Friday, September 7, 2012

"Silent Hill: Downpour" vs. "Silent Hill 2"

FOREWARD


I am a very big Silent Hill fan.  Silent Hill 2 is my favorite video game of all time -- an absolutely flawless character study and one of the truly scariest games ever created.  The best part, and what makes the game such a landmark, is that these elements both played off of each other, making the other better.  The character work made the atmosphere all the more creepier, and the scariness enhanced the development of said characters, all accomplished through pitch-perfect art direction and some of the most immersive gameplay in history that really understood how to make storytelling interactive.

Silent Hill 2 is the definition of a classic.

The reason I don't like to qualify myself a "die hard" fan as it pertains to Silent Hill, is two fold. The first is, I never owned any of the Playstations during their dog days, and I don't buy systems just for a favorite franchise, because I lack substantial disposable income.  I was an XBox guy.  This severely limited the game library I had to choose from.  I've never played Silent Hill, Silent Hill 4: The Room, or Origins, and I've gotten through roughly half of Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the former because I was playing a friend's copy, the latter because of the frustrating Wii hardware that rendered it nearly unplayable for me.

The second is, from what I have played, Silent Hill 2 stands head, shoulders, and skyscrapers above the rest of the series, to the point where it's almost comical.  Yeah, sure, SH3 nips at it's heels somewhat, but it's still not really close.  I almost consider SH2 an entity among itself, totally free from its parent series.  That's how much better it is than the rest of the lot.

There are many reasons for the existence of the high horse on which SH2 proudly rests upon, but I would argue the most prominent reason is story, and more specifically, narrative.  There are storytelling decisions that Silent Hill's first sequel made that, perplexingly, simply have not been made before or since.  The first, and easily the most important, of these decisions was the elimination of "The Order".  To its credit, Shattered Memories made this decision as well (if only that weren't the only one).

The Silent Hill series, as I've previously stated, functions best as a character study.  The town has the ability to develop a protagonist so completely, which comes from an unwavering effort to provide psychological breakthrough by mirroring the protagonist's subconscious.  Everything that happens in Silent Hill should be in service to the protagonist.  That is when the Silent Hill series is at its lurid best --  When its providing character development through a delightfully ambiguous and otherworldly narrative.  That is how it transcends your run-of-the-mill horror story, and one of the reasons it can be revered as art.

Humans, as a general rule of thumb, are not scary.  They are relatable, fallible, and unintriguing, traits you are not looking for when an antagonist is designed to scare.  In fact, humans tend to become scarier in direct proportion with the amount of human qualities you strip from them.  The Order are nothing more than religious zealots, with an agenda all their own.  They feel ancillary to what the point of a Silent Hill plot is supposed to be, wedged into an otherwise fluid and compelling narrative for the sole purposes of being spooky and making up for the fact that the Silent Hill series can be light on plot at times, not realizing that Silent Hill is supposed to be lighter on the plot side because its character driven. The story flows from the actions of the central character, not the other way around, and every time the games forget that idea, our journey takes a turn to Terribletown.

Most of the "plot" that The Order is tasked to "fill" comes by way of obtuse and fragmented exposition dumps.  They say in politics, that if you're explaining yourself, you're losing the argument.  The same goes for Silent Hill.  The mystery is so much of what makes it work, and The Order flies right in the face of it.

The antagonist in a character driven narrative is defined as an agent of change for the main character.  That is why the story always works best when the town itself takes the mantle of primary antagonist, specifically a Mentor Antagionist.  Sometimes it can be very easy to confuse a mentor antagonist with another protagonist.  A mentor antagonist's goal is to take a relatively weak main character and introduce change and spiritual growth by externalizing the protagonist's subconscious and forcing them to overcome the worst aspects of it (thank you, Linda Aronson). John Coffey was a mentor antagonist (R.I.P. Michael Clark Duncan).  Hannibal Lecter was a mentor antagonist.

Silent Hill is the Mr. Miagi of survival horror, since that is pretty wholly the town's primary goal -- the very reason we're telling this story in the first place: to provide psychological and emotional catharsis to a weary and repressed protagonist.  This is also the same reason why The Order fails so completely at the task of antagonist: they're not doing their job in the story.  To make matters worse, there are many times where it's either implied or downright stated that the town gets its mojo from the actions or general backstory of The Order, which threatens to ruin the entire experience, because you've now essentially removed the crux of the narrative.  There is no fulcrum, no agent for change.  The story now flails aimlessly in a sea of wasted potential and becomes hopelessly lost in the telling of its own story.

By putting a human face to all the wacky shenanigans, the scares become more tepid, character development grinds to a halt, and the atmosphere is trivialized.  Virtually everything that Silent Hill is supposed to be completely loses its sting, and we are reduced to a by-the-numbers story of "stop the evil cult".

Every single time The Order rears its ugly head, it brings the Silent Hill series crashing back down to earth.

The same can be said, to a lesser extent, to the supporting characters of virtually every other Silent Hill title, who, generally speaking, were agonizing in their normality, and sometimes even stood by your side and took the journey with you.  All that serves to do is remove the sense of desolation from the atmosphere, and hamper the fear factor.

They are also not bound by the central themes and conflicts of the story.  In Silent Hill 2, everyone you meet seems to be in their own little world -- their own form of personal purgatory, which is right in line with what James himself is going through.  Their inauthentic demeanor exasperates the sense of crushing loneliness and despair, along with the anxiety of not knowing what this town will show you next.  Some characters, it can be argued, are simply figments of the imagination.  You just.  Don't.  Know.

The supporting cast of Silent Hill 2 do exactly what supporting characters are designed to do.  They are not only bound by the needs of the central themes and conflict, they mirror them, helping the town realize it's goal by externalizing James' internal conflict. As a result of this, many of their stories are ridiculously poignant.  From Eddies slow descent into madness, to Angela walking up a burning staircase stating, simply, "For me, it's always like this", the character moments hit you like a ton of bricks, all while simultaneously building on and furthering James' character arc.

Adding regular, concrete, inarguably real characters that ultimately see what you see and have their own agendas, removes that sense of otherworldliness.  They do not serve the story or the themes, and Silent Hill ends up becoming nothing more than a haunted town in a slasher flick, and that is lame, boring, and cliché.

Silent Hill 2 was smart enough to say, fuck this noise, lets tell a focused, cohesive story, and it was all the more brilliant for it.  The story allowed the atmosphere to do it's job, which allowed the gameplay to do it's job.  Couple that with genuinely inspired art direction, enemy design, and a tireless dedication to pacing, subtlety, and symbolism, and you have the magnum opus of James Sunderland: a harmonious, well oiled machine.  The pinnacle of interactive entertainment.


So... Silent Hill: Downpour.

I can't remember the last time I felt so genuinely ambivalent after playing a video game.  Part of me wants to laude Downpour for its good story, above average character work, smart combat, and genuine moments of inspiration and innovation.  The other part wants to condemn it for its technical problems, lack of focus and puzzle cohesiveness, awful enemy design, and, well... not being very scary.  For these reasons, I feel its best to approach this review from an aggregate standpoint.  So, without further adieu, here we go.

MASSIVE SPOILERS FROM HERE

STORY & CHARACTER


Overall, I did not hate Silent Hill: Homecoming.  It wasn't particularly great, and on its own merits it's really not as bad a game as the hate that surrounds it would have you believe.  Where it ultimately falls flat on its face is in its attempt to actually BE a Silent Hill game, which it most certainly does not feel like.

Why?  Many reasons.

The biggest?  You guessed it:  Story & Character.

I would argue that the opening nightmare sequence of Homecoming, is actually quite brilliant.  Its dark, foreboding, creepy, disorienting, and anxiety inducing.  It felt like Silent Hill, and I remember my heart pounding with glee as I entertained the thought that one of my favorite franchises was returning to form.

Then, literally and figuratively, we woke up, and Homecoming got down to business, and started telling its story.

And boy, was it atrocious.  Homecoming took all the worst tendencies of the Silent Hill series (read "The Order"), added on-the-nose writing and a cliché plot, and blended them together into B-Movie schlock, the exact kind of narrative that all the better Silent Hills use their best tendencies to try and compensate for.

Downpour is a much smarter game.  It understands what makes Silent Hill Silent Hill.  I very much enjoyed the story in Silent Hill: Downpour.  There were more twists in this narrative than the series is used to seeing, but in a good way.  They weren't just thrown in there to pull a Shyamalan.  They made sense, and actually enhanced many supporting characters.  I was used to their being one main crime/traumatic moment which served as the climax of the narrative, but Downpour has two or three major turning points, and they all help to sympathize and expand on the backstory of Murphy Pendleton. 

When playing Downpour, you appreciate that humanization all the more than in other narratives. This is because Downpour makes a deliberate decision to paint Murphy as a bad guy toward the beginning of the game, when it has you, an inmate in prison, striking a deal with a corrupt corrections officer, and, in real time, stabbing a frantic, pleading-for-his-life fellow inmate to death.  The whole sequence was long, relentless and brutal.  I felt disgusted doing it, and it made me look at Murphy as a cold, heartless killer, all while teaching me vital movement and combat information I'd need for later in the game, everything a prologue should be.  

Not only was this very effective, but as the story strands begin to unravel, piece by piece, and you find out who he was stabbing and why he's in prison, Murphy shifts slowly from psychopath to sympathetic, and hopelessly tragic father and husband.  Not only does Murphy have an arc, but the game uses it to play with audience expectation, and with a series in its 8th iteration, it's exactly the kind of creative bait-and-switch the story needed.  Whether this was a conscious decision on the part of the developers or not, it was a great one and it pulls you in even further. 

