Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Silent Hill: Downpour (360)

Stay out of the rain.

Images in this review are from
Silent Hill Historical Society.
Silent Hill: Downpour is the newest installment in the long-running Silent Hill survival horror series. A standalone game developed by Vatra Games, it does not require prior knowledge of the series to understand it, although there are references sprinkled throughout to previous Silent Hill games. Downpour is atmospheric and delivers a compelling story, but its potential is somewhat marred by occasional framerate stutters and lackluster monster designs. Read on for the review...

The game opens with players controlling Murphy Pendleton, a convict being held at one Ryall State Penitentiary. After a brief opening segment, Murphy is shuttled onto a bus with other prisoners being transferred to Wayside Maximum Security Prison, a facility in an undisclosed area. En route, the bus crashes, just outside of the resort town of Silent Hill.

Murphy escapes, but soon gets pulled into a hellish nightmare. His only goal: escape.

The game's plot is delivered through both cutscenes as well as the occasional note. Save for a slight hiccup at the beginning in which I had no clue where to go, the pacing is excellent; there were hardly any dull moments, and each new development had me at the edge of my seat. Murphy's reason for imprisonment isn't some huge, game-twisting secret, which is a breath of fresh air in a series that lately has relied quite a bit on plot twists. Though Murphy meets various characters on his way through Silent Hill, the game never feels overcrowded, although a couple of characters come to mind that could have been more fleshed-out; however, Murphy himself feels quite human, and his reactions to the happenings in the foggy town are realistic, a feature that I appreciated. The game's climax becomes a little more action-heavy than the rest of it, but it wasn't so jarring that it ruined the rest of the experience.

The foggy town contributes to an oppressive atmosphere
in Downpour, but the monsters leave some
to be desired.
The graphics are passable. There are times where textures look shinier than they should, and there was one occasion in which a character was rendered rather badly, but there isn't anything present graphically that will put players off of Downpour. Unfortunately, the game does not run smoothly; it has a tendency to lag occasionally when textures are loading, particularly when exploring Silent Hill at large. This was somewhat rectified by loading the game onto my Xbox's hard drive and booting it from the "My Games" section, but it is a clear mar on the game's quality.

Combat in the game is somewhat clunky, unfortunately. If you're looking for a game with a compelling action system, this is not the game for you; it helps to build a fight-or-flight feeling, but even the fight sequences take some getting used to. Players can find a multitude of weapons scattered all over Silent Hill's streets, and after a period, they can break, forcing players to scramble for the nearest item. Unfortunately, Murphy swings wildly, and even when using the occasional firearm he can miss at point-blank range. The best way to deal with monsters, I found, was to constantly keep the analogue stick pointed at them while alternating blocking and attacking; in doing so, I honestly had very little problem with the system. However, instances in which I was pitted against multiple enemies were thoroughly frustrating. Luckily, there were only a few instances in which this was required; the town itself is open enough to help players avoid confrontations, and the randomized weather system gave fair warning for when monsters would appear in greater volume: just as the title suggests, Silent Hill gets very dangerous when it begins to rain.

The puzzles, on the other hand, have some excellent ideas running through them. During Murphy's adventure, players will have to solve riddles to progress, whether it be learning how to operate a tour train or acting as a stage hand for a ghostly school play. None of these puzzles felt shoehorned in; they made sense in the context of the gameplay, and the clues to them were just challenging enough that they required some brainpower but were not frustrating.
The Otherworld varies from surreal...

The monsters in Silent Hill: Downpour, however, leave something to be desired. Most of them seem to be run-of-the-mill humanoids, looking more like zombies than anything else. Only a couple of monsters stood out to me, the most prominent being a mannequin-esque enemy that spawns invisible creatures until it is destroyed. As is par for the course with Silent Hill, each monster has symbolism in Murphy's psyche, but the designs are lackluster and stand out as probably the weakest part of the game.

Although Downpour has a compelling story, it remains open enough to allow players to explore. Multiple sidequests are available to anybody that examines every nook and cranny of Silent Hill, from returning stolen items to former denizens of the town to repairing an old movie theatre and tracking down caged birds. Very few of these quests deal with the main storyline, but they never feel out of place; they are not obvious to find, and some of the game's scariest moments are found while trying to finish them.

Exploring itself is split into two segments: the foggy Silent Hill and the Otherworld. The majority of the game is spent within the foggy realm of Silent Hill, where Murphy fights off the occasional enemy and ventures through the town. On occasion, Silent Hill takes on a more twisted appearance, forcing Murphy to run from an entity called The Void before being able to explore the vicious Otherworld.
... to downright hellish.

The music in the game, unfortunately, had very little of note. It wasn't bad by any means, but nothing stuck with me once I finished playing. Daniel Licht, the game's composer, did a fantastic job in creating an eerie atmosphere without ever being intrusive, but it just wasn't very memorable.

Even with the framerate stutters and somewhat-clunky combat, Downpour remains one of the scariest games I have ever played. The town remains deserted, with the occasional music cue keeping players on edge. Dark corners can hide monsters or valuable items, and the fog obscuring everything is creepy but still allows players to see some of their surroundings. Downpour uses the occasional jump-scare to startle players, but they don't cheapen the experience; instead, they allow a short release of tension before things ramp up again.

Silent Hill: Downpour has its fair share of problems, but even some technological mistakes don't hamper the experience. A single playthrough will take players around 15 hours, including the main plot and several sidequests.

-Great atmosphere left me scared even with the lights on and people in the room
-The plot is compelling and well worth seeing to the end
-Plenty of replayability with multiple sidequests and endings, including one that can only be done on a second playthrough

-The framerate is inconsistent when exploring the town proper
-The monsters were painfully unimaginative
-Combat can be frustrating, although I found it rather simple
-Moral choices to determine endings are rather hamfisted

Play it if: you've been wanting another great horror game, or if you enjoy stories and settings that avoid spoonfeeding the entire thing to you.

The game was completed on normal action and normal puzzle difficulty in approximately 15 hours. Three of the game's six endings were obtained.

Silent Hill: Downpour is also available on the Playstation 3.

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