Well, it’s time for another Silent Hill game. This time we’ve changed developers again (more on that another time).
Downpour. As usual with games I look forward to getting a hold of, I read absolutely nothing about this game before I played it. The reason for this is two-fold; I hate spoilers, and I didn’t want to come into it with any other expectation except the ones created by the name itself. With Silent Hill, that bar isn’t set particularly high after Silent Hill: Homecoming.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Downpour is even as good as Homecoming in the end, but it does have several things going for it.
Options recommendations before we begin.
I turn the subtitles on in case of cross-talk and mumbling. Murphy Pendleton, who we’re playing, has a habit of mumbling. I also turned on Object highlighting after my first playthrough. I’d recommend turning it on for the first, it is very easy to miss where the item you need next is hidden – especially in the PS3 version. Some Silent Hill 2 style conspicuous angles would have helped enormously, and the game does occasionally use fixed camera, but more for atmosphere. Here’s something that bugs me by the way, the brightness settings in games, they always tell you to do something vague and useless. In this game’s case, it is to “Adjust the slider so that the logo is barely visible”. “Barely visible”, what does that mean, precisely? – useless.
Now, normally in a Silent Hill game we can empathise with the main character with relative ease, Homecoming certainly made this more difficult what with the main character, Alex, being a returning soldier. Of prime importance however is his role as brother and son – so we’re safe there. Like I say though, usually with ease – if not because we can directly relate (not all of us have been married with children), then because we can grasp what it feels like – we all have people we love after all.
In the opening of Silent Hill: Downpour, we discover we’re a prisoner in the American penal system. We have a relationship with one of the prison guards to an extent where they can set us up to kill another prisoner. He tells you how to hide the crime from cameras and even places a giant kitchen knife and longish piece of wood in the shower room where we are to do the deed. Whilst all this was going on I was expecting it to get stopped or something, but no the game pretty much expects you to just brutally stab a guy to death, a defenceless and rather pathetic guy whom you know absolutely nothing about in the game so far. The only thing we know about our character is that he’s in prison and about to stab a guy. After some manly man threatening of another person, we get to hit him with a said bit of wood breaking it over his face leaving him bloodied. We then slash him open with a knife until we accidentally embed the knife hilt-deep in his shoulder before proceeding to beat him with our fists until we shiv him to death as he screams a long, anguished cry of pain in a cutscene.
We’ve all been there.
This by the way, is what passes for a tutorial. It is completely out of place, and even the (much, much) later in-game rationale of “it’s okay, he’s a paedophile who sexually assaulted and possibly killed your son” doesn’t work, both in the sense of justifying making you kill him in the opening, and the fact that he hasn’t done anything to your family worse than you have; dependant on which ending you actually get. The entire sequence did or didn’t happen depending on ending come to think of it. It also dampens the impact of all the combat and violent scenarios the game later presents you with – they absolutely pale in comparison. Then there’s the slight problem of timing, the gap between when you do the combat tutorial and your first combat, is actually very long, about an hour, so by the time you get to the combat, you’ve pretty much forgotten how to fight, so there’s another tutorial about blocking anyway.
The sequence is quite frankly the lowest point of the entire series.
Lazy writing too.
Hack #1: Maybe we should give the player a reason to kill this guy?
Hack #2: We could make him fat?
Hack #1: Yeah, but we need him to have done something real bad.
Hack #2: Child Rape’s bad?
Hack #1: Perfect. We’re done here.
The sad thing is that it’s much easier to think of all the game’s characters as their one-dimensional stereotypes than their character’s names. For example the prison guard in the introduction is the Bad Cop and behaves exactly how you’d expect. The inmate with the Hispanic accent is the Rogue Prisoner who acts accordingly and says “puta” the requisite number of times. The Scowling Ice Queen transfer officer acts with Ice Queen-like Ice Queenishness – whilst scowling. The good cop is a … well, good cop.
