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Silent Hill: Downpour review: When you're strange


If you had told me in 1999 that Silent Hill would ever be anything less than terrifying, my response would have been an incredulous, nervous laugh, muffled by the blanket I used to shield myself from newfound imaginary horrors. And yet, the human mind quickly adapts, swiftly categorizing and sterilizing even the bizarre world Konami created all those years ago. With seven games to its name, Silent Hill has arguably been gathering rust for quite some time.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did wonders to revitalize the series, though the fresh take on its mythos did little to move copies off of retail shelves. Enter Silent Hill: Downpour, which tries to have it both ways, hewing a bit closer to the series' roots while attempting to offer a new twist on the twisted traditions of Silent Hill.

Gallery: Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3/Xbox 360) | 27 Photos

Downpour delves immediately into the macabre. As prison inmate Murphy Pendleton, players are immediately asked to murder an unarmed man. The task is given no context, forcing players to confront the reality of stabbing a man to death in the showers. It's a genuinely unsettling moment, and one that sets the stage for things to come.

Soon after, an unlikely series of events -- a prison transport crash, a trek through an abandoned mining facility -- lead Murphy to the town of Silent Hill. As has happened to many before him, the sleepy, fog-enshrouded resort will force Murphy to come to terms with his past and, ultimately, his true self.

Silent Hill itself plays a much larger role in tormenting Murphy, and thus the player, than it did in Shattered Memories. Clues to Murphy's former life are scattered about its rain-drenched streets and buildings, reminding him of things best forgotten -- the death of a loved one, crimes of passion, lapses in judgment. Exacerbating this is the return of Silent Hill's rust-laden Otherworld, a vile plane of existence that occasionally reveals itself to Murphy as the walls of reality literally disintegrate around him.

This time around, the Otherworld is an active participant in peeling apart Murphy's psyche. Rather than presenting players with an evil yet static place, the Otherworld is alive with malice. It moves, shifts and changes to torture Murphy. Hallways elongate themselves as he tries to escape pursuing entities. Physics are defied as furniture litters the walls and ceilings. Mysterious machinery churns away as torrents of water pour into seemingly bottomless reservoirs. Somewhere, a gramophone tauntingly plays "Born Free." The new take on the Otherworld really is wonderful, if such words can be applied to Silent Hill.

But the role of the town doesn't end there. Apart from the (rather lengthy) prologue and the finale, the entirety of Downpour is spent wandering the slick, monster-ridden streets of Silent Hill. While previous entries were mostly content to let their protagonists move directly from objective to objective, Downpour allows Murphy to explore all of Silent Hill from the outset. This presents a brilliant duality, in that escape from Silent Hill is paramount, but the allure of learning more about it is undeniable.

The developers at Vatra seem aware of our need to understand Silent Hill, and have scattered numerous places to explore across the town, offering shelter from the rain -- which makes monsters more aggressive -- and injecting side quests into what has traditionally been a linear series. Most quests offer Murphy a physical reward, though the real reward is in uncovering the stories of Silent Hill's inhabitants. Told through scraps of letters, photographs and other documents, these tales reveal the human side of Silent Hill which, unsurprisingly, is fraught with guilt, envy and cruelty.

One such episode sees Murphy witness the ghostly reenactment of a double homicide, that of a husband killing his wife and child with an axe. It's up to Murphy to bring peace to the departed, not merely out of the goodness of his heart but also because the murderous apparition has now turned on him. Not all of the side quests pack the same narrative punch, but most are worth the trouble.

Side quests and main objectives both play host to well-executed puzzles. Many of these are augmented by a new UV flashlight that reveals hidden messages, often revealing the way forward. Puzzles also ask for some old-fashioned adventure game knowhow, giving Murphy and players the information he needs but not necessarily keeping it all in a convenient place. In other words, expect to actually have to write a few things down if you want to remember them.

While Shattered Memories eschewed combat entirely, Downpour tries to strike a balance between empowerment and helplessness, limiting Murphy to whatever weapons he can find. These range from nearly useless items like planks of wood and beer bottles to the real problem solvers like the fire axe. Firearms are rare, and ammunition is a precious commodity, only to be used in desperate situations.

All weapons -- firearms included -- are breakable. Undoubtedly implemented to evoke a sense of realism and fear, the system instead inspires players to avoid all fights entirely. When fighting is the only option, it generally provokes frustration and, frankly, seeing a crowbar bent out of shape by whacking a fleshy monster is just silly. It's equally silly to watch Murphy -- a man who survived prison, remember -- swing a pickaxe with all the ferocity of a Victorian dandy. With some practice, thankfully, most monsters are easily dispatched or avoided.

Creature design, unfortunately, has taken a step back, offering foes that border on mundane, especially in the world of Silent Hill. Most enemies look decidedly human. There are some grisly details to each design, though their distance from the camera makes them nigh impossible to appreciate.

Composer Daniel Licht does an admirable job creating a new score, though the loss of longtime series composer Akira Yamaoka may be Downpour's biggest detriment. To his credit, Licht doesn't try to emulate the series' signature sound, opting instead for something more haunting and less overt. That said, the raw, emotionally jarring soundtrack of Silent Hills past -- and the very real terror it evoked -- is sorely missed.

Also, while the journey in Downpour is one of the most interesting in the series, some of its most significant beats fall flat. The most interesting character, one who raises important questions about Silent Hill itself, disappears in the middle of the story and is never heard from again. I suppose he might show up again in side quests, but therein lies another problem. While Murphy is free to pursue quests for most of Downpour, once the final act begins, it's impossible to return to town. I was unable to find any "new game plus" option either, meaning the only way to complete all side quests is to do it on a single play-through. Consider this a warning for all the completionists out there.

Finally, the story commits something of a literary sin during Downpour's final moments, suddenly changing its viewpoint and forcing Murphy and the player into a role that contradicts the rest of the adventure. I'm sure someone thought it made for a "cool" climax -- and I suppose it does, to some degree -- but it also makes for faulty storytelling and something altogether less personal.

Silent Hill: Downpour succeeds on many levels, giving us something fresh while simultaneously digging deeper into the roots of Silent Hill itself. Murphy's uninvited quest for self-understanding and redemption is made more poignant by the revelation that he's not alone. Others have walked the path before him and, as he discovers, others are walking it still. It's not without a few obstructions, but it's a path worth treading.

This review is based on review code of the PS3 version of Silent Hill: Downpour, provided by Konami.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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