Plenty of series have fans that glorify the days of yesteryear but few have the same conviction as Silent Hill followers. Besides the botched HD ports, Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 have remained the franchise’s high points with little else to convince people that the glory days are still going strong. Vatra Games has stepped up to the plate in place of Team Silent and has aimed to make Silent Hill: Downpour, the newest entry, stand up to its predecessors. It’s an unquestionably tall task, but Silent Hill: Downpour is shining example of how to make a great horror game that knows how to stay relevant while retaining certain classic elements.
Downpour is completely independent from every other game, starring its own unique array of characters. Our new victim is Murphy Pendleton, a somber inmate with a mysterious past that resulted in him serving a prison sentence. After a small incident in the showers (insert prison shower joke here), Murphy is forced to leave his current facility in favor of a new one. However, this transfer doesn’t go along smoothly as the bus crashes into a foggy town known as (wait for it…) Silent Hill. Escaping from this spooky town becomes a priority as Murphy tries to figure just what is going on before he goes insane or dies.
Besides the thrills, the narrative has always been a big attraction to the series and Downpour holds up on this end. Murphy’s story and background are tantalizingly doled out, slowly hinting at his past without putting it in bold, red letters. And that’s one of the things I really like about Silent Hill that Downpour gets: subtly. Since not much is blatantly told through the few and far between dialogue bits, players are meant and encouraged to draw their own conclusions through what happens, cryptic messages, and notes dotted throughout the levels. Normally in games, I rarely read through these extra diaries but I hastily scrambled through every one I could find in hopes of shedding even more light on the dark story. Enough was kept out of sight to pique my curiosity and had me eager to sniff the details out and interpret the details using my own noggin.
Characters hold a similar sense of secrecy. Downpour doesn’t house a vast cast beneath its gloomy clouds, but each is memorable in its own way mostly due to their aforementioned secrecy. No one is quite normal and it becomes a brain teaser to figure out why each of them is trapped within this infernal town. They’ll drop hints or act in a certain peculiar way for you to draw some sort of conclusion about their character. In addition to mystery, each person (maybe except the children) gives a strong emotional performance and has enough humanizing weaknesses to establish a much-needed connection. The way you treat some of these characters will affect your ending, so choose wisely.
Silent Hill itself can be labeled a character as it has its own sense of personality, but more of it lies within how spooky the town is. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto, but this fog-ridden town is fairly open to explore for opportunities to seek out some small stories. These take the form of “side missions” strewn throughout the town. Quotations seem appropriate because side missions carry a connotation of fetching six carrots for someone’s stew or blowing up five containers of poison for the local Joe Blow.
These side quests pop up organically as you look around, with some taking place within certain houses and others showing up to those more willing to vicariously study the environment. While the actual in-game benefits aren’t always up to snuff (one only lends a single health pack), the contained narratives make these objectives worthwhile. Contained is the operative word because most (although a couple do) don’t have much to do with the overall plot, leaving them to show small anecdotes of the cursed souls in Silent Hill. Most have some sort of stinger that reminds me of the ones found in Red Dead Redemption, with all of the narrative ties and emotional bonds. Gameplay wise, some are good excuses to wander into a dirty, poorly lit basement, just asking to get scared witless and solve some clever puzzles. I wasn’t expecting it but side quests are a good, outside-of-the-box addition the series.
That’s not to say that the main quest fails in bringing creepy moments. Once a mission starts, Murphy is usually locked within a horrific, dingy building with some larger goal in mind. Levels are pretty lengthy, intertwining puzzles and scares, but the atmosphere should be commended for how it sells the scares. Tension slowly builds as the dark environments and sound (more on that later) collide to become extremely unsettling. That on-edge feeling is hard to shake because something will happen, you don’t know when or how it will happen. There were plenty of moments where I was truly terrified beyond my wits, something worth a lot of praise from a person who wants to be scared. Moments like these are intelligently placed and creepy moments are found throughout every level, and whether the plan is just to creep out or flat out scare, it succeeds. I do wish that more environments were shrouded in utter darkness, but enough of them are dim to leave me content. Contrary to other Silent Hill games, Downpour does rely on jump scares, but only a relatively small portion feel like cheap ways to force a jump.
