17th March 2012 - The Silent Hill series has had a very interesting history, especially in recent years. After premiering on the first Playstation as the antithesis of Resident Evil, emphasizing themes of isolation and fear of the unknown as opposed to an oppressive atmosphere with limited means of fighting back, the series started to invest its resources into slow-building psychological horror. The next three games are hailed as classics for focusing on three-dimensional protagonists, level and monster designs drenched in symbolism and enough nightmare fuel to keep Stephen King up at night, and narrative storytelling that some consider the best in the entire medium. Then, the original team left the franchise and moved on. Since then, Silent Hill fell out of touch with what made its type of horror so powerful, and the games released afterward have ranged between functional but bland and experimental but anemic. Can Silent Hill Downpour, overseen by unknown Czech studio, Vatra Games, bring Silent Hill back to its roots? Well, to quote an infamous movie adaptation of a Mary Shelley novel, “it's alive!!!”
You play as Murphy Pendleton, a prison inmate who is being transferred to a new prison for more extreme offenses. While en route, the transfer bus has the misfortune to pass by the haunted town of Silent Hill. The bus crashes but Murphy survives. If he wants to be free, Murphy must find a way to escape the advancing police, as well as the town itself.
Gameplay is a healthy mix of exploration, puzzle-solving, and a bit of combat. One thing of note is the boldness of Vatra maintaining some of the things that made Silent Hill the oppressive place that it was back in the day, even if some of those things have not aged well. First of all, the town map has no indicators of where to go, or even what roads are closed, with marks on the map coming up only after exploring first-hand. Also, combat has changed on its surface to accompany more modern game design while maintaining a distinct Survival Horror theme. Murphy doesn't carry any weapons on his person, instead he is able to pick up and use improvised weapons from the environment around him. Anything can be used as a weapon from broken bottles, to chairs, to wrenches, to a good old fashioned giant piece of wood, each one with realistic durability that helps keep combat hectic. Fighting monsters reveals that combat feels sluggish and inaccurate, and in the event of the player actually obtaining a firearm and ammo, the targeting reticule bobs and shakes as if held by nervous hands. In a traditional action oriented game this would be unacceptable, but Silent Hill has always emphasized human vulnerability above a high body count gorefest, not to mention that there is always the ability to run away and escape.
Unfortunately, while the combat in the game can easily be avoided and used as a last resort, the shifts in camera angle don't help. Whenever a monster comes into contact with Murphy, the camera zooms out into a perspective that is evocative of a hack-and-slash type of game in the vain of God of War or Devil May Cry, which is completely incongruous with the established gameplay. On the topic of camera angles, there are moments where the camera will go into a fixed state so movement becomes uneven and odd like in the original games. This is cute as fan service, but in terms of gameplay it is very distracting, especially when movement outside of these areas are fluid and responsive.
An interesting new feature Downpour presents is the addition of side-missions that help flesh out the smaller details of the town. These missions are completely optional, and the only reward offered is extra ammo or first-aid kits, but are interesting enough to be worth the time. Such missions include finding a map hidden in a bunch of unrelated paintings, searching for a lost little girl, or scattering the ashes of a married couple at their special spot.
On top of this creative spirit, a lot of effort was put into Silent Hill's disturbing Otherworld, as well as the set pieces that take place in it. Whenever the world transitions to this dark dimension, it is usually followed by intense chase sequences where Murphy is running away from a void of red light, which burns away anything caught in its red glow. These sequences are also heightened by gates closing on potential exit routes and various traps, all of which doesn't get frustrating since the primary path loops and the continuous presence of auto-save. Whenever these chases aren't happening, the puzzle and combat sequences use recurring symbols of time, prisons, and penance, calling back to the series' tendency to have its environments be an extension of the protagonist's torment and guilt.
It is a disappointment that so much thought and variety went into the level design, the narrative, Murphy's characterization, and the nightmare set pieces that Vatra winds up dropping the ball in the monster design. Past Silent Hill games have been known for their disturbing monster designs, the most popular being Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2. Compared to the past installments, Downpour's monsters are painfully generic variations on bloodied up humans with razor hands. There are some interesting ideas, a personal favorite being the phantom police patrol cars that alert monsters to Murphy's presence if they spot him, but they're not enough to ignore the level of mediocrity by the rest of the creatures.
Silent Hill Downpour's atmosphere is pretty solid, but it doesn't reach the same level of claustrophobia as previous installments. The new recurring use of rain and thunderstorms is used well and helps explain the fog in the town as residual mist. Graphical fidelity could be better across the board however. The character models' lip sync isn't always precise and too often the uncanny valley shows on characters in cutscenes. There is the occasional texture popping, and framerate drops whenever the game is auto-saving or loading a new area, sometimes leading to a small three second long freeze-up. These happen a bit too often to be completely ignored but it doesn't render the game unplayable.
A notable departure from the Silent Hill series in this installment is sound directing genius, Akira Yamaoka, who contributed the musical score to all Silent Hill games save for this one. As sad as it is to have Mr. Yamaoka leave, the new musical director is a keeper. Daniel Licht, who some will recognize as the composer for the TV show, Dexter, is the music composer and sound director for Downpour, and his work does not disappoint. The voice acting is good overall but credit must be given to David Boyd Konrad, the voice of Murphy Pendleton, whose performance manages to add so much needed charisma and emotion to the character that it shows even through the robot faced character model.
Silent Hill Downpour is a very solid horror game, but at the same time, there were opportunities for it to be better. If a bit more discipline was implemented in its camera placement and more variety added to the monster designs, Downpour could have been a true knock-out classic for the series. As it stands now, it is an above average entry into the genre. That being said, it has been a long time coming for Silent Hill to find its base again, and that is reason enough to celebrate; all the more reason to see what Vatra does next with the franchise.
Silent Hill Downpour manages to overcome some sketchy graphical issues, camera troubles, and an underwhelming supporting cast of atrocities to deliver a solid horror experience. If you're in the need for some nightmare fuel for the weekend it is worth in the very least a rental, or a full blown purchase if a fan. You will not be disappointed.
AAG Score: 7.5/10
+ Great story and main character
+ Great level design and music direction
+ Solid atmosphere
- Below Average Monster Design
- Intermittent graphical issues
- Misleading use of Camera
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey