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Silent Hill: Downpour 360 Review

21/05/2012 Thinking Story Gamer Review
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Silent Hill: Downpour 360

Silent Hill: Downpour




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Silent Hill Downpour 360 is an engagingly traditional survival horror game that tells a well-worn but workable story of sin, guilt, and potential redemption.

Does time move on in Silent Hill? For the thirteen years since the first game was released on PS1 this mist-shrouded town has been a chasm-riven destination for lost souls doomed to fight the externalised manifestations of their own demons.

You have to wonder whether the town ever snaps back to normality for a few years between games, or if there's some 'real' version of the town that persists away from the hellish vision that appears in the games. If not, you have to wonder what the outside world thinks happened to this once-popular lakeside resort.

Aside from these meta-fictional head-scratchers, the series itself feels locked-off from the passage of time. There's a certain timeless quality to much of Silent Hill Downpour, a feeling that here is a series that has had its story tropes and gameplay elements as codified (or, if we're being harsh, calcified) as the Zelda or Mario games.

Just as Link and Mario have to do the same things again and again to free their respective princesses, so the troubled individuals who wash-up in Silent Hill have to bash the same skinless monsters and twitching ghostladies and run down countless misty streets to unlock the dark secrets of their past.

Thankfully, Downpour doesn't feel overburdened by its formulaic elements. This is partially because there are quite a few new ideas and interesting flourishes in the game, but also because the traditional survival horror genre is increasingly neglected as most games with horror aspects take a more action-oriented approach.

Downpour doesn't feel overburdened by its formulaic elements.

Downpour certainly hasn't gone for the all-action approach, instead having even fewer boss battles and traditional action moments than the original Konami games. (Remember that giant moth on the rooftop?) Instead we're firmly in traditional survival horror territory, with gameplay rooted in steady exploration, puzzle solving, and clumsy melee combat where you beat shambling ragdoll zombies around the head with a pipe.

We even get that cliche of old school game design, the baffling indestructible scenery: Silent Hill is a mysterious world where a pickaxe can be used to beat a monster to a pulp, but won't scratch a thin piece of police tape.

The story opens engagingly, with the player controlling convict Murphy Pendleton as he does a bad bad thing in the prison showers. It's a powerful story hook that asks many questions (albeit ones that you'll guess the correct answers to straight away) and foregrounds the traditional Silent Hill themes of guilt and regret.

The story then stylishly and slowly unfolds as Murphy finds himself in the woods outside Silent Hill after the bus transferring him to a different prison crashes in a ravine.

There's something refreshing about how, after that relatively explosive opening of murder and mayhem, Downpour then holds back on kicking Murphy straight on to Silent Hill's haunted streets. Instead, he has to plot his way in from the outskirts of town to the centre, taking a cable car ride and passing through a mining museum before entering the town proper.

Previously unknown terrors turn out to be the usual wailing J-horror ladyghosts.

It's all very old school in its gameplay, with a steadily paced exploration of these derelict tourist attractions locations. It's also not without innovations: there's an autosave rather than the search for red-patched save points of earlier Silent Hills, albeit a very wonky autosave system that will have you checking the time of recent saves frequently before logging out.

(Note: As of the time of writing Konami are promising a patch to fix the save system, so it may well be sorted by the time anyone reads this review.)

The game looks great too, not cutting edge but certainly well up to contemporary console standards. Graphics are crisp with good character and facial animations, although as the tension builds HD begins to feel a bit too sharp and you may yearn for the fuzzy safety of standard def.

There's also a neat combination of a free-roaming camera with occasional fixed-view sections, and a very clever trick where the camera zooms in tight as Murphy walks through a door, shoving player uncomfortably close to the unknown. It's in the early, quiet exploratory section that Downpour feels scariest, with each creaky door a tense moment.

This tension evaporates about an hour into the game when Murphy encounters his first monster and previously unknown terrors turn out to be the usual wailing J-horror ladyghosts, red-eyed zombie things and ceiling-crawling leechblokes. Once you've hit one of these to death with a stick, you've killed them all and the game is never quite as frightening again.

Thankfully once Murphy reaches the town proper there's compensation for the lack of gut-twisting tension in the form of a cross-section of Silent Hill that's an open world of sorts, with numerous side quests to be discovered and undertaken.

Sandwiched between a relatively linear journey into town, and a final act that plots a similarly direct course, Downpour's bulging middle contains two major story-advancing episodes but otherwise sets the player loose for a free-roaming, occasionally frustrating investigation into the hidden corners of this creepy town.

There's a tremendous atmosphere out on those rain-slick streets.

This section represents an odd but pleasing hybrid of traditional surival horror and more freeform play styles, and is very much the most enjoyable section of Downpour. The side-missions mostly involve helping restless souls to find peace, but are varied in execution and give the town a great deal of texture. Together they give the town of Silent Hill a sense of depth and reality - of a sort - it might otherwise lack.

There's a tremendous atmosphere out on those rain-slick streets. Even though the monster attacks quickly lose their sting, there's an undoubtedly creepy mood especially if, like me, you're playing the game on a rainy day with a baby monitor hissing away in the room. The rain and storm effects hinted at in the game's titles - as in Deadly Premonition, you should try and get indoors when it starts to rain in this town - are excellent, but when in full-force can cause the framerate to sputter like a petrol lawnmower.

While the more open sections of the game are most enjoyable due to their opportunity to head away from the main narrative and explore, Downpour's core story is a good one, and the slow reveal of Murphy's personal history through flashbacks and visions is very effectively executed. It's also very sparing, at least in the game's initial stages, with use of Silent Hill's rusted-up Otherworld, holding this industrial hell back for short, frenetic sequences.

The storytelling falls down a bit is in tieing the supernatural flourishes, weirdness and enigmatic characters into Murphy's personal journey. I was left confused as to how, for example, the orphanage sequence actually related to Murphy's personal history beyond the rather cack-handed point made about Murphy's character at the end of that part of the game.

Executes its more predictable beats with style and sincerity.

Equally, the magic postman who bumps into Murphy in Silent Hill seems to fall into the laziest Hollywood stereotype of the older black man who only exists to spout meaningless homilies at a white lead character.

If Silent Hill: Downpour's story and gameplay can't entirely resist cliche, it does at least execute its more predictable beats with style and sincerity. In a horror market increasingly dominated by action and bombast, its commitment to slow-burn, character-based horror is laudable, and a minor treat for fans of the survival horror genre.

Written by Mark Clapham

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Mark Clapham writes the Story Gamer column.

"I love a good story. Games tell many different stories: the stories told through cut scenes and dialogue, but also the stories that emerge through gameplay, the stories players make for themselves."

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