I didn’t have high hopes for Silent Hill Downpour. As such, I didn’t buy it new. I waited two weeks, bought it used off ebay, and finished it over a weekend. Sadly, pretty much all of my pre-release expectations turned out to be true.
Upon booting up the game, I was immediately given mixed opinions about the game. There was a mandatory install, which fortunately only took a few minutes, but which is always an annoying thing to sit through (except for Metal Gear Solid 4, which managed to make it somewhat amusing). After the install though, I was treated to a stylish title screen with new composer Daniel Licht’s enjoyable title track (though I could do without the obnoxious Halloween "scary sounds").
Then the game starts, and the very first thing you do as the new main character, prison inmate Murphy Pendleton, is murder a defenseless fellow inmate during a combat tutorial that takes place in the prison showers. Murphy clearly has some beef with this fellow inmate (named Napier), and it seems like Napier probably deserved it, but murdering a defenseless person in cold blood is hardly what I’d expect from a Silent Hill game.
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Combat so clumsy, it makes Silent Hill 2 look like Soul Caliber
This opening scene does expose one of the game’s greatest faults right from the start: a combat system that is horribly clumsy—even for Silent Hill’s standards.
As far as I can tell, each weapon has only one type of attack, and almost all combat in the game consists of swinging wildly at enemies in the almost vain hope that you’ll hit them. Napier doesn’t fight back in the opening scene, but he can still be hard to hit and you have to chase him around the shower. Later in the game, when enemies start fighting back, you’ll fall into a pretty straightforward pattern of: blocking the enemy’s initial two or three attacks; following up with your own one or two attacks; blocking again as they attack you two or three more times; repeat.
With no alternate thrusting, lunging, or charge attacks, combat with one enemy is boring and monotonous. When they start attacking you in groups, or other environmental hazards start getting in the way, it quickly degrades into frustration.
Fighting (or running) for survival
The primary novelty of Downpour’s combat is the restriction that your character can only carry one firearm and one additional weapon at any given time. This means that as you explore the town, you’ll be picking up random junk off the ground to use as weapons. Possible melee weapons range from chairs to broken rail banisters, to crowbars, to throwable tool boxes, to hand axes. These weapons will eventually break, which will force the player to scramble to try to find a replacement; although, Murphy can also punch if he’s desperate enough.
Frantically looking for a new weapon to combat monsters is a positively stressful part of combat. Actually fighting them once you have a weapon is annoying.
This limitation does create a sense of anxiety and a feeling of fighting for survival, and is a welcome mechanic in the horror genre. It helps to make your character feel alone and vulnerable since you’re not empowered by having your pick of a dozen weapons sitting in your inventory. Most of the weapons will even degrade in steps, with some parts breaking off little-by-little, so you’ll know you’re weapon is in bad shape before it becomes completely unusable.
Adding to the sense of vulnerability is the fact that ammo for guns and health items are also pretty scarce. And even if you have ammo, guns are not very reliable. The targeting reticule is just a tiny dot that shakes around as you’re aiming. It’s incredibly hard to hit enemies with a gun. The fog means you won’t even see them until they’re within throwing distance. They’ll often weave from side to side as they approach. And they can often close to melee distance pretty rapidly. Since your damage is retained cummulatively (no ducking behind boxes or walls to heal up after a few seconds), you probably won’t want to risk missing a shot and taking damage.
You will likely find yourself running away from monsters more often than fighting them, and this is exactly what the developers wanted. They managed to find a nice middle-ground between the over-empowered, heavily-armed characters from past games and the frustratingly-defenseless (but somewhat scary) chase sequences from Shattered Memories.
I don’t mind feeling weak and vulnerable, and I was very glad that the character’s health was cumulative, because these things can actually be beneficial in a horror game. But the lack of offensive options and the overall lack of control that the player has in combat just makes combat feel annoying and frustrating rather than frightening or entertaining.
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Weathering the storms in Silent Hill
Fighting monsters isn’t the only thing you’ll be doing in Downpour. Silent Hill is now an "open world" town in which the player can follow different paths to their destinations and can even attempt to solve any of a dozen side quests.
As you make your way to your intended destinations in Silent Hill, you’ll have to deal with the weather as well. Although the clouds and fog will be ever-present, storms will come and go dynamically. When the rain starts to fall, and the town becomes stormier and stormier, the monsters will become more frequent and more violent. Or so the game's loading screens claim. I never had a problem. When this happens, you may want to take shelter in an open building, or you can stay outside and call the game's bluff (as I did).
Pointless side quests
Murphy: "Just point the way out of town and I'll keep going."
