• Platform: PS3 and XBOX 360
  • Reviewed on: PS3

I can confidently say that Silent Hill is one of my favorite game series of all time. Trademarked for its oppressively dark atmosphere, disturbing imagery and psychological horror symbolism.

Since its inception I’ve seen the series change hands over the years from its original Japanese creators to a downsized American operation. The effect on the series has been so prominent that the magic that once made the series so great has been suffocated under the weight of Western gaming mechanics, focusing more so on combat and horror mannerisms akin to a direct in-your-face slasher flick.

The developers of Silent Hill’s last game “Homecoming” tried hard to keep the lore and imagery true to the mythos established in the first game. However, it relied far too much on the movie adaptation released two years earlier and in turn became a different beast altogether in the process.

Which brings us now to Silent Hill: Downpour. Developed by a new studio, Vatra Games, the relatively inexperienced team has taken the massive undertaking of trying to please a fan base which is ultimately going to pick clean the meat from the bones of the final product.

The game is based around protagonist Murphy Peddleton, who's being transferred to a different prison facility under unknown circumstances.

As the opening dialogue and story progresses, the player is welcomed to a change of music orchestration – handled by composer Daniel Licht (best known for his work on the popular TV series, Dexter). Overall, his composition is a departure from longtime series collaborator Akira Yamaoka’s work that fans have become accustomed to over the years. However, Daniel Licht brings a new flavour to the treatment of Silent Hill's atmosphere - a desolate coldness which will greatly serve the game as the story progresses.

After a series of events, the player assumes control of Murphy Peddleton and a sequence of exploration, puzzles, choice events are given, acting as a quasi-tutorial level that flows naturally with the unfolding events in the story.

The rain in the game now signifies the town “shifting” to its “dark side”, where monsters spawn in greater numbers and it’s generally more dangerous to run through the street. To counter this, Murphy can traverse the town underground to fast travel to certain locations.

The game is generally split into two sections of gameplay. The first consists solely of exploration and side quests. The second is your main objective, usually to travel to a certain part of the town and complete the level to progress the story.

The manner of these side-quest elements are new to Silent Hill. In previous games, it was vague as to what optional actions you could perform, but now Murphy will jot down notes in his notebook whenever he finds something of interest relating to a possible side quest you can complete.

Backstory is fleshed out via these side-quests, bringing a greater depth of atmosphere and meaning to an already desolate and dead town. Some of them are genuinely well produced and feel like something that would be usually consigned to a DLC purchase. It’s pretty sad that nowadays we have to feel that extra content is a blessing where 10+ years ago it was common to expect this many extras in your game.

The most major departure from the series rears its head with the appearance of the game’s monsters. Bear in mind that all monsters in this game have a symbolic purpose in relation to the protagonist. Although the monsters do fit the metaphorical psychology of Murphy, I can’t help but think that they aren’t very frightening.

Compared to the latter games of the series, the main pull of the game’s imagery was the disturbing nature of the monsters. They sometimes had such a malformed shape that it was difficult to tell what you were looking at. The greatest fear your mind can produce is the fear of the unknown. However, Silent Hill: Downpour has a distinctly unimpressive monster design that cannot be overlooked. If anything the monsters become more of a nuisance than actually frightening.

This is not a game series focused on “Peek-a-boo” scares or gratuitous amounts of gore, but I can't help but look critically at a monster design based on a burly muscled bald dude covered with prison tattoos without thinking: “Oh, cause Murphy was in a prison before, right? Ok, I get it.” This brings me to this game’s main problem.

Subtlety – This is a word that Western videogame horror developers seem to have trouble understanding. If you're going to truly understand a concept and develop it, you need to research and develop a base psychological understanding of how it was formed. The answer to this in the context of Silent Hill is clear: Psychology, in relation to the game’s imagery.

With such an established history within the videogames industry, I expected this would be an easy task, but maybe due to marketing towards a more 'Western Audience', or the fact that the developers are just inexperienced, psychological subtlety in the sense of imagery, story, design and atmosphere is lacking from the final cut.

There are “nightmare” sequences that involve Murphy being chased by an unknown dark force, which will hurt and possibly kill him when it comes into physical contact. These sequences are designed in a maze like structure, and do add a sense of intense urgency to the game. The design in these sections is also reminiscent of the older games in the series, but certain parts are essentially a spike trap which needs to be navigated, making the game look like it was inspired more so from the Hellraiser films than Silent Hill - again, not very subtle nor is it in keeping with the Silent Hill mythos.

So, we have the disparity of quiet loneliness within the town sections juxtaposed with loud, in-your-face nightmare sections, the point of which becomes poignant towards the end of the game as the setting starts to match up with the lofty psychology of the story.

It’s not a complete failure in execution; there's been some genuine effort made by the developers to make it coherent, and the general flow of the story is in fact very fluid. It’s not everyday you're going to receive a piece of work which delves into the psyche of an individual in such a visual medium - and within the constraints of a videogame it's a difficult task to say the least.

The overall audio is well crafted, specifically the performance of the voice acting cast. Characters are believable in their emotion. The sound of rain and clapping of thunder brings a lot of atmosphere to the town segments, and while it's very different from the other Silent Hill games, it's a unique and workable new element.

Some of the puzzles were genuinely interesting, and the metamorphosis resulting from a puzzle completion was done extremely well. In summary I wouldn’t say the puzzles were generally too difficult, even on the harder difficulty settings.

Combat feels completely optional this time when compared to Homecoming, which practically forced you to progress via killing enemies in certain circumstances. Silent Hill has never been known for having the best combat system and the same applies here. However, it’s extremely exploitable in the sense that if you don’t lock onto an enemy and instead run in a concaved 180 degree angle in front of the enemy, you will goad them into clumisly attacking you, resulting in an opportunuity for you to get a cheap shot in. I'll also merit the lack of ammunition for weapons; this is really a nice element to a survival horror game, and one that is often overlooked these days.

I completed Silent Hill: Downpour four times so that I could view every ending and achieve the platinum trophy. On subsequent play-throughs I felt that the atmosphere and storytelling got better, but the elements of monster design and general psychological implementation still weren’t the strongest.

When I first played the game around the time of release (before the game patches were released), the PS3 version suffered from horrible stutters and frame-rates. Receiving a trophy would cause the game to break in most cases. The QA department really didn’t push this game very hard at all.

Maybe it just wasn't a very interesting story concept. Regardless, I cannot ignore that in an industry full of games with one dimensional characters and stories that any writer could practically sneeze out, Silent Hill: Downpour shines through on its own merits in a sea of mediocrity. Even if this is a small evolution from the game’s former past, it’s a possible baby step in the right direction.