Sunday, March 25, 2012

Video Game Review- Silent Hill: Downpour

I recently completed the 8th title in the long running survival horror series Silent Hill, and would like to share my (spoiler free) thoughts with you all.

Silent Hill: Downpour is the first game in the series developed by new studio Vatra Games. This immediately raised concern among long time fans who have been disappointed by recent outings, all of which were helmed by studios other than the original Team Silent responsible for the first 3 games. This is also the first game without longtime composer and sound engineer Akira Yamaoka (the topic of another of my posts). On the surface, things appeared pretty grim, but as more and more details emerged, I found myself worrying less, and becoming more and more excited.

First, in regards to the new studio, I was not all that worried. I know that Konami would not allow a subpar game to be released, and Vatra Games is located in Eastern Europe, supposedly one subway exit from a crematorium. The developers seemed deeply interested in the Silent Hill mythos, and in all interviews that came out, they provided me with signs that they were developing this game with great care.

Also exciting was the news that Downpour would not involve the cult focused on by several games in the series, in exchange for a more standalone story in the vein of Silent Hill 2. Learning that the main character was a prisoner also raised my hopes for the story that would be told in the game. The studio was obviously trying new things, as well as combining aspects that worked well in prior entries. Though there were plenty of reasons to be afraid of a new studio handling such a beloved series, I feel that there were more reasons to get excited over all the possibilities of a fresh set of hands working on the game.

Regarding the departure of Akira Yamaoka, this was very troubling to me. I believe wholeheartedly that there is no other series in existence with music on the level of Silent Hill. Yamaoka might not be the most experienced composer, or classically trained, but he put everything he had into every game he worked on. The soundtracks were memorable, sound effects were superb, and his work elevated the games into a whole new tier.

Their replacement, Daniel Licht, was a bit higher profile of a composer, known most for his work on the television series Dexter. I haven't personally gotten around to watching Dexter yet, so I had to do a little research and look up some of his music. I immediately liked what I heard, and could understand why he was selected to succeed Yamaoka. My excitement grew even more when I learned that Licht was using human bones as instruments. Just maybe this guy would be twisted enough to provide a good score, maybe even elevate it to new heights.

So as you can see, despite two huge setbacks, I went into this game very optimistic, wanting another great Silent Hill game to add to my collection. Now here are my thoughts on how it all turned out.

This is the big one, this is what Silent Hill is all about. These games were the undisputed kings of atmosphere during their peak (Silent Hill 2 & 3), and I feel like this is one of the biggest reason people play these games. Recently, the Dead Space series has finally stepped up and delivered a horror atmosphere that, in my opinion, rivals Silent Hill, but Silent Hill still reigns supreme. Could this game live up to its predecessors?

In short, yes. In fact, I feel that the atmosphere is probably the strongest aspect of this game. Things started of relatively slow however, and I was worried for the first few hours of the game. Many of the early areas Murphy visits in the the forested outskirts of Silent Hill. There were some nice visual effects, with the scenery reminding me of Alan Wake (which is a good thing), but the game stays in this area for too long. Everyone loves the town of Silent Hill, and other than Homecoming, this title took the longest to get you there.

One thing lacking in this game is a strong narrative direction. For the first few hours, I literally felt as though I was moving from place to place for no real reason other than that it was the opposite direction from where I started. The Diner introduced the first otherworld scene, which work very differently in this game than in past installments. The otherworld scenes are more or less set pieces, that Murphy works his way through, trying to escape from a ball of light called "The Void". After completing the game, I'm still not exactly sure what this entity represented, but I felt its inclusion was less than necessary (I could speculate as to the reasons for this beings inclusion, but that would require venturing into spoiler territory).

This first scene was rather short, and left me unsatisfied. Thankfully, it was really more of an introduction than anything. There were some cool aspects though, such as pictures that when rotated rotate your entire surroundings.

