Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: Silent Hill: Downpour

Full disclosure:  I think the first three Silent Hill games are the not only great games, but their stories and use of atmosphere stand out in any medium.  I even like Silent Hill: The Room, the somewhat less popular last game done by the original developers, Team Silent.  However, I never got around to playing Silent Hill: Homecoming, which Downpour apparently resembles, at least in its combat system.  So, for better or for worse, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who veers maybe a little too close to being one of those  “It was good, now it sucks” fans (but in fairness the only Silent Hill game I’ve really loathed so far was Origins.)

When reports about Downpour‘s premise came out, I was a little dubious.  Instead of an everyperson, Downpour gives us Murphy Pendleton, a convict who escapes into Silent Hill when the prison bus transporting him crashes.  Pursued by a prison guard whose interest in catching Murphy might be more than just professional, Murphy quickly discovers, soon after breaking into an eerily abandoned cafe, that the town itself may be judge, jury, prison, and, of course, executioner.  It is a good premise, and while in a few ways it’s a kind of “spiritial sequel” to Silent Hill 2, it does break with series tradition in a way that made me both hopeful and anxious.   Luckily, even though I’ve only played through about 30% of the game so far, Murphy is a good morally ambiguous protagonist (although really the player determines  how “morally ambiguous” he actually is!) and the game exploits the prison theme to the hilt, to the point of giving the “Otherworld” a real decrepit prison theme that constantly draws on new images of water and electricity as well as the old-fashioned  Silent Hill ambiance of industrial decay.

Of course, the main question for me was:  how does Silent Hill: Downpour work as horror?  Well, it depends.  Downpour just doesn’t capture that delicate mix of sound, tone, and atmosphere that made the original Team Silent games so effective and memorable.  Maybe it’s actually for the best that it doesn’t, but there are points in the game where it just…feels like you’re playing a survival horror game, a sense that, in my opinion, the first three games avoided.  Maybe people who actually played Homecoming would know better, but it does seem like Downpour continues that tradition of being focused on combat that Homecoming was criticized for.  Maybe it makes sense in the context of the game, since even early on you find out that Murphy is a prisoner who is at least somewhat used to violence, but the feeling of desperation and the feeling of dread as you entered a new room or area that pervaded the Team Silent games is largely absent (although it is nice that, when Murphy is faced with a monster, he shouts out “Fuck!”, a welcome touch of realism.)  For all that, making torrential rain a game mechanic – when it pours, the monsters come out hunting for your blood – was an excellent touch that gives the player a real sense of urgency and a reason to…well, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE.  There are quite a few subtler touches too:  a radio DJ trying to reach anyone with increasing desperation;  the bits of background information and how they’re used to disturbing effect (for instance, just after reading about a train accident in a cave that killed eight children because of a drunk driver, Murphy comes across a shadowy area sealed off with police tape while empty beer bottles sit on a nearby cardboard box); and even the fact that the loading screen, which normally shows tips for gameplay, will sometimes show messages like “They never loved you” and “It knows you’re alone.”

Another big change is that Downpour gives you much more room to explore than most of the previous games, and there’s more to do than just hunt for extra items and hidden weapons.  While there is a linear story that makes it clear where you should go, Downpour also offers optional areas in the town to explore and even “side quests.”  I tend to think the argument that games need to offer lots of side quests for the sake of “replayability” is more or less BS, since it assumes that video games, unlike other media such as novels and films, can’t be worth experiencing again for their own sake, but still if any series was a natural for a more expansive world it’s Silent Hill.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only player of the early games who wished he could have actually gone into some of the businesses in Silent Hill 2, for instance, or revisited some familiar territory other than the amusement park in 3.

The one way Downpour doesn’t quite work as a game is with its combat.  Having not played Homecoming, which apparently resembles this game’s fight mode, I can’t say anything about whether it’s an improvement or not.  The one definite criticism of Homecoming I remember reading is that the game was not only too action-oriented, but the fights were too easy.  Apparently the developers were aware of this criticism, because the fights in this game even on “Easy” combat mode are rough (although I’m willing to admit the possibility that I just suck at the fights here).  Also the pattern I’ve noticed is that the monsters like to ambush, which seems to undercut the feeling of dread the game tries to cultivate. But at least you have many weapons that don’t break right away, like the lead pipe in Origins that gives up after four or five uses…freakin’ Origins…

Anyway, is this the game that completely revitalizes the franchise?  Maybe, maybe not, but what Downpour gets right it gets right indeed, and fans worried that the new development team would cut as many ties with the series as possible should be pleasantly surprised by the number of references and nods to the Silent Hill mythos that are there.  It may lack some of the more intangible things that made the series great, but between a great story and a care for detail and atmosphere it’s an installment worth investigating.


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