... But not until I spend six hours going back and forth across town doing random, mundane shit.
But you won’t just be sitting around staring out a window (all the windows are too dirty to see out of anyway). Most of the buildings in the game can be explored to find ammo, health kits, and various side quests. Side quests tend to be simple item-fetching puzzles. Sound cues and/or a "Press X to Open Inventory" prompt will always tell you when and where an item is supposed to be placed, so these puzzles generally don’t require much mental exertion on the part of the player; although some of them may suck quite a bit of time.
Unfortunately, almost all of that time is a complete waste. It’s pretty boring to do, isn’t intellectually stimulating, and just takes up time.
Only three or four side quests are "on the way". All the rest require the player to explore well out of their way or backtrack across town for no reason other than to complete the quests. Murphy has no real reason to even want to do any of the side quests. In fact, taking the time to do these side quests is actually directly contrary to Murphy’s desire to just get out of town. The only reasons the user has to do them are for the meta-game expectations of getting rewards or influencing the game’s ending (which they don't). Few (if any) of the side-quests really relate to the game’s main plot, provide any worthwile information about Murphy, or offer any backstory for the town or the series as a whole; and none of them have any effect on the game's narrative or ending. They’re just Achievement/Trophy bait.
There’s a subway system in place to speed up your movement across town for the purpose of completing side quests, but the game’s narrative isn’t really long enough and is too linear to really accommodate such a mechanic. On my first playthrough, I never even was able to use the subway system because it was blocked off, and I never did the side quest that unlocks it.
Almost useless map
The map system also doesn’t work well with the side quest mechanic. Indoor maps retain their series trademark usefullness, but the outdoor maps of the town are a different story. Murphy still marks doors (gates) and blocked paths (as in previous Silent Hill games), but not the entrances to buildings or special access to other areas (such as tight-rope locations), and he labels every open building with a question mark with no indication of what was actually in the building.
I would have much preferred a system in which Murphy would draw a door into open buildings and maybe put an outline around buildings that he’s been into to distinguish them from other buildings. It would also be nice if he would mark unsolved puzzles/side quests with distinct labels and cross them out as they are solved. These labels could even have been made selectable by the player and allow the player to jump straight to any relevant page in the journal. That would have been a useful map!
Finally, there’s also no custom waypoint feature. I’m not asking for the full doodling capabilities offered in Shattered Memories, but a custom waypoint is a must in any would-be "open world" game!
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A good protagonist doesn’t save a derivative story
The story itself isn’t really all that good either. For one thing, the open world and pointless side quests really derail the main narrative, take most of the sense of continuity and direction out of the plot, and screws up pacing quite a bit.
Murphy, himself, is a perfectly likeable protagonist despite his cold-blooded murder at the start of the game, and I really like the voice actor that they found for him (David Boyd Konrad). In fact, Murphy ends up being a very sympathetic character. Much better than the insane morons from Homecoming and Origins. If you ignore all the directionless filler material in the side quests and only play the main narrative, the mystery of the story may be pretty compelling. Until you get to the end. The "plot twist" ending is what really screws things up. And this screw-up is pretty easy to see coming. This twist is completely contrived, and in hindsight should have been resolved very early in the game. It’s not as bad as an M. Night Shayamalan movie, but it seems shoe-horned into the game based on the what Konami probably sees as the "expectations of Silent Hill fans".
|Game won't let Murphy go away from Silent Hill because climbing over a fallen tree is too hard for Murphy to do.
Two minutes later, he's climbing up a cliff.
|Murphy can't (won't) go through certain doors that are blocked by obstructions.
But in some situations, he can move barriers out of the way when the plot necessitates it.
|Above are examples of contrivances in the game's design. These sorts of things happen in most games, but the fallen tree at the very start of the game really stood out to me as silly, and almost immediately broke my suspension of disbelief for the setting and character.
What’s worse, the game’s various endings (there are six of them) are not very well-thought-out. The ending that you get is determined in part by certain actions over the course of the game, and by a choice you make at the very end. Some of the endings completely change the meaning of the entire game. That’s right, this game actually can retcon itself!
And since the game doesn’t have a "Game Results" save (like all previous Silent Hill games) – in fact, Downpour has no manual saving capability at all – you can easily just go to "Continue" after beating the game to reload the last autosave, replay the end of the game, change your choice, and possible see a different ending. I was able to see three different endings (half of them) on my first playthrough by doing this and changing the outcome of the final boss encounter. Sloppy, sloppy.
Spoilers for both Downpour and other Silent Hill games ahead!
