March 19, 2012

Review – Silent Hill: Downpour

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 8:52 am

Review Silent Hill Downpour
While the Silent Hill Tourism Board has long since given up hope, the collapsing town still attracts a few lost souls each year as stray individuals find themselves wandering the misty streets and confronting truths they’ve worked hard to suppress.

I suppose Silent Hill is a bit like the town Freud might have built, where the subconscious takes physical shape and the only way to survive the demonic torture chamber unleashed is to shine light on the darkest recesses of the mind, exposing what visitors have failed to resolve on their own and desperately tried to bury.

The earliest visits to Silent Hill began with physical searches, whether it was Harry Mason searching for his lost daughter, or James Sunderland chasing the chance to see his wife again. That latter search set the bar for a series about people burdened by the past, forced through a cathartic process while wandering those streets. It’s a legacy that frames Silent Hill as a twisted parental hand that isn’t really trying to kill people, but rather, attempting to heal them.

Silent Hill is a psychological meat grinder, with people going in one end and the crank slowly turning to show the raw meat at the heart of each. It isn’t surprising that the premise has created formulaic entries in recent years, such as 2008’s Homecoming, which seemed to create a patchwork quilt from previous releases. But 2009 saw the release of Shattered Memories, which attempted to include the player in the analytical process, and regardless of your feelings toward that release, that experiment created a Silent Hill title that was unquestionably unique.

There are times that Downpour appears to bridge the gap between those points, mixing familiar mechanics and mind games to find brief moments that feed on the player to create some space for empathy with the trials of convict Murphy Pendleton. But as the truth about Murphy comes to light, the complicated narrative misses any opportunity to truly create a character that earns enduring sympathy or comprehension.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
After surviving the crash of his prison transport bus, Murphy finds himself at the outskirts of Silent Hill, and the fresh setting seems to open possibilities as developer Climax plays up jump-fright moments. Murphy’s first encounter with the screamer witches that litter the game comes as one suddenly pounces on him, an event that found me often using the button dedicated solely to looking over Murphy’s shoulder.

Player’s will reunite with the familiar as well, insofar as a sometimes clumsy combat system is concerned. Murphy can pick up various objects scattered around areas, from fire axes and crowbars to rocks should you find yourself desperate for a weapon. When enemies start swinging furiously at Murphy, players can block incoming attacks, but the dance often involves backing off momentarily before closing in for a heavy swing of whatever blunt object you may be wielding.

Since weapons will wear and break overtime, swapping them along the way becomes essential, and there’s never any shortage of available objects, except for those times the game intends there to be for specific reasons. Firepower takes the form of the sometimes available shotgun and pistol, which also make suitable melee weapons in a pinch. While combat lacks eloquence, there’s a certain brutal adrenaline rush as Murphy knocks enemies down and has the option to deliver fatal blows that leave him visibly winded for a moment.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
When not exploring dilapidated rooms for clues and puzzles, or breaking locks and boarded up passageways, Murphy will sometimes find himself temporally transported to Silent Hill’s “other realm”, which shares a certain visual relationship with Hellraiser – complete with screaming corpses inside cages and spikes mounted everywhere imaginable. During these sequences, a malevolent dark void will appear and pursue Murphy, forcing players to dash through endless hallways that offer small mazes ahead of an exit. Escape will often spit Murphy out at the next plot point as he moves through the landscape of Silent Hill and deeper into his own secretive past.

Downpour continually shifts gears, from chase sequences and forced scenarios where Murphy is exploring a particular location, to the open streets of Silent Hill where players are suddenly cut loose to wander around the abandoned homes and given the option to tackle side-quests. All the while enemies roam the streets, randomly appearing during the search. Grabbing at the reasoning behind the game’s title, Downpour uses recurring rain storms as a threat, drawing out larger groups of enemies who are more dangerous during the rain, which is understandable given that no one likes to be wet, and also making it advisable to get off the streets entirely rather than fetching an umbrella.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
While the side-quests don’t offer an opportunity to learn much about the town or Murphy, there is a curious cathartic act in performing some of the good deeds they encourage, whether returning stolen goods to rooms in an apartment building, or releasing caged birds. But while there are plenty of papers and scraps of information about the former inhabitants, there’s no real connection to make with another living soul here.