Speaking of creative bait-and-switches, they pulled another one with Officer Anne Cunningham. This was the first time I've ever seen two stories intertwine within a Silent Hill story that start well before the story and indeed are a vital ingredient to the story.  Originally, I figured Cunningham to be your typical sidekick, much in the way of Elle in Homecoming or Cybil in the original-- just an extra body existing, add nothing to the story, and getting it the way.  I thought of Anne this way because she is, in fact, normal -- a regular person you saw before you got here and has retained all of her mental faculties and rationale.  What I didn't expect to see coming was that that was precisely the point, and the big crime in question involved and adversely affected both of you, and no true resolution could be had without confronting and absolving each of the pair.  It was destiny. Your fates were always intertwined.  It was a revenge story all along, and the developers hid it in plain sight.

This is how you create your supporting cast, and the rest do their fair share, and while they go too far at times in their exposition, sometimes even outright explaining their situations at times (looking at you, DJ), it was nice to finally see some Silent Hill supporting characters actually functioning as Silent Hill supporting characters, even the ones who were, for lack of a better term, "normal", and the game uses its most "normal" character very well.

There were also moments of genuine emotion, the highlight for me was the flashback revealing Charlie's death.  Given what you learn in the prior level, you watch in heartache as a newly-sympathetic father screams with bloody anguish as they fish his little boy from the bottom of the lake, over a haunting rendition of "There is a Happy Land".  I can't remember the last time Silent Hill really laid on the pathos so thickly, and I actually found myself choking up, and it leads directly into to a cathartic battle with the Bogeyman.  It's one of the game's standout sequences, and if the game were able to hold Charlie's death and the manner therein a bit closer to the vest, that moment would have been even more of a gut punch, and the fact that all of this basically serves as just the first act turning point is a testament to the quality of the narrative.

Oh, right, the Bogeyman.  Listen, I know its completely obvious that the Bogeyman is a ripoff of Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, and he is definitely less frightening and less menacing and has an inferior design which speaks to the uninspired art direction when it comes to the enemies that I will get to later, but overall, he didn't bother me.  The reasons for this are because he serves the story well, and I appreciate that the developers knew that Pyramid Head only belongs in Silent Hill 2, refusing to integrate him in the story to satisfy asinine fans who have no real idea what made Silent Hill 2 great, and that alone is enough to garner a pass from me, for now, since everything else was so well done.  We don't necessarily need a faux-executioner in every SH game, and if we do, we can spend a little more time developing the idea.  Remember that for next time, but for now, Bogeyman gets a pass.

The only place where the story falls apart is the ending.  At the risk of sounding redundant, or blatantly plagiaristic, I will simply quote Yahtzee Crowshaw from his Zero Punctuation series, which you all should be watching:

"But what annoyed me, and Homecoming did this as well, is that the exact nature of Murphy's big boo-boo changes depending on what ending you get, which cheapens the entire story and renders half the symbolism pointless.  In Silent Hill 2 -- yes, maybe i WILL marry Silent Hill 2, shut up! -- the naughty thing Jimbo did was always the same, and the endings were just him redeeming himself in different ways, that way the story retained the effective tight focus that Downpour sorely lacks."

Yeah... what he said.

I really have a problem with multiple endings, and I won't get into why here (I feel another post coming on...), but Silent Hill: Downpour is the straw that paralyzed me. 


ATMOSPHERE

SH:D does an admirable job of recreating the signature town.  The rain is also a nice touch, adding an extra wrinkle to things given that enemies become more plentiful and aggressive.  The new area of the town fits right in with the Silent Hill mythos.  For some reason, however, exploring the town just doesn't seem to be as distressing and breath stealing as it should be.  It's hard to pinpoint why, but since atmosphere is usually a product of many game elements working together, I think it's the little problems that plague many elements of Downpour that, unfortunately, add up to precisely the sum of their parts.  

Let us begin with...


DESIGN


Not bad, overall, as I said before the town itself is both a faithful recreation and a unique spin on it. That being said, the graphics leave much to be desired.  Homecoming looked way better than this from strictly a graphical standpoint, which is just not okay.  There are muddy textures and technical glitches all over the place.  Screen tearing and frame rate slowdown is commonplace. Sometimes, the game freezes altogether for a few seconds, which is not exactly encouraging when you are trying to carefully navigate such trepidatious terrain.  Silent Hill is not exactly a setting that demands unbridled processing power, so the fact that these issues arise is inexcusable.

Maybe this was just me, but I got the feeling that there were a lot more empty areas in Downpour than with any other Silent Hill game.  Many sections I'd find myself exploring three extra times just because I couldn't find anything in it.  I couldn't accept that some areas just focused as transitional game areas.  It's just not a feeling I'm used to.  Usually you'd get a health drink or a note or something, but there are a lot of areas in the middle of a "dungeon" where you're expecting something to be there, but all there is are spare weaponry, which is a big exploration issue in and of itself, but I'll get into that later.  For now, ill just say that the game design in Silent Hill 2 felt a lot more deliberate than this, and if nothing else, did a better job of guiding you in the right direction through strategic item placement and puzzle design, which makes Downpour feel less graceful by comparison.