So what’s wrong with the story? Well, if you don’t want me to spoil any of the Silent Hill games’ plots for you, then stop here and skip to the "End of Spoilers" title. Otherwise, continue reading, but be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!
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The plot of Silent Hill Downpour is as follows: Murphy’s son, Charlie, died. Murphy later steals a cop car to get himself arrested so that he can go to the same prison in which Charlie’s suspected murder (named Napier) is incarcerated. He then makes a deal with the conveniently corrupt prison guard named Sewell - despite warning from straight-laced guard named Frank Coleridge – so that Sewell will give Murphy the opportunity to confront and murder Napier.
Later on, Sewell asks Murphy to repay that favor. He tells Murphy that he has staged a prison riot, and that he is going to arrange for Murphy to meet a deserving victim in the showers so that Murphy can murder him. This victim ends up being Coleridge, who has been testifying against Sewell’s corruption. Murphy doesn’t want to kill Coleridge, but Sewell enters the shower and does it for him, then frames Murphy for the murder.
All of this is backstory that happened before the game starts. And you won't know anything about it until small bits of information are given to you over the course of the game. But Murphy knows all of it. No amnesia this time!
The actual game begins with Murphy’s prison transfer bus crashing. He then must run into Silent Hill while being chased by a police officer named Anne Cunningham who really doesn’t like Murphy. Early in the game (in the Devil's Pit), Cunningham corners Murphy and finds a badge from a deceased police officer in Murphy’s pocket. Even though this item was just coincidentally sitting in the pocket of a pair of pants Murphy stole in order to ditch his prison garb, he kept it, and Cunningham found it. She goes ballistic and almost executes Murphy right there, but instead, she collapses in her own misery, incapable of even looking at Murphy.
In hindsight, the end plot twist of the game should be revealed right here! Murphy knows what he did and what he was framed for, and it seems pretty obvious that Cunningham is upset about what Murphy was framed for.
At this point (only a fifth of the way through the game), it becomes pretty obvious that Murphy probably killed a cop or someone that Cunningham cared about. It will later turn out that Cunningham is Coleridge’s daughter. Since she thinks Murphy is her father’s murderer, she naturally doesn’t like him. But she doesn't bother to tell him this until the very end of the game.
Despite Cunningham’s reaction to finding a mourning badge in Murphy’s pocket, Murphy isn’t capable of figuring out at this point that her dislike for him might be related to him being framed as a "cop killer". And it’s not that he has amnesia and forgot that he was framed for murdering Coleridge, à la Silent Hill 2. He’s just too dense to figure it out, and has to wait for the power of the town to manifest the events for him and Cunningham to witness directly before he finally figures out why she’s so mad at him.
So the revalation that Coleridge is Cunningham’s father is a completely unnecessary plot twist that is done for the sole purpose of mimicking the plot of Silent Hill 2 by dragging out the narrative in order to reveal some unknown guilt held by the main protagonist. The problem is that this guilt shouldn’t be "unknown". Murphy knows what he did, and what he is framed for. This game should have ended in the Devil’s Pit, only an hour or two into the game, but the writers decided to drag it out for another eight hours by making Murphy an idiot and letting Cunningham behave out-of-character by letting Murphy go.
Furthermore, one of the endings completely change the game’s plot by making it so that Murphy was actually the one who killed both Charlie and Coleridge, and then he forgot about having killed Charlie. Another ending results in Cunningham becoming a prisoner and Murphy is her guard. Was the whole game some weird hallucination in this case? Was Murphy still responsible for her father’s murder? What’s the relationship between the characters in this ending? Neither of these endings really make sense given the information presented during the rest of the game.
End of Spoilers
At least the game’s narrative never degrades to a mind-numbing splatterhouse horror show the way that Homecoming did. But then again, at least Homecoming's writers at least tried to tangentially relate the game's plot to the existing mythos of the franchise. So I guess it's a wash?
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Downpour ends up being a very sloppy game
In addition to the narrative being a bit contrived and sloppy, the game is poorly executed in other ways.
Visual improvement over Homecoming are stifled by technical issues
Downpour really does leave the other current-gen Silent Hill game, Homecoming, in the dust visually. That's not really saying much though. Character models and environments are very detailed. The weather effects look pretty nice, and water effects such as rippling, splashing, and wet clothes all add a bit of an immersive visual quality. Homecoming did none of this. Everything about it looked fake from start to finish. Downpour at least has a bit of believable grit in its imagery.
Unlike Silent Hill 2 and 3, the fog in Downpour doesn't roll or have any sense of tangibility. It's just a gentle fade to gray.
