Genre: Survival Horror
Reviewer: Matt Warner
Overall: 6 = Fair
(Originally published on July 02, 2004)
Back in 1966, a TV commercial director named George Romero spearheaded the production of a small, shoestring-budget film that he had been kicking around for a while. Originally about a bunch of humans who were eating the dead, it changed by the time the film reached principal photography: it had instead become the story of a small band of trapped survivors trying to fend off a horror that had arisen out of nowhere as the dead were rising from their graves to feast on the living.
This film, released in 1968 and titled Night of the Living Dead, became an instant classic. At the time, it was the controversy surrounding the gore in the film and the depressing ending that sparked most of the speculation (and outrage). However, as time has worn on, many have written on the fact that the movie taps into a much deeper human fear: the fear of the unknown. It wasn’t so much the fact that the dead were rising as it was the question of why they were rising that people found to be most unnerving. Although the movie offered a token explanation, Romero would in later years come out as saying that his original idea for the film offered no explanation whatsoever; that was left up to the viewer.
Given the amount of critique that has since gone into the movie, and the fact that there is a generally widespread understanding of why the movie resonates as deeply as it does, it’s unusual that this same tactic of not showing all your cards to the viewer hasn’t really been utilized in survival horror-style videogames, a genre in which Night of the Living Dead is widely attributed to be the inspirational keystone. While Resident Evil made a sizeable splash in its day as being a “playable horror movie,” there were a number of videogame concessions made; it made for a good interactive experience, but it wasn’t necessarily frightening on the same psychological level as the film that inspired it.
One individual who did manage to achieve that elusive form of fear was a man named Toyama Shûichirô. As director of the original Silent Hill, Shûichirô tapped into that same vein of raw horror that makes well-done horror films, including the Dead films, as resonant as they are: it’s what you don’t see that gets you. Very little was explained outright in Silent Hill, forcing the player to draw their own conclusions, which were usually far worse than anything the PlayStation’s graphical capabilities could have mustered up. The whole game revolved around the unseen and the unknown, and it was this primal fear of the dark that made the game such a horrifying experience—particularly when you knew the dark was full of things that could kill you.
Shûichirô disappeared from the credits of Silent Hill after the first game, and later resurfaced heading up a new game from Sony known as Siren. Relying on that classic staple of Japanese horror, The Remote Japanese Village with Questionable Religious Practices, he presented an incredibly ambitious game where the story would be told via the perspectives of 10 different playable characters over a period of three days, non-chronologically. In addition, the characters in the game were all to be modeled after and voiced by professional actors, and the art team would take trips to several genuine abandoned Japanese villages and snap pictures to build the levels. It promised to reinvigorate the stagnating world of survival horror with bold new ideas in storytelling that could only be done with a videogame, and it promised to immerse players in that same deeply rooted fear of the unknown that had made Silent Hill such a success. Depending on how you choose to look at it, it may have even succeeded.
Siren, in its finished form, can best be described as Day of the Dead by way of David Lynch, sewn into the skin of Silent Hill. If your head hurts just thinking about that, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of where this game wants to take you.
The plot revolves around the events in a remote mountain-locked village in the Japanese countryside named Hanuda. It’s a quiet place, with a tight-knit community and all the general amenities that you would expect to find there. It also, we learn, has a reputation as an occult hotspot. A new television show called “Occult Japan” is scheduled to do a piece in the village on an apparent massacre, where over 30 people suddenly disappeared without a trace. The official reason is that they were lost in a landslide (it is a mountain town, after all) but it draws curiosity seekers nonetheless.
