And so we come to Silent Hill Downpour, the last “main” console entry in the series to be released so far. Two more posts will follow this on various spin offs and the movies, but I’ll probably take my time on those due to NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow.
After Shattered Memories there was a lot of speculation about where the franchise would go next- continue down the same path, or return to the way things had been before? That Climax would be back at the helm for a third time seemed more or less guaranteed.
Or not. Shortly before E3 2010 the development of a new Silent Hill game for the PS3 and Xbox 360 was announced, made by yet another little-known studio, Czech-based Vatra games. This time around the aim was to pull all of the different innovations made over the last four Silent Hill games into one, carefully alleviating the flaws that had plagued the franchise across three console generations and bring Silent Hill back to its position as the premiere name in survival horror.
Did it work?
Our troubled protagonist this time around is Murphy Pendleton, a prisoner jailed for initially unknown reasons. At the start of the game we witness him violently beat another prisoner to death in the shower room with the help of a corrupt guard, an action that apparently earns our boy Murph a transfer to a maximum security prison. Naturally the prison bus goes right through Silent Hill and promptly careens straight off the road and into the woods. Murphy wakes up to find his fellow prisoners dead or missing and the town under a pall of overcast skies and rain, mysteriously devoid of people and full of monsters (but you knew that by now).
Murphy’s initial goal of escaping captivity quickly changes to just getting out of Silent Hill alive, an endeavor not made easier by the presence of Anne Cunningham, a corrections officer who survived the bus crash and seems to be pissed off enough at Murphy to shoot him on sight. Figuring out why Anne has a grudge against Murphy and how it ties into his own troubled past forms the main basis of the plot.
If you listened to that podcast I linked to back in the Homecoming post there’s a bit near the end where Tomm Hulett seems to imply that a female protagonist had been planned for Downpour but was vetoed; given that Anne is stated to be having her own Silent Hill adventure off-screen during the course of the game and is arguably far more emotionally invested in the events of the back-story that Murphy I’ve always suspected that she was originally intended to be the playable character.
It’s a veritable Silent Hill medley this time around, as we get a grab-bag of elements from across the series. The massive re-focusing away from combat introduced by Shattered Memories is ditched, but some distinctive control elements and the occasional chase sequence arre maintained, as well as the more immersive “no on-screen” text approach. Documents and maps you pick up are now stored in Murphy’s journal, which is viewed in first-person with no pause to the gameplay, much like Harry’s phone.
Combat is back in a mix between the mechanics of Homecoming and Origins. Murphy is faster and more agile than the classic Silent Hill protagonists but doesn’t have the same combo-based fighting style as Alex did. All melee weapons now break like they did in Origins and you can only hold one large weapon and one small weapon at a time in space on Murphy’s person that’s also taken up by guns, meaning players have to be careful about what they’re going to equip. The environment is littered with weak, fragile objects like chairs and wooden planks that you can grab to swing or throw at enemies, but sturdier weapons usually take a bit more time to find. Occasionally while outside a titular rain storm will begin, which heralds the imminent arrival of lots of monsters. In these situations you have a choice of standing your ground and fighting or heading inside until the rain stops.
Otherworld sequences play out sort of similarly to those of Shattered Memories, consisting of mostly linear “tracks” that you explore rather than the puzzle filled re-skinned duplicates of previous areas that the earlier games had. Occasionally a malevolent red light will chase Murphy through these areas, prompting a fast paced escape sequence. The maze-like nature of the chases has been severely reduced this time, which makes them a lot less frustrating.
For the first time in the franchise the streets of Silent Hill can be explored in a way that you could legitimately describe as “open world”, with a fairly expansive town location scattered about with optional side-quests and activities to do. It’s not Grand Theft Auto: Silent Hill by any means but there’s a fair amount of side-content to explore if you want to.
In my previous posts I took Homecoming to task for not being scary at all but completely gave Shattered Memories a pass on the same front. This was because Homecoming was clearly trying to evoke the same kind of horror as the older games but failed to do so, whereas Shattered Memories was aiming for something totally different. With Downpour we’ve got another attempt to recapture the glory of the past and it….. doesn’t work. At all.