Unfortunately, these visual improvements are overshadowed by technical flaws in the game’s execution. Frame rate issues, texture popping, and screen-tearing permeate the game – even during the opening cutscene. These problems are the worst when returning from cutscenes or during autosaves. Fortunately, they rarely affect combat, unless you pass through an area that triggers an autosave while trying to run from an enemy. You also can't skip cutscenes.
I’m not sure if this is a glitch or a "feature", but when you die and reload, you’re health is fully restored. So if you are damaged and pass through an autosave point then encounter an enemy, you can just let it kill you and reload from the checkpoint to save yourself a valuable health kit.
The camera positioning is also a bit problematic because Murphy’s body often blocks part of the flashlight beam, which doesn’t help alleviate the problems associated by the game’s excessive darkness. Similar to Dead Space 2, this game is marred by excessive darkness that hinders visibility to the point that it hurts the game. The flashlight provides no ambient light at all, so it creates a narrow beam of light that is completely surrounded by blackness. This means you often can’t see what’s on the ground or near Murphy, so when you suddenly see a "Press X to pick up" prompt, you might have no idea what you’re being prompted to pick up. Is it a weapon? Or is it a puzzle item? This is especially problematic when you’re outnumbered in a fight, your weapon breaks, and you’re scrambling to find another one. They couldn't at least display the name of the item in the prompt? i.e. "Press X to pick up Chair".
The flashlight is also poorly positioned on the character. You can toggle between holding the flashlight in your right hand or holstering it on your belt. But in either case, the light is always at waist-level, which means that the light it casts rarely, if ever, illuminates the surface of desks, tables, and other waist-high or taller objects. A pocket flashlight similar to the previous games would have been much better.
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Trying to fix the things Climax and Double Helix did wrong
Vatra did do a pretty good job of better moderating the features in the recent games that were good ideas but which were poorly executed. It seems Vatra did look at Origins, Homecoming, and Shattered Memories and learned from their mistakes. Some of the mistakes, anyway.
Origins tried to give the player a sense of picking up random weapons in the street out of desperation, but they still let you carry all of them in your inventory. Downpour actually restricts you to one weapon to add some tension. Although, it is weird that both the handgun and the shotgun can be holstered. I’m not quite sure how Murphy sticks the shotgun to his back, but whatever. In any case, why can’t you have the handgun and shotgun holstered, and still pick up a melee weapon?
The "peeking through doors" mechanic from Shattered Memories is also actually useful in Downpour, since enemy encounters are not restrained to an unforgiving Otherworld chase sequence. Or at least, the mechanic would have been useful if there were ever enemies on the other side of a door for you to watch out for, or if the indoor areas weren't so linear that you'd have to go through the door anyway. Point for trying, but better luck next time.
Downpour also found a happy medium between the excessive combat of Homecoming and the defenseless chase sequences of Shattered Memories by emphasizing a "fight or flight" mentality. The crappy combat mechanics are supposed to "augment" this mechanic by encouraging you to run from some encounters. But it’s really hard to get away from enemies in indoor areas where you still have item-searching and puzzle-solving to do. So we at least needed competent combat mechanics for the times when fighting was necessary. Making the enemies hard and ammo and health scarce is one thing, but making the combat even clumsier and more tedious than the earlier games is just annoying. But hey, Resident Evil 4 got away with it, and everybody loves that game! But this isn't a time for a sacred cow barbeque...
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Breaking itself with underwhelming design
But other than improving the few promising features from the really bad Silent Hill games, Downpour is just lacking in its overall design and lacks real ambition or inspiration. Despite taking a few chances in terms of gameplay, Downpour is really still just trying to be a copy-cat of Silent Hill 2 in terms of story.
Monsters and Otherworld are uninteresting
Meet quite possibly the most irritating enemy in all of the Silent Hill franchise: the Doll!
Monster designs are underwhelming. They’re all pretty generic zombie-like humanoids that lack any real symbolic connection to Murphy. What little symbolism I found on the Silent Hill Wiki sounded like a bit of a reach to me. The only monster that is even remotely unique is the "Doll": a mannequin that spawns ghosts. The mannequin part is immobile and non-threatening, but the ghosts it spawns are invisible unless you have the UV light. If they sound annoying, they are. In fact, the Doll’s mannequin ghosts just might top the Caliban (Origins), Smog (Homecoming), Pendulum (Silent Hill 3), and the Air Screamer/Pteradon (Silent Hill) as the single most annoying enemy in the entire series.