The story starts off with the character who will turn out to be the main protagonist, a 70’s-haircut-sporting teenager named Kyoya Suda, tying his bike up to a tree in a foggy forest just north of the town proper. He wanders down a small path, looking nervously left and right, and stumbles across a young girl and her dog crouched near a rock altar in the middle of a clearing. She appears to be striking something with a rock, but stops when her dog notices Kyoya off in the brush, watching them. She looks up, startled, and runs off. Later, our man is back in the same spot witnessing some kind of strange ceremony, in which the girl he saw earlier is participating. Someone sees him, and the procession grinds to a halt. Kyoya makes a run for it, but doesn’t get far when shots ring out. A police officer, in full uniform, is chasing him down, eventually driving Kyoya over the lip of a ravine into a construction site, where the first stage beings.
I’m not kidding when I say that’s how the story starts. There’s zero exposition prior to Kyoya tying up his bike—you go from there. If you want backstory, the official site has it. This trend continues for the entire game, and as the narrative bounces around from time to time and place to place, it’ll be a while before the player has become acclimated enough that they know all the characters and can remember their individual stories. While it does eventually tie together, the first 10 levels or so seem incredibly random, with the only information given being the time the level takes place and who participates in it. This is intentional, and provided the player sticks with it, it actually makes the game more interesting than it would be normally. However, the start makes it quite clear that this is not an easy game to stick with.
If you thought the handling of the plot sounded unintuitive, here’s a quick summation of what to do in the first stage: run forward to find a small construction shack. Open the door to it by pressing X, and then pick up the key off the table by moving near it, pressing Triangle, and selecting “Pick up Key” from the menu that will drop down. Next, run out and get to the truck parked outside. Go to the driver’s side door, and press Triangle to bring up a menu. Select “Unlock Door”. Now, press Triangle again and select “Get in Truck”. Once you’re in, press Triangle again for the menu. Select “Insert Key”. Press triangle again. This time, “Start Engine”. Now you’re done.
If it sounds annoying to bring up the menu every time you want to do something, it is. How this method of interaction made it past playtesting is a mystery. Supposedly, it allows for the player to do various different, often complex things that couldn’t be mapped to a specific button, but we’ve had context-sensitive action buttons in games for many, many years, and it’s really not something that needs changing.
Bizarre little oversights like this begin to crop up with extreme frequency, and there are enough of them that they go from an annoyance to an almost game-killing problem. Things like the first-person mode are weirdly implemented, with the button being pressure sensitive to control the level of zoom. It’s a good idea in theory, but it winds up being practically unusable due to the ridiculous sensitivity; apply anything other than a feather touch to the R2 button, and you’re treated to a massively zoomed picture of whatever it is you were trying to look at, an effect that’s particularly unsettling when you’re trying to look at someone and get a screen full of their left eye blinking at you.
Similar problems plague everything from the running sensitivity to the combat controls. Characters will “bounce” off walls they approach, putting their hands up as if they’d run into it full force and stopping dead in their tracks, which gets them killed with alarming frequency. The combat controls are similarly clunky, reverting to the tired Resident Evil formula of holding the attack button to target an enemy and then letting swing with their melee weapon. Player-wielded guns are a rarity in the game, which makes sense since most people don’t walk around heavily armed in the off chance that their neighbors will morph into monsters and try to kill them. The enemies of the game, however, have no problems at all scrounging up all kinds of interesting things to kill you with, particularly super-accurate ancient-looking rifles. This directly ties into what will prevent nearly everybody from digging in seriously and getting to the good stuff, and that is the numbingly high degree of difficulty the game expects people to deal with.
Compared to many other games, the design flaws here aren’t terrible. Fatal Frame II has a main character than runs at roughly the speed of a tree growing, and the combat controls are arguably even worse, but it makes up for it by having enemies that are shackled under the same restrictions. None of the enemies in that game are particularly fast, and while combat is difficult, the game limits what the ghosts can hit you with so that it’s manageable with the control scheme. Siren doesn’t even try. Crack shot snipers can, and will, bring you down without you ever knowing where they’re firing from. The few times the player gets to use one of the same rifles, it turns out that they are nowhere near as fast or easy to use as they should be, and you’re really better off with a pistol (not that you ever get a choice). In melee combat, anything more than simple one-on-one fight is a death wish, but one-on-one combat itself is remarkably easy, making things feel unbalanced and artificial when you’re forced to use snags in the A.I. to lead enemies away from each other to beat them down. To top all this off, the game has a seriously unforgiving continue system, where mid-level continues don’t save any pickups the player may have acquired up to that point in the level. This is intensely frustrating when you’ve grabbed a critical item early in the level, only to be killed 25 minutes down the road and forced eject to the main menu to restart the whole level all over again because you no longer have that critical item.
