Silent Hill: Downpour Review
Most survival/horror fans will tell you that Silent Hill is quite possibly the freakiest franchise out there, as each installment has been genuinely creepy and atmospherically impressive. Vatra takes the series in a slightly new direction while maintaining some of that ambient effectiveness, but doesn’t polish the gameplay and leaves us with an uneven technical presentation. Downpour is worth playing if you can look past the obvious shortcomings.
This is one of those instances where a poor frame rate and other minor technical mishaps mar an otherwise decent graphics effort. Some of the enemy designs are appropriately nuts and the animations aren’t bad. On top of which, the developer did indeed spend a great deal of time creating intimidating environments, the kind that keep us on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately, there’s not enough clarity or sharpness, and the aforementioned issues make us frown with mild disappointment.
The sound is a little better, as the effects take center-stage throughout. By basically eliminating music from most confrontations, you’re faced with a particularly tense situation; you only hear the background audio and aren’t distracted by a driving soundtrack. Therefore, the sound does its job, so long as you don’t mind the absence of music from the majority of your adventuring. What you do here is often enough to make your skin crawl and that’s just fine by me. Even so, I still think Vatra could’ve done just a bit more with the audio presentation.
You play as Murphy Pendleton, a prisoner at Ryall State Prison. Why he’s there, we’re not really certain, but we know he escapes when his transport bus crashes outside the town of Silent Hill. You will get the chance to make choices as you progress, which may let you discover more about his character; he has a mostly hazy past, as you’ll soon learn. That fits in with protagonists from previous entries in the series, too, so the fans should embrace Murphy quickly. As for the rest, you’ll have to make some allowances for change.
Firstly, the environment is more about rain than fog. I still remember playing the original Silent Hill, where what freaked you out most was the scraping, shambling sound you heard in the fog. Where’s it coming from? How close is it? That type of thing. The fog has been scaled back in Downpour and, as you might’ve guessed from the name, rain is the primary weather element. When it’s raining particularly hard, visibility isn’t quite as good and enemies become nastier and grow larger in number.
However, back to the familiar stuff for a minute— You may recall that in past stories in Konami’s series, there were two worlds; both worlds are pretty dark and scary, but while one appears relatively normal (despite the crazy monsters), the other is just downright twisted, and often reserved for specific plot points. Vatra does use this mechanic to some extent, but there’s more of a focus on combat rather than a shifting landscape in which we face potentially different realities. Sadly, the combat is far from perfect.
Murphy can only carry one weapon at a time. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a great many objects can be used as a weapon; everything from a chair to a simple rock. You really need something as attacking with your hands is basically useless, and you can’t block if you’re not armed. Yeah, there are guns in the game but while vastly superior to, say, a rake, bullets aren’t exactly a common pick-up. The biggest problem is the overall stiffness and awkward nature of the fighting, which really required an update in this generation.
We have to acknowledge that combat in all the Silent Hill games has always felt a little clunky; it’s sort of the nature of survival/horror adventures, isn’t it? The idea is that we’re not supposed to feel like supermen; we’re just regular humans fighting for survival, so we don’t have amazing speed, power, or agility. Still, I know I’d be able to fight better than Murphy in certain situations, and that’s just depressing. The act of attacking is slow and clumsy and the enemies really feel cheap. The only upside is that they’re also predictable.
The frame rate is just too big of a problem to be easily overlooked. Again, this was common in past generations but these days, I think we’ve all gotten used to smooth gameplay. They needed to progress, you know? It didn’t happen. The stuttering never seems to go away and the accompanying screen tearing makes it all the more disheartening. I also had the game freeze up twice when loading a new area or chapter, and many times, I expected it to crash during especially flagrant frame rate errors during combat. It just isn’t a pleasant experience.
Still, I always try to have fun and engage myself in the experience, and I managed to do that to some degree. I like the patented urgency and tension that seems to be unique to this great series and in this case, I’d rather be more vulnerable than overpowered. I also like the side-quests in the game, because they actually seem to shed light on interesting aspects of the story. They also encourage you to explore and conquer some original puzzles, which is another positive staple of the franchise. And in truth, I’m used to some combat awkwardness in such games.
It’s just a little too unforgiving and loose. So overall, Silent Hill: Downpour is a decent game with missed opportunities due to technical and mechanical drawbacks. On the plus side, I really think the hardcore followers should be able to deal with the fighting eccentricities, because they’re so…well, familiar. I just wish Vatra had brought this franchise into the current generation with better visuals and a greatly improved combat system. That didn’t happen but again, this is distinctly Silent Hill, so that’s a good thing.
The Good: Great ambient audio. Familiar and freaky Silent Hill atmosphere. Enemy design is interesting. Storyline gets better with time. Side quests add longevity and flavor.
The Bad: Disappointing visual presentation. Poor frame rate and other technical issues. Clunky, awkward, and generally imprecise combat mechanic. Pacing seems off.
The Ugly: “For a prisoner who looks like he can handle himself, you sure do suck with blunt objects.”
3/26/2012 Ben Dutka