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Silent Hill: Downpour Review


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On 03/28/2012 at 12:00 PM by Julian Titus

More like a light drizzle.
RECOMMENDATION:

Hardcore Silent Hill fans should give this a rental just to see the amazing environmental transitions. Anyone else would do well to steer clear.

What’s the key to great horror? More importantly, what is the key to creating great horror video games? Is it a strong, relatable character? Is it the combat? Monster designs? Atmosphere? Whatever your answer, one thing became abundantly clear to me as I played Silent Hill: Downpour: developer Vatra Games didn’t ask this one crucial question at any point in this game’s creation.

Silent Hill: Downpour puts you into the jumpsuit of Murphy Pendleton, a convict on his way to be transferred to another prison. The hows and whys of Murphy’s incarceration are a mystery, but his introduction paints him in a terrible light, and it’s something that he never recovered from in my eyes. I think having characters that I can empathize with and want to see survive is paramount in a horror game. Murphy is at best a milquetoast nobody of a character, and at worst an uncaring, lifeless sociopath.

As Murphy escapes his imprisonment and finds himself all alone in the titular town, he seems to take everything in stride. Beyond a brief freakout when the weirdness of Silent Hill first manifests itself, Murphy reacts to everything he sees as if it was the most normal thing imaginable. Seeing gruesome remains of horrific murders doesn’t faze him for a second. Hearing the sounds of a woman crying behind bars in a cellar elicit no sympathy from him at all. Considering that I was stuck with Murphy for about ten hours, disliking him was a big black mark in my book.

Adding to this deep seated resentment for Murphy would have to be the fact that he simply can’t take care of himself when he needs to. Combat has never been the hallmark of the Silent Hill franchise, but it’s usually been passable at the very least. Not so with Downpour—combat is so bad that it feels broken and unfinished. As with most games in the series melee combat is the order of the day, with guns and ammo being in short supply. Murphy swings his weapons slowly and the hit detection is so poor that there were plenty of times that I’d go for an attack only to see it miss by a mile. When I did connect there was very little feedback to let me know that I had scored a hit. The generic, boilerplate monsters (all humanoid and recycled ad nauseum) block attacks with ease and seem to shrug off direct hits in one encounter, but could be totally laid out by them in others.

Compounding the frustration is the lack of a dodge move. Although not an expected feature of Silent Hill combat, all the monsters are able to shuck and jive as well as Mohammad Ali, while Murphy can only feebly block with his weapon. After the interesting combat mechanics in 2008’s Silent Hill: Homecoming, this feels like a major step backwards.

You can block attacks, but you won’t want to rely on that thanks to the breakable weapons. There’s something really wrong about a solid metal weapon like a wrench breaking after a couple fights, or having a fire axe break in your hands doing the job it was made for—cutting down doors. Weapons break easily and you never have any indication that they’re about to do so until you find yourself flailing away with your fists.

Weapons litter the landscape, but good luck picking one up when you’re surrounded, much less finding something better than a rock or a beer bottle. Certain melee weapons can be used to open up paths, adding to the annoyance of having to track down a specific tool for a job. You can only carry one gun and one melee weapon as well, so falling back on your guns in desperation is rarely an option. Not that the gunplay is any better than the melee, of course. Pile on top of this an erratic framerate that dips into single digits during some combat situations and you have a recipe for a disaster far worse than a little rainstorm.

Atmosphere is of utmost importance for a horror game, and that’s something that has always been a strong suit for the Silent Hill games. The town could be considered a character all its own, and has always been a source of dread and terror for me personally. Not so this time around.

To their credit, Vatra has put together a rendition of Silent Hill that looks and feels like a real place that could exist. Navigating the environments has a logic and flow to it that makes sense within the world. Places that would be blocked off from characters like James Sunderland or Heather Mason are easily circumvented by Murphy thanks to some rather inspired traversal animations.

These areas are awash in detail, adding to the sense of realism. Bathrooms have half-full soap dispensers, the movie theatre has a storage room for old posters, and the monastery has all of the rooms and amenities one would expect to see in the real world. The downside to all of this detail comes in the form of many, many rooms where nothing happens. In fact, Silent Hill: Downpour is a game where a lot of nothing happens for long spans of time. The sound design does little to add tension to the atmosphere, which is a far cry from the legacy of the series. This all amounts to a version of Silent Hill that looks amazing but has little to no personality, much like Murphy Pendleton himself.

Things take a turn for the interesting when things shift to the infamous and ominous Other World. A hallmark of the Silent Hill series, the Other World is a nightmarish twist on the sleepy lake town, filtered through the lens of the damned.  Where older games in the series would transition to this macabre environment when a character was knocked out or unable to see, now the change happens in real time, and always at the worst possible moment for Murphy.

 This is where Downpour shines: seeing the world twist, bend, and transform before your very eyes needs to be seen to be believed and far surpasses what Double Helix did with Homecoming. There are moments in Downpour that are straight up game changing. I’ve never seen environments alter to such a drastic degree in this way before, and in another game these moments could add some abject terror to the proceedings. It’s just a tragedy that getting to these sections is such a frustrating and uninteresting slog.

Even these amazing sections are marred by some poor game mechanics. Whenever Murphy first ends up in the Other World, he’s chased by a reddish light that threatens to devour him and everything around him. Finding your way through the hellish nightmare without getting consumed by the red light is extremely difficult without attempting it a few times. Make a mistake and more often than not you’re instantly dead, which makes replaying these trial and error sections lose all momentum and tension.

That’s the recurring theme of Downpour. Much like a sky full of dark clouds that never erupt into heavy rain, this game hints at some epic and terrifying experiences but never actually delivers on them. Between the broken combat system, uninteresting protagonist, and a story that trades in the subtle subtext of Silent Hill 2 for a tale that leaves nothing left for interpretation, all that remains is a nearly forgettable affair. Silent Hill: Downpour didn’t keep me awake at night. It didn’t fill me with dread. It didn’t even make me jump. All that Downpour managed to do is make me very sad for the future of the Silent Hill franchise.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:


All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.


These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.


This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.


Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.


Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.


A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.

Side By Side - A Good Excuse for 3D TVs?


The PS3 version is compatible with 3D televisions, and Downpour does some really impressive things with depth of field. Even though I didn’t have access to a 3D TV for this review, I could see what was being attempted and I can only imagine how well it looks in 3D, as the 2D effect was already pretty well executed during the more cinematic bits.


 

Comments

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

03/29/2012 at 05:24 PM

I hate to say this, but it looks like the internet haters called this one right.  I recall hearing lots of things like "This prooves that Konami just doesn't know how to make scary games anymore." right underneath that Korn trailer for this game.  Now they didn't develop the game, sure, but the argument is still true, and it's a real shame.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

03/29/2012 at 05:57 PM

Actually, I'd say this is proof positive that Silent Hill needs to be developed in-house again. I know Team Silent is long gone, but maybe they could contract out some people from Grasshopper to work with a new Konami team. And by Grasshopper I mean Yamaoka. 

And I'm one of the few people that actually liked Homecoming. 

Anonymous

04/10/2012 at 11:58 AM

The 3-D is especially great when the world transforms. The first time it happened, my jaw dropped.

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