Platform: Xbox 360
Review Date: 4/30/17
"Kid, look at me! I'm not a monster!"
After the disappointing and overly difficult "Silent Hill: Homecoming" (2008), it took me quite a while to get around to playing "Downpour." Thankfully, it's considerably easier and I was able to get through the entire thing with minimal frustration. Murphy Pendleton is an incarcerated criminal who is being transferred to another prison facility. As fate would have it, the prison bus runs off the road and down a cliff. Murphy miraculously survives, and makes his way towards the nearest town, which happens to be Silent Hill. During his travels he meets a creepy old mailman, an alcoholic with a guilty conscience, a paranoid radio DJ on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a suspiciously sinister nun, a couple of unsettling children, dozens of violent creatures, and a female police officer who relentlessly hunts him down throughout the entire game. One thing is clear: Murphy is a murderer, as the game opens with him killing a fellow inmate. But that's not why he's in jail. What's Murphy's back story? Why is he in jail? Are his actions justified? What is the price of vengeance, and what does the cursed town of Silent Hill have in store for this doomed soul?
Filling in the details of Murphy's past is what keeps the game from getting stale and drives you to keep playing. Unfortunately, the big reveal towards the end is predictable and not particularly surprising, but it brings everything together quite nicely. In keeping with the spirit of the series, there are six possible endings you can get, based on moral choices you make throughout the game. I ended up with what's probably the most common one, which I found fairly satisfying. The bad endings are a bit shocking, and the surprise endings are quite clever. There's no UFO ending this time around, but there's one that's just as silly.
Like "Homecoming", the game uses a fully rendered 3D environment and allows you to walk and look in any direction. The game utilizes the Unreal Engine and looks fabulous, but the frame rate chokes and stutters way more than it should, which tends to spoil player engagement. Unfortunately, the environments tend to be really dark, and even though you often have a flashlight, it's not particularly useful. There are portions of the game that literally take place in complete darkness, which makes navigation truly terrifying - especially when you're being chased and attacked by monsters. Combat is pretty straight forward and consists of simple blocks and attacks. However, weapons are breakable, so you have to constantly find fresh ones. Bullets are rare, so it's best to conserve ammo for the really tough adversaries, like the weeping bats. Those are awful, and I never managed to figure out the best way to fight them. There are only three boss encounters in the story, which are intense, but not overly challenging. Rain plays a big role in the game, and the weather is constantly cycling between overcast, light rain, heavy rain, and fierce thunderstorms. More monsters show up when it starts raining and they become increasingly aggressive the harder it rains, so it's best to head indoors or underground as soon as you start seeing raindrops. Unfortunately, waiting for storms to pass can be tedious, and the short periods of nice weather between storms can become frustrating.
Murphy's journal is full of useful information including maps, notes, mystery items, and objectives, but the scrolling is very poorly implemented. It's quadrant based instead of free-scrolling, which is annoying and doesn't make any sense. The maps are helpful, but the underground shortcuts that you unlock by helping a certain beggar don't actually work for some reason. And like many games from the time period, the autosave doesn't actually work. While the game is constantly saving your progress, you can only continue from a set of defined checkpoints, so you never know where your last saved game is going to put you and how much you'll have to replay. This forces you to completely play through a given area before you know it's safe to quit the game.
More than half of the game takes place in Silent Hill which retains the series' eerie signature aesthetic, but it also includes some additional locations like The Devil's Pit and the Overlook Penitentiary. These have their own particular charms and The Devil's Pit roadside attraction introduces some Native American folklore into the SH mythos, along with a bunch of creepy ravens that seems to appear wherever you go. In addition to water, the game features wheelchairs, mirrors, nooses, and suicide as recurring visual themes. Mirrors often provide insight into Murphy's character and conscience, and reflect his salvation or damnation. Some of the most unsettling imagery involves people who have hung themselves. Sometimes you'll see an empty noose hanging from the ceiling along with the shadow of someone hanging from it. The creepiest thing I saw in the game was when I investigated a tire swing in a playground, and it turned into prison inmate hanging in a noose when I turned my back. It was so subtle that I had to question what I was actually seeing. Was it really a swing? And when did it change? Also, the victim is wearing the same prison clothes as Murphy. Is it me? Or a fellow inmate that I should know?
"Downpour" features "otherworld" segments, but they're very different than the ones in previous games. They consist of surreal and spatially disorienting environments, and chase sequences where a wall of hellfire attempts to run you down and consume you. These running scenes are frustrating and reminiscent of the chase sequences in "Shattered Memories" (2009). In a nod to older SH games, arcane puzzles make a comeback, but they're so obscure that you pretty much need a walkthrough in order to solve them. As a protagonist, Murphy isn't very interesting and his performance is pretty flat. But it's fun putting together his back story. Is he really a cold-blooded killer, a bad husband, a psychotic lunatic, or just a grieving parent lashing out at the injustice of a cruel and unforgiving world? The moral ambiguity is intriguing, and your opinion of him changes throughout the course of the game. Howard the mailman is definitely the most interesting character, and his unsettling words are laced with all sorts of disquieting metaphors and insinuations. He's just another twisted servant of Silent Hill, doomed to wander the deserted streets forever while taunting its tortured visitors with impenetrable riddles. Of course my favorite character is officer Anne Cunningham, a fiercely motivated woman who is determined to kill Murphy for reasons he doesn't comprehend. She's fantastic, and I just wish that more of the game revolved around her.
Overall, "Silent Hill: Downpour" is an enjoyable entry in the series. It does a good job of upholding the style and spirit of the earlier games while branching out in new and different directions. Daniel Licht and Korn provide the music, which is appropriately unsettling, but doesn't resonate with the unholy creepiness of Akira Yamaoka's previous work. It's a fun game to play with lots of intriguing side missions and artifacts to collect, but the various gameplay glitches, performance issues, and interface warts make it a less than perfect experience.
"You still don't get it, son. It's not about what YOU want."
"See you in hell, cupcake."