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Silent Hill: Downpour Review

Game: Silent Hill: Downpour
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Vatra Games
Genre: Horror
Players: 1

Rating: B

What's Hot: Old school puzzles, lack of hand-holding, attention to detail

What's Not: Terrible combat, few enemy types, lack of feedback

Like Sonic before it, Silent Hill is a franchise that's fallen far from the level of quality fans expect. With a new developer on board, though, Downpour, the eighth Silent Hill title, might be the one to raise the bar back up.

Downpour is still firmly set in the series' traditions. The town of Silent Hill remains an asylum for those so mired in self-doubt and hatred that staring Hell full in the face is preferable to facing themselves. What is the Bogeyman (it's certainly not series stalwart Pyramid Head)? Is any of this really happening? As someone not terribly familiar with the Silent Hill franchise (having seen the movie and played one or two of the games over the years), I was excited to jump in and discover the answers to these questions.

If the only horror games you've played recently have had "Evil," "Dead" or "Alan" in the title, you're going to be in for a surprise—and it might not be pleasant. Downpour is an old school game, through and through, marred by abysmal combat but gifted with a sense of exploration that's often missing from modern games.

In the opening sequence, your incarcerated protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, viciously murders a fat man in a prison shower. This act of brutality sets the stage quite well for the rest of the game. But controlling a monster's not as fun as it sounds (remember Manhunt?), so you'll be glad when the story takes a few turns. It's even got a bare-bones "moral choice" system that helps determines which of six endings you'll see.

Naturally, Pendleton isn't long for prison, and things really open up once you reach the town of Silent Hill itself. It's positively rife with side quests and easter eggs, and while many amount to little more than collect-a-thons ("free all the birds"), those who enjoy exploring game worlds will relish getting off the beaten path.

On the other hand, Downpour rarely tells you what to do next, and the game can drag if you find yourself lost. It's true that fear retreats upon the onset of boredom, but Downpour isn't particularly scary to begin with. It's definitely eerie, though, and that never abates. The town's characteristic fog is present in spades. Pendleton opens doors as quickly or slowly as you tell him to, heightening the sense that there could be something deadly across every threshold. Tricks of perspective and fixed camera angles increase your unease, and the various surreal residents of Silent Hill are palpably menacing beneath their innocent facades.

Downpour is full of loving little touches; phantom police cars patrol the town with sirens blaring, the radio DJ sends you shout outs while quietly pleading for help, and a retreating tram spied through binoculars reveals an easily missed hidden passenger. The soundtrack is spooky, but never distracting, and the script is surprisingly well written and acted.

As polished as Downpour might be, you will get stuck, and it will be frustrating. Downpour isn't a dumb game, but its lack of feedback can be infuriating. Example: early on you'll find an axe and gain the ability to chop through blocked doorways. Like every other weapon, the axe can be discarded at will. But the axe is the only weapon that will get you through blocked doorways. If you do discard the axe, you can pick up another from where you got the first one; but the game never communicates that in any way. Another puzzle actually requires you to run back and forth between two locations several times before the solution materializes out of nowhere. It feels contrived.

At other times, the game is capable of tugging you gently in the right direction—you'll notice wires running away from an impassable pile of rubble and follow them back to a detonator you may not have otherwise found. What feedback it does give you, like the wounds that collect on tough enemies as you whittle their health away, can be extremely helpful. The absence of a HUD won't hinder you, and it'll increase your immersion when you stumble across something particularly beautiful or terrifying (or both).

Other times, clues in your journal actually lead to puzzle solutions, though unlike in, say, Uncharted, you actually have to read and decipher them yourself. Exploring a sprawling estate, you'll find a table strewn with envelopes that, when arranged correctly, reveal a code for a locked door. The game tells you that you've found a puzzle, records the solution in your journal, and then congratulates you for remembering where the door was by—wait for it—letting you walk through it. Despite not hitting you over the head with it, the game can be very rewarding.

After puzzle-solving and exploring, the rest of your time is spent in combat, which is, unfortunately, seriously abysmal. You'll jam on the attack button as enemies inexplicably dodge your strikes and surround you, making your already ineffectual blocking all the more useless. Even the most cursory of opponents requires an inordinate numbers of hits to take down, and without even a hint of a targeting system you'll often attack enemies that are on the ground instead of the ones charging at you with their arms flailing wildly. Downpour fails at replicating the helplessness experienced in classic survival horror games; instead you'll just feel frustrated.

The ability to hold only one weapon at a time forces you to weigh the pros and cons of each object you find—one might be more durable (yes, weapons degrade as you use them), but less powerful, and firearms have limited ammo, but allow you to keep your distance from feral enemies. Turning "object highlighting" on in the menus will help immensely in finding items and ammo. You'll also have a flashlight for most of the game, and even a UV torch that can reveal hints and footsteps left by some unknown antecedent.

It's too bad Pendleton's enemies weren't crafted with such attention to detail. Lanky creatures scurry across the ceiling, feminine nightmares stalk you from behind, and mannequin puppeteers send their phantom doppelgangers careening at you in waves. They're better than Alan Wake's repetitive, shadowy baddies, but that's not saying much.

It wouldn't be Silent Hill without Otherworld, the hellish alternate dimension into which the game periodically hurls you. Jogging down grisly corridors, dodging guillotines and knocking over caged corpses to impede the sinister pocket of dilated reality that's hounded you since you arrived in Silent Hill, you'll wish you were back solving puzzles—and not just because the carcasses impaled on the wall spewing bile at you are repulsive. Having been given free agency to explore in the rest of the game, it's all the more dissatisfying when you're pitched into Otherworld's linear chase sequences.

There are a slew of other issues, technical and otherwise, including frequent texture pop-in and stuttering. Your index finger will ache from holding down the sprint button (right bump/R1). And the one modern gaming trope that did make it into the game is, unfortunately, the pointless quick time event. At least they're few and far between.

Silent Hill: Downpour is not for gamers who've gotten used to having the path pointed out to them over the last generation of survival horror games. Its moments of brilliance tend to shine through the fog of frustration. Having played through the game a single time, I feel like there were many, many things that I missed. Diehard Silent Hill fans shouldn't miss this one, and anyone else hurting for a new horror game could certainly do worse. You might even get an answer to that question—just who is the bogeyman?