Another completely mishandled aspect, and by far the worst design decision, are the enemies.  I seem to recall saying something about how scary humans are.  Well, let's just say that the developers barely made an effort as far as removing enough human traits to make these enemies feel even remotely indigenous to Silent Hill.  For that, they barely register as threatening.  The prison juggernauts are almost laughable in their desperation to scare you, running at you with the force and strength of a linebacker, and using their ugly mug to hog up screen real estate, so you really just become more disgusted than scared, and he still just looks like a regular guy who got in a couple of shank fights and just got done putting his clear contacts in.  The first time you meet the mannequin enemy was genuinely scary.  Unfortunately, the annoyance that comes with their method for defeat ruins that feeling in subsequent encounters, and the game irresponsibly spams them in many areas, so the encounters quickly feel like more of a frustrating grind than panicked creepiness.  The only enemy with a hint of inspiration in its design, and that Silent Hill patented sense of off-putting grossness is the final boss, and that's much too little, much too late.  The enemies in Downpour represent a huge missed opportunity, and undercut a lot of moments that could have been packed with much more dread.

There were some minor alterations to the accepted formula which I did appreciate.  Little things like being able to actually read Murphy's journal and hear his thoughts instead of text crawls whenever you find something important were welcome and logical changes, and highlight Vatra's commitment to natural evolution rather than, for the sake of tradition, adhering to archaic design elements that only compensated for the game limitations that existed during that time.

Sadly, none of that can make up for what they did with...


THE OTHERWORLD


There is a problem when the Otherworld sections in a Silent Hill game are by far the least scary, and that is unfortunately the case with Silent Hill: Downpour, where the Otherworld is reduced to a noisy, gaudy chore.  That's not to say it was poorly designed, per se.  There are elements in the Otherworld which on paper would have worked very well had the game known when to reign itself in, but it doesn't.

Just about every time I felt that the game was finding it's groove, the magic pixie dust that now serves as Silent Hill's hammer-to-the-head transition appears, and I would actually breathe a sigh of relief, saying, "well, at least I don't have to worry about being scared now", since I knew that most of what was coming was a lengthy, repetitive, and entrancing chase sequence with a vortexual heat wave, an effect that I believe can be faithfully recreated by standing in a red room and nailing a few toasters to a leaf blower.

I appreciate the developers for trying something new, and expanding on past experiences, but it just didn't work, because they missed the point of the Otherworld.

When it comes to what I think people don't get about what made Silent Hill 2 great, the Otherword is invariably one reason that sprints to the top of the list.  The reason why it all worked in SH2 was mostly because you never actually saw the transition outright.  It was much more insidious.  Things changed more gradually, or you were knocked out or something and woke up in a different version of the same room.  There was never one set "method" for transition, which opened the door to creativity along with heightened stress of not knowing what you were going to see next.  It always just sort of happened, and it was subtle, disorienting, and distressing.

Sure, a lot of times it meant you were exploring the same areas twice, but I would argue that was a good thing.  The first time you see these areas give you a frame of reference, so that when it all suddenly decays around you, it becomes more of a visual representation of James' anxieties, rather than a totally separate reality.  Again, it all served the protagonist.  I never liked the idea of officially treating the Otherworld as an alternate reality.  It was whatever it was, and it didn't have to explain itself, and the less you knew about what was happening around you, the scarier it was.

Subsequent Silent Hills took that dedication to smart subtlety and threw it off a cliff.  Even Silent Hills 1 & 3, who ultimately handled the transitions quite well, are guilty of treating the process with too much fanfare.  I remember specifically as Heather watched as blood oozed from a dingy porcelain bathtub, sticky red vines smothering the walls, her eustachian tubes throbbing from some overbearing noise messing with her equilibrium, stripping her of consciousness.

And then... a text crawl:

"It's being invaded by the Otherworld.  By the world of someone's nightmarish delusions come to life."

Jesus, talk about ruining the mood.

Things like this reek of on-the-nose writing, and a game telling me when to be scared, and I do not need that.  I need a game with the confidence to throw me in an oppressive situation and have the balls and the restraint to not tell me why.

And this lack of restraint has just gotten worse over the years, with the Silent Hill movie serving as the biggest turning point, its release providing a clear division in the methods by which the game would handle its own environment.  Homecoming aped it completely, Shattered Memories swapped the paint peeling effect with ice freezing, and Downpour with the magic pixie dust effect, which is arguably the worst iteration yet.

The Otherworld in Downpour has no respect for the subtleties that make it scary.  Everything is way too in your face, and the design of it is so overdone that you go into sensory overload fairly quickly, which only numbs you further to the experience.  It's all peak and no valley.  The game forces you to move through it's loud and flashy environment at a breakneck pace instead of focusing on building tension.  It barely even feels like a Silent Hill game by the time you return to the town proper.


PUZZLES


Here's a major point of contention for me.  This is the point where that pesky word "homogenization" comes into play.

Before I vent, I will say that there are one or two puzzles in Downpour that I legitimately appreciated, particularly one that made me feel quite stupid for taking over an hour to solve and who's answer was literally right in front of my face.  I let out a cackle when I realized it, and it was a good example of interactive game design which Downpour displays in other areas as well. 

