So here we are, the “second episode” of Unpolished Gems. Like my last rant about Alpha Protocol, I will occasionally be putting up reviews of games that are often reviled but I think are great in spite of their flaws. A little like Movie Defense Force for the Gamestop bargain bin. Today’s entry, as the title suggests, is Silent Hill Downpour.
The Silent Hill series doesn’t need any real help from me. The original Silent Hill set a high water mark for the genre that wouldn’t be beat until the debut of it’s own sequel in the following generation. Silent Hill 2 is widely regarded as one of if not the greatest survival horror game ever made, and for damn good reason. But that also began a slow decline- Silent Hill 3 and 4 were both good without ever being excellent, and after 4 the series was passed to a series of Western developers.
The series reached it’s nadir with the release of Silent Hill 0rigins (developed by Climax Studios) and Silent Hill Homecoming (developed by Double Helix), two games that completely missed the point of the series. Like a poor musician attempting the replicate the style of a master, both 0rigins and Homecoming attempted to hit all the “notes” of the Silent Hill series with any understanding of what made the first two games truly great. However, this slavish devotion to the superficial aspects of the series led to the games to have a fairly “scrambled” feel- as if the developers were ticking items off a list rather than crafting a cohesive game, leading to a salad of elements that were Silent Hill-like but didn’t feel like Silent Hill.
Then came Silent Hill Downpour.
By the time Vatra got ahold of the Silent Hill license, the Silent Hill star had certainly fallen. Having begun live in the hand of Konami, one of the oldest and most prestigious Japanese game companies, Silent Hill had ended up in the hands of a fledgling Czech developer whose only other game was an especially mediocre sequel in a virtually unknown series (Rush’n Attack: Ex-Patriot, if you’re curious). Homecoming and 0rigins were critically abhorred, and sales had sunk to catastrophic levels (in Japan, 0rigins sold less than 50k units, compared to the original’s 250k+. The original Silent Hill sold 1.6 million copies worldwide compared to Homecoming’s 150k*). The series was dying, but still had enough fans that Vatra could push out some uninspired shovelware and still get a hundred thousand or so in sales from fans.
Instead, Vatra decided to blow everyone away.
Downpour is the story of Murphy Pendelton, a convicted criminal who we meet as he’s being escorted through the prison in which he’s incarcerated. The gameplay kicks off with a combat tutorial, which we receive by beating a naked, unarmed man to death in the prison showers.
Thereafter, Murphy is transferred to another prison, at which his bus happens to suffer an accident on the outskirts of Silent Hill. Murphy takes this opportunity to escape, little knowing that there is no escape from Silent Hill. Every step seems to take him deeper and deeper into the fog-enshrouded town, pursued all the while by Anne, a corrections officer who was also on board the bus and seems to have some kind of grudge against Murphy. After a long exploration of the town, Murphy eventually finds his way to a boat on which he hopes to escape, only to be ambushed by Anne and fall unconscious. Both our protagonist and Anne then find themselves in Silent Hill’s own Overlook Penitentiary, where they are forced to confront (and possibly come to terms with) their shared past.
Now, don’t get me wrong- Downpour is an “unpolished gem”, and is far from perfect. The second area in the game is a pointless slog through a series of caves that culminates in a laugh-out-loud ridiculous encounter with a giant demonic head. Several of the “otherworld” segments contain unwelcome sequences where Murphy is forced to slide down chutes and dodge spikes. A particular peeve of mine is that the various documents you recover through the game are listed as “Mysteries” in your menu, while the game’s sidequests are called “Sidequests”. Wouldn’t it have been more in keeping with the series’ theme to call the notes “Notes” and the sidequests “Mysteries”?
But for all that the game gets wrong there is a lot that the game gets right. The game’s opener is indicative of the game’s strengths and flaws- it is shocking and violent, forcing you to undertake a violent act against an unarmed, naked man, creating a sense of guilt that the player is meant to carry with them throughout the game to mirror Murphy’s own psychological burden. However, the game shoots itself in the foot early- that dude you kill mentions that he is a cloistered prisoner at the beginning of the scene, and given that he’s a fat white man with an effeminate manner, most players are going to think “pedophile” right off. This acts to absolve the player’s actions before they even happen, because the prevalent Western opinion is that child molesters have it coming.
The monsters in the game get something of a bad wrap. Enemies in Silent Hill games are supposed to represent elements of the character’s psyche, but because the “sexy” nurses of Silent Hill 2 became popular, both the protagonists of Homecoming and 0rigins have “repressed sexuality issues” completely unrelated to anything in their respective storylines in order to shoehorn in nurses. Downpour manages to steer itself away from that, and the monsters actually represent things in Murphy’s psyche- Minions are the bullying prison guards, Screamers represent the wife who abandoned him, Juggernauts are his highly dangerous and barely contained fellow prisoners (Weeping Bats come from the pointless, unrelated cave segment mentioned above- like I said, it’s not perfect).
The Bogeyman in particular deserves special mention. It’s easy to write him off as a Pyramid Head ripoff, but two-thirds of the way through the game, it’s made clear that Bogeyman represents Murphy’s own potential for violence. Pyramid Head’s raison d’etre is to punish James, the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, for his crimes that even the player is unaware of. But the Bogeyman isn’t external- it’s a part of Murphy, and you even transform into him at the end of the game’s climax in order to resist or give in to the urge to do violence.
The game’s sidequests serve the purpose of inviting you to explore the town while offering some truly chilling moments. From following a trail of ribbons while searching for a lost autistic child to the “oh, fuck” moment when you open a bank’s vault, the alarm goes off, and in the distance you hear the roaring of monsters… the sidequests themselves are hit or miss, but the ones that hit are great.
The game continually goes back to themes of guilt, pursuit and the cycle of violence. Phantom patrol cars that spawn enemies patrol the external maps, the player is forced to hide in the city’s steam tunnels in order to travel around town, the otherworld segments involve racing to escape an inexorable, pursuing black hole. In a stroke of genius, the only times that the player is forced to attack enemies is when Murphy is actually inside a prison, representing the cycle of violence brought on by long-term incarceration. All other encounters can be run away from.
Silent Hill Downpour isn’t excellent, but it’s still a great game and is far better then even some of the Japanese Silent Hill games. If you take away the Japanophile bias and the nostalgia goggles, I think most people would think Downpour places higher in the series than both Silent Hill 3 and 4. As it is, Downpour has a metacritic score of 66- only just higher than Homecoming, and below even 0rigins- and frankly, that is a travesty.
*Sales figures are hard. The figure provided for Homecoming is North America only, but the trend should be obvious- I doubt there are 1.45 million Silent Hill fans hiding in Europe.