And you will need those items, even if you can’t see any real use for them. If you thought the puzzles in Resident Evil were hazy, wait until you see some of the curveballs this game tosses out. In true “who would ever think of that but videogame puzzle designers” fashion, one puzzle has a character running through the dangerous streets of the town into a specific house, getting a towel, bringing it back to another house, soaking it in water, and putting it in a freezer so that, much later down the road, another character can take the now-frozen towel and place it between two tables to suspend a piggy bank above the floor, so that when the towel melts, the piggy bank will fall and shatter, and the noise from which will attract an enemy outside so that the character can slip past unnoticed. Supposedly, one can figure out all this with no indication whatsoever that it’s even necessary. Right.
This doesn’t even being to scratch the aesthetic problems. Right off the bat, players will notice that the graphics are a mixed bag. Environments are well detailed, and in a few specific levels look absolutely amazing. Characters are another story. The game uses an odd photo texturing technique to map actual actor’s faces onto the game models, but the effect doesn’t look very good. It’s more effective on the game’s more surreal-looking enemies than on the playable characters. Like most things here, you get used to it, but it’s jarring at first. The music is actually the one extremely high point in the audio/visual department. It’s ripped straight out of Day of the Dead, and it fits perfectly. There isn’t much music to speak of in the game as a whole, but what is there is incredibly well done and it adds significantly to the heavy atmosphere the game attempts (and succeeds) to maintain. Sound effects are very basic, but functional, and the best that can be said is that you’ll never notice them. The same can’t really be said of the voices, however.
The convoluted plot is a meticulously planned creation, something that would require a very careful translation in order to make it out of Japan intact. When the game made it to Europe, news flew around the Internet that the quality of the translation, both written and voice acted, ranged from “okay” to “miserable.” If you buy the game in America, you’re not even getting that; you’re getting the English-only version of the European release. This means that the very Japanese-looking characters in the game all speak with pronounced British accents, making the game more surreal than it already is (which is saying something). It doesn’t hurt the game in the long run, and despite the reports from various places, the voice acting isn’t that bad, so chalk those complaints up to purists overreacting more than anything else. The translation certainly could have been better, but it isn’t game-killing. It is, however, one more straw on the camel’s back, one that’s dangerously close to breaking as it is. A crappy voice over could be just the thing to make a potential fan toss up their arms in frustration and head back to the game store to find a something that doesn’t hate them quite so much.
This is what makes Siren so unappealing as a videogame. It’s rare that you play something that seems to actually have contempt for anybody that tries to get through it, but between the initially insane plot and rusty, almost-broken controls, it’s a small wonder that nearly every major publication panned it as a failed attempt at a game, in addition to the legions of Silent Hill fans who felt seriously betrayed by a nearly unplayable, intensely scatterbrained $40 art experiment.
And that may be the biggest shame of all. For all its flaws (and there are many) there are going to be circles in which this title is hailed as a shining example of where games should be going. For those willing to tough it out, this game could well become one of their favorite games of all time. It’s an intense paradox of a game, because for everything gameplay-wise that it does wrong, there are three things plot-wise that are some of the most exciting ideas I’ve seen in a long time.
