Monday, October 24, 2022

Silent Hill: Downpour (Xbox 360)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill: Downpour.

Like previous western-developed Silent Hill titles, especially Silent Hill: Homecoming (Homecoming), Silent Hill: Downpour (Downpour), originally released in 2012, has proven contentious, with a divisive reception from critics and longtime fans even to this day. It doesn’t help, of course, that Downpour ended up as the final main game in the franchise ever, with no future plans from Konami as of this writing. It also doesn’t help that its rocky development led to some notable changes. For one, Konami handed development to Vatra games, a Czech studio whose only other title was the critically-panned Rush'n Attack: Ex-Patriot, the 2011 sequel to Rush'n Attack (originally Green Beret) from 1985. Series mainstay Akira Yamaoka also left Konami around this time, with Daniel Licht of Dexter fame filling in as the composer and Korn set to provide a song, “Silent Hill”, that served as the main theme. Even the main concept of playing as a criminal, eschewing the series’ tradition of playing as ordinary people, met with some resistance during early development and focus testing, with those who didn’t want to play as “a bad guy” (ignoring James Sunderland’s actions in Silent Hill 2, it seems).

Since I played Downpour years after the fact, however, I went in without any nostalgia for the series, so the knowledge of its development didn’t affect my outlook that much, if at all. As for cost and accessibility, Downpour didn’t fare as well as Homecoming. When Sony announced the closure of certain storefronts, which they quickly backpedaled on, there was a brief point where you literally could not find a single North American PS3 copy on eBay and I couldn’t find it in the wild. As such, I bought a complete Xbox 360 copy (with a rather beat up case) on eBay for about $55, though that price may have gone up by the time of this posting. Like Homecoming, I also played it on an Xbox One to eliminate the possibility of a perfect circle scratch (a fate worse than death for a Silent Hill title). After three full playthroughs (more on that later), I honestly found Downpour the most underrated of the western Silent Hill titles, even with its very noticeable flaws, and believe the hate towards it is overblown.

Murphy Pendleton has been incarcerated at Ryall State Prison for years after stealing a police cruiser. During his stay, he kills Patrick Napier, the man who killed his son, while officer George Sewell turns a blind eye. Sometime later, after a prison riot, Murphy is placed on a bus with other inmates for a transfer to Wayside Maximum Security Penitentiary while under the watchful eye of officer Anne Cunningham, who snaps at the mention of a mysterious incident involving Murphy. During the ride, however, the street cuts off, forcing the bus to swerve through a road barrier and tumble down a hill, killing most of the passengers onboard. When Murphy comes to, he finds himself in a forest and makes a run for it, soon entering the town of Silent Hill, where he confronts his past and his guilt over his son’s death.

Murphy Pendleton survives the bus crash outside of Silent Hill.

For the most part, Downpour has an intriguing story that can keep the player invested in what happens to Murphy. As with most Silent Hill games, Murphy faces some very personal demons and his relationships, particularly with his son and Anne, give the game a different feeling on subsequent playthroughs. At certain points, Murphy is approached by a mysterious mailman who, while we never find out who he really is, seems to know a lot about Murphy and usually tells him exactly what he needs to hear, for better or worse. There’s also a radio DJ, DJ Ricks, who ominously makes multiple dedications to Murphy on the air, but also makes sneaks in cries for help that humanize him and make him endearing to the point where I actually felt bad for him when he met his ultimate fate. Murphy may also trigger flashbacks in the environment, but these have a unique execution of playing out during gameplay instead of a regular cutscene, giving more of the impression that Murphy is reliving each moment in front of the audience.

At certain points, Murphy will encounter The Bogeyman (not to be confused with Homecoming’s Bogeyman), a mysterious being in a coat who wields a giant hammer. Veteran players can quickly make surface level comparisons between The Bogeyman and Pyramid Head, as they’re both silent figures who wield a giant weapon and act as a manifestation of the main character’s guilt. However, the execution of The Bogeyman feels more unique from the likes of The Butcher (Silent Hill: Origins) and Bogeyman, since more than one character can see it and its identity changes depending on the viewer. Without giving too much away, this aspect leads to some memorable scenes and can open some interesting discussion about its symbolism.

