Silent Hill: Downpour
It's been a while since a Silent Hill title has lived up to expectations. Now it's Vatra Games turn to try with Silent Hill: Downpour. It does a great job as well, although not quite enough overall.
You play as protagonist Murphy Pendleton, a convict being transferred to a new prison. After the prison bus crashes, however, Murphy finds himself in the eerie and mysterious town of Silent Hill, fighting through nightmarish creatures, solving puzzles and meeting the peculiar locals. It's a familiar Silent Hill setup with the narrative slowly revealing the convoluted truth behind Murphy's visit and filling you in on his backstory.
As Murphy's story unfolds the occasional moral choice gives entirely different meaning to the events that directly follow them and helps shape Murphy as a character and the ending you'll receive. However, Murphy's personality and situation are ambiguous from the very beginning in a negative way. You don't know who the protagonist really is at his core. You don't know whether he's wrongfully imprisoned or simply trying to escape from the law. It gives too little reference for you to make informed decisions about how you should proceed through the narrative and these questions about the protagonist are only answered in the denouement. It's a shame as there's so much potential. The reasons for being in Silent Hill are believable, the characters are fairly interesting, the voice acting is some of the best in the series, and great care has been taken in the design.
What we see of Silent Hill in Downpour is designed to mirror Murphy's personality and past, much like in Silent Hill 2 with protagonist James. It's unfortunate then that these subtle effects are so easy to miss primarily due to the narrative failing to inform you in the initial stages. It just doesn't give you a chance of gleaning meaning from these clues. Enemies are also generic, lacking any obvious physiological connection like they had previous titles in the series. There's sparks of brilliance in almost every aspect of Downpour, bogged down by flaws.
Downpour is also rife with visual and performance problems. Murky and low detailed textures are far too common, hair looks downright awful, there are frame rate issues, problems with objects and weather effects popping in, and even the occasional full on freeze that really lets the title down and damages your immersion. Fortunately Downpour's aesthetic and audio presentation is excellent.
Daniel Licht replaces the series' composer Akira Yamaoka and does a remarkable job at maintaining the same audio vibe as other titles in the series, in-game at least - the use of Korn for the theme song feels incongruous. Additionally the sound effects are brilliant, with creaky floorboards, splintering wood, footsteps, splashes and more all sounding authentic and adding to the sense of fear. Aesthetically Downpour recreates the same gloomy town we all know and fear wonderfully. The other world's rusty design, the dark, claustrophobic interiors and the fog all return, and when combined with the sound design the overall presentation creates a convincingly scary environment.
As the title suggests, weather has an effect on gameplay. When it rains the enemies become more aggressive and numerous, instigating a fight or flee option. Add to that the chunkiness of combat the brittleness of weapons, and fleeing is almost always the best bet. Finding cover from the rain and allowing it to pass will give you a considerably better chance of survival. When you do have to fight, brace yourself for a slow and cumbersome affaire. Weapons take the form of whatever you happen to find on the floor. Be it planks of wood, a chair, a hammer, a fire extinguisher or even bricks. Swinging and throwing weapons is slow, frantic and amateurish; it's absolutely perfect for the situation. In any other game this kind of combat would ruin the experience but it fits Silent Hill titles by increasing the difficulty of monster encounters and therefore enhancing the fear. It still hasn't hit that sweet spot of being simple and effective yet also frantic, but it's a step in the right direction.
Murphy can only hold a single melee weapon and a single firearm at a time, and due to the brittleness of weapons you'll have to scrounge for object often in the middle of combat. It does a great job of making combat desperate. With ammo and firearms being so rare, you'll find yourself using them sparingly and concentrating on melee, taking special care to find the best make-do weapon you can before proceeding. The last thing you want to do in encounter an enemy unprepared and it's this fear that punctuates the whole experience beautifully.
Of course combat isn't the only thing you'll be doing in Silent Hill: Downpour; puzzles are also present. They offer good variety and occasionally lead to some surprising and rewarding set-pieces - with a certain Hansel and Gretel puzzle really standing out. They're smart and rewarding puzzles that once again emphasise the thoughtful design behind Downpour.
As well as following the main story, additional side quests are also available. Downpour is more open that in previous titles in the series, literally with more open spaces and through these numerous side quest which offer insight into the history of Silent Hill and its residents. The extra lore encourages you to seek them out and complete them; it's a nice reward for the exploration.
Indeed Silent Hill: Downpour comes awfully close to a return to Silent Hill 2 form. There are plenty of flaws that still need ironing out but the fundamental Silent Hill experience is certainly intact in Vatra Games' version, and some smart design choices show the right kind of innovation going forwards. There hasn't been a better time to revisit Silent Hill.