For many people summer means more free time. Vacation, school holiday and so forth. So what’s the best way to use that time? Certainly not by going outside. It’s hot out there; and much too bright. No, you’re better off staying in the shade and air-conditioning of your living room and catching up on all those video games that you didn’t have time to play yet.
That’s what I do.
Silent Hill: Downpour
Welcome back; but not welcome home.
The Silent Hill franchise is probably the most respected survival horror video game in the genre. Though it is still outdone in sales by the Resident Evil games, a series that has abandoned horror for spook-house action, Silent Hill is still favored as the horror game that stayed true to its roots and remained scary. The problem that the series has faced is that it was too good at what it set out to do and peaked too early. Silent Hill 2 was a perfect storm of horror elements: A likable but unreliable protagonist, an environment of creepiness and dread, supporting characters with believable motivations and well acted performances, the mother of all video game bogeymen, and a deep seated psychological element to the horror that slowly opened up to the players answering questions and asking new ones to lead us on.
Since then however, video game publisher Konami has tried again and again to recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle and met with responses of “Good effort, but not good enough.” Well, I can tell you that Downpour is definitely the best Silent Hill game I’ve played since 2. Still not as good or better than its venerable ancestor but it hit me in a way that the efforts of 4, Origins, Shattered Memories, and Homecoming did not.
The story of Downpour is the story of Murphy Pendelton, a prison convict on transfer to a new facility. What exactly he has done to deserve his incarceration is unsaid, though mentions of his murdered son and favors that he did for the corrupt prison guards are passed around in the opening scenes. Accompanying him to his new home is Anne Cunningham, a prison guard who seems to know a lot more about Murphy than anyone else.
On the road a thick fog blows in and it’s not long before the bus skids off the road into a ravine, killing the passengers and allowing Murphy the opportunity to escape. Anne has also pulled through however and she chases after Murphy, driving him through the forest and into the nearby resort town of Silent Hill.
Fog was an important part of the early Silent Hill games. Video game consoles at the time were very limited in the amount of detail that they could render onscreen at any time. Team Silent, the first developers of the franchise, saw this limitation and made it a feature, making the environment oppressive and claustrophobic by hiding most of the world outside the bubble of clear vision around the character. As consoles improved the mist effect was used less and the fans of the series came to lament the loss of one of the most threatening features of Silent Hill. Downpour, with its emphasis on rain and water brings the fog back in full force. Mist covers the streets and buildings meaning Murphy often has to stumble close to buildings before the features become clear, causing the confusion and terror of the earlier iterations.
Murphy must creep through the streets from dilapidated house to crumbling condemned building looking for a path through the partially demolished town and its road that end in chasms and sinkholes. Along the way he’ll have to solve bizarre puzzles that unlock doors, avoid the vicious monsters that embody his own guilt and fears, and scramble through a nightmare world, a parallel dimension of post-industrial architecture and torture traps that stitches the unstable world of Silent Hill together.
One of the most interesting developments in the catalog of creatures that stalk through the town are the ghostly police cruisers. Old style cop cars with rusted panels and chugging engines will roll by in the foggy streets. If Murphy is caught out in the open when one rolls past it lets out a blurt of its siren. In response the sky darkens and the rain falls harder. More rain brings on more monsters and if Murphy can’t quickly find cover he will be overwhelmed by the gray skinned and sodden inhabitants of the town.
Though his journey leads to some beautiful and frightening set piece scenes, the puzzle solving mechanics of Downpour are still nonsensical and sometimes seem to be present just to be a distraction. Though there is the delightful scene in which Murphy must play out the script of a nursery school play to open the way through phantasmal “Grandmother’s house,” there are also three apartments that require a hunt for lost objects. These simple wanderings through a single house have no apparent bearing on the outcome of the game, costing time and resources and offering no immediate reward.
Maneuvering Murphy through his environment may be frustrating to some. The early Silent Hill games had an archaic control scheme, with the character handling like a remote-controlled car and swinging weapons in a simple arc directly ahead. Other development teams have tried to update these controls, making the character move more freely and athletically and adding more features like weapons that will track a foe, the ability to sidestep and dodge attacks and combination strikes. Fans of the series have generally dismissed these “improvements” as the lack of control over the character made for an “everyman” feel, better suited to a character who was not a commando or space marine. Downpour turns the clock back a few iterations and limits Murphy’s movement abilities while attempting to keep the fluid and believable human motion of newer titles. The result is a mixed bag, with combating enemies sometimes being a cakewalk and at other times being a matter of attrition.
Vatra Games, the developers of this sequel have done an admirable job in cherry picking some of the best features of the previous sequels. The handling of firearms from Homecoming, the chase sequences of Shattered Memories, and the danger of the cheap and improvised weapons breaking after use from Origins. In a series with so much history behind it, it’s a much safer path to take rather than striking out on one’s own.
While the retro features of the fog and the limited control scheme will please purists, they will also alienate the mainstream audience. Games have done more and more to streamline or even simplify the work a player must do and many are used to having brightly flashing arrows on the screen to direct their movements and flexible controls that let the character move like an athlete. It is these very limitations however that give the Silent Hill series its charm and keep the player scared by limiting the character’s agency. If Silent Hill is to stay true to its horror roots, it will have to always remain a cult classic.
It wouldn’t have been hard to miss Downpour as Konami did little to champion its release. The advantage to you now is that it will be relatively easy to find a cheap copy of the game for your console of choice. Go ahead, take a walk through the streets of Silent Hill. Make it your special place.