The Bogeyman follows Murphy throughout his journey.

As I played the game multiple times, I also picked up what I interpreted as a reference to an entire scene from Silent Hill 3 (SH3), though executed differently. In SH3, there’s a moment at Lakeside Amusement Park where Douglas seriously contemplates shooting Heather to end the conflict early, though Heather doesn’t hold it against him because she had a very similar thought. In Downpour, Anne confronts Murphy in a cave and prepares to shoot him, with Murphy ready to accept his fate, but she can’t bring herself to do it, showing that she at least momentarily still has some humanity left in her. Once the player learns why Anne wanted to kill Murphy, the scene takes on a very personal and tragic context that still fits the tone of the series. In both SH3 and Downpour, the player can even walk back to the other character and check if they’re okay, leading to additional dialogue telling Heather or Murphy to keep going, but with very different tones (telling Heather not to worry about Douglas and telling Murphy to leave or he really will get shot).

As much as I enjoyed the story, however, some sticking points do lead to varying levels of frustration. For one, Downpour reinforces the Native American connection through the lore surrounding the Devil’s Pit, with mention of artifacts discovered there and ceremonies for the deity Kwekwaxawe, as well the area originally bearing the name Kwekwaxawe Kanesda. Though this isn’t actually an issue, the execution of the connection with Native American culture in Silent Hill: Revelation, which went all in on the “Indian Burial Ground” cliché, and Origins skirting that line made me worry that Downpour might also reach that conclusion (fortunately, it didn’t).

A bigger issue, however, comes from the unskippable cutscenes. This alone made playing the game three full times (more on that later) more frustrating, since every other game in the series lets the player skip at least some cutscenes. Ironically, not skipping anything gave me more of a chance at analyzing what Downpour went for and made me appreciate it more, but it can still make potential speedruns of the game longer than necessary, especially if you’re going for a certain ending. Players may also find issue with how the exact nature of Murphy’s crime depends on which of the six endings they achieve, as it can make it hard to connect with him and the endings don’t always fit the rest of game. From my experience and observation, however, Ending A or B seem the most likely as the canon ending (in fact, the tie-in comic Silent Hill Downpour: Anne’s Story, written by Tom Waltz, one of the co-writers of Downpour, suggests that Ending B is canon).

Read Anne's Story for more details.

On startup, what surprised me most was that after four main entries, Downpour finally reinstated separate Action and Riddle levels, this time called Game and Puzzle difficulties, ranging from Easy to Hard. I’ll admit that for all three of my playthroughs, I played with both difficulties set to Easy (a difficulty mysteriously absent from Homecoming) and on my first run, I ended up consulting a walkthrough at times just to make sure I didn’t miss certain key items (more on that later). Downpour also felt the closest to recapturing the spirit of the Team Silent games, taking the best elements of the old formula (while ignoring the limitations that Origins exposed) and combining some of the best elements of modern game design that Homecoming and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Shattered Memories) brought to the table. Part of this also includes the addition of karmic choices at certain points in the story, which help influence the type of the ending the player will get alongside whether or not they kill a majority of the monsters they face.

Downpour’s modern design elements include the updated controls that remove most of the awkwardness of the traditional Team Silent control scheme while further improving the streamlined elements from Homecoming and Shattered Memories. Each button on the D-Pad quickly accesses different options: Up displays the inventory in real time with no separate screen necessary, Down toggles the Lighter if Murphy has it, Left equips Murphy’s gun (more on that later) and Right automatically heals Murphy with one of his First Aid Kits. Clicking the left stick toggles the flashlight(s), if Murphy has one, and the Bumpers serve two purposes. Both Bumpers scroll through the inventory much faster (a godsend with how many items Murphy can potentially obtain), but out in the field, RB lets Murphy run and, taking a cue from Shattered Memories, LB lets Murphy glance behind himself for any pursuing monsters.

