Silent Hill: Downpour Review (Xbox360)

With a new developer and a shift towards a more action-oriented approach, it’s no wonder that so many met the news of Silent Hill: Downpour with muted indifference. Indeed it’s impossible to even call Silent Hill a great series at this point, with the brilliance of Silent Hill 2 all but forgotten in a slew of updates, semi-remakes and disappointing sequels. When handled correctly though, there’s something genuinely chilling and claustrophobic about the misty desolation in those deserted and intrigue-filled streets, and it’s to our almost complete surprise that Downpour makes a decent stab at extracting a suitable level of atmosphere from its iconic location.

It’s a game that puts its best foot forwards from the outset. You play as Murphy Pendleton, a convict incarcerated for reasons unknown, and initially tasked with murdering one of your fellow inmates in a steamy shower room. At this stage you’ll find little justification for the act that you’re about to undertake, and indeed some folk may even find the proceeding violence distasteful in the extreme. Your target is slovenly, unarmed and no match for your physical abilities, and the resultant battle is an uncomfortable grapple with no obvious reason for the murder that takes place under your command.

The otherworld remains a prominent feature

There’s a reason for that however. Through a series of decisions made shortly after this incident and throughout the main storyline, Murphy’s back-story is gradually fleshed out, and he can be given a personality and shaped somewhat to your liking. If you want to be a badass stone-cold killer then you push him in that direction, but if you want to introduce an element of humanity then that’s also absolutely possible. It’s an interesting blank canvas approach to allowing the player to layer a few of their own projections onto the character - albeit filtered through some fairly obvious good or evil moral choices. The end of the game takes into account the decisions that you make along the way, and there are decent payoffs in the cutscenes - although each choice frequently result in the same consequence with a different method of approach.

Of course the real meat of Downpour is still hung from traditional survival-horror hooks, and - following a request for a prison transfer - it’s only a short coach ride and a disastrous crash before Murphy finds himself drawn into the town that launched a thousand nightmares.

There’s a decent flow to the gameplay that Downpour offers up once you get into the thick of things (the initial stages are set in an eerily Alan Wake-style forest area, before descending into the town itself), and in general the puzzles are neatly put together without too much in the way of annoying obfuscation or abstract solutions. You’ll spend much of your time creeping around dimly-lit corridors, picking up items, reading notes for clues and solving basic riddles, whilst the environmental design offers up a decently foreboding atmosphere. It’s no Silent Hill 2 mind you, but there was a genuine sense of unease playing through Downpour, and the hairs were raised on the back of my neck on more than a few occasions.

There’s an uneasy atmosphere throughout

Asides from the creepy environment (Silent Hill has been altered in layout somewhat, which aides with the unease), a big part of that emotional impact stems directly from the character and visual design, which does a good job of drawing you into the action. Murphy himself is well-voiced and an intriguingly enigmatic and mysterious presence, and you’ll likely want to finish the main plot just to discover his character arc more than anything else. The other characters in the story and residents of the town are decently fleshed-out and offer up some interesting sidelines, with each gradually revealing their own demons - for better or worse.

Of course there had to be a few technical spanners in the works to throw the experience off-course somewhat, and with Downpour almost all of those are related to its clunky combat system and an engine that frequently dips into single-digit framerates.

The act of taking on the various enemies in Silent Hill has always been a balancing act between wresting power away from the player and ensuring that they can still forge their way forwards with effort, but Downpour relies far too heavily on a melee system that feels slow and unresponsive at the best of times. The titular downpour system fortifies your enemies and makes them more numerous whenever it rains, meaning that retreat or avoidance is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately that’s probably the best tactic whenever possible, as defeating your foes can be a grind.

There’s a lack of visual and audio feedback when striking enemies, and - as ever - gunplay is rarefied but lacking in satisfaction whenever you do get the chance to aim down a barrel. There are a lot of enemies to take on throughout the main storyline, and it’s a shame that more wasn’t done to improve the basic act of swinging a plank of wood or a hammer. There are a lot of weapons that look like they should be satisfying to use, but few actually are.

Health and safety might have a few issues here

On the periphery of this, long-term players may also note a change in music composer to Dexter’s Daniel Licht, and although some have complained about the title sequence lacking its traditional impact as a result, for my money that wasn’t the case at all. Indeed, if there was anybody that could have done a decent job at approaching the emotive acoustic chords of Akira Yamaoka it would have been Licht, and to my ears that certainly proved to be the case.

Despite those reservations (and let’s face it, combat has never been brilliant in Silent Hill), Downpour is somewhat surprising. It’s a decent stab at resurrecting the atmosphere and sense of foreboding that the series was once known for, and if it wasn’t for those frequent technical hitches, it could well have been one of the best in the series. As it stands, it’s a very, very good survival horror title, and certainly worth investigating if you’ve a penchant for being scared witless.

Best Game Moment: The tram ride to... salvation?

Format Played: PlayStation 3

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