Human characters we can relate to? Maybe that DJ Ricks character who is introduced, killed and then never mentioned ever again by any of the characters ever is probably the only character we could actually relate to – whilst still a prisoner, this isn’t the defining feature like with Pendleton – his role as normalish person who wants to escape Silent Hill is where we can understand him. He’s vastly more interesting and complex than anyone else – even his relationship with his wife is more interesting than Pendleton’s one-dimensional and rarely mentioned (read: never, except in note exposition) wife. There are one or two occasions that Pendleton threatens to actually possess a personality, but these are too short, too little, and much too late.
On with the game.
After a long cutscene, which like all of Silent Hill: Downpour’s cutscenes is completely unskippable (I wish I meant that in the, ’cause it’s really good, sense), we do eventually get to Silent Hill itself.
It has much larger open areas for most of the game. Well, open in a sense. It still has linear paths that you get through to open up the next section of the game – the sections in this case being sort of town districts that you can ostensibly travel through the subway system to get to once you’ve opened them up topside. Each of those districts though, does allow for quite a lot of roaming. The problem being that the roaming isn’t actually that useful. There isn’t much of interest to see in the town of Silent Hill – once you’ve seen one foggy deserted street they all look quite similar. It is quite fun to get to the water-side sections for the change of scenery you’ll be looking for by the time you get to them.
The graphics are blurry, indistinct, have constant pop-in, and inconsistent framerates that drop off horribly on autosaving and loading new areas. Even in the cutscenes, in the one where Pendleton gets to Silent Hill itself mentioned above, the scenes stutters, stops, and continues in gaping chunks.
Now some of that we can attribute to the Unreal Engine – and even then, the choice of the Unreal Engine for a horror game is itself suspect for that very reason. Perhaps using an engine built for speed to not disrupt gameplay to the point of not immediately displaying things like characters briefly before loading them in properly was not the best idea. On the other hand, it worked fine in Bioshock, but I do think there are better options. Most of the issues though can be directly attributed to the incompetence of the people behind the Playstation version. Yes, incompetence. This is quite frankly, not good enough. The game runs appallingly bad despite the very obvious reduction in quality from the XBox version. Not that the XBox version runs well mind you. I tried to play through all the problems, but they did rather dampen the enjoyment of the game.
Which is a shame, because at times, the game can look really good when all the subtle elements come together to give you the look of a stormy, rain-slick, and abandoned street. The soft lighting coming through the fog is particularly nice. Although the introduction to the rain you’ll see is a bit crap. You’ll either notice that the lamppost near the beginning is wet before the rain starts, or you’ll be treated to the rain-bounce effect at a very close distance which makes it look bad as it bounces off the invisible barrier several inches above the roof of an abandoned vehicle you’ve just examined and fawned over in a cutscene.
That cutscene is where you start to notice something odd about the accents.
It didn’t strike me as very odd until I got to the section where the options for what to say to JP Sater make no difference to what happens – namely those accents. They’re not from where Silent Hill is supposed to be located. Now at first I thought, well, maybe they moved the city into the South, but no, all of the in-game signage points to Silent Hill being in “North Eastern America”.
Speaking of signs, the out-of-place accents may be part of the same problem as the signs. They’re written, to a greater extent than the notes, in a sort of broken English with wonderfully strange sentences like “Humans working in the mines were warned to avoid riding aboard the minecarts whenever possible”. As opposed to having to warn the walruses working in the mines, presumably. There’s a wonderful “sorry we killed your son with therapy that is extremely inappropriate” letter that says things like “We would also kindly remind you that this surgical procedure was legally authorized in the agreement you signed when your son was first admitted into our facility”. Oh, that’s fine then.
Anyway, most of the characters have Southern accents in varying degrees of drawl and twang, the most noticable being JP Sater and the Mailman, Howard Blackwood. I can’t think of a good reason for this to be the case, most of the actors aren’t very famous so the information on them is scant, the voice-over studio isn’t based in the South, nor is Vatra, so you tell me. It’s just rather out of place, like going to a Scotland where everyone has an English accent.