Exploration also incorporates different elements of its predecessors. There are points where Murphy must overcome an obstacle, but in most instances, Downpour removes the extra step of a context-sensitive button prompt and instead lets him pass automatically. Much like Shattered Memories, the player must push the stick forward so he can fully open a door and pass through, though this gives the benefit of checking a room for danger before committing. Opening certain doors will also allow for shortcuts, though they aren’t usually relevant for too long, if at all. Some obstacles also require specific weapons, like using metal weapons to break boards or breaking locks with smaller melee weapons and rocks. Players may also need to keep Murphy properly balanced when crossing beams. During certain moments when the camera focuses on something other than Murphy, Murphy still maintains free movement, which can help the player get a leg up on outrunning enemies or solving problems.

One mechanic introduced for Downpour is the Forensic Flashlight, which replaces the regular flashlight, though the player can still toggle normal light. With the Forensic Flashlight, Murphy can see new details under a UV light, including footprints, drag marks and even certain enemies. Knowing when to use regular light and UV light can help the player more effectively solve certain puzzles and helps greatly with completing certain side quests (more on that later). In times where Murphy doesn’t have the UV light, he can instead light up blue candles that have the same effect.

Shadow enemies are only visible under UV light.

As part of the game’s leaning toward the Team Silent games, the puzzles are more complex and have more variety than those in Homecoming and Shattered Memories, but aren’t too difficult for players to figure out, at least on Easy. This variety ranges from following a stage script or arranging elements on a desk to manipulating panels for an image. Though I didn’t experience the higher difficulties, I am aware from outside knowledge that Hard Puzzle difficulty also adds in some elements of realism. For example, for one side quest where Murphy needs a replacement bulb for a film projector, players can find the bulb in a nearby hardware store. I also noticed that door and safe combinations are exactly the same on every playthrough, which can let players skip certain sections entirely and help ease the frustration of the unskippable cutscenes.

Combat also incorporates elements from multiple Silent Hill games, for better or worse. One major improvement over Homecoming is that Murphy will more often fight in wider areas, which makes avoiding combat far easier. Should the player enter combat, Murphy may have to perform finishing moves on downed enemies, as Travis from Origins did, to completely kill them. Whether or not the player does so can affect the ending they receive, as each enemy left incapacitated or completely avoided increases a hidden karma statistic and killing enemies lowers it in kind. Also, like Travis, Murphy can fight barehanded. While not as powerful as simply using a weapon, fighting this way can work in a pinch and more easily ensure that enemies are incapacitated. For the first time, players can also throw pretty much every weapon excluding guns, though without an aiming reticle for whatever reason. This ability never really came up for me, but there was one time during a Bad Karma run where a finishing move wouldn’t go off, so I had to throw Murphy's weapon so the enemy would finally die.

In perhaps an odd influence from Silent Hill 4: The Room’s (SH4) hidden One Weapon Mode, Murphy can only hold one melee weapon and one gun each at a time. While this does streamline the inventory system and can feel limiting, the game mitigates this by littering the environment with weapons of all kinds, even placing key weapon types like fire axes or ladder hooks near the most relevant locations. When switching to a firearm, Murphy will drop whatever melee weapon he’s holding and the player must pick it back up when they’re done, though guns can also double as melee weapons if necessary. Unlike Homecoming, Downpour’s guns actually have a form of auto-aim, at least on Easy, so precision is less of a hassle. However, Downpour also brings back the breakable weapons aspect from Origins, which can get annoying at times. For instance, there’s a specific moment where already possessing a metal weapon should help get past a wooden barrier, but no matter how fresh the weapon is, it will break after two hits, railroading the player into a sequence where they must grab a fire axe and then run away from a group of Doll enemies. Once I caught on to how this scripted sequence worked, I just felt annoyed that nothing could bypass it.

