Silent Hill: DownpourIn the eye of the storm that is the modern gaming industry, very few games truly stand out either as foundations for future developers to build upon or as just really good. Despite the industry flooding itself with sequels and military shooters, the best games are actually new intellectual properties and maybe a couple of really good sequels from said intellectual properties. Not many, if any games come from franchises that were established in previous generations. Perhaps I could make a case for Ratchet And Clank: A Crack In Time, but it doesn't compare to its older brothers on the PS2... and you know what, I'd say the same thing for Silent Hill: Downpour; on its own terms, it is a good game, but it's nowhere near as good as its older brothers. However, unlike any given Ratchet And Clank game on the PS2, Silent Hills 2 and 3 are *bleep*ing masterpieces, and while I would like for there to be a Silent Hill game to equal them within this lifetime, Downpour is still a good game.
Unlike modern survival horror games which either seem to have just action based gameplay (Dead Space) or just puzzles (Amnesia), Downpour harkens back to the days of old by putting the two together while giving us camera angles and controls that are easy to navigate and interact with. In that sense, it feels like Resident Evil 4, which is also a good game, although there's a bit more emphasis on puzzle solving. Essentially, you are given an over the shoulder view commonly seen in third person shooters, and movement is fluid enough for anybody to work with but not too fluid. This is the kind of thing that can make survival horror marketable to the masses without the need to make it a strictly action affair (huh Visceral Games...) - just make it control well and you'll get people past the hurdle presented in a lot of old school survival horror games!
Having said that, combat is not Silent Hill's forte. While it's never been a stop-start affair since day one (as in Silent Hill 1) unlike Resident Evil even to this day, there are still plenty of things working against you. Guns, whether you're dealing with shotguns or even hand guns, are less accurate the further away you are from your target. Melee weapons break after a few whacks. Murphy whacks at a deliberate pace, meaning that you'll need to wear a *bleep*ing engagement ring for your attacks, and if you're surrounded by enemies, then you'll get *bleep*. Ordinarily, this would be no big deal in a survival horror game as the idea is to run away or just dispose of whatever gets in the way in some narrow corridor, but Downpour makes the mistake of forcing you into a lot of situations where you must kill groups of monsters, and given the inherant weakness of slow, deliberate swings, it's less heartpounding and more annoying. It does have context within the story – being that Murphy had killed a prisonmate by order of the corrupt officer George Sewell before coming to Silent Hill – but that doesn't quite excuse such a sub-par combat engine. However, where the combat is a game breaker for some, it's a type of annoyance that fluctuates between mild and fairly for me, especially when given bigger groups in tighter areas.
There are a few more issues to be had with the game. Sometimes, it gets a little too trial and error happy for its own good, like whenever you get chased by an unstoppable void whilst in the Otherworld. The path to escapism isn't that clearly laid out, making it easy to go the wrong way and get caught by the void. While it's easy to say “well it's a challenge”, I'll quickly respond with “anything that absolutely cannot be done the first time through without luck alone isn't a challenge; it's just bullshit”, and this is a fine example. A lot of the puzzles are well integrated into the experience, but some of them are poorly laid out. While I sometimes realized it was just my noggin needed some jogging as a lot of the puzzles are based on riddles and interaction with certain items found throughout, at times, it's hard to gauge whether you're making progress or just running around doing nothing. Walkthroughs were invented for this reason... although it is strange to have to use a walkthrough for a game released in a generation that's content with ultra linear first person shooters and condescending game design, but such is the case.
That isn't to say that the gameplay is inherently bad; just that it has some issues that you'll need to be aware of, but otherwise, the gameplay is actually good. Part of it has to do with its integration of it into the experience. Like the first four games, Downpour isn't a game you play; it's a game you experience. You, yourself, are thrusted into the world of Silent Hill. Every situation you encounter feels just right within the context of being in what is essentially a Dante's Inferno (not to be confused with the shitty hack and slash of the same name) through the mind of our main character, especially during any moment spent in the Otherworld. Through these moments, you'll learn more about how Murphy wound up in prison while dealing with his inner turmoil – particularly in the claustrophobic Otherworld, which fits with the fact that he was a prisoner for several years, with the void representing that feeling that he could be dead at any moment.
