A perfect horror atmosphere is set early in Downpour. Playing as escaped prisoner Murphy Pendleton, you stumble across an abandoned diner beside a fog-shrouded road. Behind you, past the knee-high metal road barrier, across a ravine and down a steep incline, rests the wreck of your prison transport bus. Moments earlier, you tried to save a female prison officer from falling to her death but failed. Her hand slipped from the rocks, her pleading eyes piercing yours as she disappeared into the misty gorge.
You find yourself outside Devil’s Pitstop, a disheveled hovel of a building that, through your escapee gaze, hopefully serves two things: a change of clothes and a weapon. The latter is limited initially to whatever you can scrounge up from the immediate area. You settle on a wrench and it’s not long before you’re breaking into a padlocked side door of the diner. It’s dark inside and kind of wrong. The wall menu reads: Monday – Thursday: meat, Friday: boiled meat, Saturday: fog, Sunday: rain…
Weak light oozes in through greasy, hand-smeared windows, barely illuminating the cosy dining booths and black and white checkered floor tiles. Half eaten meals sit on the main counter and atop abandoned booth tables, flies circling them noisily. A warm glow comes from the powered jukebox at the back of the diner, the only calming element in this cold scene. A flickering globe in the female toilet keeps you from lingering there too long. A first aid kit is found outside the male ablutions.
Things quickly turn more surreal after this atmospheric introduction, almost too quickly. The heavy blanket of foreboding developed in the scene described above is rather violently yanked away as the game settles for a more explicit presentation of horror. Murphy soon finds himself suffering from hallucinatory jaunts into the Otherworld. During these gameplay side paths, reality is replaced with steel spiked doors, rotating levels, clanging elevators, ceilings made from quivering water and a reality-sucking black hole that chases you.
These chase sequences are quite successful in raising player tension, although they are a bit too reliant on trial and error, with only one path of escape from the ravenous malevolence. During these sequences, you’re encouraged to press LB to look behind Murphy and check on just how close the force behind you is. As it nears, time slows and burn holes appear in Murphy’s back. His heartbeat thumps from the speakers and shrieks of fear and pain fill the soundscape. When you do manage to escape the Otherworld menace, an optional extra press of LB focuses on Murphy’s visage. His eyes flitter sideways in fear and he mutters self-assurances to himself. Small touches such as this add immensely to the experience.
It’s not long before you encounter otherworld enemies, too. This happens a little too early for my liking. I would have much preferred to maintain that thick foreboding atmosphere for a while longer, but this is a Silent Hill game and they are known for their screwed up creatures. I will admit that I suffered a couple of heart pounding moments during my first encounter with the strange female monsters that like to scream at you (requiring you to shake the left thumbstick to escape their siren freeze). Running through thin corridors, crazed monsters in pursuit, with only a kitchen knife to protect myself, was quite terrifying. I managed to somehow crack the combination to an upstairs safe and was rewarded with a handgun. Thus armed, I managed to kill one of the creatures, but the second was too fast and I only just escaped that encounter alive.
Running away is highly recommended in Downpour. Enemies are tough and aggressive and take quite a few hits to go down. If you leave them in this state, they will be stunned for a while. You can finish them off, but situations are almost always designed so that this is not a necessity. Available weapons are sourced from the environment, with a small selection of firearms throughout the game. Hefting a gun may sound like an assuring safety net, but bullets are scarce and they are often rendered useless during the tight, fast moving encounters. For most of the game you’ll be clutching a hammer, wrench, knife, cleaver, glass bottle, pickaxe, crowbar, frying pan, brick and many more objects, flailing about in the hope of stunning or killing the strange creatures intent on ripping you to pieces.
The clumsiness of the combat is the largest hurdle to jump over. There’s the strange inclusion of a block ability (by holding Y) but it’s a far cry from God of War. Encounters invariably turn into attack-button spamming and hoping that Murphy’s rather persistent level of health will see him through the annoyingly high rate of enemy counter attacks. When you enter into the town of Silent Hill proper, things get pretty ridiculous with the introduction of new creature types and many situations that involve three or more of them. While it is possible to pass the game without killing any of them, the game is at times far too heavily reliant on your ability to endure a large amount of frustration.
Newcomers might be let down by the combat, but series fans will grin and bare it – it’s practically a part of Silent Hill games anyway. In fact, the game is probably scarier because of Murphy’s inability to swing with anything resembling speed and accuracy. When monsters come at you suddenly or drop down from the ceiling, the impulse to run kicks in quicker than any reasoned decision to stay and fight, because you know that your chances of getting away unscathed (both in terms of character damage and having to put up with the awful combat) are extremely low.
It’s a testament to Downpour’s art direction that even with limited environmental interactivity – apart from scrounging for weapons – each area invites the player to take the scene in and hazard a guess as to what strange happenings have taken place. Each scene contains a number of out of place aspects that speak of twisted goings on, from the drag marks of a ticketing machine to a dead dog on an upstairs bed to half-melted candles atop rusted barrels in the tiny backyards of Silent Hill townhouses.
Adding to the strangeness is Murphy himself. The beginning of the game sees you murder a half-naked man in the prison showers, with flashbacks alluding to the man being Murphy’s neighbour. At one point, whilst trying to talk an encountered character back from committing suicide, Murphy says, “I never hurt any kids.” The seed is planted in this way to keep you playing to discover why Murphy has been imprisoned when he seems like an okay kind of guy.
Other characters are encountered infrequently and all are strange. The weird wandering postman, other escaped inmates and several Silent Hill residents all appear to be battling with their own inner demons. Every now and then, Murphy is faced with a moral decision and a binary option screen appears – press A to help someone or B to be a ****, basically. These feel out of place and the results of each choice almost troll-like. I constantly checked the “help” option with the result being the opposite of what I intended. Even though these decisions impact on which ending you receive, their lack of direct influence on the game itself suggests a design element that could have been left out entirely.
Silent Hill: Downpour peaks early, with a fantastic atmosphere and some genuinely chilling scene design. It relies too much on Otherworld horror and its puzzles can be extremely obtuse, but it more than makes up for its broad strokes horror with more subtle touches, provided you take the time to let each location and esoteric clue sink in. The music soundtrack is extremely good, provided by Dexter theme composer Daniel Licht, and compliments the equally great sound effects that constantly imply the scurrying of demonic creatures above and behind you.
Perhaps the largest compliment we can bestow is that it feels very old school, like a spiritual remake of Silent Hill rather than a bold new statement. In a market where survival horror is becoming increasingly rare, Downpour offers more than a few heart-pounding moments. It’s held back by clunky combat, haphazard pacing and obscure level design, but in many players’ eyes these elements will only add to the terror.