Who Can Stop the Rain?
HIGH The Hansel and Gretel play sequence—it's a cool setpiece that pays off in an even cooler way.
LOW Too close to call—clunky combat or the occasional crashes.
WTF Why are there so few enemy types in this game?
Like the villain at the end of a slasher movie, Silent Hill just won't die. Once one of the most revered series in survival horror, Konami's long-running IP has lost its luster over the past few years thanks to changes in the dev teams and shifting expectations in digital frightfests. Developer Vatra has stepped in and attempted to breathe new life into this Frankenstein's monster of a franchise, but it was tough to predict whether Silent Hill: Downpour would be a bold new take on a series looking a bit long in the tooth, or just another sequel relying on stale ideas to get by.
On one hand, it offers up pretty much everything fans have come to expect—the menacing atmosphere, the silly logic puzzles, jump scares, fog, and twisted narrative tales. On the other, it takes familiar elements that have become essentially synonymous with the brand and tries to present them in new and interesting ways. The effort is admirable, even if the execution leaves something to be desired.
While the cynical amongst us will blame Downpour's failings on new developer Vatra, it's not entirely their fault. Yes, the game's numerous technical and design issues certainly land at the developer's feet (and more on those in a moment) but there's a bigger reason why Silent Hill doesn't resonate the way it did in installments past—the town of Silent Hill just isn't that scary anymore.
While Resident Evil had the good sense to ditch Raccoon City for forays into other environments, it's hard to move outside the city limits in a game named after the town that provides the setting. Because of this, Silent Hill, as a series, has become a slave to the locale that's given it its name—and in horror, familiarity is deadlier than a million devil-worshipping cultists with sharp knives and bad intentions.
This familiarity with the location of Silent Hill makes it hard for Vatra (or any other developer) to create frightening situations. After multiple installments, we all know what to expect once we've crossed into the town proper—and while Downpour makes sincere efforts to subvert our expectations, the game ultimately suffers because we can't shake the feeling of "been there, done that" that permeates it from the outset. It's hard to be truly frightened when there's no surprise about what's coming and there are no personal stakes involved. Since Silent Hill wouldn't really be Silent Hill if it were set somewhere else, any developer creating a game in this line is almost immediately hamstrung. It's not a fatal blow because Downpour still manages to have some really impressive moments before it rolls credits, but it definitely forces developers into an uphill climb.
Vatra succeeds in mitigating this sense of overfamiliarity thanks to Downpour featuring one of the more interesting stories in the series—one that manages to weave a narrative that not only remains compelling until the final moments, but is also easy to follow. When inmate Murphy Pendleton winds up trapped inside Silent Hill after escaping a crashed prison bus, it's unclear if he's a genuinely bad man or just another good guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the story unwinds, gamers eventually learn what the truth is—but the revelations are presented in such a way that we only really know the answer in those last moments. It's not a particularly profound narrative, but for a survival horror story, it's competent.
Unfortunately, while the story makes some admirable strides forward for the series, the gameplay is far more uneven.
On the positive side of the ledger, Vatra has made Downpour more of an open world experience than fans are used to. The town feels alive (or as alive as a mostly deserted town can) and is fully explorable. While older titles in the series often felt like an on-rails guided tour through a carnival haunted house where everything frightening was mostly just a two-dimensional backdrop, Downpour creates a lot of depth. It even goes so far as to add in various sidequests for players to complete. On the other hand, the game is terrible at guiding players through the experience, with hints on how to proceed being absent or incredibly vague. It's hard to imagine anyone completing all of the game's quests and side missions without consulting a guide or FAQ.
The meandering around while trying to figure out what to do next can be frustrating, but it's not nearly as annoying as the game's combat. For years, Silent Hill has tried (and mostly failed) to figure out how to properly incorporate combat into its mechanics. Downpour is no exception. The core ideas are sound thanks to a plethora of weapons, both melee and ranged, but the execution is painful.
The biggest problem is that weapons break. As someone who's played games like Dead Island and Dead Rising, this is not an immediate dealbreaker, but what makes it an issue is that the weapons crumble too rapidly, and with there's often no indication that they're about to shatter. Being unexpectedly forced to scrounge for a rock or bottle may add a certain amount of realism, but it's realism that's at complete odds with the rest of a game—which features countless silly puzzles and other contrivances. Other issues include a laggy framerate which makes fights harder than they need to be, and trying to aim a gun is wretched since Murphy's hand is shakier than that of a guy who's in withdrawls after a three-day drinking binge.
The good thing is that combat is not mandatory—in fact, running from the game's enemies is a perfectly viable approach. It's just disappointing that it's so hard to fight in those instances where I decided I wanted to get up close and personal with the game's ghouls.
Speaking of those ghouls, another disappointment in Downpour is the distinct lack of enemy variety. The game doesn't have a lot of different enemies to fight, so it just recycles the same few types over and over. There's also no "big bad" here akin to Pyramidhead, which is a genuine letdown in the antagonist department.
Then there are the bugs. In what's becoming all too common in this generation, Silent Hill: Downpour shipped with some issues that should have been caught and fixed in the quality assurance phase of development. I encountered several hard crashes, a common glitch wherein one of the subways refuses to open even after completing the quest to unlock it, and a bug that necessitated restarting the final boss battle. None of these are gamebreakers, but they are bothersome. I will mention that aside from the subway glitch (which is well-documented) most others I talked to didn't have as many technical issues as I did. Perhaps I'm just unlucky.
Despite my moments of misfortune, it's hard to be completely negative about Silent Hill: Downpour. Developer Vatra clearly has a fondness for the material and they've tried to address some of the series' more nagging issues with varying degrees of success. There are moments in Downpour that genuinely work and showcase what this franchise could be with a little more TLC. Unfortunately, there are still rough patches to be smoothed over and kinks to be worked out in subsequent sequels—but here's to hoping Vatra gets another crack at it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 9.5 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence and strong language. Downpour is an M-rated horror game, which means it's a lot like an R-rated horror film. It's definitely not something intended for children. It's bloody, creepy, violent, and definitely earns the M rating.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Downpour comes with a subtitles option, but for some reason there are certain events where the subs disappear. That and the game's reliance on sound to create atmosphere make this hard to recommend for hearing-impaired gamers. It's possible to play Downpour with the subtitles, but there are things that will be lost in the experience.