Silent Hill Downpour is the eighth core game in the Silent Hill series and it follows Murphy Pendleton as he tries to escape the horrors of the town after his prison-transfer bus crashes nearby. This is the second game released on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 systems and was promised to be a true return to the form and styles of the Team Silent era of games. I had very high hopes for the title after two hands on previews and I’m happy to report that despite some technical flaws the game has lived up to the hype and is one of the best post-Team Silent games to date!
Please note while I do not spoil the story there is a very minor gameplay spoiler for an optional sidequest!
There is a lot to love about Downpour. Top on my list is the excellent thought provoking story by Tom Waltz, who was also responsible for the game’s comic tie in, Silent Hill Past Life, and producers Tomm Hulett and Devin Shatsky. Unlike some of the past post-Team Silent games – like Homecoming - Downpour does not fall into the trap of copying the formula of Silent Hill 2 with Murphy suffering from some sort of amnesia about a violent act. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s safe to say that Murphy has his reasons for being called to the town and it’s not a reason we’ve seen before. His back story and his growth as a character was extremely well told through flashbacks, character interactions, and notes picked up in throughout the game. I felt that I really got to know Murphy and his motivations well before the final act; I empathized with Murphy throughout his entire journey thanks to the bits and pieces I learned about his past as I traveled through town – his character arc was not rushed and crammed into the last 5 minutes of the game. But what I think makes Downpour’s story really stand out is that his reasons for being in town go beyond his inner demons and it provided quite an exciting conclusion…I won’t go more beyond that but you guys are in for a hell of a ride.
Stop startling the birds Murphy!
Speaking of Murphy, I thought that he was one of (if not “the”) best protagonist I’ve played in the series thus far. I haven’t enjoyed playing a character this much in Silent Hill since Heather in Silent Hill 3, and it was due to the fact that Murphy reacted like a real person would in his situation: he’s extremely disturbed, often questions his own sanity, and has sudden outbursts of frustration and fear even during normal game play. Moreover, when he comes across others in the town he does not ignore the fucked up things he’s seen or been though and I found it extremely refreshing to see him lash out at others for being unnecessarily obtuse. For far too long I’ve been annoyed at protagonists in the past who just sat there and let others dance around the huge elephant in the room: the town is messed up, full of monsters, and everyone there is fighting for their lives. Since Murphy’s reactions were so much like my own at times I definitely felt closer to him as a character and really sympathize more with his plight during the game.
One of the best protagonists in my opinion
I thought that Downpour was a huge improvement in the puzzle department – especially when compared to the last two releases. The last Silent Hill game, Shattered Memories, had really lackluster puzzles whose solutions were often as simple as walking around a corner and opening a cabinet to find a key. Homecoming’s were just as unvaried and consisted mainly of one puzzle box after another. In Downpour there’s a range of puzzles types, from the simple turn-a-painting-to-progress to the multi-part fetch quest we often saw in the older games. But what I liked most about the puzzles in Downpour was that, to solve them, you just needed to pay attention to the game environment for a solution. For example, let’s say you need a combination to open a door or a safe. That’s simple enough, but where do you start? In Downpour you may find a code by following a mysterious foot/wheel trail only revealed by your UV flashlight or it could be as simple as replacing a broken power cord to a coffee maker; the game constantly surprises you in that regard. In fact, there was one time during a side-quest in a cinema where I had no idea what I was supposed to do. (Minor Spoiler) I had already fixed a projector and found several film reels but what I played did not reveal the door code I needed to progress. It turns out that Murphy had actually provided the final clue and I simply had not paid attention: when I played one of the first reels he commented on how “real” it looked. I thought it was just an offhand comment but it was a big clue on what I had to do next: touch the film screen and enter the playing reel. (End Minor Spoiler)
Another big plus about the puzzles in Downpour is that you have the option to actually choose the puzzle difficulty. We haven’t had that option for a while now so it was a welcome option in the game. I played through the game on normal difficulty for both action and puzzle and was surprised to find I was stumped a couple times. What’s great about the harder difficulty is that is really makes you work for the solution even if it’s your second time through the game because the items you need are often in completely different areas and there’s a lot less in-game hand holding for the solution. I really think those who’ve missed the hard puzzles from the Team Silent era will be pleasantly surprised by some of the head scratchers Downpour has to offer.
