Thursday, March 9, 2017

Silent Hill: Downpour - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

After playing Silent Hill: Downpour, I'm kind of glad the franchise is dead. The quality of the Silent Hill series has been on a downwards trajectory since Origins (some will erroneously claim 4 but that's a different argument for another day), however Downpour is the first title to truly sully the brand. At least with Homecoming you can see that they were earnestly attempting to mimic the greatness of prior entries; Downpour takes the good will of Silent Hill fans and thoroughly crushes it. The momentary glimmers of intrigue fail to outweigh the boorish visuals, thematic bluntness, and despicable combat that await you inside Silent Hill's pitchy swan song.

I'm going to start with the subject that riles me up the most—the monsters. In Silent Hill: Downpour, there's a scant four enemy variants! Only four! Not only that, but three of them are simple humanoids that lack any deformities, gigantism, or grotesqueness that the series is infamous for. I cannot emphasize just how upsetting this is to me; in a franchise full of extremely unnervingfleshy abominations, why is it that Downpour is content to assault the player with this? The final boss of the game is somewhat disturbing but that's the lone exception; Silent Hill Downpour has paradoxically the most boring yet goofiest ensemble of enemies to ever grace a Silent Hill title. Gone are all attempts at subtlety or intricate design made to disgust the player. Scared of mines? Here are some gaunt, hairless trolls! Scared of jail? Here are shirtless prisoners with steel helmets à la Clockwork Orange! Scared of the police? Here is a cop car with barbed wire wrapped around its bumper!

The deliciously rotten mania that pervaded the series is painfully absent here, as Downpour's main character Murphy is as deep as a puddle. The game wants to evoke psychological horror but there's no contextual evidence that Murphy loathed prison or even regretted his jail time. Hell, we're not even given any evidence that his fellow inmates assaulted or scarred him; the only thing they're keen on doing is making dumb remarks before the game even begins. The story attempts to center itself around guilt and regret, two themes which seem apt given Murphy's incarceration, but these topics practically go nowhere outside of a handful of cutscenes. You'll collect scores of documents and complete half a dozen side quests, yet none of these will provide any sort of depth or character to an already paper-thin plot. Most of the notes you collect are rather boring and mundane, failing to color the town of Silent Hill in perverse, weird ways like the other games (they were actually so dull and listless that I couldn't help but think of Extermination as I read them).

The town of Silent Hill itself feels completely abandoned this time around—not eerily abandoned in a way that precisely conveys the unbearable woe at living there, but just... abandoned. Long stretches of silence await you as Murphy ambles through alleyways and treads down vacant streets, momentarily interrupted by enemies that are a cinch to outrun. It may not sound entirely dissimilar from the other games, but I promise that it's a significantly different experience when you play it, one that has left the Silent Hill of yore lame and neutered, now a former shell of its once haunting self. But hey, at least there's sidequests and puzzles to solve around the town!

The handful of houses you can explore for some light puzzle solving is arguably when Downpour is at its best. This isn't because the puzzles are brilliant or novel—I think what's here is pretty good, albeit largely unremarkable—but because any time you have to grapple with the game's terrible combat is when you realize what a mess the gameplay really is. The Silent Hill series has never had good combat, but it was at least tolerable while waiting for the next nightmarish story beat. Downpour on the other hand is too eager to throw the player into gladiatorial scenarios, especially in the game's latter half. Enemies take a pretty hefty beating to put down, your weapons quick to snap against their durable hides whenever they're not constantly blocking, dodging, or scrambling across the ceiling. There's no ebb or flow to the combat; fights are nonsensical and disorganized, highly reminiscent of the worst 2D arcade brawlers.

Outside of the serviceable puzzles and atrocious combat, there's not much left that's able to hold Downpour together. Nearly every item in the world that you come across is a weapon of some kind, and since you can only hold one you rarely feel the need to explore once you settle on something better than a stick. The design of the otherworld has its moments at times, but feels less like the rusted bowels of Hell and more like an Alice in Wonderland spinoff, complete with sideways stairs and kooky clock dials to cross. There's a strange, unexplained void that shows up every now and then to prompt chase sequences, which don't feel like they follow any kind of logic since the void can maneuver through physical barriers (for instance, if you head up a U-shaped flight of stairs it's likely to start sapping your health through the floor below). These sequences feel phenomenally dumb to play, as if an executive from Konami complained that Silent Hill wasn't cinematic enough and needed more scripted sequences and QTEs (which I forgot to mention—there's QTEs!) I found myself murmuring "well at least there are otherworld sections" in defense of this game, which is about the time I realized how low the bar had fallen for the franchise.

Silent Hill: Downpour is what I would best describe as "amateur fan fiction come to life". It tries to tick all of the boxes of what one might imagine Silent Hill to be: a tortured main character, spooky monsters, foggy town, multiple endings—but it lacks the nuance and craft the prior entries had mastered. It doesn't seek to carve its own path but merely vaguely imitate its predecessors, misunderstanding how important the concepts of unease and dread are to the franchise. Downpour is not a disgrace the same way Duke Nukem Forever is, but it's a soulless step down from greatness, a Korn to Silent Hill 2's Nirvana (speaking of, Korn composed the theme song to this game—a fitting union in retrospect!) The best way to describe how abysmal the game is is to walk you through how it squandered a good scare:

Inside of the Silent Hill monastery, there's a theater stage that has a witch's house prop from a Hansel & Gretel play. Inside of the house, there's an old chest that's locked by a puzzle, wherein you're trying to rotate the cubes on a grid until they form the portrait of a young girl sitting on a beach. In the center of the frame is the girl's doll, its smiling grimace squarely positioned on its own cube. After completing the picture I found that the chest still wasn't unlocking, and that's when I realized I had to rotate the head of the girl's doll to its true face. With a trepidatious hand I selected the cube with the doll and slowly spun it... to reveal a part of the girl's body I had placed elsewhere. Turns out what I had actually mistaken was a cube on the girl's left foot for her right foot, and simply needed to rotate that to complete the picture. After grabbing what I needed and leaving, the real "surprise" I received was when the house prop collapsed behind me, revealing that the structure had been two-dimensional the entire time! I couldn't help but chuckle, musing how this revelation was the perfect analogy for this game.

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