PS3/360 Review: Silent Hill Downpour



You’d be forgiven for not expecting much from Silent Hill: Downpour. After all, the landscape of survival horror games has shifted and changed so much since its inception that new entries in classic franchises barely resemble the genre output that made us love being scared on consoles to begin with.

The Resident Evil series became less about claustrophobic atmosphere and scary solo survival and more about blasting zombie hordes without a care in the world or just suplexing the undead as everything turned action-heavy. While the Silent Hill series has retained its spirit more than most, it still took the same path, with last major sequel Homecoming focusing largely around QuickTime Event-heavy combat. Thankfully Silent Hill Downpour takes a more careful approach to updating the series, opening up and expanding on familiar series gameplay in interesting ways while retaining the engrossing slow-burn story, spooky frights and intense, isolated atmosphere that made Silent Hill the benchmark for survival horror.

As always, the story finds a troubled soul trapped in the eerie town of Silent Hill – a place where the ghosts of a tormented past can quite literally come back to destroy their victim. Convict Murphy Pendleton is in the process of a prison transfer, serving time for crimes unknown, but during the trip the bus takes a spill off the road and into the woods. When Murphy wakes up, everyone in the bus is gone, fog has overrun the town and monsters are crawling out of the woodwork as he struggles to piece together where he is and how to find a way home before his demons tear him apart.
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Plot-wise, Silent Hill Downpour is let down slightly by the fact that it never really offers any real surprises. Almost all the major twists and turns of Downpour’s story become clear in the first half hour or so, and though the writing hints at some thought-provoking, morally dark and interesting detours for the series, none of them come to pass and the narrative plays out pretty much exactly as expected. Even so, it’s an engrossing, well-told tale that’s gripping, creepy and bolstered by some solid voice acting and an effectively eerie soundtrack.

The gameplay itself steers back more towards the roots of Silent Hill’s intense survival horror action and puzzling and mercifully away from the Quick-Time Event-heavy combat of Homecoming. There’s a solid block-and-parry melee system weaved in and breakable weapons are still a factor, which might irk some players, but the prevalence of a massive variety of killing tools from lamps to pipes and wrenches to firearms dotted around the town offers tried-and-true survival horror dwindling resources tension without the frustration that the combat of Homecoming introduced. And, taking a little from Shattered Memories’ DNA, the fleeing mechanic that featured prominently in that game returns here to lesser extent – you can run from any enemy if the combat’s not to your liking, peeking over your shoulder to get a panic-inducing glance at how close pursuing enemies are.
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That ‘run like hell’ element wears out its welcome a little in the game’s Otherworld sections, where you’re running through mazes of grimy, rusty corridors from an abstract, indestructible, black, glowing void. The black hole that chases you can move vertically through buildings, so you can be running up stairs only to find your amorphous pursuer is magically ahead of you and quickly draining your life. There’s also frequent pausing and stuttering when transitioning between areas of the map. That aside, the gameplay is a huge improvement over Homecoming, sprinkling in cleverly-designed puzzles, while combat and enemy interaction is varied, enjoyable, and at long last actually scary again. Getting ominous glimpses of unearthly creatures shambling in the fog is tremendously spooky, and having brutish, shrieking, nightmarish creatures suddenly get the drop on you as you’re exploring back streets of the town is instantly panic-inducing.

The monsters aren’t as surreally ghoulish as those of Silent Hill 1 and 2, but there’s been actual effort to make the creatures creatively reflect the symbolic torment of our protagonist in the way that the Silent Hill games used to, rather than just rehash old designs – thankfully those nurse-monsters are nowhere to be found. There’s some commendably unsettling set-pieces, most notably a train ride wherein the monsters creepily shamble closer every time the lights flicker out, evoking Doctor Who’s wonderfully frightening episode Blink. Downpour conjures up a tonne of palpable atmosphere, which goes a long way towards making the story more involving, but more than that, developer Vatra Games go to impressive lengths to expand on the core exploration of the town and give you more to do throughout the game without ever sacrificing that contained, claustrophobic sense of dread and tension.
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Free-roaming side missions aren’t exactly new for the Silent Hill series. Since the first entry there’s been optional story bits to discover while roaming the fog-drenched streets of everyone’s favourite nightmare town, but Downpour approaches that with a much broader sense of scope. Sure, it’s not going to rival Fallout for longevity, but with a massive map to traverse, if you choose to seek out the side-story stuff, there’s a good 30-plus extra hours of gameplay to enjoy with a much wider sense of exploratory freedom while retaining the atmospheric claustrophobia that made those fog-soaked streets so terrifying.

While some are a little too simplistic (like finding five bird cages) or too obtuse, expecting you to simply scour the town blindly for puzzle items, most of the optional objectives introduce some wonderfully creepy story vignettes (the search for a mission autistic girl being the unsettling standout) and expand on the core gameplay and atmosphere of the Silent Hill franchise without losing sight of what made the series so great to begin with. Like the core game, the cleverly designed puzzles will have you jotting down notes and potential solutions to riddles on a notepad the way the brain-taxing puzzles of survival horror games used to.
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A solid, but largely revelation-free story disappoints a little, as do the slightly awkward and repetitive Otherworld chase sections, but despite that, Silent Hill Downpour is an impressive return to form for the franchise after the last couple of less-than-stellar core sequels. It’s incredibly creepy and oozing with dread-filled atmosphere, but Vatra Games also expand on the exploration and puzzles of the series, broadening the scope of its gameplay with a bountiful stack of engrossing side-missions that’ll have you spending countless more hours lost and wetting your pants in the fog-drenched streets and back alleys of Silent Hill.

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Silent Hill Downpour is available to buy now for PS3 and Xbox 360.
Click here to buy the game from Amazon.co.uk.