It's a shame that the subtitle "Homecoming" was wasted on the previous Silent Hill release for Xbox 360 because it's more apt for this release, Silent Hill: Downpour. Since the third release in the series, this is the first time that the long-running franchise has managed to recapture any of its original macabre charm. Alas, this release is slightly marred by some poor technical execution, but otherwise, it feels like a great return to form.
The story — certainly one of the most important parts of any Silent Hill title — revolves around a prisoner named Murphy Pendleton. At the outset of the game, the player is witness to a pretty brutal jailhouse slaying that sees Murphy being sent away from his confines to a maximum security penitentiary. The bus ride goes awry, and a crash lands Murphy, with a handful of survivors, within the city limits of Silent Hill.
Like previous visitors have discovered, Silent Hill isn't particularly friendly to newcomers. Whereas previous games have focused heavily on fog, and at times fire, Downpour mixes its fog with stormy weather. When traversing the streets and exploring the town, the weather occasionally goes bad and causes the monsters inhabiting the town to go a little wild. Most encounters are one-on-one fights, which you can either run from or try your hand at Downpour's less-than-ideal combat system. When the rain starts, you'll likely be swarmed by two or more creatures, and you'll have a tough time outrunning them.
Thankfully, the streets of Downpour are filled with optional areas and buildings to explore. Entering one of these buildings or houses gives you the chance to wait out the storm and explore some additional content. For the main plot, there is a number of large buildings that you're funneled through, but there are some significant optional areas, such as the local bank and movie theater. There are even some smaller houses that consist of a few rooms but involve a couple of head-scratching puzzles that are worth checking out.
The rewards for completing the optional material come in both the story and from a few rare items, such as hand guns or tougher melee weapons. Also, tracking the side-quests is smartly done; you'll usually encounter the beginning of a quest by obtaining an innocuous piece of paper that is added to an in-game journal. A lot of the quests aren't particularly detailed in what you need to do or where you need to go, but they give you just enough information to figure it out. Overall, Downpour does a great job of not coddling the player — something that modern games could try to emulate.
Where Downpour really knocks it out of the park, though, is in its atmosphere. It really nails the world of Silent Hill in that the game setting feels incredibly oppressive and violent without needing to actually lash out at the player all the time. A lot of this is delivered by excellent sound design, which features some great FX work that will have you second-guessing your safety with every step. The smart implementation of a button that allows you to instantly glance behind your character is a fun idea as well.
But Downpour isn't without a couple of significant flaws. The biggest — and most disappointing in that it wasn't fixed prior to release — is the constant and awful dip in the frame rate. It doesn't seem to occur when the game has a lot of stuff to display on-screen or when a particular effect is playing out. It seems wholly random, but at times, the frame rate dips into the single digits and crawls along for a few seconds. It happens far too often to be excusable or unnoticeable, so the fact that it shipped in its current state is kind of bewildering. Hopefully, this is the kind of thing that can be fixed or lessened via a patch, but as of this writing, that hasn't happened.
The second biggest complaint I'd level at Downpour is that its melee system (and combat in general) is pretty awful. The Silent Hill series has never really been about combat, and that mostly stays true here, but when you are forced to fight, it feels like a game of luck. Homecoming was certainly a better game in this particular area, whereas Downpour feels like it has devolved to the combat in PlayStation 2 titles.
Scattered around Silent Hill are weapons such as bricks, fire axes, pick axes, sticks, table legs, etc. Downpour does a good job with the "found object" concept; nothing you pick up feels particularly out of place for its location, and that serves the "survival" portion of survival horror quite well. It's also pretty generous with the amount of weapons available; that's beneficial because each tool isn't very durable.
If you choose to knock around one of the monsters that Downpour throws at you, you've got a limited repertoire of moves. Murphy can swing using the X button or charge his swing by holding down the button. He can also block using the Y button, which, depending on the weapon being held, mitigates all damage or lessens the blow. The monsters are a little more agile than you, and they tend to quickly recover from blocked attacks. It can be really frustrating as you try to mount a counterattack because they'll typically back away from your swing. It also seems that they almost always have hit priority if you both swing at the same time.
The only section that becomes overly annoying is the final area of the game, which funnels you into a handful of really tough fights against multiple monsters. It's the only low point of the game, but it's an awful place to get bogged down by the combat system, as you're trying to see the end of Murphy's quest.
Even with an upsetting frame rate and poorly implemented combat, Silent Hill: Downpour is the best we've seen in years. I enjoyed Shattered Memories, but that felt more like a slightly interactive story than a video game, whereas Downpour lets you explore Silent Hill in a way that hasn't been seen since Silent Hill 3. The number of quality side-quests mixed with longer, interesting main story missions, really makes for an impactful experience. It's pretty tough to really capture what made Silent Hill 2 and, to a lesser extent, Silent Hill 3, such excellent titles, but Vatra has done an exceptional job with Downpour. If you're on the fence, I'd highly suggest you try it out because it's well worth your time. If you've been away from the franchise for a while, then this is a great time to jump back in.
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