The lights are on
Let’s face it – no one will ever come close to the look and feel of Silent Hills 1-3. Even Team Silent went a little wacky with The Room and the series, although fun, has been a little off ever since. You could say that the franchise’s reputation has been well, stormy so no wonder the latest game is just that. Vatra Games rolled up their sleeves and returned to The Town That Takes All to bring us back to what it was meant to be – a psychological adventure of secrets and survival – not just a regurgitation of what we’ve seen before.
Silent Hill has chosen Murphy Pendleton for a good old fashioned “scare the crap out of you to show you the truth” session. As is tradition, those who are called to Silent Hill have forgotten something important (and often tragic) in their lives that warrants remembrance. The problem here is, Murphy's "shocking" revelation didn't happen all that long ago, so it's unlikely he would have forgotten in the first place. They also juggled two main stories of tragedy and it's not clear which one should be taking precedence. As a writer, I feel that they should have stuck with one and hit it home.
I do like how Vatra seems to understand that Alessa's story was just one of countless tragedies in the town and you don't have to mention her to be a Silent Hill story. Murphy's experiences are unique to him, as is the same for all characters we encounter. Although Vatra said they wouldn't be focusing on any existing storylines, they couldn't resist throwing in a few obvious nods to previous installments. This was both fun and annoying at times, since a few of the references were inaccurate. Your journey, however, remains true to the history of the town and the traditional way in which we learn about it. For example, you will be able to piece together stories from newspaper clippings, journals, brochures and even police reports. The familiar shadow of tragedy will always linger in this town and you will get a healthy dose of it the more you explore.
In case you haven’t noticed, the major theme at work in Downpour is water. Thanks to the Unreal Engine 3 (same one used for Gears of War 3), the water effects in this game are incredible. From water ripples all the way up to how Murphy’s shirt looks when it gets wet, the design team met and far exceeded any expectations on graphics. If this game had come out a few years earlier, it just wouldn’t have looked as good.
The rain doesn’t just soak Murphy to the skin – it brings the monsters out to play and the heavier the storm, the more trouble! The weather has always played a part in the Silent Hill franchise, but never before have you been able to use it to your advantage or even escape from it.
Unlike all its seven predecessors, Silent Hill: Downpour introduces a quasi-open world; which is what fans have been daydreaming about for over a decade! You are not limited to your main goal, but rather can explore several of the buildings on the way to your objective. Here you’ll find a number of side quests and even a nasty surprise or two.
Ravens – never before have we seen “normal” animals in the Silent Hill franchise.Voice overs – no more walking up to something and observing unless it’s scripted. Murphy will mutter whatever you need to know.Disposable Flashlights – usually you get one flashlight and that will last you the whole game. Now you’ve gotta search for new ones just like your weapons.Side Quests – now you can free roam the town and actually unlock new areas and content by being your usual, nosy self.Radio – oh, sure you get one, but it doesn’t act like you’d expect.Play in 3D – compatible with 3D TVs. Dan Licht takes the reins on the soundtrack – no more Akira Yamaoka, although we do hear some Mary Elizabeth McGlynn in a few haunting tracks.A bad guy as the good guy – never before have we had a protagonist who was an anti-hero from moment one. We usually find out later that they did something wrong, but in Downpour we already know; an interesting twist.
Fog – checkOtherworld – checkRunning around screaming and/or cursing – double checkControls – Although slightly different, they’re pretty much the same. You are able to look over Murphy’s shoulder as in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.Toluca Lake! An old friend returns, but that’s about all that’s familiar on this side of town.Some red light thing tries to kill you Silent Hill 3 style. Only it’s WAY worse.Disposable weapons all over the place like in Silent Hill: Origins.Creepy surroundings, rusted metal and an Otherworld similar but not identical to the movie and Homecomingin that it transforms around you in real time.
