocking with weapons, or use them to attack foes for too long, and they’ll break, and you’ll need to find another item to fight with. Guns are available, but ammo is scarce.
The idea of weapon degradation isn’t new, but is well-suited to this kind of game, where frantic survival greatly aids the oppressive atmosphere. Weapons do tend to break far too quickly, though, and it can become a little annoying when a metal fire axe breaks faster than a rickety old rake, but it’s handled well enough. The main problem is the combat itself, which is both dated and very, very clunky.
Murphy, even with smaller weapons, attacks in such a lethargic manner that you often take damage due to his prolonged wind ups, and the auto-lock on isn’t great. The manual target focus helps a little, but fights often degenerate into a mess of flailing sticks and frustration, especially as the game can be so dark, you can’t even see your foes.
Blocking is also very poor, and has no lock-on at all, meaning you can easily block in the wrong direction. And, even when you do block, some foes still damage you anyway.
The meat fights back
Speaking of foes, these guys are tough, very tough. Playing on the higher difficulty level makes for some harrowing fights, even against the game’s initial foes. Whilst Murphy is seemingly under the influence, taking his merry time to land his hits, your foes are lighting fast, have brutal combos, and are unpredictable. The end result is a combat system that, whilst certainly challenging, is both unfair at times, and even occasionally tedious, as you’re forced to play it safe. And that’s only when you engage a single foe. Trying to fight more than one is tantamount to suicide, especially when some can freeze you to the spot, and even leap on you as you run away.
Now, this does mean that, quite fittingly for a survival horror, you do end up running away from foes a lot of the time, but this hardly makes for a well-balanced and entertaining game experience, and you shouldn’t be afraid to tackle even the game’s most straightforward foes.
With some time and effort, the combat system does become a little more accessible, but there’s no escaping the overall feeling that fighting foes is simply a chore, and it detracts greatly from, the rest of the game.
This isn’t helped along by some questionable AI either. Enemies, as effective as they can be, and as creepy as they are, can sometime develop an irrational fear of door ways and small spaces. Simply running into a doorway or passage, or backing off past some invisible boundary often makes foes retreat or simply stand still, and on more than one occasion, I experienced what must be a glitch that causes all foes, even big, burly monsters, to run away from you. You can attack them with gusto, and they never retaliate. It makes a nice change from running away from them, but this isn’t part of the game design I fear.
This is a shame as the story, atmosphere, exploration and puzzling all work well. Murphy’s troubled-past makes for a good backdrop to the events in the town (even if it’s used sparingly), and the town itself and its hellish Otherworld are as enticing as ever. The action is on the light-side, and fans of more action oriented horror titles will find it plodding, and some will certainly find the cliché overload of locked, unusable doors and collapsed roads that serve as barriers to be a little much, but Silent Hill fans will still enjoy it all the same.
As it stands, Downpour is a fairly good effort that contains some genuine creepiness and enjoyable horror, but there are a few bugs and frame rate hits, and it’s crippled by a poor combat system. And, when the control scheme frightens you more than the creatures you’re about to fight, the game’s doing it wrong.