It’s worth a thought or two, because freeing a bird was something I did simply because the option was there, lacking any narrative significance and offering little toward a better understanding of Murphy. There were countless times I activated switches or grabbed objects simply because Downpour is a videogame, and in a videogame you should horde items and hit switches. The game never manages to use narrative to drive purpose, and for every good fright or idea it has, it follows the cookie-cutter guide to making Silent Hill enough times to wear down good impressions.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
There are early moments in downpour that kept me optimistic, whether the game was testing to see how long I’d run down an endless corridor, or asking me to orchestrate a school play to suddenly find the set come alive and my search leading me inside a gingerbread house. Downpour isn’t short on ideas that stand out in my memory, but it is hard up for tying them together. Rather than a cohesive experience, there are fragments worth mentioning, such as the Dolls – phantom women that haunt the hollow bodies of bloody mannequins and force Murphy to smash those porcelain frames to bits.

But again, for every good idea Downpour has, it seems to drop it as quickly as it comes, often devolving into a situation where the player is grinding through areas that seem to stretch on forever. Players will enter a building, fight a series of enemies and solve a puzzle, and then enter another part of the building to do the same thing all over again. And the tricky bit is that there would be nothing wrong with that if any of these actions carried the weight of an unfolding narrative. Searching the wrecked rooms and constantly using the map to guide myself through Silent Hill is a task I’ve gladly accepted in the past in order to learn more about the characters involved.

But as the story progresses, facts remain vaguely wrapped in shadows. Murphy blames himself for the loss of his son, but the secretive manner in which the game treats that loss never allows the truth to really unfold – we learn Murphy has murdered someone responsible, and yet still blames himself above others, but we never really feel the weight of that layered guilt. The player is asked to accept the significance of these events and relationships because they simply should. The sticky bit of this complaint is that every Silent Hill game is secretive, but the most successful releases offer juicy bits of character insight to chew on long after the playing is over, a consideration that is entirely absent here. Eager fans might dig deeper, but there’s very little dirt to dig through before one is simply grasping at straws.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
There’s barely any mention of the life Murphy had or the mother of his lost son. Murphy remains a strong silent character who apparently finds means to put his anger to rest in Silent Hill, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you how or why – I get that Murphy accepts that vengeance is wrong, but the realization feels forced and hollow. Instead of introducing characters from his life, or based on his life, we chase a girl who knows secrets, I assume because horror games should always have one of those. Any chance to create a link between the player and Murphy seems to be ignored in favor of physical manifestations based entirely on notions of law and order and rather straightforward ideas of right and wrong.

And then as Murphy apparently achieves peace, we are suddenly presented with the weight of the female prison officer in pursuit of him since the crash, the game then digging up links attempting to explain why she’s been so completely hostile. And laying the foundation for the link between these two characters sacrifices defining either one of them in a way that makes me care, and the truth becomes such a matter of fact that the only resolutions come from properly laying blame for the past rather than really understanding or resolving it.

The hesitation to develop the complicated plot further leaves Downpour serving up elements of Silent Hill like a Silent Hill sampler versus a game with definitive direction and purpose – though the game thankfully skips any cameos from Pyramid Head. Character relationships make or break a Silent Hill game, determining whether I invest myself in those misty streets, or just grind toward the end as a chore.

Review Silent Hill Downpour
Every now and again the game will present a challenge or idea that shines brilliantly, and the frustrating bit is that the developers seem to immediately back away from those accomplishments, as if the content is somehow mimicking the same strong silent nature of its protagonist. It’s aggravating because of how often the atmosphere can work, how often the tension shows on Murphy’s face and encourages me to ignore the occasionally hiccupping visuals, or how often the lonesome songs playing on the radio add to the sense of isolation and loneliness pervading the experience – at least until enemies being appearing so often that they lose any air of initial dread.

Of the few characters within the game, the friendly postman suggests that Murphy simply accept the situation, because “this isn’t about what you want.” The advice still lingered on my mind after reaching the end of Downpour, and I think it’s the most apt summation of the experience. If you’re willing to accept that this is Silent Hill and that you should just “go with it”, you may discover plenty of elements to enjoy along the way. But as a title justifying the continuation of the most significant horror franchise in gaming, Downpour is more likely to leave you out in the cold and has little to no long term value to offer players or the series.

Vatra Games

Konami Digital Entertainment

Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Xbox 360 Reviewed)


Release Date
March 13, 2012

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review


  1. I’ve sadly never played much of any Silent Hill games… *gasp* However I’m curious… what was the last GOOD Silent Hill game? Seems like the last few releases have been very mediocre.

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — March 19, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

  2. I think Silent Hill 3 and 4 were solid releases, Origins is where it started to get disappointing for me. Just to sound like a broken record, Shattered Memories on Wii remains an excellent deviation that anyone with a wiimote needs to play.

    Comment by Jamie Love — March 19, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  3.  Shattered Memories on Wii was a great experience. You can tell it was created from scratch to take advantage of the console it would release on as the lead platform. After playing that one, combat in a Silent Hill game feels a bit… odd.

    Comment by EdEN — March 19, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

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