The cave section also failed to impress me, with the exception of the ending sequence, which was actually pretty cool, albeit very different from what I am used to as a Silent Hill fan. I feel as though more could have been done with this section, but thankfully it leads Murphy to the infamous town.

This is where things really started to pick up. This is hands down, the best portrayal of Silent Hill ever. There is so much attention to detail here, from the buildings, to the debris littering the streets.

As the name implies, rain and water plays a large role in Downpour. This is why I was incredibly disappointed with the rain effects. The splatter of rain on the wet streets looked decent, but the lightning and thunder effects were unacceptable. For a game where you'll see several hundred lightning flashes, the fact that they are nothing more than purple flashes on the screen is absolutely lazy.

Also disappointing was the use of music while exploring city. The same musical theme plays every time the rain is about to start, signaling the player to either prepare to fight, or seek shelter indoors. Besides this though, there was a surprising amount of silence present. Part of what made encounters in past games so scary was the grinding of industrial sounds in the background, elevating your heartrate. The fact that most enemies are fought in complete silence takes away all of this tension, and leaves the encounters feeling bland.

Murphy visits several locations within the city, and these are for the most part, handled very well. There are several interiors of buildings explored for side quests, or other various reasons, and each one feels unique.

The other disappointing thing for me, was the enemy design. Silent Hill is known for designing enemies that represent a piece of the protaganist's psyche, so I felt like there was so much untapped potential in Downpour. Textures were blurry, enemies didn't seem to have much of a reason for existing, and they were really just obstacles that started to get annoying after a while.

Great Concept. Lazy Execution.

Overall though, due to the extreme creepiness of some of the sidequests, as well as the awesome otherworld sequences later in the game, I have to say that this game had great atmosphere overall.

Atmosphere Score: 8/10


I went into this game understanding Akira Yamaoka was gone, but I honestly expected Licht to step up more than he did. I understand that not everyone is as crazy and obsessive as Yamaoka was, but I feel like Licht should have played a larger role in the overall sound design of the game. The effects weren't bad, but they just felt less inspired that usual. The music was also very forgettable, and it played a much smaller role than ever before. This is the only Silent Hill game I don't have the soundtrack for yet, but the fact that I can't even remember more than 1 or 2 of the songs after just playing it is a bad sign.

This is on XBOX 360 and PS3, there is absolutely no excuse for why this game did not support surround sound. This game pretty much needs surround sound, it could've helped so much. I know these guys are new developers, but I could have gone in there and implemented a surround sound mix, I know it isn't that hard. These guys are professionals, and there is no excuse for this. I'm somewhat of an audiophile, so this really irritated me. I'm sure many never even noticed, but I just hate thinking about how much better the best scenes in the game could have been with the simple inclusion of surround sound. Totally lazy. 

Voice acting was mediocre, but I have nothing to really complain about there.

I was fairly disappointed with the sound component of this game, especially since I feel it is the second most important aspect to get right (seeing as it is a large aspect of the atmosphere I discussed above). 

Sound Score: 5/10


Here comes the tough topic. Full disclosure, I played this game on the easiest combat difficulty, and the hardest puzzle difficulty. I've found myself frustrated before in the past with the unresponsive controls, limited resources, and in Homecoming's case, overpowered monsters (finish Dark Souls before you call me an incompetent gamer).  I was very surprised to discover that this game has some of the best overall puzzles of the series. My main gripe with the puzzles is that some of the puzzles that involve cryptic riddles (my favorite kinds) are completely solveable if you just try enough combinations.

The combat, while still far from perfect, seemed much more fluid to me than past installments. Having recently booted up Silent Hill 2 as part of the HD Collection, I can tell you that the series has come a long way. You will at no point think you are playing Vanquish or anything, but the third person controls are adequate.

