(Xbox 360 Review) Silent Hill: Downpour

Developer: Vatra Games
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Genre: Survival Horror
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 7 = Good

It’s always unnerving when one finds themselves in the dreary town of Silent Hill. Even after 13 years, a visit to the ethereal hamlet—with its accompanying tormented pursuit for redemption and confrontation against inner horrors—can still cause one to slow their pace and grip their controller a little tighter. Well, I do, at least. While the newer entries in the series haven’t quite recaptured the same nerve-wracking suspense as Team Silent’s original trilogy, the series can still manage to engross and thrill as it covers a wide array of morose topics and themes. That isn’t to say that other titles haven’t tread upon its baggage-laden territory, as games like Amnesia and Heavy Rain have found their own take on the formula by creating crushing atmospheres and tackling taboo topics. But there’s nothing quite like a visit to Silent Hill. And while the latest, Silent Hill: Downpour from developer Vatra Games, might have its fair share of ‘They still haven’t fixed that?’ it also has enough sense of discovery, steeped heavily as it is in an otherworldly mystery, to warrant another trip.

The latest subject to find themselves on Maat’s scale is inmate Murphy Pendleton, a man wrapped up with a seemingly dirty prison guard and with a record that seems curiously at odds with the severity of his confinement and behavior. After a brutal introduction to prison life, players find themselves controlling a bewildered Pendleton as he awakes and makes his way from a wrecked bus, the result of a routine transport gone awry and into a desolate woodland area where things—as it happens with the series—aren’t what they seem. It doesn’t take long for him to come face to face with a fellow survivor and one of the few human foes in the game, a female guard determined to apprehend him. This early encounter introduces the concept of specific moral choices—whether to help or leave her—that is used to determine which of the six endings the player will unlock.

Nor does it take long for him to meet his first inhuman enemy, a female demon known as a screamer. The familiar figure, as seen in so many horror films featuring spastic women with long black hair and tattered black dresses, sports some nasty claws and lungs capable of bellowing out a paralyzing howl. Informally dubbed ‘the new nurse,’ I encountered this demon type several times throughout the game, along with a male variant, who serves as the arm-flailing psychotic grunt to elite and equally hideous counterparts. How these enemies are handled also plays a role in which ending is shown, with those carrying out harsh twelve-gauged justice being judged accordingly. Although they are less threatening after a few victories with a fire extinguisher, some rocks, maybe a hatchet, possibly a shovel, and most certainly a few boot heels to the face, they can manage to tweak a nerve or two in the beginning.

Downpour‘s main draw isn’t the enemies, though, who never manage to be all that interesting, but the locations. The wooded area in the beginning sets just the right tone with its rundown gas station, abandoned tourist attraction, and limited navigable area, providing for an intimate environment ripe for terror. The game dips somewhat shortly thereafter, with a trip through an abandoned mine shaft, but it quickly rebounds whenever Pendleton finds himself on the desolate, foggy streets of Silent Hill.

Downpour is at its best when the focus is on exploration and investigation, which is exactly what Silent Hill provides. The town has several blocks and numerous buildings to explore, which are handily labeled on maps strewn about. Knowing which buildings are accessible is important because shelter offers a chance to avoid the sporadic rain storms and, more importantly, the hordes of frenzied monsters that they attract. The interplay between the need for shelter and the clues and side quests that are only found indoors makes the rain element a truly great hook; Silent Hill is the last place where anyone would want to rush into a random building, but that’s exactly what the game urges, and from there the sense of exhilaration and safety is carried over into one of discovery as an item catches the eye. The game can be engaging even when the weather is relatively calm. Running around roadblocks and rummaging through the stock of a long-abandoned store offers its own kind of excitement—that of a voyeur ever at risk of being caught. Of course, being caught here means being set upon by murderous demons, which only heightens the tension. For a while, however, Pendleton is frequently left to his own devices, the demons seemingly satisfied with him (and us) knowing that they exist and can strike whenever they choose. As is often the case, constantly hinting at the ominous is much more effective than direct physical confrontations. And that is especially true here, given that combat is terribly awkward and often downright bad.