The remaining and ultimately spectacular failure of the puzzles in Silent Hill: Downpour can be summed up it two words:

Side Quests.

Let's get something straight.  We are not in an RPG.  I do not need to "level up" Murphy Pendleton. There is no reason why a man with the sole objective of "GTFO" would tinker around with ancillary nonsense that wasn't in service to that goal.  It makes the entire design of the game feel sloppy, unfocused, and poorly thought out.  Puzzles are not optional in a Silent Hill game, they are vital to the plot.

In an RPG, leveling up your character is a primary objective, so side quests add to the gameplay and provide a level of accomplishment and progression.  In Downpour, your goal is to get out of dodge, and this is survival horror, where side quests are in direct contradiction with that goal, their presence becoming a hinderence instead of an augmentation.

I'll never forget when I grabbed my first bird and heard Murphy wonder aloud:

"Hmm, are there any other birds around?..."

...and we give a fuck, why?!  Aren't we supposed to be doing that thing when we're, ya know, not here anymore?!

To make matters worse, most of these quests are of the "fetch" variety, as in, fetch some birds. Fetch some paintings, fetch an urn, etc.  It's busy work, nothing more.  It does nothing to enhance the main narrative or the atmosphere. 

Every puzzle in Silent Hill 2 was carefully planned.  Sure, some of them were a bit obtuse, but they had a purpose, and that logic worked in a series like Silent Hill because it's heavily implied that much of the town's content are manifestations of the protagonist's subconscious, so the weird item combinations and odd puzzles could be explained as James' brain fighting itself in its slow crawl toward realization by creating these items as obstacles for a still-resisting mind trying to protect James from the harsh truth. 

Every aspect of that game was well thought out, plays its part in the overarching plot, and everything that you did in Silent Hill 2 mattered.  I, for one, appreciated the lateral thinking exercise.  Making the puzzles mandatory to the gameplay gave a sense of pacing, purpose, and progression.  It was a marriage of plot and gameplay.  You were forced to slow down and drink in your surroundings, knowing that the game wasn't going to let you go anywhere until you proved yourself worthy.  The fact that you needed to be smart enough to succeed made you push yourself and think harder, searching every creepy nook and cranny you'd normally run away from, and in many ways, that was some of the most rewarding parts of the experience.  If you don't have to go through all that, then why would you bother? 

When driving home from work, do you take unnecessary detours through side streets that only slow your commute?  Of course not, because a human being will always instinctively choose the quickest route to their objective, and gamers are not wrong for having similar instincts.  So, on principle alone, I blew past every side quest.  I followed the circle on the map like every Silent Hill game trained me to do, expecting to hit obstacles and redirections in the form of puzzles along the way, yet I found myself reaching important landmarks with relative ease.  I never even opened the subway system because I never had a reason to return to other neighborhoods.  

Since, apart from the side quests, there are so few legitimate puzzles to be found in Downpour, I felt I was cheated out of a vital part of the Silent Hill experience.  I had the puzzle level on Hard and blew through the game in eight hours and ten minutes, and I am not that smart.  My count would usually amount to three times that due to the amount of head-scratchers I'd get stuck on. That wasn't arbitrary padding, that was a legitimate challenge, and it's completely absent in Downpour, which was very unsatisfying.

I don't know if this was to appease the ADHD generation that dislike or get frustrated by puzzles (in which case, why are you making a Silent Hill game?  What's your next project, a BLT with no tomato?), or just tacked on when they realized their game was slightly shorter than it should be, but it's poor game design no matter how you slice it.  It was the need to complete the puzzles that encouraged the exploration of the town.  Without it you're just trudging from level to level, and from objective to objective, not giving half a shit about your surroundings.  It makes for a level of emptiness completely foreign to the Silent Hill series, which I believe to be the biggest detractor against the overall atmosphere of the game.


SOUND


As a musician, and a huge fan of Akira Yamaoka, the news of his absence was particularly depressing for me.  He is such a staple of the series, and his style is so much of a trademark it's hard to imagine anyone that could reasonably replicate it.  In my mind, Akira Yamaoka IS Silent Hill.

Though I have to say, Daniel Licht does a pretty damn good job.

Licht's work shows a clear understanding of Yamaoka's, and channels that vibe through his own style, complete with the strange ethnic strings and brooding progressions that made Dexter so memorable.  Indeed, shades of that conflicted serial killer are all over this project, mostly to great success.  Licht is even arguably more effective than Yamaoka when it comes to providing potent pathos during emotional moments.  There is also a much heavier use of licensed music, which works most of the time.  I appreciated the radios strategically placed close to a nearby puzzle, giving you a nice soundtrack as you try to crack the code of the moment.

The only issues I have with the sound come solely with sound design rather than soundtrack.  There are loooooong stretches of silence in this game, mostly while you're roaming the desolate streets of the titular town.  I'm not sure if this falls on Licht, or if it Vatra had final say on what cues they used and where they put them, or lack of time, but between the rampant silence and awful enemy design, it lessens the tension and makes encounters uncharacteristically boring, which deadens the exploration.

