Debuting in 1999, Silent Hill has consistently remained one of Survival Horror’s tent pole franchises alongside fellow Capcom juggernaut Resident Evil. However, while in the past half a decade or so many series have slowly made the transition into full-blown action territory. Konami’s psychological scare fest has for better or for worse largely adhered to the conventions that made it such a standout experience in the first place. Sure, there’s been a few times when Silent Hill has teetered precariously on the edge of authentic survival horror and action, but for the most part it’s had two feet firmly wedged between its roots. Silent Hill: Downpour, the latest entry in the series developed by the fresh-faced Vatra Games, is a perpetuation of this design philosophy, offering what is undeniably old-school survival horror.
Downpour shines the spotlight on floppy-haired chap Murphy Pendleton, an inmate imprisoned for reasons unknown. At the start of the game he finds himself being transferred to a new facility. However, in typical fashion, the transport bus makes the mistake of travelling in close proximity to Silent Hill and before you know it, there’s a crash and Pendleton awakes to find himself alone in the middle of the woods. Seizing the opportunity to leg it, the convict heads for the town of Silent Hill to find a way out of the area and to freedom – that’s the plan, at least. Unfortunately, without spoiling anything, things don’t go according to plan, and Murphy soon discovers that all is not right in the area and his path out of town inexplicably blocked. Thus begins his journey through Silent Hill, and more importantly, it gives players a glimpse at the past actions that lead to him being banged up.
In an industry full of explosive triple-A action blockbusters, Downpour feels like a breath of fresh air despite much of the experience rooted in the past. At its core, the game follows much of the fundamentals laid down by the progenitors of the survival horror genre, splicing exploration, combat and puzzle solving into one atmospheric package. This is a methodical game, with the action fed in small doses and the plot drip-fed in small chunks ensuring the mentality of playing on ‘just to see what happens next’ is prevalent throughout. Most interesting however, is the pseudo-open world setting that makes up the bulk of the game’s setting. While the first hour or so is relatively linear – with players navigating a spooky mine shaft and a couple of buildings on the outskirts of town – the meat of the game takes place in the southern district of Silent Hill itself, which is ripe for exploration. The foggy streets have been expanded allowing you to roam around as you see fit, picking up side quests along the way. While not a sandbox in the traditional sense, it’s certainly far more open than previous games, and allows for a degree of freedom not previously seen in the venerable franchise.
Quests are pretty varied, ranging from anything from following a trail to locating a missing girl, scattering a pensioner’s ashes in a ‘special place,’ to freeing birds locked in their cages. I found these bite-sized distractions a nice spin on the relatively linear storytelling nature of past games, plus the rewards are usually pretty meaty. Of course, the main narrative is the backbone of the experience, which sees Pendleton exploring numerous areas including the town’s streets, a monastery, prison complex and centennial building among others while unravelling his past. One of the most pleasing aspects in Downpour are the puzzles, something which many recent horror games have either dumb-downed or eschewed outright. Not here, though. In fact, Downpour gave me more of a mental workout than any other game I’ve played in recent memory, with its wealth of diverse riddles really providing a cerebral treat feast.
Sadly, Downpour’s combat dampens the experience thanks to some pretty dodgy controls. Silent Hill has never been renowned for its battles, but after Homecoming’s solid effort Downpour feels like a step back. Murphy can wield one melee weapon and firearm at a time, with the former encompassing a diverse range of items from bottles, chairs, fire axes and wooden planks. Furthermore, these tools will break under continued use, keeping you on your toes in mid-battle. Sadly, their application is cumbersome at best. Combat pretty much consists of hammering the square button to sloppily smack your opponent about, while holding triangle to block when required. While this does inject a bit of strategy into the proceedings, it’s all too unrefined and fidgety to feel worthwhile. Murphy isn’t the most agile of heroes either, and the fact enemies are pretty spry can make you feel rather underpowered; the lack of a proper targeting system for melee attacks only seeks to exacerbate the situation.
Firearms fare better, though occasionally I would still find my bullet missing my target even at near point-blank range. Sometimes it was just easier to blind fire rather than enter aim mode. Fortunately, aside from a few instances, the game rarely forces combat down your throat and running is a viable option in many encounters. In typical survival horror fashion, ammunition is exceedingly limited and must be saved for emergency situations; needless to say, it’s pretty satisfying to find yourself faced with an onslaught of foes before mowing them down with all that Shotgun ammo you previously horded. The most interesting dynamic however is the titular rainfall, which brings out foes in their droves and makes them far more aggressive, forcing you to hide indoors and upping the tension tenfold. Equally impressive is the Otherworld sections, which offer frantic chance sequences where Pendleton has to avoid an entity known as ‘The Void’ while navigating a maze of corridors and traps. These areas also offer up some of the more complex puzzle sequences in the game, which combined with the aforementioned chase sequences, offer an invigorating and welcome change of pace to the formula.
Visually Downpour isn’t the prettiest of titles on offer, with dodgy lip-synching and bland textures serving as some of the most notable offenders. However, Vatra has excelled in crafting a truly atmospheric experience, thanks in no small part to the superb art direction. The fog-coated streets and dilapidated buildings make for an incredibly immersive package, playing on the unshakable feeling of isolation and despair, while the Otherworld’s maze of metal and machinery is equally disturbing, punctuated with blood-covered halls and wailing corpses. The music is also top notch too, with Daniel Licht doing a commendable job at replacing long-time music maestro Akira Yamaoka, while the voice acting is for the most part pretty solid.
Sadly this brings me to the topic of creature design, which fails to match up to previous installments. Silent Hill’s demonic residents have always been intricately designed and directly woven into the protagonist’s tale, making you feel like you were facing your own personal demons. Downpour’s cast of creatures feel almost arbitrary by comparison, with the disappointing bestiary comprised almost exclusively of generic human foes holding little narrative significance. It’s almost if the creators ran out of ideas half-way through and cobbled something together as quickly as possible. The game also suffers from a rather choppy frame rate, and I’d frequently encounter distracting issues when unlocking Trophies or simply performing rudimentary gameplay tasks.
Overall, Silent Hill: Downpour is old school to the T. It’s clunky, and at times frustrating, but also incredibly compelling and thoroughly challenging. Long-time fans are likely to feel right at home with the superb blend of atmospheric tension, puzzle solving and exploration, though newcomers are likely to be put off by its perfunctory combat. Nonetheless, if you stick with it, you’ll find that Downpour has a lot to offer, and I for one would love Vatra to have another stab at the franchise providing it irons out some of the more glaring issues. To top it off, Downpour is also one of the meatiest Silent Hill games on offer, and took me just over 14 hours to complete – and that’s without completing all side quests. With multiple endings (of which moral choices play a strong part in deciding your fate) and unlockable content on offer, Downpour is an immersive and gripping, if admittedly flawed survival horror rollercoaster.
-The Final Word-
Despite clunky combat and various frame rate issues, Silent Hill: Downpour is still a solid survival horror romp that any fan of the genre should take a punt on.