If there's a less useful venue for evaluating a horror game than E3, I don't know what it is. By rights, any game that's deliberately trying to cultivate an atmosphere of slowly building horror should have a demo kiosk in some secluded electrical closet in the basement of the Staples Center, at maybe three o'clock in the morning after everyone else has gone home.
That makes it more difficult than usual to form an opinion on Silent Hill: Downpour, which is already a little controversial. The series got its start with four games that Konami developed in-house, the second of which earned a fanatically devoted following. From there, things flew off the rails, and the next games in the series were farmed out to external studios.
Origins went through years of development hell before being finished in a hurry, and it shows; it's actually a minor miracle that Origins is as playable as it is. Shattered Memories has its fans but, being a third-party Wii game, sank without a trace. The biggest release since then was Homecoming, and while fan opinion toward it has warmed up a bit since its release, it's still uninspired and soulless when compared to the earlier games.
With that in mind, combined with the generally horrible attempts by Konami to build a Silent Hill "expanded universe," the fans have earned a certain degree of cynicism. Silent Hill: Downpour doesn't come off as much like an installment in a popular series so much as a hail Mary pass, as one last attempt to bring back the series to relevance and popularity before it's time to pull the plug.
The biggest thing working against it is that Akira Yamaoka, the music director for the past seven SH games and one of the single largest reasons why the series became popular at all, jumped ship for Grasshopper a couple of years ago to work with Suda 51. Downpour has musical work by Dan Licht, the composer for Showtime's "Dexter," but he suffers from a crucial flaw in that he is not Akira Yamaoka. If Licht is reading this at any point in time, I would recommend, sir, that you avoid anything even remotely attached to the Silent Hill fan community for the rest of your natural life. It ain't you, man; it's them.
Worse news, it was announced at E3 that Downpour's theme song is by, of all the bands in the world, Korn, because when I think of music that evokes a slowly building sense of psychological dread, I think of the soulful, haunting tones of Jonathan Davis.
Having actually played Downpour at this point, though, there is some reason to be at least mildly optimistic. The general trend for people working in the Silent Hill universe, post-"Team Silent," is whether or not they realize what they've gotten themselves into. Either they know that the town is basically looking to find the protagonist's neuroses and jump up and down on them, which means everything in the game relates back to those neuroses in some way or another … or they're the guys who made Homecoming or who wrote the first few comics, and they think the series is about a generically haunted and/or evil resort town.
From what little I've seen so far, Downpour seems to fall into the former camp. It's a short sample, and it's nothing I'd care to argue about at length, but from what's been released and what I've now played, Downpour is a story in Silent Hill, with a heavy focus on the protagonist, not another story about Silent Hill, adding another point-missing chapter to its personal history. That's enough to make me think there's something worth anticipating here.
Downpour is by Vatra Games, a Czech subsidiary of Kuju Entertainment, which recently released the Rush'n Attack quasi-sequel on XBLA. They've set the game on the north side of Silent Hill, where no other protagonist has had the chance to explore.
The protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, is being transferred to a maximum-security prison, but the bus crashes outside of Silent Hill. One of the guards chases him, but after she falls into a ravine, Murphy's on his own. The demo starts here, with Murphy looking for fresh clothes and a way out of town.
Downpour is built on the Unreal engine, and Vatra's really piled on that sense of grime and abandonment. Murphy's trip down the road leads him through an old tourist attraction and into the basement of a diner, both of which look like they've stood vacant for 20 years. You find a crowbar and a flashlight pretty early on, and that slowly building sense of subtle wrongness is there, particularly when you run into an old mailman who doesn't seem to think anything is wrong. He points you to a road he says is "washed out," when it looks more like somebody dug a moat around the town.
Murphy can only carry one weapon at a time, whether it's a crowbar, shovel or chair, and the inventory is handled with a simple drop-down panel. The demo didn't have much in the way of combat until the end, but that's never exactly been the series' strong point. It's interesting to note that Murphy can block, though.
Your mission in the demo is to find a way across the lake, and the only way to do so is by taking the old tram, a tourist attraction that's seen better days. That, in turn, is going to require a handful of tokens to get through the gate, and somebody's stolen the machine. After exploring a bit, you head into the diner's kitchen, where you accidentally trigger a gas fire with a malfunctioning stove. By hitting the fire alarm, you also force a transition into the series' trademark "Otherworld," that bizarre alternate dimension where everything's rusting to pieces.
The rest of the demo is a hell-for-leather run through the Otherworld, with some bizarre destructive force pursuing Murphy through a dreamlike corridor that keeps visibly lengthening in front of him. It's reminiscent of a similar sequence near the end of Silent Hill 3, although it's not quite the same.
Writing this, though, it's hard to say much more than that. Downpour seems to be off to a good start, since it managed to keep me invested and tense despite being on the E3 show floor, but a lot of questions remain. I can only hope that preview code shows up soon, so I can sit down with it in a dark room at four o'clock in the morning and play it as it's intended to be played.
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