Akira Yamaoka understood when to use silence and when to let the metal twinge.  He understood subtlety in sound design.  In the beginning of Silent Hill 2, as your making that long trek into town, you can hear ominous and foreign noises, threatening trouble at any turn, and since you were smothered in such a thick haze of fog, you slid even further to the edge of your seat.  I remember while running on that dirt trail, I heard a doubling of footsteps, as if someone were running with me.  I'd freak out, stop moving and look around.  Once I stopped, so did the sound.  I'd begin running again, and for a few steps it'd be all good... and then it would double again.  It was so simple, and so inconsequential, and it scared the hell out of me.  None of that exists in Downpour, just boring silence.

Additionally, many of the sounds in Downpour just aren't as harsh or abrasive enough to provide that lasting level of panic that Yamaoka was so adept at creating.

The sound is good, I just wish there was more of it.


GAMEPLAY


I won't say the combat in Downpour is good.  I won't say it's bad, either.  What I will say, is that it is exactly what it needs to be.  The developers were smart in that respect.  Combat is something that, for the most part is not emphasized as hard as it was in Homecoming, thank god.  I never understood the decision to make the enemies as fast as you, since given the lack of ammo and weaponry in the town, the game quickly devolves into a 3D adaptation of Snake.

I also noticed some AI issues in Downpour.  More than once and enemy would stand neutral when I was so much as five feet in front of it.  Weeping Bats would aimlessly shuffle back and forth, sometimes getting stuck on the ceiling.  The hit detection can also be off at times, which is the only point when the game's combat goes from feeling tense to just plain unfair.

One of the biggest annoyances for me has to do with the empty rooms that I mentioned earlier.  I don't know about you, but I believe my style of survival horror exploration is close to the norm for this sort of thing.  You hold down the run bottom, and relentlessly spam the action button with the middle of your thumb as you awkwardly shimmy down walls and around desks.  That's called efficiency.  In Downpour, I couldn't do that because with every alternate step I'd accidentally swap my trusty fire axe for a Coca-Cola, and when you have to abandon your preferred style of play to compensate for the game's design, something has definitely gone awry.  I constantly got the feeling I was missing something because I couldn't explore my way.

The camera does its job, though I didn't really understand the point of having fixed camera angles for certain rooms.  I didn't dislike it, there just doesn't seem to be any real reason for it.

Speaking of things that make no case for their existence, there are a few critical moments in the game where you need to make either an altruistic or culpable decision that will effect how things play out.  The only problem, is that regardless of your choice, the immediate consequence is usually the same.  At more then one juncture, you have the choice of saving somebody from falling off a high cliff, or leaving them.  You choose leave?  They fall.  You choose save?  They still fall.

Here's a $64,000 question:

Why have moral choices in a game when the choice itself makes no difference?

Answer:

To appease multiple endings that shouldn't be there in the first place.

Fantastic.

Other than that, there's not really much to say about gameplay.  It works, and it's mostly inoffensive, and in survival horror, that's all you can really ask for.


FEAR FACTOR


Marginal, at best.

This game goes long stretches without even teasing fear.

Since the theme has arisen in this review of summing things up in one or two words, I believe there's a word that can sum up this entire rant, to most closely illustrate why Silent Hill 2 is so much better than the rest of the series.

Discipline.

Silent Hill 2 starts very slowly, and very deliberately.  It doesn't have you in a wild and crazy nightmare scene before you can even figure out where the X button is.  From minute one, there is a clear dedication to pacing and atmosphere that pays off in spades.  Like I said before, I was already getting freaked out just by an extra set of footsteps on my way into town.  Little things like that littered the first couple of hours in the game.  One of the scariest and most lasting moments I can remember is the first time you meet Pyramid Head in the apartment complex.  You hear a scream. You're freaked out.  You walk down the nearby corridor and run into a gate blocking your path, and there he is.  No cutscene.  No music.  No grand reveal.  No cheap jump scare.  Just some mild static on your radio, and there he stands, about twenty feet away, an unearthly glow emanating from his domineering figure, and he doesn't, fucking, move.  I remember standing there, through the bars, paralyzed with fear.  Every time I went in the nearby room it took forever to muster the stones to go back into that hallway.

I have nightmares about that moment to this day, and I think it was its simplicity that made it work so well.  An embracement of simplicity that doesn't exist in today's "more is more" AAA gaming universe.

A good horror game should toy with my emotions, effortlessly yanking them in opposite directions. Most of that comes from sitting back and letting my own anxieties as a player take over.  Waking up randomly in a room which looked halfway decent a minute ago but now looks like a vomit filled industrial complex is distressing, and the less you explain, the more my imagination fills in the gaps, and a person's imagination will always respond to fear stimuli with more dread and creativity than whatever your game can concoct, because the fear is now personalized.  It is what I, myself, made of it.  The fear becomes subjective rather than objective, which is another reason why Silent Hill 2 was able to scare the pants off of everyone who played it, and the rest were always met with mixed reactions.  It provided the toolbox which allowed each individual who played it to confront their own innermost fears.  You can't please (or scare) everyone, unless you as a game subtly suggest we scare ourselves, and that's what Silent Hill is capable of when it's running on all cylinders.

