When the original Silent Hill titles took abstractions of purgatory, character casts of mysteriously-burdened sinners and the visual language of personal hells and made them into games, it created a take on the horror genre that deservedly installed itself in history.
But now it’s one of a few franchises carrying a particular burden: It’s a brand with a fervent fandom it must continue to serve if it’s to continue to exist, and at the same time it’s been around long enough that modern installments can’t possibly match up to nostalgia-polished memories of How Things Used To Be.
On its surface Silent Hill: Downpour checks all of the logical boxes: A protagonist with an uncertain past and an unknown moral alignment is lost in the mysterious town of the game’s title and in its environs, sorting out environmental puzzles among the decay and warding off shambling monsters of unknown origin.
After the introductory combat tutorial has Murphy murder a fellow inmate in the prison shower for unknown reasons, the bus transferring him and his fellows to a different facility crashes. But as the man plunges into his environment in search of his freedom, it quickly becomes obvious things aren’t right. Murphy navigates a decrepit woodland park and an abandoned mine, then finds himself in the iconic fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill itself.
It is, as fans demand, logically in step with formula, but it feels a bit superficial, like a park ride tribute to Silent Hill, rather than a genuine sequel. In fact, the player enters the town of Silent Hill on a listless mine cart ride, as if even the game knows it’s erected a historical museum rather than an engaging experience.
Navigation isn’t generally intuitive, and players are frequently required to perform thorough searches or complex litanies of tasks before it’s clear how they relate to objectives. There is nothing to draw the player into the world, an overly-darkened mishmash of endless muddy tones and heavy-handed puzzles. Downpour especially drops the ball when it comes to fear factor. Players pick up weapons from the environment – wooden chairs, knives, bricks, bottles, pick-axes – but there’s plentitude everywhere, and the game isn’t balanced such that choices feel meaningfully different.
The franchise is known for its chilling monster designs, but this game doesn’t do much better than a clumsy litany of zombie-like forms that aren’t flattered by the memory of, say, Silent Hil 2’s disjointed mannequin legs or the pained, spasmodic advances of Silent Hill 3’s bandaged nurses. It’s a spirited attempt to “be frightening”, but it never quite gets beyond predictable dread and a couple cheap jump-up scares.
Illustration by James Harvey
Downpour does attempt a couple of innovations on the formula: First is the idea that rain, which seems to ebb and flow naturalistically within the world, causes enemies to be stronger and to behave more aggressively. It’s an interesting concept, but given it just lets players know for sure when they ought to run versus fight, it just makes the game feel more systematized and less frightening.
Second is that the game’s “hell world,” the periodic, nightmarish apparition of rusty grates and bloody metal common to all titles in the series, is a fast-paced puzzle room of sorts through which Murphy must run, pursued by a bizarre scintillating scotoma. These are admirably intricate, perhaps the game’s most interesting segments, but that they feel so different from the main game increases the feel of “theme park” compartmentalization that drags on the entire experience.
One of the many reasons it’s hard to evaluate new Silent Hill games (the past few years have yielded just a few) is the palpable identity drain that happens when a franchise founded in uniquely Japanese ideas about horror is increasingly offloaded to Western developers.
Like many Japanese publishers this generation, Konami seems to believe that having studios in the U.S. and Europe develop its great old brands will lend those games whatever traits have led the West to market dominance. But no matter how great of Silent Hill fans each round of new custodians have claimed to be and no matter their attention to detail, it seems the games are doomed to feel like dutiful reproductions at best, consigned to unattainable comparisons with the past. It’s interesting that the parts of the game early on take place in a quaint historical park that once offered family tours.
Silent Hill: Downpour makes so many concessions to what fans have come to expect of the brand that it’s nearly impossible to take it out of context – in other words, evaluating it on how well it would appeal to someone who’s never heard of Silent Hill is a terribly fraught proposition. It speaks an old language; for better or for worse, no one would design a game like the original Silent Hill trilogy today. Those games had odd pacing and blunt combat that enforced the player’s sense of helplessness, but these days designers generally understand players want games to make sense, work well and feel good.
Downpour straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between imitating Silent Hill games and attempting to create a modern and intuitive experience. One can imagine how seriously the developers took their charge of remaining faithful to the brand; so much so that their own creative personality must have recused, leaving a serviceable but ultimately hollow result.
In fact, Downpour just made me want to revisit old Silent Hill games like the second and third one (which have conveniently just been re-released in an HD set). This is partially because the imagery and feel of Downpour was just almost-there enough to tempt, and partially because I wanted to see for myself just how much nostalgia can lead fans to glorify older titles unfairly.
Not so here. As my Silent Hill 2 character stood in a cramped, decomposing apartment heartbeat by ambient sound, the bright light he carried threw a headless mannequin’s shadow to loom sharply on the wall behind her. The mannequin was wearing his dead wife’s cardigan and skirt. From the dark clattered an unknown shape. The game remains profoundly, surprisingly unsettling more than a decade later. Perhaps fanservice imitations is all today’s Silent Hill developers can hope to achieve.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and at Kotaku, and is games editor at Nylon Guys. She freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets.