[25 April 2012]
I don’t take any joy in writing negative reviews. Even the most flawed games have dozens (if not hundreds) of hardworking people behind them. Make no mistake, though: Silent Hill: Downpour has major problems on all fronts, and it doesn’t do much to ameliorate the series’ traditional problems. Survival horror (and the medium of video games in general) has evolved since the early Silent Hill games, but Downpour stumbles on some very basic levels. However, there are a few rays of light that manage to shine through an otherwise stormy experience.
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. Downpour has technical problems: texture pop-in, a choppy framerate, and unusually long load times make it hard to get too invested in the game’s world. It’s hard to maintain a sense of ever present danger when rooms are cordoned off by load times and fights take the form of stop motion shorts.
On the subject of fights, it’s disappointing to note that Downpour stubbornly clings to the notion that combat in a Silent Hill game is a good idea. Attacks don’t feel responsive, enemy behavior is simplistic, and the blocking system is cumbersome. The hudless screen is nice to look at, but it loses its charm when you realize that it’s hard determine the extent to which your weapon has degraded or how much damage either you or the enemy has taken.
The puzzle challenges are restrictive, but innocuous. Most of them involve finding hidden objects and then placing said objects in certain places. Most of the challenges boil down to this type of tidying up, but at least the world’s set dressing and general grime manage to provide a nice distraction. Aside from a few puzzles in which vague writing and ambiguous clues suggest multiple legitimate answers, things are pretty straightforward.
Thanks to a poor quest log system, figuring out how to do things is easy, but determining what to do is frustrating. Murphy, Downpour’s protagonist, keeps track of various objectives in his journal, but nothing differentiates sidequests from main quests. Strangely, main story objectives aren’t marked on the map, but secondary points of interest are. The main story itself is somewhat vague, so I was initially unsure how important all the tertiary objectives were. This sidetracked me for a good couple of hours, but after realizing that scripting bugs were locking me out of certain missions, I decided to just move on.
Thankfully, deposits of ingenuity and novelty can be found buried underneath Downpour‘s problems. Certain camera techniques reinforce Murphy’s struggle to maintain sanity. Walking over narrow beams causes the camera to shake and assume a perspective that exaggerates the bottomless pit below. During the game’s nightmare sequences, the screen subtly pulses and this minute zooming both simulates a panicky heart rate and an unhinged mind.
My favorite moment in the entire game entailed searching for a key hidden in a deformed corpse. In the spirit of Saw-esque gross out horror, you control Murphy’s hand with the left stick while he rummages around inside the corpse, searching for the key by touch. Force feedback lets you know when you’ve brushed up against the key, which must then be snatched out of the corpse’s undead guts before it wakes up.
Downpour doesn’t shy away from more cerebral nastiness either. The city of Silent Hill itself is a metaphor for Murphy’s personal struggles, some of which include prison hits and child murder. As a general rule, minors don’t often have much to worry about in video games (even Rockstar’s biting parodies of American life leave the kids alone), so seeing some real harm come to a child is disturbingly novel. Perhaps the most powerful integration of game mechanics and story themes comes at the very end, when you have the choice to actively embrace the horror you’ve been trying to avoid throughout the entire game. Making use of your adversary’s power is tempting, but giving in comes at a cost. Either way, the game asks you to make the choice through an action sequence instead of a sanitized dialogue tree.
Even so, this all falls short of cancelling out Downpour’s shortcomings. Unless you are a fervent Silent Hill fan, the brief flashes of ingenuity won’t make up for an otherwise dreary experience.