Konami’s Silent Hill has been around for a long time, scarring the masses with its unique brand of psychological horror since 1999, a horror that dealt not with Hollywood-esque monsters such as vampires and zombies, but with the darkness within a person’s heart and soul and the burdens he or she must carry.
Team Silent’s first three games have made the series the legendary franchise it is now, exploring the foggy, desolate town and the psyches of damaged individuals who have stumbled upon it. The team however could not continue with the franchise after the fourth installation as Konami handed the reins to foreign third-party developers who wanted to have a chance at expanding and exploring the Silent Hill mythos. Unfortunately, due to blending both survival horror tendencies of Japanese games and action influences from the Western side, subsequent games like as Silent Hill: Origins and Homecoming didn’t capture the true Silent Hill feeling. Shattered Memories was a successful experiment in new gameplay styles, but was a totally radical departure from the original series. But now, Vatra Games, a Czech Republic studio, has stepped up to the plate and delivered the most authentic Silent Hill experience to date with Silent Hill: Downpour.
In Downpour, players control Murphy Pendleton, a convict who in route to being transferred to another prison facility, survives a mysterious bus crash that sets him free on the outskirts of the titular town. Searching for a way to escape the clutches of his guards and gain freedom, he stumbles into the desolate, foggy town, and finds out that things are not as normal as they seem.
The story is usually the main draw of the series, and Downpour’s is no slouch. It’s a spectacular tale, captivating from the very first scene to the ending credits. Following the tradition set by Silent Hill 2, Murphy is a tragic hero; seriously flawed, stubborn and set in his ways. He also holds a deep, dark secret; one that haunts him continuously during his tenure in town. The examination of his character and his journey of redemption and self-discovery is great one, full of twists, turns and revelations that will long remain with the player after finishing the game.
The creatures and settings Murphy encounters in Silent Hill reflect his damaged psyche, as it should be. Gone are the stereotypical nurses and Pyramid Heads that belonged solely to James Sutherland in SH2 and were recycled in other titles and movies; we now encounter original creatures that symbolize Murphy’s pain, anguish and prison life. Suffering women with Glasgow smiles and knives as fingers; stuttering and warped prisoners that carry long and frighteningly-sharp shivs, and many others are among the disturbing creatures that appear in the game. Otherworld locations also reflect Murphy’s anguish and guilt, appearing as distorted and infernal versions of prisons, complete with cells, captured /chained monsters, and barbed wire.
The game engine does a good job at bringing Silent Hill to life, providing a wide variety of locations full of details. From caverns, clock towers, monasteries, prisons, to the town itself, everything is designed with painstaking detail. The only problem with the graphics are the character models, as they are very hit-and-miss. Some models look great, despite not being terribly detailed, and then others look like they belong in a PS2 game. (I’m looking at you, Napier!) It isn’t much of an issue, though, since these lackluster models don’t appear too often in the game, and the general animation of the models is superb.
With the story set, all the title needs is good gameplay. Mixing elements of Team Silent games with more recent titles such as Homecoming and Shattered Memories, Downpour achieves a perfect mesh of game mechanics, despite a few problems here and there.
Returning trademark elements include a navigable Silent Hill that slowly opens up as the game progresses, the note-filled journal, and the iconic combo of a walkie-talkie and flashlight. Chase sequences akin to Shattered Memories are included in the game, and are just as effective and fun here as they were there. Certain weapons can also double as tools: a fireaxe can be used to chop down wooden planks, and a fire iron can be used to pull down hard-to-reach ladders. There are also decision making moments, similar to Homecoming, and although few and far between, are cool implementations.
Combat is also similar to previous titles like SH4 and Homecoming, allowing the ability to dish out quick or heavy strikes with breakable melee weapons and auto-target enemies with guns. The dodge ability of Homecoming was tossed however, in favor of a much more primal system of fighting that feels closer to the first games. It isn’t necessarily good, though. Combat feels a little loose and inaccurate, and is more of a repetitive nature than necessary. Gunplay is terrible, and despite understanding the fact that Murphy is no gun expert (he’s a more hands-on guy as the intro of the game shows), it could have been made easier to aim and actually hit the target. I’ve repetitively emptied clips of my handgun and shotgun only to never hit the target, and soon found myself shunning guns in favor of more reliable weaponry.
Puzzles also return to play an important role in SH: Downpour, providing players with a break from the exploring and fighting. They range from simple fetch quests and find keypad numbers to more logic based puzzles. They are entertaining sections, and never get too frustrating or boring.
Vatra Games has added a lot of new additions to the formula as well, and they are more than welcome. Taking a cue from more modern sandbox games, they included a variety of optional side-quests for the player to complete. Each one is well designed, fun and meaningful on its own right, providing some background on the former residents and shady dealings of Silent Hill. It one of the best additions I have seen done to the series, and I throughly enjoyed them.
Due to the largeness of the map, the game features a abandoned tunnel system which can be used to transverse Silent Hill quickly and effortlessly (providing the player can unlock it), allowing the player to explore at his or her leisure without having to run for minutes just to get to a location. There are also quick-time events that appear occasionally throughout the game. Thankfully they do not appear too often, so they are not intrusive and are quite a refreshing break from all the tension. New to the series, a weather system is present in the game, which after a while causes Silent Hill to to be blanketed with heavy rain, lowering the visibility slightly and makes monsters stronger and encountering them more frequent.
The sound in the game is incredible, everything from the ambient sounds to Daniel Licht’s score is well done and evocative of Silent Hill. Haunting melodies, laughing children and industrial-type machinery play their part in messing with the player’s mind. The voice acting is also well done, although it still remains in B-Movie territory (which has always been part of the charm.) The only thing that felt out really of place was the inclusion of a Korn song as the intro theme. It really was a bit unnecessary, and me out of the whole immersive experience.
Overall, Konami and Vatra Games’ Silent Hill: Downpour is an impressive return to the town that started it all. Despite some small problems, such as the repetitive combat and horrible gunplay, Downpour is a strong psychological horror game and is one of the best titles in the series. If you could choose from any one of the more recent titles, Silent Hill: Downpour is definitively the way to go.
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