Most thrills rely heavily on audio, which makes for one of the most memorable parts in Downpour. Akira Yamaoka may not have been behind the wheel on this one, but retains a similarly high quality. Music holds a subtle, creepy tone without ever feeling overbearing. Loud instruments aren’t usually used to drive the point home, but smaller, quieter tools are used to build tension throughout the way. Ambient noise and other sound effects had a stronger effect on me because the ears can be a better tool for establishing scares. Gurgling, screeching, crying, whispering, and any other disgusting bodily function (just wait for the heartbeat part; you may need to change your pants) is represented well and appropriately, with screeching ranking highly with most terrifying moments. Silence shouldn’t be underestimated because something hearing nothing can be utterly terrifying due to the fact that it lets your brain make up its own scares. Playing in the dark and with headphones is highly recommended as it exemplifies the excellent audio design.
Inanimate objects and sound have their own roles in establishing a mood, but fleshy enemies try their best to fit in too. A few creature designs may not hinge as heavily on symbolism, but Vatra felt the need to break up the pace and fighting fit the bill for them. Running is usually a viable strategy and might as well be the only one because the melee combat sucks. There is a noticeable delay between pressing the attack button and watching the animation go through, leaving Murphy subject to cheap shots and making it easy to whiff on almost every swing. It’s a good thing that Murphy isn’t a baseball player. As if that wasn’t bad enough, enemies can become invulnerable after a few hits, which leaves the player open to even more cheap shots. It is also disappointing that the last section of the game relies so heavily on the fighting, where the other parts of the game used it sparingly. I understand why the combat is bad, I just don’t get why it has to be bad.
Outside of the actual sticky combat, I appreciated almost everything around the actual fighting. Instead of having a tool shed’s worth of pipes and wrenches, Murphy is only able to keep one degradable melee weapon on hand. Plenty of blunt and sharp objects are littered around the environment and it adds to the sense of urgency when your current armament shatters. One firearm can also be holstered at all times and, surprisingly, isn’t completely unwieldy. Aiming and shooting is competent and far surpasses that of the clunky melee counterpart. Ammunition is super sparse and is only for emergencies, which is how it should be.
The evolution doesn’t stop at the shooting. Silent Hill: Downpour feels like a modern game, but doesn’t lose its flavor in the process of modernization. The camera is completely fine, health packs are mapped to the d-pad, movement isn’t tank-like, and loading screens don’t break the tension every five minutes. Obtuse logic isn’t really required either and the game doesn’t map out your direct path. Instead, Murphy will drop hints on what needs to be done, rather than outright tell the player. Doing this helps keep experimentation and exploration high without becoming frustrating. Survival horror has had a tricky time translating to this current generation, but Downpour should keep both sides happy (although I would have loved a Hard Core mode).
Downpour looks like a current generation game too. Water plays a large role within the game’s fiction and the effects are pretty impressive. Objects look appropriately damp, while other dry environments look good in their own ways. Lighting is very sharp and the grungy look of the town is nailed with detail put into every object. Load times thankfully only separate outdoor and indoor areas, but the game falters in one area: frame consistency. It doesn’t have a horrid framerate (it’s actually fairly solid), but it just stutters from time to time, especially when roaming the city. It doesn’t hinder the game as significantly as the HD versions (as this is a different beast), but it definitely noticeable and therefore an issue. A patch is said to be in the works, but a problem such as this shouldn’t have left the factory with the game.
Vatra Games has successfully breathed life into the Silent Hill games with Silent Hill: Downpour. Sprinkling its inspiration from past titles with adding some its own flair, Downpour has become a game of the modern era and kept its truly spooky atmosphere, interesting narrative, and nightmare-inducing moments in tact. It still has some things to learn, but it is a great step forward for one of the genres that doesn’t get much time in the spotlight. Downpour made me feel like a scared little schoolgirl at times, but (for once) it was something I welcomed.
+Mysterious, engrossing narrative that sucks you in
+Stupendous audio design and overall good looking game
+Chilling atmosphere ripe with truly frightening scares
+Multiple quality side quests, six different endings, and lengthy campaign make the game feel meaty
-Melee combat is sluggish and frustrating
-Hitches up frequently
Final Score: 8.5/10