Atmosphere is the name of Silent Hill's game. While a lot of horror games tend to sprinkle some unsettling tunes throughout while relying on jump scares, Silent Hill has always relied on its extraordinary sound design, a keen eye for detail with the visual designs and a sense of deliberate pacing. It's not “oh let's shove zombies in your face and have dogs jump through windows” - it's “let's throw some monsters out when the time feels right and change the visual design when the moment calls for it”. This is especially true for when you're exploring Silent Hill itself – at times, you won't have much if anything to fight, but in your mind, there is something to come and attack you because it's foggy around you... then a few raindrops appear, and once it pours, monsters will come more frequently and in bigger numbers. In the more indoor-sy areas, things may distort and provide you with some disturbing images, and the Otherworld ups the ante with scarier imagery and redder colors in an attempt to make you feel all claustrophobic. But in general, it's that feeling of not knowing that pulls you into the experience and pushes you to be somewhat cautious while curious of what lies beyond the corner.
The sound design mirrors this by having a tendency to raise the hairs on the back of your neck with an unsettling track, only to either have nothing (at first) or have something ready to *bleep* you up. The tracks are more melodic in nature, feeling more song-y, but don't think for five seconds that it's necessarily a bad thing, because it isn't. It still has a sense of horror or at least intrigue to it. Daniel Licht may not be Akira Yamaoka, but he's got a good handle on things. Having said that, his style would not work for something like Silent Hill 2, as Downpour in general feels more straightforward with its themes, structure and storytelling, and as a result, the more straightforward, melodic haunting soundtrack is more suitable here than Akira's more subtle compositions for the older games. The sound effects, thankfully, feel right at home with what you'd expect for Silent Hill – the sort that'll make you think there's something around the corner or something... only to either have there be something or not. Still very tense stuff.
But what makes a Silent Hill game worth seeing through to the end is the journey through Silent Hill itself. As I've stated, Murphy is a jailbird who had to kill a fellow prisoner, but what I didn't tell you was how he winded up in Silent Hill. Well, what happened was that after killing that prisoner, he gets transferred to another prison supervised by officer Anne Cunningham... and Silent Hill just happened to be between them. How they got stranded in Silent Hill is similar to how Harry Mason wound up there in the first game – by having the vehicle crash, the important characters black out and wake up. Throughout the game, Murphy will find himself at odds with Anne, who seems to hate his guts but could never put a bullet between his eyes; George, who is a corrupt officer that clearly gives more of a shit about looking good than doing his job; and Frank Coleridge, an honest man who sees the good in Murphy, as will you.
Murphy is one of those characters that becomes easy to sympathize with when you learn more about him and as he goes through all the trials and tribulations to self enlightenment, which ultimately makes him a likeable character. He's soft spoken, mild mannered, analytical and distant until his criminal instincts overpower his common sense, making him violent, and his short temper doesn't really help matters. But that's just the core – the tip of the iceburg is some of the decisions that you'll make throughout the game that'll influence which one of six possible endings you'll get. Though this isn't like The Witcher where early decisions can alter the latter portions significantly, it's still interesting to see where you'll end up if you do this one thing differently. The only reason I talked about Murphy and nobody else is because the other characters serve as a means of getting to know Murphy better – not a lot about Anne or George is explained or anything, but like how LA Noire is Cole's story, Downpour is Murphy's story of retribution, and one that is a very captivating journey.
In many ways, this had the potential to be as good as the initial quadrilogy. The story and musical score may be a lot more straightforward, but the execution of both are fantastic in their own regard. Where this game has a leg to stand on is the atmosphere. Technically speaking, Silent Hill: Downpour could've used a few more months to iron out the combat and glitches (like lag and framerate stutters), but still, when put together the way that it is, it works really well. The way that the puzzles are integrated into the experience and the pacing of the events to come (or not come) sells the game, and the story is just the tip of the iceburg. Really, it's just spotty combat and glitches that can get in the way of your good time.