Journal Entry: Sun Apr 1, 2012, 4:51 PM
So I've been playing Silent Hill Downpour for the PS3, the newest entry in the venerable Silent Hill series of survival-horror video games. It is thematically unique among video games, where it is a game mainly about suspense and atmosphere that purports to have a tight sense of dramatic pacing. For huge parts of the game, nothing happens, but it knows just when to scare you with some kind of shambling monstrosity, and this is usually something you dread, because the games tend to also feature a deliberately simplistic combat system. Your character is usually (and I stress the term usually) not a good combatant, so your only means of defense is to whack the dangerous ghoul over the head until it falls down. Health items are also commonplace but not abundant; you'll find just enough to be worried that you don't have enough.
For the reader's convenience, this journal is split into two parts: a retrospective of the Silent Hill series in general, its importance to gaming, and its recent ups and downs, to establish what Silent Hill Downpour was expected to live up to. The second part concerns Silent Hill Downpour itself. Read whichever one you feel is most pertinent to your interests. There may be spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution.
Silent Hill 2 and 3, released in 2001 and 2003 respectively, were considered the series' high points. One of the elements about the series that allows it to rise above the usual horror game is in its setting, and your hero's relation to it. Silent Hill, as you start into it, just seems like an unusually foggy, deserted town. As you explore it, though, the town starts to become quite strange: spatial relations in various rooms and buildings start to warp (you could go through a door in a basement and end up on a rooftop), the town starts to feel like its guiding you in a certain direction with roadblocks and people you have to follow, and the town becomes considerably gory at some points, like you've walked into a giant flesh wound. Eventually, as you find out more about your playable character, you come to realize that Silent Hill seems to be pulling up their deepest regrets about who they are and what they've done with their life, and forces them to confront them in the form of particular monsters. Even from the start, people make a conscious decision to come to Silent Hill to quell an inner demon once and for all, and the town feels like it's happy to oblige them.
This has been an irresistible, compelling experience for many gamers that want to be challenged in ways other than just the game itself being difficult, and exists as an extremely unique series in gaming culture. Such a level of uniqueness is hard to maintain, though, and Silent Hill 4: The Room was already on the slip. Rather than your character being drawn to Silent Hill for a reason, he's sucked into it unwillingly in a sort of abstract scenario: he can't leave his apartment, but various holes appear in his wall that lead to various parts of Silent Hill. I haven't entirely figured out why this happens; it has something to do with some kind of evil cult, which seems a bit like the game is straining to explain, rather unnecessarily, how Silent Hill "makes snese". It was an appreciable effort to try and flesh out what Silent Hill is and how it works, but it affected the game's atmosphere.
By this point, the Silent Hill series fell from the hands of Konami's internal Japanese development team, which had broken up to work on various other projects. We couldn't get enough of the creepy little burg, though, so Konami agreed to carry on the series with other developers.
This is where things start to come apart.
The fifth installment in the series, Silent Hill Homecoming, was passed on to a new American developer, Double Helix Games. I name the developer's nationality as a point of interest because I get the impression certain countries do horror differently. Japanese horror movies are ones like The Grudge or The Ring, where the horror is usually more supernatural and psychological in nature, preying more on the victim's fear through intimidation and a sense of hopeless dread. Contrast to American horror of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th variety, which banks more on the sense of your life being in danger because of a violent psychopath, not necessarily supernatural in nature, and playing off the much more basic fear of being killed with a chainsaw. Both have their own merits, but it's hard to make one become the other.
And this was the general failing of Silent Hill Homecoming: its story, character, and general milieu were based more on American horror, where huge slobbering monsters would leap out at you and hope to catch you off-guard, rather than lumber towards you with the sickening dread that, eventually, you'll have to deal with it. This was further hampered by the fact that your character is now a trained marine, so he is good at combat, which takes away from the game's generally oppressive atmosphere. It feels more like a standard action game in a creepier than usual setting. The town doesn't seem actively malevolent, it just seems like a creepy town full of monsters. It smacks a lot of that terribly average Silent Hill movie that came out at around the same time, speaking of American-style horror.
A more specific criticism could be that the developers seemed just so damned excited to be allowed to take a crack at Silent Hill, that they decided to cram their version of it full of things they liked from the previous games, at the expense of the pacing and subtlety that made those games so effective. For instance, rather than the setting gradually becoming more hellish and defying physical laws as you progressed, the game instead goes into "hellish mode" at certain intervals in the plot, usually announced by a siren. As well, certain enemies cameo from the earlier games, and considering those enemies were physical reflections of the inner turmoils of the main character from those games, their place in this new game doesn't make sense. The game laid it all on pretty thick, is what I'm saying.
Following this, the series fiddled around with various other undertakings, among which include Silent Hill Origins, a prequel, and and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a remake of the first game. Both were developed by UK-based Climax Studios and held their own well enough, but felt a bit rote. Overall, though, they upheld Silent Hill's qualities well.
SILENT HILL DOWNPOUR
Which leads us to 2012's newest addition to the series proper, Silent Hill Downpour. It's got a lot to say for itself: it stars a new character who is a convict that stumbles into Silent Hill when his prison bus crashes, it's a new story independent of the plot of any of the other games, and it has been handed over to a new developer, Vatra Games, based in the Czech Republic.
Wait, a developer from eastern Europe is helming Silent Hill now? Intriguing, to say the least...
The game relies less on fog and darkness than previous titles, and uses a more over-the-shoulder perspective, as opposed to the more crane-shot view used by previous games. This makes the setting look more realistic, but still claustrophobic. As the title suggests, it relies more on rain than fog. The rain creates an interesting tension in the game where when it starts raining, more monsters come out and they become more aggressive. I sort of wish this was more effectively utilized, though, since later in the game, you spend most of the time indoors, out of the rain.