The monsters in Downpour are very much in line with what you’d expect in our favorite foggy town, in that they’re a reflection of Murphy’s inner demons and (thankfully) not just a regurgitation of popular foes in the series. (Sorry, no sexy nurse demons) They, themselves invite you think about their possible origins and connection to Murphy’s mind.
The only monster that looks remotely familiar is the Bogeyman, who can only be described as a combination of Pyramid Head and a miner suit-clad member of the Order from Silent Hill: Homecoming. Aside from the mining history of the town, Bogeyman's design doesn't make muchn sense, I'm afraid, but he's rather intimidating, nonetheless. Interestingly, Vatra Games said that Pyramid Head would not appear in this game, but technically…he appears different to everyone and he was called Bogey Man in Silent Hill: Homecoming so…that’s up to you to decide.
The combat can be a bit frustrating, as Murphy can aim and shoot or aim and swing – that’s it. Well, technically he can block, too, but when a screamer’s on your back like a psycho ex girlfriend, that’s kinda hard to time. After having my butt handed to me in convenient bite-sized pieces (on Normal Difficulty), I was really missing the ability to roll out of the way like we could in Homecoming. Murphy’s no combat veteran aside from his criminal record, so he doesn’t come armed with any special moves. Much like in Silent Hill: Origins, just about anything can be picked up and used as a weapon; even certain rocks. This does make sense if you think about it from a prisoner's point of view. You can throw weapons, too, and I had fun hucking them at a Weeping Bat that was waiting for me around a corner…on the ceiling. Some weapons can only be used once and others can be used for a long time. Likewise, some may be more powerful like a pick axe vs. a broken bottle. All will break eventually and you can only carry one handgun and one melee weapon at a time.
Vatra Games deserves a hearty and totally non-sarcastic Silent Hill fan slow clap for this one. They really succeeded where some previous developers did not. Although I’m a hardcore fan of the entire series, Downpour is really up there as one of the best in its presentation of how the town works. They did their homework but didn’t copy – and that was SO important. Unlike what the movie suggested, Alessa was NOT the cause of the town’s state; hers was just one of thousands of tragic stories that linger. The town reflects your own inner demons and in the case of the first game, those were Alessa’sdemons. I, for one, am relieved that we got a fresh story with this game. Silent Hill is the main character, after all, so get that right and the rest will fall into place. Daniel Licht did a fantastic job on the music and the sound design is great , with few exceptions. (At one point, the room’s reverb changed suddenly, making it really unnatural sounding.) The rest of the time, though, it was really unnerving. I highly recommend playing with headphones!
I am a little sad that I can’t observe anything I want, since in previous installments you were rewarded with little snippets for being extra nosy. The journal is nice, but you have to zoom in on it to read, which gets a little awkward. I DO like having all my notes and maps in one place, though, that’s new. The save points are a bit wonky, in that it will auto-save but if you quit and come back later, you may have to back track a bit. You cannot manually save, which would be nice. You can’t skip cut scenes, either, which is fine for the first time through, but for subsequent play-throughs would be helpful. (Especially for the incredibly long intro.)
Vatra certainly mastered the art of the “Silent Hill Mind F#%k,” that’s for sure. If you can have ME, a seasoned Silent Hill vet getting freaked out by a camera angle, a strange shape in the dark or running up a never ending staircase for ten minutes before turning around to find a door that wasn’t there before, well touche, Vatra. Touche. I really like how they played with camera angles and they did a masterful job of creating this 3-dimensional world. I’m not just talking graphics; I mean, you can look up, behind you, below, etc and you’re really there! There are a few times where you’re sliding down and all you can do is try and steer out of harm’s way. Anywhere you look you’re going to find something new and creepy to freak out about. Frankly, this is already a really long review/guide and I could write a book about the series, seriously. (Maybe I will!) In the meantime, I leave you with this:
Silent Hill isn’t a slasher movie – it’s a fun house of the mind. And if you can master the art of the alluring nightmare, then by jove, we’ve got a winner.
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