Like a tour bus operator focused on the northern suburbs of Adelaide, Vatra Games has the unenviable task of convincing its audience to spend 15-odd hours in an extremely unpleasant place. The task is made harder by the fact that the place in question, Silent Hill, is something of a sacred town for many gamers. It’s also a place that has, for nine or so years, struggled to drum up the sort of positive critical reception it was once known for (although Shattered Memories on the Wii was a bit of a masterpiece). Ultimately, your opinion on whether or not Vatra has succeeded at creating a worthy entry into the series is going to depend on what sort of experience you were after going in.
Downpour puts you in the recently chained shoes of Murphy Pendleton, a man who begins his journey through Silent Hill after being thrown clear from the prison bus that was transporting him to his new cell. Over the course of the game you’ll get to know a lot more about who Murphy is, what he did to land in prison, and why, exactly, he ended up in the craphole of symbolism and metaphor that is Silent Hill.
As always there are multiple endings that change depending on the choices you make throughout, although these choices often come down to very black and white ‘do something good/bad’ button presses. Still, it’s a good story, and one you’ll want to see through despite the game’s numerous frustrations.
If you’re after satisfying combat, look elsewhere. Downpour’s handful of different enemies aren’t the smartest lot, but they’re all super aggressive, especially if there’s a storm brewing in the area. They like to attack in packs, and running from them isn’t always an option. If you’ve got a gun on you – which you frequently won’t – you can choose to deal with the awkward aiming controls, although often the meatier melee weapons are more effective.
Your attack options are limited to mashing a single button while occasionally blocking and most weapons break if you so much as look at an enemy while holding them, which is usually a good thing in the survival horror genre, but the sheer aggression of your enemies makes the whole thing quite frustrating. It also, ultimately, makes your enemies less scary. If a creature exists solely to attack you it feels considerably less real than one that seems to serve a purpose outside of bashing your skull in, and the enemy designs, outside of the boss fights, don’t have any of the symbolic links to Murphy’s dilemma that you might expect from a game like this. On the plus side, pummelling out the brains of a downed enemy with a sledgehammer is far more satisfying than you’d admit to a psychiatrist.
Otherwise, Downpour has borrowed quite a bit from the aforementioned Shattered Memories (which featured no combat whatsoever). While it may not follow that game’s sense of focused linearity, it has a similar love of exploration, multiple choices, and shining lights all over the place. But this comparison is most apt during the infrequent ‘otherworld’ sequences, which are focused purely on running away from a strange void that chases you through hellish, warping levels. These moments are tense and exciting, albeit occasionally a little frustrating, and allow for some truly trippy level-design and art-direction. The graphics really shine when it comes to architecture, even if the character and monster models leave a bit to be desired.
Downpour is simultaneously at its best and worst during the exploration and puzzle-solving segments. If you like the way forward to be constantly hidden from you, as so many players do, then the game will suit you to a tee. Arriving in the main town of Silent Hill for the first time two hours in, with its foggy streets and numerous side quests to delve into, can be overwhelming. If you consider yourself above consulting a playguide, figuring out the way forward can be pretty difficult at times. But ultimately the game wants you to feel a bit lost, and genre purists will get a kick out of it.
But this section may well be the make-or-break moment for many players, as they stumble around, frustrated by boarded up doors, ominous ghostly police cars, and weapon lockers with door codes that were supposedly only made available to customers who preordered their copies at certain stores in the US (although these codes are easily available online, naturally).
Others will revel in this design. For my part, the game could certainly afford to be a bit clearer on your objectives, and often I felt as though my progress was down to blind luck rather than my ability to discern where I should be going, or what I should be doing. If you reach a fork in the road and go the wrong way first, you might find yourself feeling incredibly lost and confused down the track, having missed a vital item or piece of information.
But exploring thoroughly also reveals Vatra’s flair for effective triggering of aural and visual cues, as well as their general command of Silent Hill’s unique style. The best way to creep a player out is usually to build up to the big moments and enemy attacks with subtle moments and scenes. Downpour isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but bloodied bath tubs, smeared handprints, scrambled cries for help from radios, mannequins that tip over as you walk past and doors that slam shut after you enter a room all play into the general sense of unease Vatra is aiming for.
Unfortunately the game is also let down quite significantly by a choppy frame-rate and buggy enemy animations (at least on PS3 – we didn’t get a chance to test the Xbox 360 version). Murphy’s level of dishevelment is meant to serve as a visual indicator for his state-of-being in lieu of an on-screen health meter, but the rather lacklustre facial detailing, coupled with the bizarre case of hover-hand he suffers from (an injured Murphy is meant to be clutching at his stomach, but there’s clearly no contact there), makes him a curiously awkward protagonist to look at. Picking up or using an item you encounter often requires you to stand in an irritatingly specific spot too.
At the beginning of the game you’re asked to choose the difficulty of both the combat and the puzzles. We played through on ‘Normal’ for both, and ended up with puzzles that were frequently a tad obtuse. Not all of them are essential – there are guns hidden behind locked safes that don’t need to be opened – but frequently they rely on a poorly thought out adventure game logic, whereby you need to go and do something completely unrelated to the problem you’re facing to reach a solution. Still, this is pretty much par for the course with the genre, and many will enjoy being completely stumped. But solving them often rewards you with one of the game’s amazing set-pieces, including the freakiest ghost train we’ve ever ridden on and a particularly crazy production of Hansel and Gretel.
Downpour is a pretty solid horror game, if not an exceptionally original or nuanced one. If it weren’t for the crappy combat and frustrating exploration it would be a bit easier to recommend, but Vatra has captured the Silent Hill aesthetic well. If Konami get them working on a second Shattered Memories game we could end up with another classic entry in the franchise.