Silent Hill: Downpour Review (PS3/360)

March 22, 2012

PlayStation 3, Reviews, Xbox 360

Thirteen years ago, Konami published and created one of the most genre defining, psychological horrors in gaming history. The distinctive mixture of both psychological horror and survival, coupled with deep storytelling, was unlike anything we had seen up to that point. Fast forward 13 years and Silent Hill has now switched developers for a second time, first leaving Konami for Double Helix Games and now for Vatra Games in this latest installment. Will Downpour be a welcomed addition to the franchise or will it wash away in its own blunders? Let’s find out…

Story: 3/5

Downpour delves immediately into the chilling universe that is Silent Hill. Prison inmate Murphy Pendleton is forced to commit a grisly murder of an unnamed, unarmed man. The sequence is given no prior context, pushing players to confront the reality of killing a man in cold blood. It’s a frankly disturbing moment, and one that sets the stage for grim reality of future events. While Murphy is on the prison transport bus, it careens off the road and barrels down a large embankment.  Narrowly escaping, Murphy eventually winds up in the town of Silent Hill. As in case with those poor seven souls before him in previous titles in the series, Murphy quickly learns the truth about this ominous town. The thick, fog-shrouded resort town will force Murphy to come to terms with his past and eventually, his true self.

While true fans of the series know many of traditional trickeries by now, and the plot twists seem extremely familiar, Downpour still manages to create an engaging story populated by fascinating characters. Murphy is definitely one of the few protagonists we’ve seen in a while who actually has a lively personality. As the story continues to unfold, it is very difficult not to empathize with the path he eventually takes. At several moments in the game, you are presented with “life choices” which impact the outcome of Murphy’s voyage and you eventually choose what kind of person he will ultimately become.

Gameplay: 3/5

Vatra Games sought to create a mix of prior Silent Hill mechanics with some new designs and changes along the way. Unfortunately, these changes result in an average experience at best and a technical mess at worst. To start with the positive aspects of the game, Vatra has made heavy use of the history of Silent Hill and its notorious happenings, creating backstories and side quest. These side quests do not necessarily expand on the main story but rather give the gamer more insight to the troubled and poor citizens of the town and their own tragedies. In case you didn’t know already, Vatra wants to reinforce the idea of this cursed town and the continuous cycle of violence and evil that lives here and in this aspect they succeeded. Silent Hill is more an open world than what it has been in the past. Though not to say that it is a sandbox title by any means, it certainly expands over the linear mark. Longtime Fans will be pleased to know that the Hell world returns in Downpour. The evolution from the normal world to the more dangerous Hell world is a treat to watch due to the effects. Unfortunately, the way you’ll be spending your time in the Hell world is by running for your life before the reddish black hole behind you consumes your life. Repeatedly, these sections turn into exasperating chase sequences where you have to rely deeply on trial and error techniques.

There are severely chilling and disturbing moments you’ll encounter in the game. However, they are few and far between as opposed to the previous SH titles. There was great detail put into the overall design of the environments, in particular the town portion of the game. When you’re outside, everything seems familiar but different enough to still be intimidating to explore. This is due to the fact that this is a new part of town that SH fans have never explored before, which I thought was a great aspect about the game. For the past seven titles, every character has trekked through pretty much the same streets and finally in the eight iteration, we move to slightly new locations. Getting back to the exploration however, you can immediately see the developers wanted you to feel safer inside rather than being outside. Indoors, it’s easier to feel a sense of sanctuary due to the new “rain” aspect outside. When the rain starts coming down, the amount of enemies will double or triple, while also making them stronger. However, staying inside and dropping your guard can sometimes become a fatal mistake as well. Quiet footsteps and eerie sounds will give you the clues that devilish monsters are nearby, ready to scrape at your body.