There’s really only one boss in the game, and I guess he’s kind of clever, but not very fun to play.
The Otherworld is also pretty lame. You actually encounter the Otherworld before any actual enemies, and in fact, for most of the game, the real world is actually more threatening than the Otherworld. The Otherworld mostly consists of a chase sequence with an invincible, formless red vortex. These chase sequences closely mirror Shattered Memories' Otherworld, including having to knock over stuff in order to slow down the Void. There’s a few sort of neat environmental tricks that the game plays on you during these sequences (early in the game), but they aren’t really threatening or frightening. Furthermore, it seems as if the designers ran out of ideas, as all the neat tricks happen early in the game, and they were all spoiled by pre-release previews.
This trap annoyed me because when Murphy was hurt, he didn't seem capable of running through the blades fast enough because he walks more slowly when hurt. I essentially had to burn a health kit here. If I hadn't had a health kit, I may have been screwed...
After escaping the Void, you’ll usually have to solve a puzzle, and then you might have to fight a few monsters. The puzzles are a bit more complicated than the Homecoming ones, but usually just involve finding something that you can interact with and then using it.
The dissolve effect from the movie is still employed when the world transforms into the Otherworld, and it really diminishes the effectiveness of those areas by making them nothing more than different visuals. Probably the creepiest Otherworld encounter in the entire game is one in which you find a secret passage behind a bookcase in the orphanage/monastery that leads to an Otherworldly corridor. It was unexpected and a bit subtle. It was like finding a hidden entrance into pure evil – no fancy visual effects necessary! Of course, it still ends with a cheap, haunted house scare.
It just isn’t scary
And this kind of leads into the core problem with the game: it just isn’t scary. Part of this is the presence of autosaves and checkpoints that almost eliminate any consequences from death. You don’t really have to run for your life if getting killed just respawns you right next to where you died!
Random wheelchairs, gore, and dead people do not a Silent Hill game make!
So you’re not scared by the prospect of death. You’re also not scared by the environment. It just doesn’t feel threatening. Random wheelchairs and splattering blood on decrepit, but otherwise normal, environments do not a Silent Hill game make! The environments lack the uniquely oppressive doom and gloom of the environments in the first few games.
Music and sound aren’t used nearly as effectively as when Yamaoka was in charge, particularly in the Otherworld, which is completely lacking in oppressive background music.
And it’s not a Silent Hill game
In addition to being a pretty boring game on it's own, Downpour also only possesses superficial relations to the existing Silent Hill canon.
No established locations are re-used, and an entirely new section of the town has been pulled out of the developers’ asses. This, by itself, isn't a bad thing, since the original developers already set a precedent of adding whole new suburbs with Silent Hill 2; but the increasing size of Silent Hill, combined with the geographic separation from the distinct sections (should each be its own township?), and the ever-increasing size of Toluca Lake are all starting to become ridiculous. The one and only location in the game that has even been hinted at in previous games is the coal mine. But they even got that wrong. The coal mine in Downpour is called the "Devil’s Pit" and is owned by the Gillespie family, even though it was originally called "Wiltse Coal Mine" when its existence was mentioned in Silent Hill 2.
I thought the name of the mine was "Wiltse Coal Mine"? I would expect such a mine to be owned by someone named Wiltse. Not the Gillespie family. Maybe the Gillespies bought it later? In any case, why is the mine called "Devil's Pit" in the game?
Downpour also intentionally skirts around providing any meaningful backstory or information about Silent Hill or its history. Murphy asks some very relevant questions during the course of the game, such as "What’s happening?", "Where is everybody?", "What happened here? Was there an earthquake?", and so on. But the writers dodged answering these questions and only gave wishy-washy nonsense answers.
Images, sounds, and music were reused from old games in order to try to create a nostalgic link to the rest of the franchise, but none of it has any special meaning in the game’s story and is completely arbitrary. This game could just as easily have been called simiply "Downpour", or "Ghost Town", or "Prisoner RS 273A", or something like that, and would not have needed to be changed at all except for changing some road signs, music tracks, and a few lines of dialogue.
I hate to cite Homecoming as a positive example, but at least that game tried to link the game’s plot to the older games and expand the franchise's universe by relating Homecoming's cult to the one present in the first four games. Downpour doesn’t even try anything like that. It is a Silent Hill game in name only, which adds absolutely nothing of value to the overall Silent Hill mythos other than some trivial characters, perpetuation of the fan-propagated myth that Silent Hill is some kind of purgatory, and the retconing of a whole new [Eastern European-looking] downtown area that is geographically separated from the other parts of the town.
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