A step in the right direction for survival combat and exploration but Silent Hill: Downpour fails at the horror half of survival horror.
I don't think I can call myself a Silent Hill fan anymore. It's hard to stay enthusiastic about one's favorite rock band after the lead singer melts into an oleaginous slurry onstage and drips all over your sneakers. Over the last few years, I have gained a new appreciation for what Sonic the Hedgehog fans went through from about 1996 onwards, watching one's favorite franchise flail about desperately trying to recapture the spirit of the good ones without understanding the essential factors, like a man trying to build a sand castle out of rice pudding, although the difference is that anyone who hasn't deployed a firework up their nasal cavity can tell you why modern Sonic doesn't work - it's the 3D gameplay, because controlling Sonic turns into trying to molest a greasy pig on a pinball machine - while what it is that made Silent Hill 2 good is something far less easily quantifiable. It's all about the subtleties, the atmosphere, an undefinable air of otherworldliness hanging in the background. None of which is particularly helpful to Silent Hill's ongoing parade of Western developers, so instead let's just point to Silent Hill: Homecoming and go: "Not that!" Fortunately, Silent Hill: Downpour took that lesson to heart, and this time the plot doesn't play out like a bad straight-to-video monster movie filmed while everyone was depressed. No wacky black men appear to assist in combat and go "aw hell naw."
Today's humorless tit with issues and bad hair is the fabulously dorkily named Murphy Pendleton, a prisoner being transferred to another prison because his first one wasn't quite grim enough when the bus crashes and he must escape though everybody's favorite haunted seaside destination. The game I'm most reminded of is Silent Hill: Origins, which also had a protagonist that was difficult to sympathize with because there's no good reason offered why he can't vault over the nearest rusty chain-link fence and make a beeline for literally anywhere else. The town is forced to dredge through his past looking for some half-decent unrelated dark secret to confront him with in the form of filth-covered monsters and symbolic reality fluctuations, reducing the town once again to an episode of Judge Judy as directed by Francis Bacon. But you know what? Stick a couple of skill testers on the pier and it'd still be a nicer holiday destination than Blackpool.
I can be cruel sometimes, but hold on to your panties, grandma! I'm going to say Downpour is probably my favorite Western-developed Silent Hill thus far. Which is still like saying "of these reproductions of Picasso paintings created by flicking droplets of sparrow puke at a canvas ten feet away, I think this one is the least whiffy," but for what it's worth, Downpour shows signs of learning from its predecessors.
Like Origins, the melee weapons break after a while, but you can only carry one at a time, so you don't end up cycling through the nineteen TV sets down your trousers, and there are enough of them lying around everywhere that you're not often caught short. But most importantly, sing "Hallelujah" and rape each other in thanks, because someone finally figured out that you should be able to run away from fights that aren't going so well. I remember in Homecoming I ended up leading entire conga lines of monsters from place to place when my health and ammo was low. On the whole, the combat is probably the best aspect of Downpour, because it's sticky, difficult, panicky, most importantly avoidable, and ammo for guns is incredibly sparse. It's almost like survival is the principal challenge of something termed "survival horror".
Downpour also plays up the exploration aspect, and the town levels are complex enough to genuinely get lost. In fact, at one point I had to draw my own map because the in-game town map is about as easy to find as a toilet in a youth hostel you can actually bring yourself to use. Do you know how long it's been since I've had to draw my own map for a game? I'm genuinely asking, 'cause I don't know, although I'm pretty sure Princess Diana still had all her organs at the time. I'm not complaining; I was filling in the names from street signs with unbridled glee at a game for once not taking inspiration chiefly from the workings of a conveyor belt.
So it's got the right survival horror combat and the right survival horror exploration. All Silent Hill: Downpour needs now to earn a great big fat tick at the bottom of the page is to be scary!
This always ends up being the sticking point, doesn't it? Fear being a purely emotional response, it's difficult to say precisely why something is or isn't scary, but as I said earlier the essence of it lies in subtlety. And because I know that word disappeared from the vocabularies of AAA game developers some time ago, no, it is not the name of a small village in Derbyshire. I remember saying about Shattered Memories that chase sequences are scarier if it isn't clear what's chasing you, and Downpour sort of missed my point. It certainly is unclear what the object that chases Murphy through the Otherworld is, but you can clearly see it. It's some wibbly-wobbly black hole with red bits, like something that got lost on its way to the Star Trek visual effects department.
The Otherworld as a whole is just too loud, brightly lit, and overdone. It reminded me more of Alice: Madness Returns than any Silent Hill game, particularly one bit featuring giant, floating clocks that just needs jumping puzzles and a nice blue dress for Murphy to wear. Even in the foggy streets the monsters are more irritating than scary, mainly because they're just dudes. They're not grotesque, twisted monstrosities that stumble around like someone tied their knees to their tonsils, they're just dudes trying to punch you with their dude fists and their screechy dude wives. Yeah, maybe their faces look a bit fucked up like they lost their nerve and ran away halfway through a combination LASIK eye surgery and teeth whitening procedure, but with the fog and the dark you need to be making out with them to find that out, and I'm not that much of a slut.
And like a fast food burrito, it all kind of falls apart towards the end. Obviously Murphy has done a serious bad thing in the past - Silent Hill ain't about to entrap a bloke just for stealing the last Tim Tam at his sister's birthday party - but what annoys me, and Homecoming did this as well, is that the exact nature of Murphy's big boo-boo changes depending on what ending you get, which cheapens the entire story and renders half the symbolism pointless. In Silent Hill 2 - yes, maybe I will marry Silent Hill 2, shut up! - the naughty thing Jimbo did was always the same, and the endings were just him redeeming himself in different ways. That way the story retained the effective, tight focus that Downpour significantly lacks, along with imagination.
So yes, maybe the Western-developed Silent Hills have clawed their way an inch or so closer to the original formula, but honestly, I'd rather we'd take all the lessons we learned and just come up with new psychological horror IP rather than endlessly go on about "recapturing" Silent Hill like it's Frank fucking Abagnale trying to skip town. Believe it or not, I get no satisfaction from comparing everything to Silent Hill 2, just a sense of slightly depressing nostalgia and a raging stiffy.
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