Silent Hill: Downpour is the eighth iteration of the venerable survival-horror franchise that began in the days of the original PlayStation. Since then, the development has passed to several different studios. Though the series’ origins are firmly Japanese, the last two developers, Climax Studios and Double Helix games, were British and American, respectively. While their entries into the series were respected critically, hardcore Silent Hill fans were left a little disappointed at the abandonment of the series’ eastern roots. The Czech-based developer of Silent Hill: Downpour, Vatra Games, has attempted to return the series to its roots, and although there are a few key stumbling points, fans who found themselves disappointed by the previous entries will undoubtedly find the title encouraging, if nothing else.
The Silent Hill series has wound its way through many protagonists, some genuinely interesting and relatable, others notably less so. This time around, inmate Murphy Pendleton is the man destined to enter America’s most haunted town. Pendleton is an inmate at Ryall State Corrections Facility, though what he was convicted for is not immediately evident. His arrival into Silent Hill is an unfortunate accident. During a prison transfer, the bus Pendleton is on crashes, and in his ensuing attempt to escape, he blunders blindly into Silent Hill. This moment is actually one of the weakest in an otherwise well-told story. During the first few hours, it’s hard to tell whether Murphy is actually a likable protagonist. Details about his past – even the key detail of why he was imprisoned – are held at arm’s length until several hours in. The game’s opening sequence, in which Murphy kills a fellow prisoner, seemingly in cold blood, casts further doubt upon his believability as a Silent Hill protagonist. The style of horror the series uses is centered around the player feeling connected to the protagonist, and a convicted felon, especially one as murderous as Murphy initially seems, is hard to relate to. Once you enter Silent Hill, however, and the town begins to taunt Murphy with his own past, necessitating the game’s reveal of key details about his life, the story of Silent Hill: Downpour really finds its legs, and you find yourself finally getting invested. It simply takes a little too long to reach that point.
The town of Silent Hill has seen a few changes this time around. When you finally reach the town proper, after about two hours of gameplay, you find that Vatra Games has given it more of an open-world feel. You’ll discover, though, that this is a pseudo-open-world more than anything else, as there are numerous blockades and fractures in the road that stop you from roaming freely. The result is that the town is split into a few different sections, each larger than what is practical. You’ll find yourself wandering back and forth in each of these areas attempting to find the entrance to the building you need to get into. Or how to access the next area. Or even just what you’re supposed to do next. This isn’t helped by the game’s objective system, which is extremely broad and not at all helpful. ‘Escape from Silent Hill,’ is your main objective, but the journal doesn’t provide any further direction than that. This is most notable when you first enter the town, without any real idea of what you’re supposed to do. Vague marks on your maps will draw you to areas of interest, but there’s no indication as to why you should be drawn there. This means that the truly interesting portions of the game are broken up by random wanderings in which the titular rains become more annoying than anything. They make getting from one area of the map to the another more cumbersome than it should be, since once the rains come, the monsters of Silent Hill appear more frequently and are much more difficult to kill. When you finally get where you’re going, Silent Hill: Downpour has some extremely interesting moments. But the choice to make Silent Hill so large and provide so little direction means a lot of needless wandering as you try and figure out what you’re supposed to do next.
A Silent Hill game wouldn’t be a Silent Hill game if it didn’t feature clunky combat, and Downpour unfortunately excels all too well at this. Murphy can only carry two weapons – one melee and one holstered – with melee weapons degrading over time. In theory, this means that you’ll have to make do with what you can find on short notice. In practice, however, there are only a couple of melee weapons that are really worth carrying. Axes can break the boards off of boarded up doorways, and harpoons (which actually resemble overlong fire pokers) can hook onto ladders to pull them down into arm’s reach. This means that you’ll always want either one or the other in your hand. Weapons constantly spawn in the same locations, so as long as you’re outside, you get a pretty good feel for where the good weapons are.
Using these melee weapons for fighting is, as is the Silent Hill tradition, lacking. There’s no real visual feedback for smacking a Screamer with the broad side of your axe, so first and foremost, the combat is unsatisfying. Couple that with the lack of a lock-on function, and the fact Murphy will sometimes perform a 180 degree turn after you swing a weapon, and you find that fighting more than one enemy at a time is nearly impossible. On higher difficulties, even one enemy can be a task. They don’t always stagger when you hit them, and the breaks between their attacks are so short that you can’t employ a block-then-hit strategy, because while it stops damage, blocking doesn’t impede the monsters attacks in any other way. You often stagger when hit, though, so if you get struck while winding up for a swing, (which you will quite often), you’ll break off your attack, and probably take a few extra hits, too. Murphy’s clothes get bloody and he starts limping as he takes damage, which is a neat effect at first, but aside from that, there’s no indication of how much damage you’ve taken or how much more you can take before you die. To a certain degree, that’s understandable; it’s designed to create a feeling of tension in the combat, to really make it feel like you’re fighting for your life. But Downpour surpasses the realm of understandability and combat comes off feeling annoying and almost broken.
There are also a wealth of technical issues, the most egregious of which are frequent drops in the frame rate that sometimes devolve into an outright stutter, making the game hiccup as you walk up and down the streets of the town. The camera is also frequently a bother, especially when in combat, as it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the block mechanic. Problems like this are simply not acceptable in current generation gaming. Hardware is sufficiently powerful that frame rate issues are out and out laughable, and by now, third-person games have evolved to the point where problems with the camera are more than just a frustrating issue in the game, they’re an overt slap in the face.
When you’re not fighting or exploring, (or coping with some of the more overt technical flaws) though, Silent Hill: Downpour actually has some genuinely interesting moments. The thick fog covering the town and the darkness and dilapidation of the buildings you explore do a wonderful job of creating an authentic Silent Hill atmosphere. Some of the moments that take place in the series’ trademark ‘dark world’ can mess with your head, in addition to being appropriately creepy. There seems to be an abundance of cheap startles in some areas (wandering through a dark room only to have a pile of boxes clatter loudly to the ground, or wandering through a cavernous library only for a ceiling to collapse), but there are enough sufficiently creepy moments alongside them that it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. The soundtrack isn’t up to normal Silent Hill standards, which can be attributed to the loss of Akira Yamaoka, but composer Daniel Licht (of TV-series Dexter fame) does a fairly admirable job, considering the man he’s forced to follow. All the pieces are there, and when they click, they fit well, but there are just so many little things standing in the way.
When it embraces its origins, Silent Hill: Downpour hits the nail dead on the head, creating an engaging story, a creepy atmosphere, and throwing genuinely unsettling moments at the player, making it truly feel like a Silent Hill game. But in opening up the town of Silent Hill and not providing sufficient direction, a lot of time will be spent trying to figure out just where you’re supposed to go next, or how to get there. Couple that with the traditional problems of the Silent Hill franchise – poor camera and clunky combat – slightly worse than previous titles, and Downpour falls to the level of average. Long-time fans of the series will undoubtedly be pleased with some of the choices made by the developer, (monster designs have been toned back, the horror elements are more subtle than those found in Homecoming, and Murphy isn’t given a support character to wander around with), but the game’s problems simply make it hard to recommend this to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the series.
+Genuinely creepy atmosphere
+Story is one of the series’ most interesting
+Considering the shoes he’s filling, Daniel Licht does an admirable job with the music.
-Technical issues abound: frame rate issues most prominently
-Lack of direction leads to a lot of aimless wandering
Silent Hill: Downpour was purchased for the PlayStation 3 and completed in roughly 9 hours. The title is also available for the Xbox 360. According to other sources, the technical problems are NOT exclusive to the platform.