Silent Hill: Downpour review

Silent Hill: Downpour review

You can read this review in full in our print edition.

Our May issue, which goes on sale April 11, includes a Post Script article which looks at what other games in the horror genre can learn from Downpour.

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As the opening minutes of Silent Hill: Downpour attest, it doesn’t get much more grisly than execution-style murder in a prison shower. The hard, smooth surface of its floor and walls too easily conjure the impression of a butcher’s shop, its tiles simply waiting to be wiped clean with a cloth and the blood rinsed into a floor drain. Showers are where people take off their clothes and spend a few minutes in their most vulnerable state, which is why the idea of violence – sexual or otherwise – in a shower setting is so uniquely disturbing. There are reams of precedent for this in film, from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the bathhouse knife fight in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. The scenario never gets easier to stomach.

If Downpour’s shower room is a butcher shop, your victim – a fellow convict – is a corn-fattened hog, repulsive with his droopy breasts and a scarred paunch sagging over a waist towel. Without a weapon or the athleticism to defend himself, he just whimpers and calls for help as this sordid gameplay tutorial flashes the attack button prompt. Press X to send prisoner Murphy Pendleton’s blade jabbing with a squelchy slap into your victim’s clavicle. No amount of arm waving and hopping about in front of the security camera will do this sorry side of pork any good.

Moments earlier, the dirty guard who coerced you into this errand has you turn on all the showers to fill the room with steam, thwarting the camera’s gaze. The water spraying from the shower heads foreshadows the game’s titular downpour; the steam mimics the eerie fog that’s been a staple of the Silent Hill franchise since the very beginning. It’s a potent sequence whose effect could only be neutered by Pendleton waking up with a start on his prison bunk. Of course, that’s exactly what happens. Press Y to realise it was all just a dream; hold B to suppress your groan reflex.

This opening sequence is emblematic of the larger Downpour experience, which repeatedly frustrates by inflating our hopes with delightfully squirm-inducing tension and violence, only for appalling design ideas to squash the proceedings whoopee-cushion flat. You’ll meander around lost for an hour because you didn’t notice a door concealed in the pitch-black corner of a room, correctly surmise the method for solving a puzzle but have a speck of obtuse logic block your success, and spit curses at the Objectives page in your notebook for only listing items you’ve already completed.

Such foibles are enough to drive you mad in the real world, which is a pity given how expertly Vatra’s artists and animators simulate mental decay when they set their minds to it. The most visually arresting moments of the game involve Silent Hill’s drab world peeling back in an abruptly hallucinogenic turn to reveal a vivid otherworld that evokes Ken Kesey’s 1960s ‘Acid Tests’ and MC Escher at his most architecturally exuberant. In this realm, you will solve puzzles one moment, and flee down corridors away from a throbbing red vortex the next. In other words, the game looks best when it takes a break from looking stereotypically Unreal and focuses all of its energy on looking simply unreal.

The story proper gets under way after the bus transferring Pendleton and a group of other prisoners to a different lock-up facility careens off the road into a wooded gorge – a sequence lifted straight from The Fugitive – and our antihero finds himself marooned in Silent Hill. He’s still smarting from the loss of his son and struggling to come to grips with how the tragedy transpired. As the earlier dream sequence suggested, he has done awful things, but he’s also had awful things befall him. His grip on reality grows increasingly tenuous, and he’s not the only one to survive the crash. A curiously embittered guard also managed to escape with her life and hunts him with unflagging resolve.

Vatra groomed its Silent Hill to feel artfully vacant. Even the company of monsters renders a setting less lonely. When they do arrive, you’ll wish you could borrow Pendleton’s gun and turn it on yourself. Lock-on is finicky, and you’ll get accustomed to swinging melee weapons haplessly in the wrong direction. During fights with multiple banshees, the framerate often resembles a Skype conference over a poor connection. And in an attempt to clear the screen of immersion-breaking HUD elements, Downpour buries your exact health percentage in the start menu under ‘Statistics’. If you don’t want to pause the fight every few seconds, you’re left to guess based on your worsening limp and how much blood’s accumulated on your shirt, never quite certain how long you can put off burning that next precious first-aid kit.

The game’s refusal to incentivise combat through rewards for killing enemies – or force it by gating your progress until they’re dispatched – seems like a tacit mea culpa. And it doesn’t help that the penalty for dying involves staring at a patience-trying load screen that flashes tips such as: “If you get stuck on a puzzle, try approaching it from a different angle”.

With combat proving such a drag, your interest in untangling Pendleton’s tale of woe will determine whether or not you press on. The collectible memos, letters and other assorted clues are engaging, but the insistence on surprising players prompts some eye-rolling revelations. As far as plot-twist clichés go, Downpour trots out all of the usual suspects.

You’ll be tempted to bail out early, but we’d urge to wait until you’ve witnessed Downpour’s one genuinely astonishing set-piece, which involves an abandoned children’s production of Hansel and Gretel. It’s a sequence that bends reality so deftly you’ll feel like Lucy backing through wardrobe coats until she feels Narnia’s branches scratching her neck.

Xbox 360 version tested. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the Welcome To Silent Hill Edge forum thread, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.

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