No one would deny that the past few years have been difficult for the Silent Hill series. Following the departure of Team Silent, the development team behind the first four instalments – the second of which is rightfully regarded as a classic of the survival horror genre – publisher Konami has farmed creation of the last three games out to a number of different developers, with varying results. 2007’s Silent Hill: Origins and the next year’s Silent Hill: Homecoming mimicked the style and tone of the original quartet without ever finding their own voice. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) was an interesting, clever experiment that nonetheless failed to revive the series’ flagging fortunes. While the series’ great rival, Resident Evil, has reinvented itself for a modern audience, Silent Hill is now considered something of a throwback; a relic of the golden age of survival horror, when ammo was scarce, combat clumsy, and puzzles pitched at Mensa-level difficulty.
All of which is a great shame, because at their best the Silent Hill games provided some of the finest horror experiences on any console. Their combination of Stephen King-esque small town dread filtered through a Lynchian sensibility and a unique Japanese take on American literary horror resulted in a fabulous mash-up of occult symbolism and creeping fear. Resident Evil is the name everyone recognises, but Silent Hill was always the scarier of the two.
With Silent Hill: Downpour, Czech developer Vatra finds itself in the unenviable position of being the first team to tackle a Silent Hill game without a member of the original Team Silent on board. (Composer and sound designer Akira Yamaoka having worked on all of the games up to and including Shattered Memories. His absence is felt here, but not as much as expected.) The result is a game which remains true to the concept of Silent Hill without being bound to the tropes that made both Origins and Homecoming feel more like exercises in nostalgia than fully-fledged series entries.
The player takes control of Murphy Pendleton, a prisoner being transferred from prison to prison (following the murder of a fellow inmate) when the bus he is in crashes into the woods surrounding the town of Silent Hill. Alone and on foot, Pendleton ventures towards the town only to find the roads cracked and broken, the inhabitants missing, and strange creatures prowling the streets.
The first two hours of Downpour are a bit of a chore. Progress through the woodland around the town is slow and frustratingly linear, reminiscent of 2010’s Alan Wake. There are also a few technical issues – screen tear, significant problems with the frame rate – that threaten to snap the player out of the experience.
These issues never entirely disappear, but when Pendleton reaches the town itself and the game finally opens up, they become less of a concern. Where previous games have limited exploration of Silent Hill to carefully sectioned areas of the town between key locations, Downpour presents the player with a faux open world. The player is free (up to a point) to explore the town as they see fit, and it’s well worth doing so. There are various side-missions hidden around the buildings of Silent Hill. These vary from interesting little self-contained mysteries (a trip to the local cinema is a particular highlight) or fun easter eggs for long-term fans of the series, including a return visit to the titular dwelling from Silent Hill: The Room. None are essential to completing the plot of the game, but they do add variety to a series that has traditionally told very linear stories.
The plot itself follows the template laid down by the series’ second instalment. Pendleton has various guilty secrets which are gradually revealed to the player as they progress through the game. Smart players will suss out what’s going on fairly quickly, but there are some unexpected turns, and although the game never reaches the heights of head-scratching oddness of old, there are some surreal sights and sequences that hark back to Silent Hill at its best – a nightmarish mine cart ride and the aftermath of a puzzle involving a school production of Hansel and Gretel are particular standouts.
Indeed, the puzzles are a highlight of Downpour. Where the likes of Origins and Homecoming placed the emphasis on combat over problem-solving, Downpour strikes the right balance. The puzzles are challenging, but usually logical and not too frustrating. If you are the sort of player who bemoans the shift from puzzles to action that many horror games have taken in recent years then this may well be the game for you.
If you prefer combat, however, then you will likely find Downpour a disappointing experience. Although Pendleton has a number of different weapons at his disposal – from broken bottles to crowbars to iron pipes to shotguns – combat is usually a matter of mashing the attack button while facing the direction of the enemy. As with previous instalments, though, the difficulty level of both the combat and the puzzles can be turned up and down, allowing the player to tailor the experience to meet their preferences.
If there is one major disappointment in Silent Hill: Downpour it is the paucity of imagination displayed in the monster design. The series has been praised in the past for the grotesque, often allegorical, nature of its creatures, none of which is evident in Downpour. Other than a couple of memorable bosses, most of the enemies the player encounters are rather banal and forgettable, more likely to induce a shrug than fear.
But the game does get a lot of things right, and although the experience is not exactly vintage Silent Hill, it is an accomplished and ambitious piece of classic survival horror. Despite some technical issues, Downpour manages to conjure up a persistent atmosphere of dread and some fantastic set-pieces. Will it return the series to its former glory? Probably not – puzzle-based survival horror is not a popular genre at the moment. But like Shattered Memories before it, Downpour is a step in the right direction, and bodes well for the future of the series.
“Whilst it gets off to a slow and underwhelming start, Silent Hill: Downpour is a fantastic improvement on all other entries in the last eight years. The atmospheric music, creepy creatures and genuinely frightening transformations from real to nightmare town will send your heart palpitating with excitement and fear. Play Silent Hill: Downpour with the lights out, volume up and a stiff drink to calm your nerves. This may not be quite enough to convert new fans to Silent Hill but it certainly helps restore faith in the series to fans of old. This is right up there with Alan Wake, suddenly survival horror is looking very healthy again.”
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