If you’re the type of gamer who has been around and likes to pick things apart from a design standpoint, you’ll get a lot more mileage than anyone else. It helps if you have a near-limitless amount of patience, but anyone who’s a fan of “difficult” movies or more abstract plot devices will probably fall head-over-heels in love with this game because the plot is so incredibly original and well done that, with the right kind of mindset, it makes up for all the gameplay shortcomings, and in some ways even justifies them.
At this point, I’ll just come right out and say it: I absolutely loved Siren. I’m the kind of person who enjoys being creeped out, and this manages it in a way that not even Silent Hill did. While Konami’s offering is the scarier game, Siren occupied my thoughts in a way that no other game has, making it a truly unnerving example of the type of psychological horror I mentioned earlier. I loved unraveling the mystery of what had happened in this town, I was willing to endure level after level just to see what the game was going to throw at me next, and to this day, I still take the game out and show it to anyone who’s even remotely interested because I feel that it may well be one of the most underappreciated games ever. This is the only game that’s ever actually given me nightmares; once it crawls into your head, it stays there for a long time.
Realistically, though, I’m under no misconception that I’m in the minority with this opinion, and this is what makes it such a difficult game to review. It’s an excellent idea that’s implemented extremely well in every way except for the gameplay itself. As such, anyone that buys games for the reason that they’re supposed to be fun to get through (which I assume would be most everybody) won’t enjoy themselves here, even if they appreciate what it tries to do. One of the most depressing things about reviewing the game is the fact that many of its truly brilliant moments don’t show up until much later in the story, long after the point when anyone but the most iron-willed would have torn the game from the DVD tray. If you actually make it that far, however, then Hanuda already has its hooks in you. By that point, you’re probably willing to endure anything just to see how the game pans out, and there you have the one serious facet of this title that doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Its plot, pacing, and atmosphere, to those who are willing to tough it out, are second to none.
Let’s take it back to the beginning of the game, as described earlier. Kyoya gets in the truck, turns it on, and winds up running over the police officer who had been chasing him. He gets out of the car in a panic and tries to see if the man is still alive: he isn’t. Just then, at the stroke of midnight, an earthquake occurs, and Kyoya runs into some kind of intense static interference as everything seems to pull apart momentarily. A bizarre, almost air-raid-like siren fills the air and drones on seemingly forever. In the midst of all this insanity, Kyoya misses the police officer rising back up behind him. Before he knows what hit him, Kyoya is falling into the bank of a nearby river with a bullet-punctured lung while the police officer giggles like a child and watches him fall. The cop has fully become one of the Shibito, the bloody-eyed, blue-skinned “zombies” that now populate the town of Hanuda.
The Shibito (roughly translated, “half-corpse person”) are the enemies to the protagonists, but these aren’t your grandfather’s zombies. In the first big mystery of the game, and arguably its most compelling, we’re told early on that the Shibito are no longer human, but they also aren’t dead. In fact, they’re immortal. Kill a Shibito and instead of dying, they gag a few times, assume a sort of fetal position on the ground, and begin to emit smoke from their backs. After anywhere from 10 seconds to 5 minutes, they stagger back to their feet, usually laughing hysterically at their own invulnerability. This is no easily explained T-Virus; something much more powerful is at work here, and by far the most redeeming aspect of the game is trying to figure out just what that is.
You see, the Shibito are also a lot more active than your typical zombie. Rather than wait for the player to show up, these townsfolk will generally live out their lives as they had before, though with significantly less grace. The mailman still makes his rounds “delivering” letters, the carpenter wanders around “fixing” things, and it’s not uncommon to see the Shibito gardening when they have nothing better to do.
The thing is, they often do have things to do. Unnerving things, like boarding up all the windows in a specific building, or constructing walkways and large walls in specific parts of town. This level of autonomy extends into areas where most other videogame enemies fear to tread. The Shibito have no problems doing things like opening doors or climbing up and down ledges to reach the player. In one of the scariest moments in the game, I had run away from a pursuing Shibito and took refuge behind a door to a single room, which I locked. As I sat there to catch my breath, I heard the Shibito try the door, mutter to herself, try the door again… and then began pounding on it. Hard. I figured this was just done for scares, so imagine my shock when she knocked the door off its hinges and came in to introduce me to the hammer she’d been carrying around.