Much of the frustration and terror come not from the foreboding sounds and scurrying shadows but from the erratic combat. The system seems solid on the surface, with Pendleton able to block and wield a wide array of destructible objects as weapons, from crowbars, to beer bottles, to chairs, as well as firearms and his fists. A lack of any sort of dodge function is the first miss, which is strange considering how prominent dodging was in Shattered Memories; as different as the protagonists are in the two games, I think if a scared man incapable of taking on a demon in fisticuffs can dodge a blow, then grizzled Pendleton should have no problems bobbing and weaving. But no; instead, Pendleton must have his block broken, his swings interrupted, and his body wrecked. The numerous first aid kits help to keep him going, but seeing a pickaxe break because the game has again put an encounter in a corridor where his wide-arced swings will cause the weapon to hit the walls and ceiling more than the enemy is eye-twitchingly and teeth-grittingly frustrating. A nice three-swing combo is frequently (and violently) stopped as—somehow—enemies can rebound after the second blow and land a hit before impact; and trying to keep a line of sight is incredibly difficult, given Pendleton’s gawky attack style, the enemies’ quickness, and a blasted camera that requires too much babysitting. Running can often be difficult, thanks to some long-range leap and stun attacks, the latter being especially irritating as recovering from them requires ferociously jiggling the left analog stick. There are even times when the controls don’t adhere to the game’s rules; for instance, a few sections feature a fixed cinematic camera, similar to the one used in the earlier releases, that turns off the aiming and auto-targeting feature available in the free-camera areas. At least sending some buckshot to the gut and a gun butt to the face is satisfying. Still, it’s surprising that the same game that manages to work in an engaging, seamless explorative structure based around the elements and hint of the unknown can somehow fumble combat so badly. During the last act, which significantly ramps up the encounters, I was pining for an option to not just run past the enemies but skip them altogether.

Fortunately, there are times when combat doesn’t even enter the picture. As with previous Silent Hill titles, there are sections that take place in the Otherworld. Here, gruesome horror shows play out all around as the tortured scream for help, poisonous blood spews out of booby traps, and optical illusions lead to dead ends or worse. Unlike the real world, the Otherworld isn’t for fighting in but for escaping from. Once entered, a malevolent orb gives chase as Pendleton rushes down winding hallways towards the nearest exit. While a great concept, and initially exciting, the chase sequences become old hat by the end, and they, like combat, are simply tolerated. At least the Otherworld has some benefits though, including a few great locations and a peek at the inner workings of the forces behind the nightmare. Side quests also often offer a reprieve from combat. As mentioned earlier, they are a tantalizing and effective means in making exploration exciting and worthwhile. While some of the puzzles can be a little nonsensical, as with some of the story puzzles, the dozen-plus quests are generally well done and offer some great extra backstory as well as engaging encounters. A few include freeing spirits after seeing them murdered in reverse, splicing together movie reels after teleporting into each, and ridding the streets of otherworldly police patrols. The quests serve not only as great narrative carrots but excellent distractions; they aren’t to be missed.

Stitching all of this together is the Unreal Engine. Renown as a workhorse, Epic’s engine has powered and continues to power some of the industry’s biggest titles. Sadly, Downpour isn’t its finest moment. Pendleton’s journey is plagued with technical problems, from frequent screen tearing to seams popping up to dipping frame rates. One area caused him to get stuck inside rocks and the camera to shift to an area I couldn’t even access, even though the path was supposed to lead to ammo and health. Small buffer areas around objects frequently cause him to get stuck on items for which he seems to have more than enough clearance; and sometimes, he’ll walk straight through smaller objects, like chairs. Interacting with items is equally fussy, with many requiring Pendleton to be at just the right angle to use them, even if he’s standing directly in front of them. The frustrations frequently detract from the tension, causing carefully crafted moments to lose their gravity as the increasing sense of foreboding is checked by a hard knock into an invisible barrier.

Silent Hill:
Downpour has myriad problems, but in nearly every case, the design manages to shine despite the many technical hang-ups. On balance, the game works best when it’s a mixture of Titus Andronicus and Jacob’s Ladder, whether it’s during a story revelation or one of the many engaging side quests, and much less so as a generic hack-and-slash horror. The shift to a more cerebral fright is welcomed, but the cumbersome combat and striking lack of polish keep Downpour from hitting the high notes of the early years.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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