Side quests were fun and creepy
The side-quests and the amount of town exploration was another aspect I really loved about Downpour. This is the first nonlinear Silent Hill title since Silent Hill 2; I really felt I could go and do whatever I wanted once I got to town. The game does not hold your hand and it is up to you to figure out what Murphy’s next move will be. I thought the addition of side-quests was an excellent way to make players want to go out of their way to explore the town and not just stick to the main quest. Sure, many of the side-quests didn’t offer much more than a new weapon, a cool Silent Hill related easter egg, or just some creepy encounters, but overall I felt that they were all worth doing because they really gave me a better understanding about the type of people who reside in Silent Hill. It was also kind of nice to leave Murphy’s own struggles for a little while to help put other lost souls to rest. I really hope that this trend will continue in the future as I felt the 13 side-quests we had in Downpour were really not enough!
Another thing that added to the game experience was the music; Downpour’s music was phenomenal. I had high praise for the soundtrack before playing the game and overall I thought Licht did an excellent job – his score worked very well within the game even if it seemed underused at times. I think what I liked the most (and what I wish would get it’s own CD release) is the collection of licensed music used within the game. I was excited every time I came across a radio and really dug the tracks DJ Bobby Ricks played in the game. I know it’s weird, but hearing real-world songs within the game made the town seem that much more realistic to me. I loved it and I hope it’s done again in the future.
Moving from the positive to the controversial, there’s been a lot talk about Downpour’s combat – both good and bad – and after playing through the game I felt it really didn’t matter much in the end because I basically avoided it when I could. I felt the battle mechanics were a bit better than they have been in previous Silent Hill titles but, just as there was in Homecoming, there was an obvious pattern in defeating the monsters. Most of the time I ran circles around the enemies until I could find an exit just because I didn’t want to break the weapon I was holding; I needed it to chop through a door, pull down a ladder, or dig up the earth. That being said, when I was forced to defend myself, I didn’t find it too overwhelming. So, the bottom line is that if you are looking for a fight you’ll definitely have the opportunity, but the fights are not constant and you have ample room to flee if desired… at least until the last level. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was pretty disappointed that the last level was essentially one large brawl fest, which forced me into constant combat similar to what is found in Homecoming. It was really jarring given that I had spent 80% of the game focused on not fighting.
As for the breakable weapons and limited inventory, I did not find it that bad until I was trying to complete all the side quests. It’s realistic that Murphy can only carry one melee weapon at a time, but it was sure was annoying when I had to double back and search the streets for a shovel or a hooked weapon because I could not progress without one which meant I had to leave my more powerful fire ax behind. I also thought it was unfortunate that Murphy couldn’t use a variety of weapons to do the same job. For example, I see that I need to pull down a ladder to enter an open window, but it’s “too high” for Murphy to jump and grab so I need a hooked weapon to bring it down. That’s fine, but is there a reason why he can’t use the hooked shape of his ax blade to bring down the ladder? It was a little annoying that I had to have one, specific weapon when it was obvious that similar weapons could also get the job done. Also, it was pretty pathetic that Murphy could barely jump two inches in those situations. The ladders really should have been placed higher to make his need for a tool more believable.
Speaking of the inventory and weapons, one of my complaints with Downpour is not knowing whether I was picking up an item or a weapon. It was very frustrating, thinking I’ve stumbled on a note, when it was only a chair off to the side… or a rock, but Murphy would dutifully drop his current (and often more powerful) weapon to pick them up. It would have been super helpful if there were some kind of separate pick-up indicator to reduce the times I accidental picked up a new weapon. And, while we are on the subject of Murphy dropping what he is holding to pick up something new, it drove me crazy that if I’m holding a melee weapon and I try to pick up a firearm, Murphy would drop his melee weapon on the floor instead of just automatically putting the firearm on his back. Yeah, I know that’s nitpicking a bit, but it drove me crazy trying to pick up a firearm in the mist of battle and drop my current melee weapon only to have to pick it up again a second later.