Silent Hill 2 knew when to throw down and when to be coy, and when it did throw down, it didn't fuck around.  For what seemed like eons, the game would use its foreboding atmosphere to train you to think that terror lurked around every corner.  You truly expected it, yet it never seemed to come, and the longer you would go without meeting terror, the more uneasy you would feel, because you thought to yourself, well it has to happen sometime, and the longer I play the closer it gets.  Silent Hill 2 milked that feeling for all it was worth, but it also knew it was a feeling that was not entirely self sufficient.  The developers knew that eventually you would call their bluff, hitting an uncanny valley of sorts with fear, where you'd go so long without a big bad that you doubted their ability to provide it, and thought that the everlasting "tease" was really all the game had to offer.

The game knew how to intermittently pay off the hours of slow burn that preceded them, and exactly when those climaxes needed to come, so just before you started thinking you could calm down, and that, "well maybe this game really is all bark and no bite, it made like a pit bull, and shut you right up.  It implemented horror's version of the P90X muscle confusion concept.  Every time you thought you were getting used to things, the game would switch it up, and it would do to at just the right time, so your anxiety level would never plateau or descend, it would just keep compounding, to the point where you didn't even know if you could find the courage to take another step.

Fear in the Silent Hill series is at its wily best when the game becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Silent Hill 2 was able to achieve this masterful balance, because every aspect of the game did its due diligence to create that atmosphere.

Silent Hill: Downpour is not more than the sum of its parts.  The technical issues, bad enemy design, AI issues, overuse of silence, gaudy Otherworld, side quests, hollow moral choices and botched ending all contribute to creating an atmosphere and experience that just isn't very scary.

The worst part of all this, is that at certain points, you can feel the Silent Hill of yore trying to pop out. The game does affirm that it knows how to be scary, and does affirm that it can do disorienting and creative transitions, and it does know how to be Silent Hill.  It's just so rarely ever does it.

There's a moment with a roller coaster and some statues that's very well done.

There's a section in a dark basement that expertly embraces the subtlety that I keep complaining the game doesn't have, and pays it off in kind.

There's another particularly stand-out section where, post-puzzle, an abandoned auditorium transforms into a cottage amidst haunted woods.  It's confusing, out of nowhere and legitimately terrifying, and a much better use of the game's signature rain than at any other point in the game.

If all that was in between were like these cherry picked moments of horror, I'd be singing the game's praises.  Alas, the Silent Hill series falls short of rejuvenation once again.


FINAL THOUGHTS


Throughout its playtime, you can't help but shake the feeling that with a little extra development time and a few more experienced hands on board, Silent Hill: Downpour really could have been something special.  The game I hold in such reverence is in here, albeit buried very deep, a feeling I did not have when walking away from Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Unfortunately, Konami continues its string of reprehensible and perplexing decisions to put the Silent Hill franchise in the hands of fledgling game developers who mean well, but simply don't fully understand and are not completely up to the task at hand, and, seemingly, Konami could give two shits how it turns out.

For all my whining and nitpicks, I did have a pretty good time with Silent Hill: Downpour.  The story and characters alone make it worth its own weight, and although it has its fair share of poor design decisions, it also has its fair share of inspiring moments.  It could have been SO much better, but many times the good outweighs the bad, and if you're a Silent Hill fan, or a survival horror fan, it's worth checking out.


64 = **1/2 = "Decent"


-VMA

3 comments:

  1. As a massive Silent Hill fan myself, save for Origins, Homecoming, 4 (mostly for being a spin-off) and Downpour, I have to say that the fact that you haven't gotten much of the narrative of the original series Team Silent created and your only real experience with it being SH2 it kind of makes some of the points you attempt to make about the series' overarching narrative incorrect.

    The Order does not serve as an explanation for what happens in the town. The exposition dumps The Order gives is only to add to their religious mythology and explain their motivations; they do not however reflect the actual reasons why the town is the way it is. Throughout the series the supernatural presence in the town is left a mystery and never fully explained. Hence the UFO endings being so popular. The Order just happens to have the biggest influence on major events that take place throughout the series. The Order themselves are never fully seen, we only see four members throughout the original series. It wasn't until American developers took the franchise over and borrowed from the movie that The Order started to become a primary antagonist and served as the explanation for the towns supernatural presence.

    And that's what it is, the American developers completely missed the story of the series and just assumed that because The Order's influence on the town was prevalent (even in SH2, they weren't directly seen but mentioned often, and Pyramid Head resembles their deity of punishment) that they must be the primary antagonists and the explanation for what the hell happens in the town.