The Shibito don’t mess around. They’ll do things that belie the careful programming that went into this game, like notice doors you may leave open and come to investigate, or perform a careful (and seriously nerve-wracking) search of the premises when they really want to find you.
The reason why they want to kill you so badly is made clear enough in the game. It’s hinted at early on that every character in Siren is slowly but surely turning into a Shibito themselves. As for why the villagers turned so much faster than the playable characters, I can’t give that away, but it is explained eventually. What’s also explained, via a rather disturbing cutscene, is that death is no refuge. Once the transformation starts, it will continue even if the person it’s happening to isn’t alive for it. You’ll simply lie there dead for a while and eventually stagger back to your feet, laughing and bleeding at the eyes, to go find something to arm yourself with and get to work. The Shibito don’t want to kill you per se, they just want to “help” you become one of them so that you can aid them in preparing for whatever it is they’re getting ready for.
This also serves to explain another gameplay feature, which is the ability of characters to “sight-jack”. Since everyone is turning into a Shibito, and the Shibito share a sort of hive mind, the characters can use this to their advantage by closing their eyes and tuning in on anyone else nearby, allowing them to see and hear whatever anyone in the near vicinity can. This is theoretically used to let the characters navigate the levels more easily, though in reality it doesn’t help much until the player is familiar with the level in question.
What sight-jacking does well is serve up some of the game’s creepiest moments, as well as some of the most original. At one point, it’s possible to unravel some of the mystery by sight-jacking not the Shibito wandering through the level, but one of the two other humans who are sitting there having a very informative conversation on the events in the town. Like everything else, it makes you work for it, but this sort of warped design makes for some seriously compelling clue gathering, in addition to providing the game with probably the most downright horrifying moments you’re ever likely to experience outside of Silent Hill should you then tune to another mind (as I did) and see a Shibito about to bury a shovel in your head… from their point of view.
The game also uses its unconventional narrative style to dangle a carrot in front of the player. You may be shown an incredibly bizarre cutscene depicting a recent turn of events in Hanuda, such as a massive light column descending from the night sky and one of the main characters looking at it and quaking in fear, and then skip back to a level four hours earlier in order to figure out why; or, more appropriately, to gather clues in order to figure out why. Very little is ever completely spelled out. Thankfully, the game eventually gives the player the option of reviewing any of the cutscenes and replaying any of the levels, which is useful when you want to go back and straighten out the narrative to piece everything together.
When this all comes together like it’s supposed to, it’s powerful. This is the first game that truly captures the paranoia and creeping dread that Romero brought to the table nearly three decades earlier. Like the films that inspired it, Siren won’t get under your skin if you don’t let it; it’s easy to dismiss it as a confusing, poorly done mess of a game, just like it’s easy to dismiss the original films as dated and unconvincing. If you take this thing the way it’s intended, however, you’ll get something out of it that has a far more lasting impact than a more conventional game could give you. You have to be willing to approach it on its own terms, and that’s much easier said than done, but I’m steadfast in my belief that there’s a certain group of gamers out there that this game is tailor-made for.
If you’re looking for something that will actually pay off should you choose to stick with it, then you should give Siren some serious consideration. By this point, you’ve hopefully got a good idea of whether this game is going to appeal to you or not. Rather than simply write a kiss-off, I want to point the right audience in this game’s direction. This isn’t a game I can score highly: while it’s decent in the graphics and sound department, the incredible difficulty and lack of tuning seriously drag it down, and as much as I love the plot, it’s not going to redeem a game that’s hardly playable in areas. All the good intentions in the world don’t help something that’s this flawed on a fundamental level, so the best I can do is tell it like it is and warn everyone: caveat emptor.