I have to get fanboyish for a moment and complain about something that’s going to seem incredibly nit-picky, but I really feel like it’s important: the appearance of Silent Hill in this game.
First of all it’s a bit weird that the part of Silent Hill we’re in is about three times bigger than the entirety of the area covered in Silent Hill 1-3 and has grown a Springfield Gorge-like canyon area that doesn’t seem like it could have been there before without the player noticing, but whatever, I can accept that the town needed to be larger to facilitate the more open design and Downpour’s plot is stand-alone and could therefore be thought of as taking place in a separate continuity.. What’s more baffling is that this version of Silent Hill appears to be abandoned.
The fog world in previous Silent Hill games has always looked broken down and decrepit to an extent that you can assume the real town isn’t, but it was never enough to make you think the area wasn’t lived in. This is important because one of the defining attributes of Silent Hill that makes it so creepy is the idea of a town mysteriously devoid of people. In Downpour the town looks like it’s been hit with an earthquake or something. Buildings are broken down and shattered, interior locations are covered in grime and have stuff strewn all over the floor, there are gigantic fissures in the streets that are much more dramatic looking than the classic “road that vanishes into empty space” thing the previous games had going on. This fundamentally takes away from the impact of the idea of a mysteriously empty town because this version of Silent Hill looks like it should be empty.
Also, for some reason most of the areas you visit appear to be stuck in a time warp. The game unequivocally takes place at some point in the late 20th century, if not modern day, and yet houses are full of gramaphones and old-timey radio equipment, you visit a bank that has apparently missed out on the last fifty years of advances in computer technology (or the management just like to torment the staff by having them do everything by hand) shops have ancient cash registers on the counters. It’s extremely jarring.
The Otherworld, meanwhile, is a shadow of its former self. Rusty metal hallways filled with spike traps and whirling razor blades like something out of a Crash Bandicoot game give way to topsy-turvey Escher like locations that are kind of amusing the first time you see them but are not in the least bit scary.
The game’s approach to horror is laughable. Monsters are forever popping out of the side of the screen to grab Murphy, the game makes use of over the top GH-GH-GH-GHOOOOOOOSTS WOOoooOOOoooo at several points as if Vatra took all of their inspiration from visiting the Disney Haunted Mansion once or twice.
Speaking of the monsters, they’re by far the worst designed in the history of the franchise, often looking like little more than people in weird makeup. There isn’t even a spark of the inspiration found in the earlier games. The nadir of the monster design is this game’s pyramid head knock-off (because we’re back to once again desperately aping Silent Hill 2), a guy in a rain coat who wears a gas mask. SCAAAAAAAARY.
Worse than all of this is the fact that
Wait, we’re not even on the review yet, are we? Oh well.
Worse than all of this is the fact that the game breaks the cardinal rule of Silent Hill established way back in the first game, the thing that even Homecoming at its most rambling and fan-fictionish preserved: don’t explain the mystery behind Silent Hill.
Now to be fair Downpour doesn’t quite do this, but it comes very close. You see, Murphy meets a mysterious mailman named Howard. Howard is strongly implied to be a manifestation, which is a concept that’s come up in previous games (beginning with either Silent Hill 1 or 2 depending on how you define the term). Basically it’s a “false person” conjured up by the forces at work in Silent Hill to fulfill some sort of purpose. The monsters themselves could be seen as manifestations, although the term is usually reserved in Silent Hill nerd-circles to refer to artificially created humans. Usually manifestations are tied in some way to the mind of the protagonist or Alessa- like the monsters they’re inner demons or psychological elements made physical reality. Not Howard, though! Howard appears to come straight from the town itself. He knows what the deal is with Silent Hill. He pushes Murphy to face his past because the whole point of Silent Hill is to reach out and grab screwed up people and force them to confront oh shit he’s a mailman he’s supposed to be the person who delivered the letter to James isn’t he fuck me.