It could be a hint that perhaps there are influences from some earlier unfinished game?
The outdoor scenes are better than the indoor in my opinion. Whilst Downpour has overcome game developer’s fear of using black (see Homecoming’s grey and murky all the time graphics) it has simultaneously justified that fear. When Downpour isn’t being grey, it’s just too dark. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of ambient light, although I do think it had none when it should have had a little, but more a problem with the view and torch (flashlight for my American readers, not the stick with flames you may have been picturing there). You can somehow always see your character though.
There are two modes for the torch and two ways of holding it. It comes in normal and UV flavours, with it being held in the hand, or clipped to the waist pointing forward. With the view over your shoulder, the light when normal is a very small cone – about the size of your torso when a middling distance away from something. When the UV filter is attached it has a much more reasonably sized cone of light, albeit with less brightness – and this tends to be what you use in the game both due to this property and its ability to pick up hidden elements. Having the torch clipped to you belt or in your hand makes surprisingly little difference as where the beam of light points magically reacts to the right-stick even when on your belt so what could have been an interesting mechanic turns into a purely cosmetic one.
Once we get a feeling for who our character is through the cutscenes and mostly through the in-game note exposition, Murphy mostly feels sort of dead inside and is difficult to relate to. He mumbles things under his breath and seems bizarrely unreactive to situations where you’d say or think things. Part of the problem is that they’ve not included the ability to examine the in-game world with the press of a button, meaning that Murphy can only react through in-game speech. So whereas if you were playing, well, pretty much any other Silent Hill game, you’d be able to select, say, a cooked dog, and it would say / think something to the effect of “Who the hell would do something like this? … poor dog”, in Downpour, Murphy just kind of ignores it. Losing that ability to examine makes the world seem a little more flat and less interesting too.
Blood all over a bed? No reaction. Dead dog in a state of decomposition on a bed in a nearby room? No reaction. Bath filled with blood? No reaction. You keep finding little shrines with blue candles. Guess what? No reaction. He maintains a poker face and refuses to examine myriad other things that a character in other Silent Hills or other horror games would absolutely have at least some text, if not a spoken scene.
It doesn’t help to flesh out our character that much of the information we’re given about all the characters including Murphy is simply handed to us in those clinical-style reports written in much the same way that clinical reports definitely aren’t written. It’s a classic example of ignoring “show, don’t tell” – not to mention that the side-quests you have to do to get these notes have nothing to do with your or other main character’s stories, but are completely separate and unrelated. Those notes may or not make sense and be accurate depending once again, on which ending you get according to the moral system.
All of that impacts on how we feel the world and its characters. There’s a sparsity of events happening in the game and a lack of ambience. In most games, there’s a low, constant ambient score going on, but for large swaths of your time in Silent Hill there will be absolute silence.
Still, the music itself, when present, is actually surprisingly good. Whilst the change from Akira Yamaoka to Daniel Licht is noticeable, and doesn’t feel quite on par with Yamaoka, it is great horror-themed music and Licht brings a different yet still unique quality to Silent Hill.
The Korn track which is the main theme, by contrast, feels out of place. It also has the secondary problem that the chorus bit with the lyrics “Close my eyes, and go to sleep, he’s always there, I start to weep” suits alternative lyrics a lot better than the real ones. Specifically, “Close my eyes, and go to sleep, Nom, nom, nom, there’s foods to eat”.
Aside from that, there are some other odd choices of music, but they all work in the right context. There’s even a version of Giovanni’s ‘Willow’s Song’ from The Wicker Man with changed lyrics. Some of the sound effects were recognisable and distracting for that very reason. The child-like giggling in the mines for example had me scratching my head and trying to remember which thing I’d heard it in originally – probably not the desired effect.
