Having not played a Silent Hill title since The Room, which I found incredibly disappointing, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Silent Hill: Downpour. I was pleased to find that the series had returned to its roots – though not surprised by too much else in the game. I’ll resist the urge to explain that right away, as doing so might give you inaccurate impressions on the overall experience.
The story follows a convict named Murphy Pendleton, though it takes a few hours to find out just why he was convicted in the first place. There are certain implications of a violent nature in Murphy, both from the noticeable scars on his face and his quiet, understatedly intimidating demeanor, but don’t get the wrong impression; much like a Transformer, there is more to Murphy than meets the eye.
The opening scene, which functions as your tutorial mission, starts with a guard named Sewell freeing you from your cell, as per an agreement they made before the story begins. You don’t hear precisely what it was right away, but between Sewell’s smug, dangerous attitude and Murphy’s determined yet withdrawn manner, it’s clear that something ugly is about to go down.
You hit the showers, the guard tells you to turn all of them on because the steam fogs the camera lenses (foreshadowing for both Silent Hill’s trademark fog and Downpour’s rain mechanic), and find a knife sitting on a bench. A fat, piggish looking pedophile enters through another door, looks extremely nervous to see Murphy there, and… let’s just say you get your combat tutorial.
This brief encounter, which is based on several real-life instances of institutional corruption in state correctional facilities, forms the moral/ethical backbone of the story. When you eventually end up in the town of Silent Hill, many puzzles and story elements will touch on the incident, and how it relates to Murphy’s past.
While the graphic, uncomfortable opening scene was certainly provocative, the real fun starts when you set foot on the foggy streets of Silent Hill. The graphics won’t blow you away, but they do a fine job of capturing both the town itself and the fear it inspires in Murphy.
A lot of the best parts are in the smallest details; an overturned shopping cart in an alley speaks of abandonment. A murder of crows sitting on a telephone wire, barely visible in the obscuring fog, suggest that the town is watching you — which, of course, it is.
When the town and its terrible denizens start taking a more active role in torturing Murphy’s troubled mind, you see his shoulders tense, his head start peeking around compulsively, his eyes darting back and forth. Murphy is terrified of the place, and that emotion seeps through to the player. To top it all off, if you spend too long outside it will begin to rain, which not only limits your field of vision but also agitates any monsters who happen to be lurking about. When the rain comes, it’s best to seek shelter.
These kinds of details make exploration the most frightening aspect of the game. Silent Hill games have always capitalized on suspense rather than cheap ‘ohmygodsomethingisjumpingoutofthecloset!!!!’ thrills, and Downpour is no exception. Many of the game’s areas force you to rely on the narrow beam of your flashlight as your sole means of navigation, and when you can only see a third of the screen your mind turns every tiny little sound you hear into your worst nightmare.
You’ll find yourself spinning in circles looking for whatever is tapping against a wall or dragging its feet across the ground, and often the times when you find nothing are more terrifying simply because your own imagination knows what scares you more than any game designer possibly could – which is, of course, what they capitalize upon.
Speaking of sound for a moment, the sound design in Silent Hill: Downpour is worthy of note. The horror genre, more than any other, relies on good sound work to create proper immersion. Daniel Licht, stepping in for longtime Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, does a fantastic job in sculpting the game’s music into just the right shapes for any given situation.
When Murphy enters a new area the music is typically very quiet, with ambient sounds and light percussion, which subtly gives the sense that Murphy is keeping his ears open for trouble in an unfamiliar place. When you hear a door slam in an adjacent room or a machine start up on its own, the sound seems deafening in the confines of that relative silence.
New discoveries or enemy encounters in an area add instrumental layers to the place’s theme, which shows how the town is working on Murphy’s mind – each new horror gets his heart pumping a little faster. During the game’s most climactic moments, industrial overtones and hammering percussion create the sound of sheer panic, punctuated by Murphy’s screams.
Players who lament the loss of Yamaoka will appreciate that a good selection of music from earlier SH titles can be played through radios that Murphy will find scattered throughout buildings around town – though leaving a stereo playing while you explore an unfamiliar place will put you at risk of not hearing an enemy’s approach early on. You’ll want to watch your back carefully in such situations.
To this end, the developers added a feature where pressing one of the shoulder buttons allows you to quickly look over Murphy’s shoulder. It’s a fairly small detail, but it adds tremendously to a player’s sense of paranoia and claustrophobia; I found myself constantly watching looking behind me as I traversed the eerie hellscape of the abandoned town.
Another similar detail is the ability to slowly open a door, allowing you to peek through first and see if something is lurking on the other side. This was somewhat disappointing by the end, as there were only a handful of occasions when it actually came in handy, but I still peeked first pretty much every time.
To be fair though, half of the reason for my caution wasn’t even that I was too worried about being spooked, as that’s kind of what I’m going for while playing the game in the first place. Most of the enemies aren’t even especially scary, compared to some of the mind-bending abominations in previous Silent Hill entries.
Don’t get me wrong – you’d hate to see any of these critters wandering the streets of your real life hometown, but they’re hard pressed to live up to Pyramid Head and some of the other classics. The primary reason you want to be as careful as possible is that enemies in this game are a tremendous pain in the ass.