An engaging story and creepy locales simply aren't enough to overcome terribly clunky combat and technical flaws in the latest entry in Konami's venerable survival horror series. Silent Hill: Downpour's developers may have taken the series in a new direction, but that doesn't mean they should have.
- Some genuinely spooky locales.
- Story is pieced together gradually through exploration making it interesting.
- The score by Dexter composer Daniel Licht is sufficiently creepy.
- Combat is abysmal, especially when fighting more than one enemy.
- Technical issues abound: framerate drops and freezing throughout the game.
- Frustrating design choices result in poor player experience.
Silent Hill: Downpour Review:
Depending on who you’re talking to, Konami’s Silent Hill franchise has either been in dramatic decline since the release of the much-beloved Silent Hill 2 in 2001 or has been plugging along just fine over the last 11 years. As for me, I fall in the latter camp. Sure, there have been a few undeniable missteps along the way (I’m looking at you, awful Silent Hill movie), but even games like the disappointing Silent Hill: Homecoming have enough creepy atmospherics and genuinely terrifying moments to make them worth more than a cursory glance.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for Silent Hill: Downpour, a clunky quasi-sequel that attempts (and ultimately fails) to bring something new to the series. While it’s an admirable effort on the part of first-time developer Vatra Games, it’s plagued by numerous technical and design flaws that make it feel much more frustrating than it should be.
The Man, The Myth, The Murderer
Downpour kicks off at a prison just outside the titular town, where protagonist Murphy Pendleton is about to be transferred to a new bighouse after completing a brief tutorial in which he slaughters a fellow inmate in the group showers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bus that’s delivering Murphy and his convict cohorts to their new home away from home crashes, forcing him to make his way through Silent Hill. Murphy makes for a intriguing hero, as it’s never completely clear whether he’s a legitimate criminal or just a poor sap who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Downpour’s story (and, more importantly, Murphy’s backstory) is unveiled gradually through copious amounts exploration and ends up as the strongest element of the game despite some occasionally confusing narrative lapses.
I was particularly excited to see where Murphy’s travels took him after learning that he can make moral choices at certain points in the game. Oddly, none of these decisions ultimately seem to matter in the least bit, as I frequently reloaded the game to see what would happen had I picked the opposite choice. Nearly every time, the same result occurred whether I chose to be a “good” or “bad” guy, and there was never a moment at the end of the game when I felt like the decisions were anything more than cosmetic.
Fighting With Frustration
Unfortunately, the solid narrative elements are dramatically overshadowed by myriad dodgy gameplay mechanics. While previous Silent Hill games relied on ammo scarcity to help ratchet up that familiar foreboding feeling during combat, the folks at Vatra decided to introduce a new melee-heavy combat system. I’m all for battling horrific monsters hand-to-hand, but the actual execution is simply dreadful. I found myself swinging and missing frequently, even when I seemed to time my attacks perfectly following a block or a missed attack by my foe. In theory, getting into a good rhythm should have been entirely possible, as every enemy follows a similar attack pattern, but more often than not combat felt like it was based more on luck than skill.
Then there’s the fact that melee weapons degrade over time before breaking. This isn’t exactly a new thing in the world of video games, but it’s just not done well in Downpour. I’ve never hit anybody in the head with a crowbar in real life, but I’m guessing that you can get more hits in before it breaking than you can with a wooden stick. Not so in Downpour, which doesn’t even seem to give any sort of indication that your weapon of choice is about to shatter during combat. Sure, you’ll know you’re in trouble when the head of your fireaxe breaks off, but these sorts of indications largely don’t exist for the majority of the weapons. Instead, I found myself pounding away on a foe, only to have to run off to find a rock or a broken bottle if I wanted to finish them off after my original weapon broke. Some defenders mights call this realistic, but any game in which a solid steel object breaks when hitting flesh is not based in realism.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that I spent a good deal of time running around trying to figure out precisely what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. This wasn’t an issue during the vastly superior indoor setpieces, but it definitely drove me crazy when I was exploring the streets of Silent Hill. An objective of “Escape from Silent Hill” really wasn’t very descriptive, forcing me to simply run around exploring houses and cul-de-sacs in an effort to find whatever it was that would allow me to do so. In many ways, it felt like the developers wanted to create a throwback survival horror game that didn’t hold players’ hands or give them easy answers, but it ultimately ended up feeling a lot like poor game design. Anytime the player starts to feel like a game is a waste of his or her time (as I did several times during my ten hours with Downpour), you’ve done something wrong.
While the last few paragraphs pointed out many of the game’s design issues, one of Downpour’s biggest problems is on the technical front. The game simply doesn’t run well, as I frequently encountered troubling framerate issues and general slowdown. Sometimes they were just a bit annoying, but there were few occasions in which that choppy framerate reared its ugly head during combat sequences, making the already frustrating battles even worse. Then there were the myriad times when I happened to move the camera during those moments when environments were loading in and the game froze completely for several seconds.
You Take The Good, You Take The Bad...
Despite the issues I have with Silent Hill: Downpour, it’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not good either. Some of the locales are just as creepy as one would hope (particularly a terrifying orphanage that pops up toward the end of the game), especially given the franchise’s history of making seemingly mundane locations horrifying. The score is also surprisingly solid, especially given the fact that longtime composer Akira Yamaoka has been replaced by Dexter composer Daniel Licht. The score won’t make anyone forget the haunting themes from the early Silent Hill games, but there are more than a few moments when it got under my skin.
Ultimately, Silent Hill: Downpour is one of the weakest entries in the venerable survival horror series despite the fact that the developers tried to offer an experience that was completely unique to the franchise. Even a solid story and some creepy visuals can’t overcome horribly clunky combat and numerous technical flaws. It’s a shame, really, as this could have been one of the best games in the series if not for these glaring issues.
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Editor's Note: SIlent Hill: Downpour was reviewed using a PlayStation 3 copy of the game; however, we also played the Xbox 360 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.