For the first time in the series, Downpour features fourteen optional side quests that span across the entire town of Silent Hill, or at least the portion represented in the game. Each of these side quests have their own unique rewards, though not all of them are worth the effort. Sometimes you’ll obtain helpful First Aid Kits and powerful weapons, but other times you won’t get much of anything except an achievement (and the transition to the final chapter relieves Murphy of all weapons and items, which can make the endeavor feel pointless anyway). Additionally, some side quests are short and self-contained while others are much longer and can make players run around to specific locations collecting items, only to eventually return to the starting point. From my experience, two of the better side quests are “Digging Up the Past”, required for a hilarious joke ending, and the multi-stage “Homeless” side quest, which opens up the subway tunnels for faster access to different districts (for completing more side quests) and shelter from the rain.

The "Homeless" side quest is worth it while tackling other side quests.

Speaking of rain, Silent Hill will occasionally experience a rainstorm. During a storm, enemies will appear more frequently and act more aggressively, which can make combat more difficult. Unless players want the extra challenge, they can enter buildings and wait until the storm subsides. I will mention, however, that I observed two instances of the rain stopping under different circumstances: once when reloading a save from the main menu (I selected the Continue option) and once when freeing a bird from its cage as part of a long side quest.

Every so often during the main story, the town will transform into the Otherworld, which Murphy must survive. While these sections can provide unique combat challenges and puzzles, there are also sequences that feel inspired by Shattered Memories, in which Murphy must outrun a void that swallows everything in its path, all while dodging obstacles and turning strategically placed valves. I found the Otherworld sequences in this game engaging, as they provide a very different experience than the previous games and explore a new approach that future games could have potentially built on.

Although Downpour generally handles its gameplay elements very well, there are some frustrations that are hard to ignore. As is the apparent tradition for Silent Hill games, Downpour is perfectly content with letting you leave without important items, which in this case includes the lighter, but also the flashlight and walkie-talkie, two that were pretty much guaranteed in previous installments. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a green locker that lets you access pre-order weapons by entering one of three codes, but once you input a code, that locker is permanently set for the items associated with that code, even on replays. Since these items aren’t required, I’d suggest simply avoiding the locker altogether. On a lesser note, there’s no Results screen, as was the case for Homecoming and Shattered Memories, and players can only determine Murphy’s exact health value within the Statistics screen and not through a useful health bar like SH4 or Homecoming (this does make the HUD more nonexistent, but the option would have been nice).

It's possible to not have the flashlight for some reason.

Combat isn’t fully safe either. For whatever reason, the Shadows that spawn from Dolls don’t seem to have a set range, as they had chased me between multiple consecutive rooms within the same area as long as there weren’t any obstructions. Running away during Otherworld segments also ran into complications from how Murphy can get stuck on the environment more easily than previous protagonists, even while hugging stair railings. Another frustration comes from how the game will spawn a monster to attack you if you stay in one spot for too long, even if you’re in the middle of a side quest that involves positioning items and standing in the right spot so you can see a shadow on the wall (the “Shadow Play” side quest in case you were wondering). I also ran into a glitch where a Screamer enemy ragdolled upward after I struck it and had the game freeze four times on me during my second and third playthroughs, each time necessitating a cold reboot.

Perhaps the most annoying design choice however, came from the game’s save system, or lack thereof, and the reason I had to play the game in its entirety three times to see every ending. You see, unlike every other Silent Hill game, Downpour doesn’t feature any manual save system, instead relying on autosaves and checkpoints. On top of that, you only have one save slot and can only reload the last five autosaves. Apart from the weight of your gameplay and moral choices, five of the six endings are determined by one final choice after the final boss fight (or letting the final boss kill you). The last of these endings is locked behind “Digging Up the Past”, which you are locked into upon completion, and there are more checkpoints than there are autosave slots, so you can’t go back and complete side quests after you beat the game.