Okay, deep breath. If you’re not as a big a hopeless dork as I am you probably don’t see what I’m getting so worked up about, so let me explain: previous Silent Hill games have always been very careful to avoid directly ascribing any sort of motive or agency on the part of whatever it is that’s causing all of the freaky shit to happen in the games. As I said in the first post, even the supposed “gods” that you encounter throughout the series don’t appear to have any goals or motivations of their own. In Downpour we are directly told that the manifestations of people’s darkest fears or thoughts that they encounter in Silent Hill aren’t conjured up as a by-product of an unknown supernatural force- the town is deliberately and consciously messing with Murphy and Anne and several other people you meet over the course of the game. Now it’s true that in Silent Hill 2 there’s talk of the town “calling” to people and summoning them to Silent Hill, like with James and his letter, but this is presented as the speculation of a character who doesn’t know any more than the player what’s going on, and by the end of the game the question of how and why James ended up in Silent Hill has been muddled enough so as to become hopelessly ambiguous (it’s heavily implied the letter that brought him there might not even be real) . Which is how it should be.
Vatra and their Konami associates apparently saw this, thought “yes, Silent Hill is all about a spooky supernatural murder-town trolling people” and ran with the idea straight off a cliff and into the Ocean of Stupidity.
This time around Yamaoka isn’t on board so the music is handled by Daniel Licht, best known as the guy who did the music for Dexter. It’s much more traditionally cinematic than any of the previous soundtracks and never quite reaches the level of Yamaoka at his best, but I like it quite a bit all the same. It fits the tone and atmosphere of the game well, which is the main thing. If he was hired to do the music for future games I’d have no problem with that.
No Mary Elizabeth McGlynn tracks this time apart from the singy bit in the above track at around the 2:00 minute mark, but she did full vocals for the theme song to Book of Memories, the PS Vita spin off that came out around the same time, and which Licht also did the music for.
Oh, wait a second- we didn’t get a McGlynn theme song but we did get a theme song by someone else: Korn.
Yes, Korn. The nu metal guys. To be fair this only plays if you leave the opening screen going too long and I strongly get the feeling the song’s existence isn’t something the game’s developers or producers were actually involved in. I won’t link to it, it’s awful. No one needs to hear it.
I think I went over Downpour’s horror failures in enough detail already, but how does it play?
The attempt to finally solve the problems with combat don’t work and frustratingly they don’t work for the exact same reason Homecoming’s revamped combat system didn’t work- the monsters are too aggressive and powerful, too capable of staggering Murphy and can easily dodge attacks which means fighting quickly becomes a mind-numbing chore. Simply avoiding enemies is a viable strategy out on the streets, but isn’t really possible when you’re stuck inside with the bastards. Only the guns really feel satisfying to use, but ammo for them is so scarce that they usually have to be kept as a last resort.
Downpour’s much-vaunted open design is the one well-executed idea the game brings to the table- exploring SIlent Hill is genuinely fun and engrossing- but even this is hampered by poor design choices. many of the side-quests consist of item hunts with no clues or guidance, so the player is forced to simply wander around until they randomly stumble on the correct MacGuffin to complete the mission. The rewards for putting in all of this work are usually so slight as to feel like a slap in the face, generally consisting of some ammo or a few health kits. Due to the decision to include breakable melee weapons and limited space for guns there are no permanent rewards the game can give for going through the trouble of completing this extra content, and most of it isn’t entertaining enough to warrant slogging through for its own sake.
A pall of mediocrity hangs over Downpour. The graphics are muddy and wildly inconsistent and after a promising start the gameplay often devolves into simplistic reflex challenges or combat scenarios, including one of those “fight off waves of enemies while going down an elevator” bits that I thought had died out in the PS2 era. The only real redeeming feature is the puzzles, some of which are good enough to rank alongside those of he original Team Silent era, but even they peter out about two thirds of the way through, to be replaced with more spike-corridors and sliding blocks.
