In the survival horror genre, Silent Hill has always been the leader when it comes to creepy, psychologically disturbing plots and settings. Silent Hill: Downpour, developed by Vatra and published by Konami keeps up this tradition with a good story of a man confronting his demons while trapped in a living nightmare. Unfortunately, technical issues and poor design keep the latest installment in the series from reaching its potential.
In Downpour, you play the role of Murphy Pendleton, a man currently serving time in prison. The game begins when, with the help of a prison guard, you murder a fellow inmate. While being transferred to another prison, your bus goes off the road, crashing into a ravine. After escaping the crash site, you will eventually find your way to Silent Hill, where you quickly learn that something sinister is going on. The town seems to know you, as if it has been waiting for your arrival. As you explore, you will find fragments of your past, and the few people you meet seem to know who you are and why you are there, but they’re not going to share that information with you. At times, your memories will blend in with the world – while looking into a mirror, you may see a face from the past talking to you, or hear old conversations echoing in your head while you walk down an empty hallway. Eventually, the rain comes, bringing with it monsters, creatures who look somewhat human, but attack like demons. Your goal becomes clear: survive and escape the nightmare that is Silent Hill.
Silent Hill: Downpour is a third person action game with a heavy dose of puzzles, much like the earlier games in the series or early entries in the Resident Evil series. In a nice touch, you can set the difficulty for combat and puzzles separately, so those with a mind for puzzles but disinterest in challenging combat (or vice versa) can tailor the game to their tastes. The town is full of items that you can use as weapons, including chairs, crowbars, fire extinguishers and shovels. Combat is simple; you press the X button to attack, and hold it to perform a strong attack. Pressing Y will block certain incoming attacks. While simple, the combat is uninspired, and most encounters just involved me pressing X until the monster in question was dead. Although I found it pretty bland, I have to admit that burying my axe into the chest of a downed enemy was pretty cool. There are a few pistols and shotguns scattered around town, but ammo is very limited. Fortunately, you can keep using a melee weapon and hold on to the firearm in inventory until you find yourself in a jam. As for the puzzles, most require consulting Murphy’s journal, a collection of the clues and papers you have gathered throughout your exploration.
Most of the puzzles seemed logical, but a few of the solutions felt arbitrary, leading me to wonder if multiple difficulty levels forced the designers to create puzzles that were somewhat vague, in order to accommodate multiple answers. Downpour keeps with Silent Hill tradition, and has Murphy toting a flashlight for most of the game, using it to find his way through the dark town. You will also find a forensic flashlight, which bathes the immediate area in a purple glow, highlighting evidence like footprints, which is necessary for solving some of the games puzzles. Occasionally the real world will fade away, leaving you in the Otherworld, where an unknown force will chase you. Some of the fades into the Otherworld are cool, but the sections themselves are pretty tedious. Each one is essentially a collection of mazes that you will keep repeating until you find the way out. If you don’t move fast enough, the power stalking you will start to catch up, slowing you down and making you more susceptible to the various traps located throughout. It’s more annoying than anything else, and the Otherworld sections are definitely the weakest part of the game.
Silent Hill games have always been heavy on atmosphere, and this is one area where Downpour finds success. The game is visually dark and foreboding, and the art style nicely captures the feel of the town. Some interior locations and the Otherworld have a grungy, industrial feel that brings back memories of the first Silent Hill Game. Houses that you can enter each have a unique look and personality to them, which keeps them from feeling repetitive. Unfortunately, for as good as the art style is, the game is not able to keep up technically. The frame rate is uneven throughout, at some points dropping to single digit frames per second. What is puzzling is that generally this happens when there is no action going on – most of the time, severe frame rate drops would happen just as I was walking across a room, with no other action or enemies present. The frame rate is such a constant distraction that when the game locked up on me during the final boss fight it actually took me a few seconds to realize what happened; at first I thought the frame rate was just stuttering again.
While Downpour looks good, there is nothing here that pushes the limits of the hardware and warrants such poor performance. The sound does a good job of keeping you on your toes, and there are always distant moans and door slams to make you think there is a monster lurking just around the corner. More often than not, though, there isn’t, so the effect starts to wear off as you progress through the game. The voice work is generally good, with some odd lines here and there keeping it from being totally believable. Murphy’s character is really enjoyable, and I really wanted to get all of the information I could about his past. He reacts realistically to the crazy things going on all around him, and was easy to identify with.
Some of the design choices in Silent Hill cause a lot of unnecessary frustration. Both the map and your health gauge are buried in submenus, making them a time consuming chore to access. At times, you will have no idea where to go next, so you will be spending a lot of time accessing the map, especially in buildings where it is crucial to check every room. Likewise, although there are subtle visual cues when injured, if you’re trying to maximize the value of your first aid kits you’ll be checking your health regularly. When exploring, weapons, clues and items all display the same “Pick Up” prompt, often forcing you to rotate the camera so see what the object in question is. It would have been nice if items and weapons displayed a different prompt, so you can safely ignore the weapon prompts when you are happy with what you have. At times, the game seems like it can’t decide what it wants to be – a system of moral choices is presented at the beginning and quickly abandoned, and even the rain mechanic disappears for a few hours late in the game, before returning at the end.
Silent Hill: Downpour has an engaging story that kept me going because I wanted to see how it would end. The game starts out with a lot of promise, but poor choices and a lack of consistency kept me from ever really enjoying it the way I wanted to. There are side quests to complete and multiple endings, but after finishing the game I had no urge to go back for either. It reminds me a lot of the original Silent Hill, both for the creepy atmosphere and for some design choices that feel like they are from that era of games. For as good as the narrative construction is, the game falls short of modern standards. At 8-10 hours, it’s worth a weekend rental to enjoy the story, but it’s hard to recommend a purchase for anyone other than hardcore Silent Hill fans.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.