Dropping weapons brings up another interesting bit with Downpour: there are times when you will lose not only your weapons, but your flashlight as well. In several areas of the game I was forced to depend on a lighter as a light source and scramble to find a melee weapon so I wouldn’t be unprotected. Forcing us to use a lighter as a light source was a nice nod to the original Silent Hill and it was an interesting experience since the camera would pull in close. I felt really vulnerable to attack so it was as excellent way to bump up the game’s tension. The UV Flashlight was another interesting addition to the game in that it forced us to look for clues in the environment that were invisible to the naked eye. It was really creepy to follow a blood trail into the scene of a violent act and it provided an interesting way to hide extra content for fans to find and read.
Downpour’s environments shines with the little details
When it came to dealing with all that content, one of the big highlights for me was Murphy’s notebook; it contained all the notes and maps he picked up in-game. I loved the little notes he made while in the middle of side quests about what he needed to do next and I loved the personality of each note and map you picked up in the game. No two pages looked exactly alike: pages are torn, there are stains, and other things are taped together. I found it not only fun to read the content of the note but enjoyed the graphic design behind it as well… although my day-job as a graphic designer may have something to do with that.
I thought the graphics in Downpour were very nice. Sure, there were some obvious repeats in textures, like the same grime on windows, but overall I felt this game was a big step up graphically from Homecoming – notorious for its globby hair models and reuse of the same dang skinned torso everywhere. Downpour isn’t perfect though; there’s a lot of texture popping when loading a new area or even a cut scene, which I found distracting even if it only lasted a few seconds. I’ve heard this is a consequence of using the Unreal Engine so I’m hoping if Vatra tackles another Silent Hill game with the same engine they will find ways to make this texture load work a bit more smoothly.
Even with the graphic issues, there were some really pretty, detailed, and interesting environments to explore like the Centennial Building, which contains gobs of reading material on the town’s past; however, on the whole, I found the look of the town rather bland. There were too many residential areas where the buildings were just gray and boarded up, and alleyways with only a few interesting stores to look at. I realize that not having enough interesting store fronts is nitpicking on my part as the actual architecture of the buildings throughout the town is diverse. It makes sense that there isn’t a lot of stores because the area of Silent Hill that Murphy explores is not supposed to be a tourist attraction like it is across the lake. I hope that when we return to Silent Hill we will go back to the business districts just so we can look at more cool store signage.
One of the things I did enjoy about Downpour’s town is that it actually looks lived in, with trash littering the streets and some decor within the building, which is a big improvement over Homecoming’s primarily empty buildings and too-clean streets. The environments seemed alive even if they were deserted: walking through the trees you could watch leaves fall to the ground, flies buzzed over rotten food, and within dark buildings rays of light would shine through the windows. It was in portraying these little details that I thought the town in this game really shined.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the creature designs in Downpour. They were too generic looking for my tastes – probably due to all of them being humanoid in appearance. I really thought these designs were a big step backward as the roster in Homecoming and Origins were more varied and more in line with the disturbing quality expected in a Silent Hill game.
As for the Otherworld, I was impressed by what I saw and I loved the endless staircases and the flipped rooms. The water theme was incorporated very well and it proved that you don’t need to have fire and rust to have a creepy Silent Hill Otherworld. My only disappointment with these areas was the Void-chase sequences. I felt that I missed out on a lot of disturbing scenery because it felt like I was continually running away from this enemy. I would have preferred to deal with random enemy encounters then have this guy constantly on my ass. One positive I found, though, was that going the wrong way during a chase sequence did not mean instant death. It was awesome that the area looped into itself giving me a chance to go down the right path without having to die over and over again just because I made one wrong turn.
The Void was annoying.
Another aesthetic I thought Downpour did very well was breaking the 4th wall to make you paranoid in the safety of your own home. You expect to be creeped out by the disturbing situations Murphy finds himself in but it was certainly a surprise to have the game suddenly go from giving you helpful gaming tips in the loading screen to telling you “We are all slowly dying,” that “they never loved you” and to “STOP DOING THAT!”