It's hard for me to comment on combat difficulty, because I found easy mode to be incredibly easy. I had 34 health packs saved up at one point, which if you've ever played a Silent Hill game, you know is absurd. The weapon system was essentially an improved version of Origin's where weapons have limited durability, but in Downpour you can only hold one at a time. I assume this was to make you feel more helpless, but at no point did a weapon ever break on me in combat. I just switched out my weapons with new ones as I found them, and never had a single problem. Granted, I never picked up 2 x 4's or other flimsy objects, I instead stuck with the large 2 handed weapons like axes, hammers, or sturdier one handed weapons like hatchets and crowbars. Fleeing is also a legitimate strategy here for those of you who prefer to avoid your combat altogether.

New to this game is the inclusion of sidequests (although yes there was a sidequest technically in the original game, it comes nowhere close to the level of this game). These quests, which are usually very short in length, provide some of the best moments of the game. There were 2 in particular which I found to be some of the coolest parts of any Silent Hill game I've ever played, Cinema Verite and The Gramophone. As badly as I want to discuss these excellent quests, I would rather you play them for yourself. The other sidequests range from very good (like the Stolen Goods and Art Collecter quests) to only okay (like the Bank and Homeless quests). Many of them will have you traversing the town back and forth numerous times, and this adds on to the game's length. While other people have said the game is around 10 hours, my first playthrough ended at right around 16. Granted, there were times where I had no clue where I was going, it still counts in my opinion. I'm sure I could almost halve the time on a second playthrough, but it's the first time through that is always the most special.

From Cinema Verite

From The Gramophone

I found the gameplay much better in Downpour than in any of the other games in the series. The combat was faster paced, exploration was a lot of fun, side quests were great additions, and the otherworld sequences provided some good thrills.

Gameplay Score: 8.5/10


This part will remain brief as to avoid spoilers, but if you've ever played a Silent Hill game, you know pretty much what to expect here. The game starts off slow and mysterious, divulging very few relevant plot points to the player. Various "mysteries" are added to Murphy's journal as you discover them lying around the town. These include several police reports and other details that gradually fill in the story of why Murphy was in prison, and eventually more details.

Many of the side characters felt very shallow however, such as Howard the Mailman from the E3 trailers. Silent Hill has never really devoted a ton of time to its side characters, but they had no time to become anything more than guides in Downpour. 

One of Downpour's more interesting characters

There were a few similarities to the story of Homecoming here, which I unfortunately kind of saw coming from the beginning, but there is definitely a good story being told here, and it's impossible to fully understand it until the very end. This story doesn't sit up there with Silent Hill 2, but it is a satisfying addition to the series, and thankfully one that strays away from some of the cliches that have existed in prior games (pyramid head in 3 games for example, albeit with different names).

Story Score: 7.5/10

Overall Impressions

I was very pleased overall with Silent Hill Downpour. There were some areas I expected to be a little better than they were, such as the Audio (lack of memorable music, and lack of surround sound), but there were also areas where the game exceeded my expectations (such as the sidequests, combat, and overall atmosphere). I feel like I was more often pleasantly surprised than disappointed, and I feel like the game was more than the sum of its parts. Vatra has proven that the town of Silent Hill still has plenty of stories to tell, and that the series is far from stagnant. The game suffered from some technical problems, likely due to the inexperience of the developers, but they brought a lot of fresh ideas to the table, most of which paid off. All I can do now is hope that the game sold well enough to earn another sequel, because there is nothing more terrifying than the thought of never venturing into the foggy town of Silent Hill again.

Overall Score:   8/10 

   -Chris (Avid Silent Hill Fan)

1 comment:

  1. Good review, I agree with most of it, although I think the sound design from previous game wouldn't have fit with the particular atmosphere they were trying to convey. I personally regard the monster design and the graphics as the worst part of Downpour: the lighting goes from okay to good, but everytghing else is sub-standard, and, except for the mannequins/phantoms and the Boogeyman, I didn't find the monsters particularly disturbing or scary. And trust me: you should try this game at normal difficult combat. There, weapons breaks on you at the most inopportune time and that increases the tension big time.