What this means is that if you want to see all six endings and obtain their associated achievements (save for Ending F), you will inevitably have to play through the entire game from scratch three times, as previously stated. While viewing every ending in previous games also required multiple playthroughs, they also largely mitigated the process with multiple save slots and the ability to skip cutscenes. When you factor in Downpour’s unskippable cutscenes, this quickly feels exhausting to pull off, as well as a little more frustrating with the knowledge that if you want the achievement for completing every side quest, you have to do them all in the same run, which also locks you into Ending E until you start over again. The only thing that made my Ending E run (which didn’t get me the “Silent Hill Tour Guide” achievement) feel worth the effort was that I still got a good laugh out of it, as I did with every other joke ending in the series.

On the upside, Downpour continues the series’ upward trend in graphical quality. Right away, the lighting is much brighter than in Homecoming and the flashlight beam is much stronger, all without detracting from the fear of the unknown brought on by the iconic fog. Transitions to the Otherworld also play out much faster while leaning away from exactly what the films did and Murphy’s Otherworld looks far more distinct from every other game, incorporating a water theme more strongly than in Homecoming and offering new possibilities not afforded by the more traditional depiction. Downpour also visually frames its action away from the action-heavy approach from Homecoming and more towards the psychological aspect traditionally associated with the series, including the return of some cinematic camera angles. There are even loading screen tips that psychologically startle the player like in Spec Ops: The Line (though I’ll note that Downpour predates that game by three months). Murphy also looks realistically wet if he’s been in the rain.

Otherworld transitions are improved over Homecoming.

Some quality-of-life changes also improve the player’s experience while keeping in line with the lack of a HUD. From the Options menu, players can toggle whether or not the game highlights important items in the environment, which looks a little less like a beacon compared to the implementation in Homecoming. While the player can’t directly see Murphy’s health, the flashlight beam will gradually change color to red as he takes enough damage. There’s also one puzzle that requires feeling the vibration of the controller, but in case your controller battery gets low, as mine did in my third playthrough, there’s also a handy visual cue that will give the same result as the vibration, which I appreciated.

Much like previous games, Downpour uses the environment and monsters for its symbolism. Early on, the player can see a lot of ravens, which have ties with the history of Devil’s Pit and beyond that, players can occasionally see empty wheelchairs, which can symbolize the guilt that Murphy carries with him over his actions from just before the prison transfer. Though the monster designs look more generic than in past games, they still serve a symbolic purpose for multiple characters and can lead to their own speculations.

I’ll also mention that Downpour supports 3D TVs, though despite playing it on a compatible TV, I was unable to try it for this review. From my understanding, the backwards compatibility feature on Xbox One doesn’t support 3D for every capable game and I was having issues with by Xbox 360 at the time I played the game.

While the visual experience has its blemishes, they aren’t as pronounced as the gameplay. Certain images like button prompts looked a little pixelated, though I don’t now if the emulation had a hand in that. Murphy’s shadow didn’t always match the light source and would sometimes switch sides. Once, I saw a rendering error in a cutscene where a few small white lines showed up and disappeared just as quickly. Much like my experience with Call of Cthulhu, I had it where certain rooms would blink into existence as they entered the frame, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as in that game.

As for the music, Daniel Licht’s score isn’t as memorable as Akira Yamaoka’s best work, but he does an admirable job at maintaining the style and atmosphere the series is best known for. At times, players can even hear certain pieces of Yamaoka’s music, such as the main Silent Hill theme, which shows that the team still had some reverence for his work. After Shattered Memories went in a different direction with its sound effects, Downpour returns to using the classic sounds, even the stock paper sounds, which helps tie it in with the original timeline. Though Korn’s contribution, “Silent Hill”, may be contentious, I only heard it during the skippable end credits, but found it actually pretty fitting for the series thematically.

Silent Hill: Downpour may not be one of the best Silent Hill games, but it’s not as bad as fans make it look and the new ideas that it brings to the table help the story and gameplay stand out from the others in the series. It also helps that for veteran fans, it skews much closer to the Team Silent games than the other western entries, with an emphasis on the survival horror aspect without hitting the same limitations that Origins did. If you want a pretty good horror game and can look past its faults, give Downpour a fair shot.

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