Those unrelated side-quests, there are too many of them for a start. The best ones could have been rolled into the main story, and the rest, well. The game has technical issues in abundance, and Downpour would have been better served by having less side-quests and more technical bug fixing, optimisation, and polish – generally just less crappy coding. Some of the side-quests just aren’t interesting, besides which I don’t like the way they’re implemented. This has been described by others as a lack of hand-holding (various sources), but let’s just call it what it is, lack of direction. Some of them involve things that are too hard to find. Others you can find quite easily because you only have to discover one element to start, but then you’re given no clue as to where the rest are. At other times you’ll pick up items that you know must be important because you can pick them up (no red herrings to make you suspicious, no SH4-style evil dolls) so you keep them (not that you have any choice). It isn’t all bad of course. Some of the side-quests are very compelling, some of the game’s better moments are side-quests, and I’m not against side-quests themselves in general. But why am I here doing them? What have they got to do with my character? Shouldn’t they at least reveal things about me in what I do and how I talk to people, and my internal monologue rather than having notes about me and other characters inexplicably there for no reason other than exposition-fairyism? Not that you ever talk to people on side-quests.
The way some of the side-quests and even main quests were quite buggy really didn’t help. The subway side-quest that’s supposed to open up fast travel around Silent Hill plain didn’t work, and at one point the game refused to give me the item I needed to proceed, at one point forcing me to restart the entire game. Remember how I said the cutscenes can’t be skipped? There was far too much trial and error with the police radio mission too.
I just think that learning about a person’s deep-seated emotions and getting to know them well as a protagonist isn’t well served by revealing all the information about them in the form of notes, letters, and police reports. And the occasional disembodied meaningless platitude from goodcop. That doesn’t help either.
Some of the side-quests honestly just seem to be there to quite frankly extend gameplay, and gameplay the game has in abundance, but that isn’t always a good thing, and leads to the distinct feeling of makework at times.
So imagine, if you will, that you’re in a movie theatre, and there’s a room you can’t get into with some movie theatre equipment inside. The bulb on the projector needs changing.
Did you, like me, just think, probably in the locked room, we should figure out how to get in there? Me too. Nope, In a shop a distance away, that’s what I mean by lack of direction. More of a clue would have been nice, and speaking of nice. Once you actually do that fetch-quest, you get to do one of the better side-quests which involves using the projector to create a portal into the portrayed world and then using some equipment splicing the movies together so you can travel between scenes. It’s an interesting well-done mechanic. I also particularly enjoyed the one where there’s a device to rewind time to solve the puzzle.
The combat has both been described as poor and very good. The poor is usually excused by phrases such as “but it’s always been poor”. This, of course, is no excuse. Good, because it supposedly puts the survival back into survival horror (Zero Punctuation), but I don’t think this is a good thing. What survival horror in a Silent Hill game now means is sparse ammo combined with “realistic” (read: crap) aiming, because as we all know, what could be more scary than not having much ammunition for a gun? Well, okay, almost anything else. The inconvenience of having to use the (better!) melee weapons isn’t scary. Certainly not in this game after the very first bit of gameplay in which you murder a defenceless guy, i.e., a human, brutally with a bit of wood and knife which ends up EMBEDDED IN HIS FUCKING SHOULDER whilst he’s begging you not to kill him. After that, the difference between shooting and melee is that you’ll never shoot anything except annoying ceiling hanging enemies. Is this really what we’ve gotten down to, do we want inconvenience replacing gameplay? Honestly, the system is pretty identical to Silent Hill 3, but with poorer aiming and far, far, clumsier, not in a ‘realism’ way, but in a ‘your character moves forward a foot further than they need to when in the four inch wide window for stabbing a floored monster so you glitch position after the defeating-a-monster animation’ way.
