We’ve become complacent. We expect games to take us by the hand and lead us, unthinkingly, through however many hours of explosions and allegedly interesting dialogue they want to throw our way. It’s very difficult to lose sight of what you’re doing; it’s damn near impossible to become genuinely stuck.
Silent Hill: Downpour remembers a time before that – when games were both less about making sure the player will definitely finish the game regardless of anything and, well – less fair too. For good or for ill, Downpour is a game in which you can get stuck. It’s a game in which you can get stuck to the point you have to revert to a previous save. In the context of modern gaming, it’s quite the wake-up slap.
This is the eighth entry to Konami’s survival-horror series, and the first developed by the Czech Republic’s Vatra Games. There were fears, and not in the good way, that this might signal a change of tack for the series and see it veer off course after pulling itself back on track with 2010’s Shattered Memories. Safe to say, this is very much a Silent Hill game, taking influence from the series itself more than anywhere else, and ending up with something that feels it belongs with the title it holds, even if it doesn’t blow us away.
It’s a game of powerful atmosphere, and one that really needs to be experienced with a good sound system. Clearly a lot of thought and effort has been put into the sound design and it shines from top to bottom – testament to the fact that losing Akira Yamaoka isn’t the death knell many expected for the aural pleasures of this weird and wonderful series.
True, it’s graphically unspectacular – not ugly, but nothing worth going into any real detail about. But that doesn’t discount from the fact the general setting – the place, the time, the story, the characters – just works. It’s normal enough to draw you in, and it’s weird enough to keep you on your toes. While every now and then there is a part of the brain screaming ‘Deadly Premonition!’ as loud as it can, Downpour is in no way as utterly silly as the cult hit. But even with its usually po-faced seriousness, there’s little room for a cynical dismissal here – there’s a story that will draw you in; not always handled brilliantly, but doing enough to make you persist.
But that’s all atmospherics, and you can have all the moody fog, excellent sound design and genuinely interesting characters you want – but this is a game, and if the game doesn’t play well it falls down. Downpour stumbles here, but sticking with the metaphor it doesn’t quite faceplant in the mud.
From the outset it’s clear there are issues with combat. On one hand, it could be argued that the player character is not meant to be handy with the art of brawling. But that’s a hand that should be disregarded in favour of the other, which states the player should not feel hamstrung by a control system and a series of enemies – from basic to boss level – that are all capable of much more than the player character. That’s not to say we’re annoyed our convict character Murphy Pendleton can’t emit a scream that stuns his foes or that he’s incapable of clinging to and scuttling along ceilings like the beasties on Downpour are. More that it would be nice if he could dodge, or he could perform a block without being staggered, or his attacks chained a bit faster – all things the monsters pull off with ease, but things we assume a fit human male would be capable of handling too.
Then there are the other immersion-breakers that pop up to irritate and bring down the experience. A frame-rate that chugs to a crawl for seemingly no reason; adventure game logic that requires a specific tool for a task even though the one you’re holding, in real life, would do just as good a job; the aforementioned ability to get ‘revert to an old save’ level-stuck; at times downright bad checkpoint placement requiring you play through difficult fights again even though you already passed them. It all combines to make something that, on a purely mechanical level, isn’t all that great.
But there’s something fair to highlight: the most lauded game of the series, Silent Hill 2, was even at the time of its release a dog to play; even with clunky controls and poor combat, it still drove players on. The mystery of it all kept people wanting, pushing them forward to see more. And, though we wouldn’t put it on the same level as the second game, Downpour certainly has that element – it is often a dog to play and you will end up in trouble more through poor design than your own failings. But there’s a mystery about it that’s intriguing enough to push players on; to make them want to know what happens, why it happened and what will be done about it.
Silent Hill: Downpour frustrates and irritates, it confuses and confounds. It doesn’t scare as much as it should and it doesn’t impress as much as we wanted. But there’s no denying its ability to keep you playing; to push through to the end. Maybe it’s a comment on other modern games rather than a mark of quality. Maybe it’s just that the story of Murphy Pendleton is interesting enough to validate the game’s existence. Maybe it’s something else. It’s an unsolved mystery. But whatever it is, it’s made for a decent entry to the series.