I saw an advertisement. The title in the logo said "Silent Hill," my favorite horror game's name. It's ridiculous, couldn't possibly be true... that's what I keep telling myself. A dead series can't put out a sequel. Silent Hill died with that damned Homecoming game four years ago. So then... why am I renting this? Could Silent Hill really be in this game... waiting for me?
(okay, if you didn't get that, stop reading my crap, go play Silent Hill 2. While we're on the subject, I've only played 1, 2 and Shattered Memories, so forgive me if I don't make an obvious connection to other entries)
Sometimes fate throws you a bone. Murphy Pendleton was riding a bus to a maximum security prison when it suddenly crashed, apparently leaving him as the only survivor. But sometimes, fate has thrown you a cleverly disguised pipe bomb. Now he's trapped in Silent Hill with... plenty of ways out actually, but you know how adverse horror game characters are to climbing or breaking through fences. So, yeah. We're stuck here.
Mechanically, Downpour is actually quite sound. Or at least as sound as a horror game should be. The tank controls of old entries is completely gone, but combat is crap, exactly the way it should be in a horror game. Melee feels like you're fighting in two feet of snow. Gunplay, a last resort because of very scarce ammo, is wobbly as hell, even moving the reticule around when you're not moving. The game uses destructible weapons which, though as stupid a concept as ever (don't tell me that metal fire axe won't last all game) is well implemented. There are enough weapons lying around that you're never completely defenseless and, similar to Dead Rising, you have to experiment a bit to find what's most effective. Though the inventory system does have some quirks. Murphy can't pocket small melee weapons, but he can pocket a pistol. He can keep a pistol in his pocket and a shotgun on his back, but not at the same time, so he can't use a melee weapon if he has both. I understand the balance issues here, but I think since my melee weapon's gonna break anyway, I could at LEAST carry both guns with me in addition. It worked in the old games.
Downpour also adds an element of exploration which works surprisingly well. The town is quite open from the get-go, and many buildings are open which can contain supplies, or even reveal honest-to-God side quests. Monsters are spread out enough that getting around town is tense, but not a chore.
So does it feel like there should be more to my plot summary up there when you take out my dumb jokes? Well, that's one of the big problems with the story. There isn't really anything keeping Murphy in town besides the physical walls around him. Until about the halfway point, it's basically an existentially terrifying Gilligan's Island, with no reason NOT to get out of town besides the fact that the story would be over. The only reason Murphy even knows where to go is because of some creepy mailman wandering around that's nothing more than a plot device. You encounter other characters too, and aside from one who plays a major role throughout the story, and another early on who actually seems to belong in a Silent Hill game, they're all quite superfluous.
Downpour gets the basics of how Silent Hill is supposed to work, but not the nuance. The otherworld (the even more evil version of the town) likes to jump straight into the crazy bits, instead of slowly creeping up on you. The first game had all kinds of clever tricks that made you wonder if you weren't just going insane, like suddenly having an extra floor in an elevator you've been in five times already. In downpour, you'll just be walking down a hall and BAM! Reality falls apart and you're in the otherworld. To its credit, it does do some cool things in there, even if it can go a bit over the top.
The issue of "not quite getting it" is also apparent in the monster design. The monsters aren't just hopelessly generic, they don't seem to reflect anything about Murphy's character. Of the three most common enemies, one is basically the woman from the Grudge, one is just kind of a dude with a head brace, and one looks like Slenderman fathered a Battletoad. Granted, given Murphy's apparent age, he might have been from the generation traumatized by Battletoads, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing the town would drudge up. Though, I do appreciate that this one doesn't re-use enemies and locations from the older games just because they're "iconic." Way to show restraint keeping Pyramid Head's appearance in a gag ending.
Puzzles do the same thing. It's all finding numbers to a safe or a keypad. No symbolism, no creepy stories behind them. Just looking for numbers! They're not even written in blood most of the time, c'mon! The occasional puzzle can stand out, especially in some of the side quests, but there's just too much of the boring ones in the main story. The level design is boring too, at least in the "real" world. The otherworld is more interesting but way too open for me to be scared of oncoming enemies. It's not scary if I can see fifty feet ahead of me in all directions!
The plot, on the other hand, is pretty decent once it gets rolling and Murphy has a reason to stick around, and everything comes together really well at the end with some solid plot twists. It's a good story about the cycle of revenge and what it does to people. Though I'm not crazy about some of the endings, which are determined by your "morality" and your final choice. What you do in the game actually CHANGES Murphy's past. That could work okay - it did in Shattered Memories - but some of them make it seem like Murphy didn't do anything bad in the first place. So why would he be in Silent Hill? You can't really face your darkest sins when you haven't committed any.
Also, when did it become "moral" to let the monsters live? I know it's not sportsmanlike to curb-stomp your enemies, but how is the world NOT better for me having ended every last one of those abominations? What, do they have loving monster families to support? Aren't they just projections of the town and my mind? It feels like they made that the morality system because they couldn't come up with more than three (3!) moral choices to fill a ten-hour game. Not that I really cared in my playthrough. Low karma is actually the ticket to the most satisfying ending, in my book.
Downpour is either a turning point for the series to get good again, or one last bit of decency before slipping into the abyss. It may be a decent game at heart, but it does a few too many weird, out-of-place things with the story, like the unnecessary characters and dumb monster design. Most damningly, it never really creates the strong atmosphere the series is known for. What makes a good horror game is the dread of what lies ahead, combined with the need to face it, and I never really dreaded anything in this one. Avoiding combat was more of a soundly chosen strategy than a desire brought on by the fear enemies struck into my heart. Nothing else in the game comes even close to disturbing or unsettling. But if you took these mechanics and put them in a better, more focused story, you could have a great game. I suppose time will tell where the series goes from here. Fingers crossed.