There are various issues I have with Downpour and my particular gripes are with the weapon/combat system and of course, the puzzle issues. SH: Downpour gives you an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, more so than ever before. Murphy can fight off monsters with a variety of weapons, but they become useless very quickly and Murphy never becomes truly protected. Instead, he will have to arm himself with whatever is at hand, which typically includes rocks, hammers, fire extinguishers, and chair legs, none of which provides a strong defense. There are a few firearms scattered throughout the game, although ammo is extremely rare, making the pull of a trigger always a last resort. Murphy is no fighter and he’ll only take a few hits before becoming critically wounded. His health can be monitored by the condition of his clothes, which will become torn and bloody the more damage he sustains. Engaging in combat with a group of monsters is unwise, and will likely lead to a swift death. There is simply no way to become truly powerful in this game. Grabbing whatever is at hand may sound cool, but those of us who remember Silent Hill: Origins know that it’s a rather backward technique and kills the pacing of the game. Hunting around looking for a brick, rock or even a shovel can slow the pacing of any game, let alone a game known for that particular build up. Once found, many of these weapons yield very little damage. What’s even worse is that they eventually break after a couple of shots on an enemy. From here, you are forced to use your bare knuckles until you run and find a new weapon. The puzzle system in this game I also found to be severely lacking as opposed to previous Silent Hill games. For a good number of puzzles in the game, there was clearly a lack of direction. Admittedly, I had to research online how to get passed certain scenes which I have never had to do in previous SH titles. When a puzzle has no rhyme or reason to solving it other than just a “random guess till you get it” solution, then there is a problem.

Graphics 3/5

Having played the PS3 version, I immediately noticed the enhancements from the previous SH: Homecoming. However, after the opening scene I began to notice a troubling fact. Silent Hill is a mixed bag in terms of visuals. When in certain scenes, visuals look sharp and convey the environment perfectly, adding a deeper immersion. However, the trade off is that a handful of scenes look below par and don’t hold a handle to today’s standards. There are a slew of technical issues including frequent texture pop-in and frame rate stuttering. Another significant problem is Silent Hill’s inexcusable lack of overall polish. Having certain scenes look visually appealing at one instance to only quickly become dull and severely bland at another is not style but just plain laziness. The number of occurrences of screen tearing, frame-rate issues and unexpected freezes are really disappointing both for Vatra and Konami. These issues need to be rectified with a patch as soon as possible so this title does not become labeled as a buggy game not worth playing because that is certainly not the case. Poor programming and inefficient play-testing is embarrassing for Konami but more importantly, a true let down for fans that have waited over three years for this sequel to come out.

Sound 4/5

Akira Yamaoka, the original famed Silent Hill composer, has sadly left Konami in 2009 and unfortunately, didn’t compose the soundtrack for Downpour. However, all is not lost as Daniel Licht (famed composer from the TV series, Dexter) has thrown in his talent and to be fair, provides a pretty solid score. Sound design may not be as appealing as it was in the previous installments, but it nonetheless was bone chilling at points. Voice actors ranged from decent to great in certain scenes, definitely helping the audio aspect of the game, as well as making a believable story. It really helps you relate with the characters and empathize with their emotions. Overall, the soundtrack is pretty good, especially when you find yourself alone in a desolate, bone-chilling hallway or empty fog enshrouded street .

Overall Score: 13/20 = 6.5 out of 10

Silent Hill was the essence of true horror for myself and other long time fans. It pains me to see what was once an amazing and fresh experience now turning out to be a shell of its former self. Let me state that despite all of its technical issues, Silent Hill: Downpour is still a decent game and absolutely worth checking out. However, 60 dollars is a very tough sell, even for a fan of the franchise. I would highly recommend holding off for a $10-20 price drop. However, when you add in the technical problems and the simple, unpolished look, it can be a hard sell especially for newcomers of the series eager to jump into the Silent Hill universe. Of the two current SH titles this generation, I would recommend Silent Hill: Homecoming over Downpour mainly because it just captured the Silent Hill-esque style much better and with fewer technical issues.

PROS:

+Intriguing story

+More of Silent Hill to explore than ever before

+Voice Acting and Music remain solid

CONS:

-Visuals are a severely mixed bag

-Technical issues plague both versions (PS3/360) of the game from frame rate, screen tearing and freezing

-Puzzles with no rhyme or reasoning and require more of a “luck” approach, taking out the true survival skills aspect of SH

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