What’s more important to you? Story or mechanics? Atmosphere or gameplay? For the majority of gamers out there, a mechanically solid videogame can still be hugely enjoyable even if the story and direction have come straight out of the Uwe Boll school of storytelling. Call of Duty, Gears of War and a host of other AAA releases have gone on to sell millions upon millions of copies despite telling the kind of unimaginative, cliché-fuelled tales that wouldn’t cut the mustard with even the most adolescent of movie directors. So, what happens when the shoe is on the other foot? What if the mechanics are ropey but the story and characters are all hugely compelling? Well, that’s the reality of Silent Hill: Downpour – a game that is home to a great story, a brilliantly creepy atmosphere, but equally, some of the most unwieldy mechanics found in a major release this generation. Can you overlook dated, poorly conceived gameplay in light of such an interesting gameworld? I really hope so, as despite its obvious shortcomings, Silent Hill: Downpour is a game that really deserves to be experienced, one that bravely flies the flag for the ever dwindling numbers of traditional survival horror videogames out there.
Ok, so, before we go any further, let’s just dive straight into Downpour’s biggest problem: the combat. I appreciate that a true survival horror experience is supposed to make you feel relatively weak, but here, your weaknesses and subsequent failings do not feel in any way linked to either human inadequacies or overwhelming odds, but instead come from ones constant struggle to fall in line with the game’s dated and downright awkward core mechanics. Sure, Silent Hill 2 was great, even with its clunky combat and awkward controls, but 1) that was released over a decade ago, and 2) despite its many positives, Silent Hill: Downpour is no Silent Hill 2. You can actually finish the game without killing a single enemy (there’s even an Achievement for doing so), but the fact of the matter is, most gamers, myself included, do want to partake in the occasional bout of monster bashing.
Sadly, thanks to a combination of slow attacks and an awkwardly mapped control scheme, fighting against even the most basic of enemies soon becomes a horribly challenging chore. He may be an everyday man, but I’m sure most human beings could swing a stick a stick with more proficiency than clumsy ass Murphy Pendleton. While the mechanics for the remainder of the experience just about hold their own, things tend to fall apart once again when met with a breakable lock – 3, 4, 5 swings – I often found nothing but air. Without a decent lock-on mechanic (the lock-on mechanic for guns is bloody useless), doing something as simple as smashing a lock with a brick can quickly turn into a hair-pullingly frustrating experience. Needless to say, it simply isn’t good enough.
Phew! Now, with that out of the way, I can get down to what the Czech-based, Vatra Games have done right…..which happens to be, just about everything else. That fact that Downpour isn’t ruined by the horrible controls really is testament to just how great the remainder of the experience really is. The story, the characters, the audio – it’s all top notch. Ok, so it’s not exactly ground breaking from a visual perspective but the attention to detail really highlights Downpour’s first class production values while the art design gets that classic, Silent Hill vibe down to an absolute tee. Yes, there are some issues with the framrate (often at the most random and unexpected of times), but for the most part, Downpour truly looks like the next generation Silent Hill we had all been hoping for back when the 360 was unveiled in 2005. It may not be doing anything particularly new with the genre, or the series for that matter, but as a classic Silent Hill experience, Downpour certainly fits the bill.
While fans of the series will certainly be happy with Vetra’s commitment to classic Silent Hill gameplay, newcomers might not be so keen on the rather antiquated design. As much as I love searching the fog-filled streets of Silent Hill, gamers used to be a big arrow pointing them towards the next objective might well become frustrated with Downpour’s relative lack of assistance. The fact of the matter is, you will get lost in Silent Hill. Just like previous entries in the series, there will be points throughout Downpour’s ample running time in which you will find yourself wandering around the streets, marking off sections of the map in a trial and error bid to find the next objective. Some will love this objective ambiguity, others will hate it, but there’s no doubting that it’s refreshing to find a modern videogame confident enough to leave you to your own devices.
Silent Hill and the surrounding areas look great, the scares are solid and some of the set-pieces are nigh on exceptional (an underground train ride and a section set in and around a children’s production of Hansel and Gretel are particularly ace). Sadly, the same can’t be said for the enemy design. While not particularly poor in any way, in comparison with the best that the series has to offer (Pyramid Head et al), there is nothing to be found in Downpour that is nearly as memorable or horrifying. Rather than the more outlandish enemy design found in previous entries, Downpour opts to play it safe with largely human like enemies to take down. They’re all plenty gruesome, but none have that ability to weird you out like those little baby things from the first Silent Hill…….God damn those were some creepy babies!
Luckily, as disappointing as the enemies may be, the same cannot be said of the human cast members. Murphy Pendleton proves one of the more interesting protagonists that the series has delivered, offering up a genuinely fascinating tale that will help to push you through some of Downpour’s more cumbersome moments. The supporting cast too, while sparingly used, provide consistently memorable cameos as their roles in your ‘adventure’ are slowly drip-fed as you progress. The story doesn’t offer up anything particularly ground breaking, but the characters and delivery are both consistently compelling, making the lack of anything truly revelatory much easier to bear.
Many have obviously voiced their concerns at the games’ loss of legendary sound designer, Akira Yamaoka, but honestly, the audio design throughout more than holds its own. If you hadn’t been told Akira Yamaoka hadn’t worked on Downpour, chances are, you’d probably think he had. Like its predecessors, Downpour’s audio design once again stands out as one of the series’ finest features and continues to affect the gameplay and mood to a greater degree than perhaps any other game out there. What could be little more than a characterless corridor under normal circumstances is brought to life by the constantly unnerving audio and the sense of dread that subsequently envelopes every inch of Downpour’s game world.
Thanks to its exemplary audio/visual design, its compelling leading man and intriguing supporting cast, Downpour manages to overcome its technical shortcoming in a way few games manage. Like its predecessors, it’s a bit of a shit to play, but equally, just as with the very best examples of the series, Downpour is a game more than worthy of your time. It’s a return to classic survival horror and, like it or loathe it, a return to an experience that delivers a constant sense of powerlessness as you combat gruesome enemies, the horrifying control scheme, and the always distrubing Silent Hill itself. It’s not for everyone and it’s certainly far from perfect, but for a particular type of gamer, a return to the foggy streets of Silent Hill will prove just the ticket.
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