Those monsters by the way, are unimpressive. It seems we have the opposite problem of Homecoming. Where Homecoming had boring character design, but interesting monsters, Downpour has well-drawn and visually pleasing characters, but boring monsters. Take a person, bloody them up a bit. There you go, that’s monster design in Downpour. There are a few exceptions to this. For example, the wheelchair-bound husk is quite visually interesting. (What is it about Downpour and you victimising the physically smaller or weaker?). However, for the largest portion of the game you’ll be up against the same two, the bloodied woman, and the bloodied man – even then, you don’t even meet the male until quite far into the game. Having only two monsters that you see regularly throughout your gameplay is very dull, and even when more monsters are introduced they’re either just variations on the bloodied person deal, or tall elongated people, which I eventually realised were supposed to be giant bat-people things. Problem is they really do just look like long-limbed grey featureless people. They’re also by far the most irritating enemy in the game popping up to the ceiling to avoid your attacks and then performing unblockable attacks on you to knock you to the floor.
The new monsters introduced in the few and far between Otherworld sections are a giant abstract black-red glowly ball that chases you and ignores walls, and a creature that is a rack mounted corpse that writhes in pain and fires organic mess out of a chest cavity. One of these monsters is reasonably interesting and visually appealing and fits the game world, the other – not so much.
It also suffers from difficulty bloat with the monsters taking far too long to kill and being more frustrating than anything else. You can run away from them, which is what I assume the developers were going for by making the encounters tricky, but in all the wrong ways – like the ability the women have to stop you from running away. Besides which there are several sections where you can’t get away so you end up fighting anyway. Whilst it isn’t very popular or fashionable to talk about games being too hard, this follows the recent standard of Easy being what Normal used to be, with Normal now what we used to call hard (let alone the classic Silent Hill games which were considered easy even on release). Adjust what you set it as accordingly.
On one of the positive notes about Downpour, they’ve borrowed the door-opening mechanic from Shattered Memories, but unlike Shattered Memories when you know you’re in danger or not, it actually works quite well within Downpour.
The Otherworld itself looks quite good if a little too abstract at times and has a larger FOV to disorient, as well as being divided into two modes of gameplay. There’s the exploratory / problem-solving bit, and the running away from the chasey monster bit.
The chasey monster bit is exactly what you’d imagine, being in essence the same thing as the chase sequences in Shattered Memories, but with the addition of weird geometry and visual tricks, things like having upside-down rooms, pools of water on walls, staircases that continue to infinity in one direction, but not the other, rooms that extend as you approach their end. That sort of thing. It’s actually pretty cool. Although it is rather too easy to get lost in some of the latter stages.
The exploratory part lets you look at the layout and what’s going on more properly, but the puzzles are very simple, and mostly involve things like finding a valve or picture to rotate.
With the game being called Downpour, the water motif, the drowning motif, and the Otherworld being full of pools of water, waterfalls, and other bodies of water, you’d expect drowning to be a worry, but of course, you can’t actually drown because it wouldn’t fit the game.
Puzzles outside of the Otherworld can get a little more complex, but never too taxing.
The menus have that sort of design where no real improvement happens once you get something working. For example, the menu scrolling is a clunky affair, when you scroll, you have to wait for the animation to finish flipping pages before you can input another page flip. If it had been polished a little more, then four simple d-pad presses would leave you on the last page after a single page-flip animation. A small thing to be sure, but you of course, use your menu notebook all through the game and every time you want to change to the map page you have to scroll to, wait, and then scroll past several pages to get to where you want. This could have been easily solved by having a map button of course. Even scrolling over a page when zoomed in is oddly implemented, you use the right stick to switch thirds of the page to look at rather than simply having the right stick control it directly. Holding down a direction in your inventory menu does nothing, requiring individual presses to scroll through your items.
The clunky unfinished feel is evident in the way your character will snap to area borders too, for which there is no way to cancel. I found myself greeted by a long loading screen more than once by trying to get to a part of an area parallel to the transition section (a window, a ladder, that sort of thing) only to find the game had glitched me about eight Murphy-widths to the right (yes, I measured it) so I climb out of a window that wasn’t previously in front of me. There are a few more problems of a similar kind – it’ll lock you out of areas pointlessly and sometimes quite inconsistently. Sometimes you can break the wooden barriers over things, sometimes you can’t. You can climb over things that are a foot tall, except when you um, can’t. You can step over a tree-trunk, but not that tree-trunk, etc. Oh, and the fog is at varying levels dependant on area and can occasionally look a little odd on transition.