The story of Murphy and Anne and how their troubled pasts intersect is perfectly decently written, but there’s nothing really remarkable or emotionally engaging about it. It feels like it was taken from a mid-list crime drama you’d see on TV in the middle of the day and once again consists of a blatant attempt to rip off the Silent Hill 2 formula, which makes the story extremely predictable for anyone familiar with the franchise. What’s that you say- Murphy has a d a r k s e c r e t? Is it by any chance the same d a r k s e c r e t that James and Alex had but with the specific conditions shuffled around a bit? It is? Oh joy! The only difference is that now your actions in the game determine precisely how dark and edgy Murphy’s back-story is, and whether or not he’s a complete asshole or a misunderstood sad panda.
Overall Downpour is a collection of good ideas severely ruined in execution. It’s probably my least favourite game in the series and feels like a giant step backward after Shattered Memories.
Should you play it?
Nope! Moving on.
Downpour was inexplicably popular with the hardcore Silent Hill fans but received a fairly poor reception from critics and sold badly. So badly in fact that Vatra unfortunately shut down shortly after the game came out.
The future of the franchise is currently in limbo. As I mentioned back in the first post there was some talk last year of Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame working on a Silent Hill title in some capacity, but we haven’t heard whether that actually amounted to anything. It’s currently unknown whether there’s a new Silent Hill game in development. My feeling is that Konami will probably let the franchise rest for a while before doing anything new with it.
I’ve implied a few times that I have a theory for what exactly happened to cause Silent Hill to lose its way and what can be done to put it back on track. I think it’s fairly simple- Konami is giving the reigns of the franchise to studios who just aren’t good enough to handle it. Origins, Shattered Memories, Homecoming and Downpour were all made by small developers who hadn’t worked on very high profile projects before; this worked out in the case of Shattered Memories and arguably Origins but backfired with Homecoming and Downpour. The talent that made the older games so good just wasn’t there, and as a result we got games that mostly ended up feeling like pale retreads of a bygone era.
If Konami is going to publish another Silent Hill game it needs to hire a developer worthy of the the franchise’s legacy. But there’s a problem there- good AAA developers are expensive, and big-budget horror is a risky proposition these days (or at least that’s what developers often say- whether or not it’s true is another matter). So here’s my solution: go indie.
Horror has found a very comfortable space for itself in the indie world, with games like Amnesia, Slender and Outlast gaining the sort of attention that in the big-budget world is usually reserved for first person shooters and action games. Why not get some talented indie studio and offer them the chance to make the next Silent Hill game as a smaller, cheaper download-only release? I’m sure a lot of these developers would jump at the chance to work on such a famous franchise.
I have a few candidates that I’d like to see handle a future Silent Hill game in a dream scenario. How about a first-person non-combat game in the style of Amnesia from Frictional Games? With a story written by A Machine For Pigs devs The Chinese Room, please. Or what about the guys who did Outlast? I had some major problems with how they handled the horror in that game, but there’s no denying the production values were through the roof for an indie game. As long as they came to the franchise with the right mindset I think they could do something really cool.
Ever since Telltale’s The Walking Dead game came along and became everyone’s favourite game I’ve been entertaining the dream of getting them to do a Silent Hill adventure game, ditch the survival horror completely and just focus on telling a compelling horror themed story. No, it wouldn’t be at all in the spirit of the originals, but maybe that well has just been drawn from so many times that it’s gone dry? Perhaps a complete genre change wouldn’t be a bad thing, at least temporarily.
Whoever ends up getting their hands on Silent Hill in future needs to stop turning out hollow copies of the older games. Either do something completely unique like Shattered Memories or, if you’re going to try and recapture the franchise’s heyday, actually try to understand what made those games so successful and put out something that builds on that understanding.
And for fuck’s sake stop trying to ape Silent Hill 2, you’re never going to top it.
The bottom line
SIlent Hill 2 and 3 and undisputed classics that should be played by anyone in the market for a good horror game and Shattered Memories is a unique and compelling experience if you want something a little different. Knowledge of Silent Hill 1 is essential if you’re going to get into the series heavily, but you don’t necessarily have to play through it.
Origins and Homecoming are inessential. The former is generic and samey but can be safely consumed by anyone looking for another slice of the Silent Hill pie, while Homecoming is a much riskier proposition.
Don’t waste your time with Downpour.