Downpour and I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. When the first thing a new game asks you to do is brutally murder a stranger in a prison shower with no attempt to offer rhyme nor reason as to why, I must question what it is I have gotten myself in to. In one swift stroke, a misjudged attempt at a tutorial left me despising the character I was then left to play for the remainder of my adventure in Silent Hill. Not a great start.
There was no salvation found in the opening couple of hours, either. Reluctantly taking control of the convict Murphy, you have to guide him from the scene of a coach crash through the outlying countryside and canyons surrounding the town of Silent Hill. Though a nice use of fog mixed with spookily placed light sources were the basis for setting the right atmosphere, everything seemed quite brown and textures flat. Given that this my first experience with this particular survival horror series, the highly linear experience that met me was disappointing. Though the woods about me were vast and dense, a channel was predetermined, ushering you through.
If this had lead me through a series of scares – I’d have settled for merely unnerving – then I may have forgiven it. Instead a procession of laborious encounters with wailing women was all it offered. Should you wish to engage, combat is mainly melee focused, with the street and rooms of this corner of America veritably littered with iron bars, bricks and axes that can be picked up and lobbed or slashed at the supernatural. Combat, however, is also highly repetitive, being simply a case of holding Y to block and then tapping X to counter attack when your opponent falls back into their rest animation. There are none of the subtleties or flared offered by an Assassin’s Creed or Batman, and after a while I could see why the loading screens tips suggested that running away was an equally valid course of action.
Had this course continued for the duration, then I may have been reaching around for some of the lower number available to me. Yet, whilst the combat never improved beyond the perfunctory, having navigated his way into town Murphy is met with an open world that he can explore and try and piece together the mysteries that appear to be keeping him there.
It’s a complete change. Suddenly the monsters are no longer something you must endure, but another factor in the city that’s out to get you. Dark, haunted police cars patrol the streets and even the weather is against you as regular downpours limit your already fogged vision and bring further freaks onto the streets. All the time you’re scouring the properties looking for a clue as to what to do next.
Most can’t be entered, although those that can provide not just shelter from the elements but side quests and further mysteries away from the threat of being attacked. Cinemas hide secrets in their films; apartment blocks full of unrest need appeasing; and shops scattered throughout contains health aid packs and firearms for you to plunder.
Certain buildings are key to your progression and hopefully your eventual escape. Enter these and you’ll enter a place that tries to test your mind and your resolve, as they mix puzzles and scares. They are sprawling structures, usually over a number of floors each with containing many rooms, and all putting the opening levels to shame. In each your feel as though you’re exploring a haunted house, the run down rooms and the eerily pitched audio causing you to peer nervously into each new room.
Indeed, Silent Hill’s strengths are borne out each and every time it puts on a true horror set piece. A fantastic combination of sound, lighting and camera work all come together to at times leaving me wishing that I wasn’t sat up near midnight playing the game alone. Walls can melt away transporting you to a nasty, alternate dimension full of blood-spitting corpses and cages full of monsters. The environment artists go to town here and provide the highlight of the adventure as you peer into the realisation of what is quite a dark corner of their warped minds.
With the gauntlet run in the alternate reality, you come back down to earth with a mental bump as the puzzles that block Murphy’s route are at times unashamedly hard. There’s very little in the way of rummaging through desks for the all-important keycard; Silent Hill prefers to paint numbers on walls and hope you notice them, hide glyphs in books, and at times be as obtuse as possible.
You may carry a journal about with you that has notes scrawled in it regarding objectives and the odd press clipping, but the developers were resolute it seems that only the nosiest and eagle eyed adventures would be able to unlock all the town’s secrets. While it may be quite refreshing that there is next to no hand holding and rewarding when you do crack the code it has been delicately hinting at, it can border on frustration given the amount of back tracking that is involved. This carries over into simple things like the map and again the journal as important points and key places are never marked and there is no way of even setting a personal waypoint to act as a reminder. It is as if Konami had slipped back into the design philosophy of the 90s.
Ultimately, Silent Hill: Downpour proves to be a game of extremes. To the left we have an appalling opening, miserable combat and an old school design mentality; on the right there sits a series of wonderfully explorable haunted houses, fantastic audio and a series of puzzles that Layton himself would be proud of. The marriage of them all is at times messy and jarring leading it to become disjointed.
With Alan Wake the new pretender on the block, some had hoped that Silent Hill would step up and prove why it has garnered its reputation. Inclusion of an open world packed with mysteries and potential could have seen it topple Microsoft’s survival horror exclusive, but too much of Downpour is stuck in the past.