The moral system is a touch confusing too. For a start, what you decide on the (three in about twelve or more hours of gameplay) occasions you can actually make a decision changes absolutely nothing at all story-wise through the game and only, only has an effect on the ending, well, probably. The last moral choice in particular has a Mass Effect / Deus Ex: Human Revolution feeling of Magical Ending Choice System about it with you getting two very different – almost diametrically opposed – endings based on whether or not you retaliate by killing a woman who’s trying to kill you or walk away from the encounter. When I say probably, I mean the other two decisions don’t directly affect anything by themselves instead swaying an in-game counter towards the bad and good set of endings, a counter which is also inexplicably linked to how many monsters you finish off. Not how many monsters you fight, or beat up, or run from, but purely whether or not you finish them off. You can beat them up as much as you like, so long as you don’t kill them. Killing them is so much worse than just kicking the shit out of them that it can make the difference between Murphy drowning his own child with no regret or not in the ending.
Let’s look at the moral decision regarding JP Sater, I won’t spoil it entirely, but you’re given two options console him / taunt him at a point where JP Sater is feeling suicidal. If you select the option ‘console him’, you say “Wait, what do you mean? Just wait a second…!”. Feeling consoled yet?
Other ‘interesting’ things the game does morally speaking is kill off a kid in the sanatorium / monastery / church / orphanage … thing because your character can’t memorise and recite a poem the child himself knows. Your character by the way, has it written down in his notepad. It isn’t all bad, there’s a dream-like sequence where you walk through a chalkboard into a memory of your son which is quite good. And there’s a tram ride sequence which alone is very good featuring miner mannequins which move in the dark between flashes of light, and other cool ghostride-esque stuff followed by a sadly short appearance of one of the few interesting monster-designs, Monocle Man.
The stuff with ‘Bogeyman’ was quite interesting, although I was hoping they’d go for you becoming someone else’s Bogeyman after killing for revenge – perpetuating Silent Hill’s hold and making it more like a viral curse – a way to draw in new people to punish. Instead, for me, they missed the mark a little by going for the monster being you (either literally, or as a manifestation of guilt) and that you’re the equivalent of that which you hate / you are as guilty as that who you blame (Murphy’s Bogeyman is a combination of himself and a murdering paedophile – because murdering a murdering serial paedophile is just as bad as being one). It just misses the mark, if we simply removed the false equivalence and said that revenge murder turns you into someone else’s nightmare (The path to Murphy killing the guy in the intro has more victims than you might suspect), I think it would have worked better.
Mostly, I think it should be written Boogeyman, less reminiscent of snot.
I did really like finding The Room from the woefully underrated Silent Hill 4 and some of the other little references to the other games.
It is however, a step down from Homecoming with prettier graphics and endless make-work gameplay.
The greatest shame though, is that occasionally, very occasionally, Downpour can really shine, if the game were handled with a little more love and attention, the characters fleshed out a little (okay, a lot) more, it wouldn’t have made a bad addition to Silent Hill. People sometimes act like this is an impossibility, but Shattered Memories was a fine, if not brilliant game with good character development, and the same goes for Silent Hill: Origins.
Technical issues completely ruin what would be an otherwise long and underwhelming experience with very sparse flashes of brilliance that make you yearn for a better Silent Hill. If you must play it, stick it in easy and use a guide to make sure you don’t miss anything, watch the unachieved endings on YouTube, and buy Amnesia: The Dark Descent to cheer yourself up afterwards.
p.s. Copy-protecting saves in a single-player game with multiple endings that only uses autosaves is just being dickish.
Also very relevant: Silent Hill – Spot the Difference [Studious Octopus]