As much as I liked Downpour, even I have to admit there were some bad design decisions and technical problems that bog the game down. One of the main technical issues I had playing on the Xbox 360 was with the frame rate stuttering, which I didn’t notice until I explored Silent Hill past the Centennial Building. And it continued to get worse outdoors the longer I played in one sitting – restarting the game reduced the lag a little bit. I’ve heard that downloading the game to the Xbox hard drive also eased this problem somewhat, but I haven’t tried it myself. I’ve heard varying reports from other fans about the severity of this frame rate problem on the Playstation 3. Some have said it was so bad it would cause the game to freeze and force a hard reset while others stated it was more like my own experience: annoying but not game-breaking. This is a real big downer as the game is pretty excellent overall; there should be no reason for this sort of lag. I really hope Konami will put out a patch to solve this issue in the future.
Another annoying technical aspect was how the game auto saved everywhere. Other fans have noticed that the lag was especially bad for them every time the game saved a checkpoint. Personally, I think the game would have been a whole lot better if I could have saved at a normal save point like we did in Silent Hill games past. This auto save mechanic was super frustrating when trying to collect all the mysteries because I often realized too late that I had forgotten one in a previous location and had no way to return to that point easily because all the auto saves since that point had filled in the available slots. It also prevented me from loading older games because the automatic save would write over older saves as you went further along in the game. You were essentially forced to stay within the same 10-20 min of gameplay at any given time, which I found way too limiting.
There were also a couple of times when I wasn’t sure where the game had actually saved. Sure, there’s an icon that pops up, but there were times when I shut off my console directly after watching a cutscene where a save icon had popped up, but when I came back to the game later, I found I had to recollect a bunch of items and re-watch the cut scene because the game didn’t really save my progress; it just had only created a check point. I really hope the next title will go back to the old way and use a save spot method.
And speaking of rewatching cutscenes, why wasn’t a skip button included? I realize game makers want us to sit and watch their cutscenes but when I’m playing the game for the second or third time it’s ridiculous that I’m force to watch the story play out again, and again… and again. The previous Silent Hill games allowed us to skip them and I say taking that option away was a big step in the wrong direction.
Another small annoyance I had was when the game would suddenly go into a fixed camera mode. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this as it is a nice nod to the play style of games past, but it drove me nuts because whenever this happened Murphy would no longer be able to run. This was incredibly annoying when I found myself having to go back an forth several fixed camera rooms in the Centennial Building. If you want to sprinkle in the fixed camera, that’s fine, just allow us the same mobility please!
Not impressed by the monster designs
I also took issue with there being no key for the in-game map in the instruction manual or in-game. Normally I wouldn’t need a key, the marks on the paper are mostly self-explanatory, but I was super confused what the little question marks Murphy wrote meant when I first played. I see now that they indicated the location of a sidequest or an interesting area, but I was really confused for a while – especially since the question marks did not go away after the completion of the side quest in the area. Also: the game sorely needs a quick-map button! Hitting select then manually flipping back and forth through Murphy’s notebook to get to get a quick look at the map got real old real fast.
For all the negatives, there was a technical feature I was pretty wowed by: the ability to play the game 3-D. I have never played a 3-D game before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the game looked and how smoothly it ran. I figured that with all the lag problems I had playing the game normally the gameplay would have suffered even worse while in 3-D mode, but the opposite seemed to be the case; if anything, it seemed to me like it ran better. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that some of the stuff that slows the game down during normal gameplay was scaled back a bit in an effort to compensate for the 3-D mode… maybe? I don’t think I could play the entire game this way since watching things in 3-D strains my eyes, but I think those who prefer a 3-D experience will be pretty thrilled with how well it was implemented in the game. The 3-D mode was not just a cheap gimmick!
Despite the technical issues, I enjoyed my experience with Silent Hill Downpour immensely as it really brought the series back to its roots with a focus on exploration and an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking story. It only would have needed some small gameplay design tweeks and some technical issues resolved to have been perfect…in fact, out of the 8 Silent Hill games, I would rank Downpour in my top 3; if you haven’t checked it out yet, Downpour is definitely worth a playthrough.