    Each game serves as a character study, and it's not always the primary protagonist. Silent Hill is less about Harry Mason's character and more about Cheryl/Alessa. Her innate supernatural abilities is what originally helped open the door to the other worlds. It was The Order's beliefs that caused her stress and psychic abilities to manifest a nightmare that she plunged them all into. The creatures and environments are all symbolic to Cheryl/Alessa in that twisted Silent Hill way. SH3 does much the same as Heather is a reincarnation. The thing is the towns influence is what creates the manifestations and builds a personal nightmare for those plunged into its world, be it accidentally or because, like James, their desire for punishment.

    The original three (which is obviously what Team Silent wanted; a trilogy) had a different arc, study and perspective of the towns capabilities. The first showed what it can do, the symbolism and story itself dealt with the nightmares of a tortured and confused soul whose whole life was built around a strict religious code. The second as we all know, showed us that the town is its own entity, that the Order doesn't control it. The story being about a sexually repressed male, seeking guilt for the murder of his wife while still remaining incapable of coping with the fact that he did it. The third set to conclude the events of the original game. Telling the story about a girl who is impregnated by an alien creature against her will. Basically the central focus of the story, which isn't directly told, is about the psychological trauma of a confused 18 year old girl who is raped and impregnated against her will. The creatures, especially the Slurpers, are all symbolic of pregnancy through non-consensual sex.

    Sorry I'm ranting. Shutting up now.

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  2. I don't disagree with anything you've said, though I do stand by the fact that The Order is just not as good of a plot or narrative device than Silent Hill itself. I don't want to know about the religious motivations or mythology (which is exposition) of The Order because it puts a human face to all the surreality, which undercuts the whole experience. Yes I know SH2 was littered with these references as well, but that was why it was so much better. It was window dressing that never got in the way of the main story. If you so chose, you could find little bits and pieces that may imply some backstory so you could attempt to find the smallest semblance of context throughout the whole experience, and the strict parsing of that knowledge made the journey even more anxiety ridden, because you barely knew what to make of it all until the very end.

    I would agree that SH1&3 is primarily about Alessa, and it is her attempts to contain the dark powers that results in the "Nightmare" spreading across town (another thing western developers completely missed, the Otherworld is NOT an alternate universe), which is one of the examples as to why I assert that the storyline surrounding The Order does in fact affect the state of the town, but my point was that it simply isn't as affecting of a narrative as the psychological character study that was SH2.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't find the Team Silent games to be bad by any stretch of the imagination. In, fact, SH3 was pretty brilliant in its own right, & unquestionably the most overtly scary of all of them. (Even though I haven't gotten to play it to the end, I have done extensive research and YouTube watching. if you haven't checked out Twin Perfect's "The Real Silent Hill Experience, you're in for a treat.)

    And that's kind of my point. While Silent Hill 3 was still a brilliantly designed game, the scares are more, for lack of a better term, "in-your-face". That is not to say "jump scares" so much as it is to say blatant disturbing imagery littered throughout and many sequences of panic-inducing fast-paced terror. Silent Hill 2, by contrast, understood that the scariest things in life come from within you, and allowed you to connect to it in a very personal way, which is why I believe it is more affecting. Sure, The Order was well utilized in the TS games, but it didn't change the fact that any outside human influence on the narrative, however rooted in the mythology they may be, takes away from that personal connection and anxious dread of the second.

    I know there are many people who prefer SH3 to SH2, which I can totally respect and understand. However, my personal opinion is that Silent Hill 2 demonstrated the pinnacle of what the series can truly be.

    It's nice to find someone as passionate about Silent Hill as I am. I criticize it because I love it so. God, what I would give to have Masahiro Ito and Hiroyuki Owaku back on board.

    -VMA

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  3. I wasn't saying it wasn't exposition what I meant was The Order's primary form of exposition wasn't to explain away what was happening in the town itself but basically just dump their own mythology at us. Not entirely good, but I will admit I am a sucker for mythologies and fake religions, so that may explain the fact that I don't see them as much of a problem.

    I will agree that The Order does affect the town but only in the games they show up in, because their influence is effecting the primary characters, which in turn influences what the town shows us. They're an outside source which is why I never though they, or their cult put any face to what was going on around us. They just served as an antagonist that existed outside of the town, which I will agree does undercut the psychological/surreal aspect of the story to a fault, because their appearance and influence grounds us in reality. Though I did find Vincent to be a fantastic character and his speech to Heather towards the end that ends with "they look like monsters to you?" does make you question yourself.

    I did find SH3 the most overtly scary because as Twin Perfect said (glad to see someone else watched their series) it invited the player to satisfy our morbid curiosity. It was no where near as subtle or claustrophobic as SH2 but there was always this tension and this feel of panic.

    That is true, and as I admitted earlier The Order does take away from that personal stake that SH2 had.

    I myself am sort of on the fence between which one I like more. I can't really decide which one I find to be the superior of the two, though I do find myself going back and re-playing SH3 much more often than SH2.

    Indeed it is. And I don't blame you criticizing, the series is definitely not without its flaws, but being the nerd and hardcore Silent Hill fan that I am I had to make a few points in the series favor. Agreed I'd love to have them back on; or at least someone who understands the series and what makes it scary and powerful.

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