There are less monster types, but each one presents unique challenges, from the "Witches" that would stun you with a loud scream before attacking, to the "Thugs", burly, convict-conditioned types that don't go down easy, to the "Mannequins" which can't be physically attacked; you'll see what I mean when you encounter them. The environments are impressive, from huge dilapidated buildings which look like they've caved in from the roof all the way to the basement, to the ancient mines filled with old, water- and steam-powered machinery.
There are interesting new solutions to puzzles, as well. In the past, boarded-up doors in Silent Hill meant you could never go in there, but now, you can find fire axes that can break the boards down and allow you to enter, and many of the puzzles don't rely so heavily on the "find this and put it in that" or "remember the number sequence" riddles the games previously relied on; often, the solutions of the puzzles had to be deduced by finding various notes and clues left around the environments.
The way that the game treats the hellish, reality-bending nature of Silent Hill is also, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. You'll often see it coming, but you won't know quite what the game is going to do. In one part of the game, you find a derelict auditorium, and to progress, you have to follow a script you found elsewhere in the level. When you re-enacted the play in the correct order, raising the curtains and putting out the right sets, the set actually came to life in the darkness, and you have to walk through a dark, rainy forest to get the item you need to progress. Many of the hellish environments also evoke strong setpieces with recurring themes, such as a rocking chair, a record player that plays the song "Born Free", a sickly man in a wheelchair, and other strange manifestations. These environments can vary from slow, unsettling puzzles to fast-paced, nerve-racking chases, and they're so dramatically expansive and unusual, they're amazing just to look at, and to figure out just how you got there.
There are flaws, though. The frame rate often chokes, but never so much as to interfere with the game, the lighting engine is often pretty appalling, and some of the puzzles can be guessed just as easily as figured out. The game also tends to rely on the same few terrors every so often, including a black hole-like hazard that appears way too often to be very scary. Bizarre enemy designs like Pyramid Head and the nurses are also replaced by more conventional monsters like one called (I'm totally serious here) "The Bogeyman", which is just a large man in a gas mask and a heavy black raincoat. I guess it makes more sense as an eastern-European sort of monster, and its probably better than just designing a slightly different Pyramid Head, but... come on. Though to be fair, his purpose in the game's plot transcends his conventional design.
The plot is also very sharp, and adds some new elements to Silent Hill's mythos without feeling forced. Usually, Silent Hill tends to deal with just one person at a time in manifesting his or her inner demons, but in this game, it seems to be two: you, and an aggressive prison guard who was on the prison bus with you. Your inner demons relate very closely to her own demons, and seem to be dealt with in the same sort of events. The cop's anger with you comes off as a little cheesy at times (I've often compared her to the "hot cop" character from the Silent Hill movie) but her motives eventually justify her actions.
All in all, this felt like a game developed by an inexperienced team that were nonetheless trying their best, and had some really good things to offer. This game is an effective modernization of a series that peaked in 2001, and though it's a bit rough around the edges, at least it doesn't feel as incredibly forced as Homecoming.
The odd thing is, critics have been eviscerating this game like crazy, and I can't figure out why. They've made it seem like the frame rate was calling their mother a whore and, for some reason, crying foul on the stiff combat, even though one of the worst flaws of Homecoming was its tight combat. Apparently some of the more disturbing excursions to the otherworld weren't enough to make these critics well-disposed to the game, and instead of saying they were brilliant enough that they made the game worth playing, they said they showed how disappointing and not worth playing the rest of the game was; a pretty back-handed compliment, if you ask me. The more negative reviews maintain a strange doublethink where they wish certain elements that are key to Silent Hill would be "fixed", like the combat and exploration, but lament other changes, like the new music composer. The more positive reviews are optimistic about what Downpour did right, and believe they can make up for some of the things the game did wrong. I hope Konami is still pleased with the game and gives Vatra another chance, because with this experience behind them and a less demanding development cycle (the game was delayed a few times), I think they could make one HELL of a Silent Hill game!
WHAT'S NEXT FOR SILENT HILL?
It looks to be a big year for Silent Hill after a period of latency, between an HD re-release of Silent Hill 2 and 3, the release of Downpour, and the release of a new movie, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, which already sounds destined to be pretty awful with a title like that, but never mind. A more surprising addition to the series is a PlayStation Vita game called Silent Hill: Book of Memories. It has a lot of odd new elements to the series, including an isometric gameplay perspective, co-operative gameplay, and a more multiplayer action emphasis. These all sound like pretty big red flags, but the most interesting thing about the new game I think is a very promising sign for it: it's being developed by one of my favourite game companies, WayForward Technologies.
WayForward has made a lot of games that have often been good, and usually pretty interesting. Many of their games have had many different kinds of appeal, including the well-received Contra 4, the cult favourite Shantae: Risky's Revenge, the surprisingly charming Wii version of A Boy and His Blob, and a few darlings of the DS eShop, including Mighty Switch Force and Mighty Milky Way. Even their licensed games have aspired to be pretty unique, such as Looney Tunes: Duck Amuck and Aliens: Infestation, and they've recently been tapped to make an Adventure Time game. These guys know how to do interesting re-imaginings, and when they say they've got an idea for a more action-oriented, multiplayer Silent Hill, I trust they're going to pull it off pretty well.
Listening to: The audiobook of Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Reading: Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
Watching: The Wolfman
Playing: Silent Hill: Downpour
Eating: Need to go grocery shopping