Monday 21 May 2012

Video Game Review | Silent Hill: Downpour, dev. Vatra Games

Silent Hill has to be one of my all-time favourite franchises, but with each passing year it's become increasingly clear that my position is practically indefensible.

I don't think anyone would dispute that the series started strong. Resident Evil might have popularised the survival horror genre, but let's face facts: it was crude, and unconscionably camp. Occasionally shocking, is how I'd politely describe it, rather than scary, or legitimately horrific. Silent Hill, however, hit on a much more meaningful formula.

In concept, it's incredible: there's this town, see, shrouded in fog, where all sorts of awful evil stuff went down. Never mind the particulars... they aren't exactly consistent in any case, except insofar as there are always monsters. Into this, then, comes a bedraggled character searching for something: a loved one, or a lost one. Soon, he or she realises that they're trapped in this terrifying town - indeed that Silent Hill seems to have it in for them... that it has in fact reoriented itself around their psyche, somehow - and all they can do (which is to say all you can do) is run like hell, before hell itself comes a-calling.

Invariably, the Silent Hill games have been about exploration, with occasional outbursts of unmanageable action. The essential experience is of being oppressed into a state of permanent terror; you live in fear of every encounter, because the chances are it'll be your last. It's a game that encourages you to run away as often as possible. To puzzle your way through a world of blood and rust and ominous noises while you try not to let the horror of everything everywhere get to you. But it does. It always does.

Or rather, it always did. If I'm honest, the series peaked way back when in the PlayStation 2 era, with either its first or its second sequel. With Silent Hill 4: The Room, the writing was already scrawled on the wall, and when all the key creators departed the franchise soon after, everyone's worst suspicions were confirmed.

As a franchise, Silent Hill didn't immediately die, but it did wither somewhat. Mistakes were made with each of the successive entries, each of which emerged, tellingly, from a different developer: the handheld entry Silent Hill: Origins was a mediocre prequel, Silent Hill: Homecoming was just deathly dull, meanwhile Silent Hill: Shattered Memories had at its still-beating heart a tragically misjudged mechanic, though otherwise it worked quite well. The latest iteration, and the first to come to either Xbox 360 or PS3 in years, is much of a muchness with these three. It's sure to satisfy a few die-hards, but newcomers need not apply, and players between these extremes are apt to find themselves at best bored.

At the outset, as ever, I had hopes, and a couple of interesting twists on the prior prerequisites threatened to make Silent Hill: Downpour memorable. Our player character is an outright anti-hero rather than the well-meaning men and women we've controlled before: Murphy Pendleton has been incarcerated for a crime we don't know yet the details of, but if there was ever any doubt about his guilt, the tutorial - in which we're taught how to interact with the world, use weapons and attack "enemies" by way of a shivving in the showers - puts these plainly to rest.

Fast forward a little bit, and the prison bus Murphy's on crashes on the outskirts of Silent Hill, at a local curiosity called the Devil's Pit. In the process of exploring this area, the bells that toll the town's trademark transformation ring out for the first time, and we descend into a labyrinthine Escher-esque otherworld, complete with unbearable chase sequences à la Shattered Memories.

So far, so good. Sadly, that's where the innovations begin and end... which is not to say Vatra haven't made other changes. They have, and they're basically Downpour's downfall. Afterwards, you see, Murphy takes a train to Silent Hill proper, where the player is faced with what can only be described as a kinda sorta open world, complete with endless backtracking, maze-like level design, and everyone's favourite filler: fetch quests! Oh god the fetch quests...

If you're still considering Downpour, take heed of this advice at least: the incidental objectives you'll pick up as you explore the town - which now rains often enough that it put me in mind of the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland - much as they might sound like they could be worth your while, they aren't. No sir. But for one or two more self-contained sequences, they're simplistic, protracted and ultimately unsatisfying. Plus the quest rewards are utter rubbish.

Story missions are only moderately more interesting. Murphy, as it transpires, isn't necessarily an out-and-out villain - he's done bad things, but for good reasons - yet his development throughout the eight to ten hours it'll take to be done with Downpour (and by then that'll be your utmost aspiration) is awkward and obvious.

Occasionally you'll meet other people, but these folks flit in and out of the narrative with no rhyme or reason, often vanishing entirely, or simply appearing purposelessly in the first. There's an angry lady cop, a suicidal bus driver, a nasty nun and a very determined postman; that's the extent of the depth and texture you can expect.

The story itself seems to be about Murphy's guilt over the "mysterious" disappearance of his kid, but even this thread unravels so ponderously and predictably that by the time you reach a revelation the clunky cut-scenes that you've worked so tirelessly toward have played out in your head tens of times.

And then there's the combat. Let us be content with the conclusion that it is truly terrible.

Downpour gets off to a credible start, sure, but all too soon everything was promising about it recedes into the middle distance, and thereafter the ever-present ether. Most players don't finish games, so I suppose it makes sense for Vatra to have frontloaded the latest in the Silent Hill series with the best of their ideas. At this late stage, though, it seems cruel and unusual to tease the type of people likely to give Downpour a go - which is to say me, and folks like me, who finish everything on principle - with an hour of reasonably good game, only to call it quits with nine tenths of the whole as yet ahead.

A disappointment, then. Not broken, but boring, and undeniably bland. No surprises there. And what, I wonder, is Silent Hill worth without the element of surprise on side?

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