Silent Hill: Downpour
Not exactly the type of Silent Hill game I was hoping for, but it offers an intriguing atmosphere and story that are worth pursuing, despite a host of flaws and disappointments.
Downpour puts players in the boots of Murphy Pendleton, a convict who is being bussed to a maximum security facility along with several other prisoners. Along the lengthy, mountainside drive, an accident occurs sending the bus toppling off of the road. Murphy wakes up hours later with no sign of the others around. He immediately decides to get moving to avoid being recaptured, but fate has a far worse plan for him that day, as his only viable path takes him towards the ever-eerie town of Silent Hill.
Having recently played the original Silent Hill, I was excited to see what Downpour would bring to the long-running series. There was cause for concern though, given that this just Vatra Games' second title, the previous one being an action XBLA/PSN game. Given that I find psychological/ambient/implicit horror to be so much more powerful than action-based horror, I was hoping Downpour would lean that way. Despite a really poor opening sequence in which you literally run around a prison shower chasing a fat guy with a knife, I had high hopes, but a variety of problems keep it from being a great game.
So let me get this straight...
Before I get into the issues I had with Downpour, there are several general points I would make, and these are all positives. First, it didn't take me very long at all to invest some interest in Murphy and his story, which is unraveled slowly and jaggedly during the course of the game. Having a connection with the protagonist is important for the immersion, especially in a game like this, and I think Vatra did a pretty good job of giving players that link early on.
Even more important than that connection to the character is the ability to generate a constant sense of uneasiness in the player. Vatra again did a good job here, overall. While the combat and monsters nearly ruined this for me, a lot of the scripted events (like the Otherworld), sounds, NPCs, and imagery immersed me and "got me thinking." In other words, I was getting uncomfortable just sitting there alone in the dark playing Downpour with my headphones on. That's precisely the type of feeling I want to get from a Silent Hill game, and I commend Vatra for pulling that off when they do. Building up that atmosphere is all but impossible without a soundtrack that fits the mood, and David Licht did a fine job with exactly that.
Hey is that Gordon Freeman's wrench?
Those are my positive takeaways from Downpour, and unfortunately they are outnumbered by some significant negatives, some more vital than others. Some of what I'm about to say here will sound like nit-picking, and it is if it were taken out of context, but when combined with the other flaws, it all adds up. That line of thought in mind, I have to admit I was concerned about Downpour from the initial presentation of even just the game's menu. It looks amateurish and lazy, and was only a sign of worst things to come. Take the opening few minutes of the game for example. It's a combat event where you take a butcher knife planted by a corrupt officer and run around a shower clumsily stabbing a dude multiple times. The feel of the combat system felt clumsy, artificially slow, and this is a problem that persists throughout the game, no matter what weapon you are wielding.
In these early minutes I was surprised at the visual quality, too. The Unreal 3 engine is getting old, but games two and three years old based on Unreal 3 look better than this. Downpour looks like it was ported from the Wii if I'm being blunt about it. That's not to say there aren't some well-designed areas or that the art is bad, but technical quality is disappointing at best and undetailed and muddy at worst. I've seen raindrops splash as they fall out of the sky and hit an invisible object. Character detail is severely lacking, resulting in facial textures that look smudged, and monsters that are far less terrifying than what they would have been if they had some visual fidelity. Dealing with the numerous objects in the world is a chore because everything you walk by says "Pick Up" with a prompt for X, forcing you to often stop and adjust the camera to see what it is that you are about to pick up. Having an icon of the object instead of just the same old text would have been better. Framerates sag and stutter, despite a 4.2GB install (and load times are surprisingly long at that). And despite a good soundtrack, sometimes the voiceovers have this unexplainable reverb to them.
I'm a big believer that presentation is far from the most important aspect of game, but Downpour really surprised me with its numerous presentation faults. More significant are the gameplay issues that really hurt this game's prospects. Now, I've already mentioned that I liked the story and Murphy, but also some of the other NPCs you encounter are interesting. That's all well and good, but combat is a huge part of Downpour's gameplay, and it's awful. Knowing when, and actually deciding to runaway from a fight is difficult for me. Not only because I don't play enough of these types of games to consider running away, but also because I hate the idea of not being able to fully explore an area because I had to run out of it. More often than not, I will try and fight my way through, but Downpour doesn't make this fun or easy at all. Further still is the fact that you can't just runaway from every fight anyway.
Murphy can pick up and use all kinds of melee weapons scattered throughout Silent Hill (and the areas preceding it). These include simple stones, hatchets, shovels, sticks, crowbars, and so on. Weapons break suddenly and rather quickly after some moderate use, forcing you to constantly pick up something new. In actual use, the weapons don't seem to be very different from one another other than slight differences in reach (say between a stone and a pitchfork), and some weapons can break barriers while others can't. But not matter what weapon you are using, attacking with it is a strangely slow and clumsy task. Murphy appears to be young and in-shape, yet your offensive actions drag as though you are underwater. Well, not quite that slow, but damn close. It's even worse when you try and use L2 and R2 to aim and throw an object -- I didn't feel any connection to this mechanic, nothing that gave me a sense of where the item was going to actually hit, making throwing objects, especially in the heat of battle, a nigh worthless option.
This thing can climb on ceilings, too.
Fortunately Murphy can block with Triangle, and this is something you will need to do a lot of, as even the default monsters are tough and can easily kill you, especially in packs of three. While your weapons seem to do minimal damage to these monsters, requiring at least a half dozen hits per foe, their attacks are significantly more powerful. You can insta-heal with first aid kits scattered throughout the world, but without pausing the game, it's hard to know exactly how low on health you are. When you die, the last checkpoint is usually a good clip back, and the load times to get back to that point might surprise (i.e., disappoint) you.
I harp on the combat in Downpour so much because it's such a prominent part of the game yet it's done so poorly, and this directly effects my interest in playing. Downpour has several very good things going for it, despite a shockingly poor presentation, that make you want to not only finish the game, but also find and complete the side quests. Yet the super clumsy combat, mostly boring monsters, and cheesy health system do everything they can to keep me from enjoying this game. It's been a seriously tedious struggle. The good news is that these gameplay issues could be addressed with some clever patching, but I doubt we'll see that.
Another area where Downpour disappointed was in the variety and types of enemies. Most of us by now have played enough games or seen enough movies that it's hard to imagine some kind of physical monster being a source of fear. Going back to what I said earlier, I put more value in a implicit or ambient type of horror or fear than I do in a "oh crap there's a huge monster outside" kind of fear, you know? Make me think about the NPCs, such as the mailman that you meet early in the game. Let my mind wonder and toss and turn about what could be, rather than throw a bunch of zombies and spider-ape things at me. One of the most disturbing games I have ever played was 9-9-9 on the DS; it didn't feature amazing graphics or monsters -- it relied on an incredibly tense story and characters that had me hooked on every word. I think Downpour would have been far better off had it focused on that type of horror as opposed to the startle-you plus zombie and monster kind.
Anyways, to sum up, Silent Hill: Downpour is a good game, but barely. What's odd is that it feels like it's so close to being a really great game that I'd happily recommend, but a shoddy presentation and awful combat system, that you can't avoid having to use, really mar the experience. Despite that, if you enjoy the series or survival horror games, you should at least check Downpour out. Your frustrations with the combat system may end up being far less than my own.