Your very first encounter of Silent Hill: Downpour is not with that of a wretched wheelchair-bound monstrosity, nor the series’ iconic Pyramid Head. No, the very first victim you bury a knife into is that of a pale, overweight prisoner in the cold, sterile shelter of a prison shower. It’s one of the game’s most jarring moments that also acts as a quick and dirty tutorial. Quick and dirty, much like the errand you just completed as one Murphy Pendleton, an inmate who’s been locked away for a crime that isn’t made immediately clear. Your reasons for senselessly murdering a helpless, blubbering sheep of a man are murky at best, much like Downpour’s meandering plot and identity as the newest entry into the franchise. And while Silent Hill has been mired in a strange, genre-shifting limbo for quite some time, it’s never been able to pull off any direction but disturbing. Silent Hill: Downpour for all intents and purposes is a return to form for the classic mindscrew, but it remains riddled with bizarre design decisions that prevent it from blossoming into the classic Silent Hill fans have been waiting for.
After assuming control of a newly-released Pendleton (through events I won’t spoil here) you’re left to your own devices, to wander around and out of the infamous Silent Hill – it’s amazing how close our protagonists always seem to find themselves to the town before and after crises, isn’t it? Looking for a way out, for help, or for another living soul seems to be the name of the game from the onset, and in the middle of an ominous downpour, as the title foreshadowed, at that. As now ex-con Murphy wanders the landscape he’s soon plagued with horrors, both internal and external, personal tragedy weighing heavily on his mind. It’s up to you to guide him to safety and to unravel the series of mysteries that soon crop up.
Of course, in doing so you’ll be faced with the maimed creatures each nightmare world trots out, as well as a series of locked doors that inexplicably can’t be opened despite Murphy’s various treasure trove of weapons, and the familiar streets that end only in a deep, dark chasm – you’re not going to be careening out of town in a stolen vehicle any time soon, that’s for sure. Luckily, plenty of melee weapons (and a few sidearms) are scattered throughout each area that work to protect and serve as perfect objects for bludgeoning, say, locks and such. Only one weapon such as a wrench or a pipe be held at a time, so once you’ve found a good one, you’d do well to hold onto it. Or just drop one when you’ve gotten some fingerprints on it and pick up the next identical weapon that will inevitably be found in the next room.
Be it a wrench or a steel pipe, the weapons at your disposal feel just the same. Does it behoove you to pick up a crow bar and leave the wrench behind? Or should you stick to using a gun? There’s no real way to discern which weapon is better than another, so it comes down to personal preference. It’s obvious that guns should be more convenient, but the scant amount of ammo serves as a harsh reminder that your best friend will often be a steel pipe or something great for bashing brains in, an activity you’ll be engaging in quite often – begrudgingly, I might add.
Caving a shuffling Doll’s head in, or any other enemy for that matter, never truly seems to fit with the game’s theme of fleeing from the danger that presents itself. Even the ever-present theme of water in its various forms (the weather reacts with the danger ahead) you’re always faced with respawning enemies and nuisances that only serve as a distraction rather than set-pieces to scare you with. With so many weapons popping up here and there, it’s almost as if Vatra is encouraging confrontations rather than attempting to keep players moving and exploring. The bizarre Void that follows Pendleton, sucking up all in its path, dealing an instantaneous death should it touch him, seems only to enforce this theme, but coupled with the prison escapee’s stoic attitude toward each and every strange occurrence that befalls him, isn’t really all that surprising.
Sifting through menus for important stat information, answering what feel like fundamentally useless “morality” questions that only result in different endings and aren’t readily apparent which decision will net a better one, and choppy frame rate issues only seek to mar Downpour further. There are no rewards for choosing to stay and combat the nasties that encroach on your pathway out of a run-down diner or through a narrow passageway, and clumsy fighting mechanics that find you swinging and missing like a particularly terrible baseball player at bat will land you at a game over screen faster than the game can offer a decidedly un-helpful “tip.”
And it’s really a shame, because amidst cheap jump-scares and tired plot revelations, Downpour serves up some truly inventive landscapes. M.C. Escher would be proud of the never-ending staircases and mind-bending architecture prominently featured in many of Pendleton’s shifts from reality to hell. I spent ten minutes running up that same hill before realizing I might need to try another way. For a linear title that doesn’t take too many chances, it was a design decision I could truly get behind. The third-person view and color palette feel very much like Alan Wake, the game Downpour feels as though it’s trying to emulate, and the production values are top-notch. David Hayter’s contribution to Pendleton’s role is an interesting one, and cut scenes can be gorgeous, when they’re not bogged down with graphical hiccups. Daniel Licht’s score is one of the rare high points, and the instances in which the familiar somber tone of a mandolin annotates the action on-screen particularly delight.
What made the original Silent Hill tetralogy such engaging exercises in psychological horror only serves as a backdrop to a tale that tries desperately to match the atmosphere of the series’ more memorable yarns. It’s clear Vatra was dead set on creating a world that feels strikingly lonely, but dropped the ball when it comes to creating a world that truly repulses and keeps players engaged. From the uninspired creature set to the nightmare worlds Pendleton finds himself thrust into, Downpour reeks of an Americanized Japanese horror film meant to “shock” sensitive players into cowering and crying for their mothers. In reality, it very rarely serves up any more chills than that of a made-for-TV horror movie. Conflicting design ideas and an identity crisis have befallen the Silent Hill series, and I’m hopeful that whatever comes next can remain true to the source material while still leaving a personal stamp. The ball’s in your court, developers.