There are two sides to every Silent Hill: the town itself, a tumbledown resort whose grime and fog veil a festering industrial netherworld, and what you bring to it, the not-entirely-metaphorical skeletons rattling around in your personal closet. "You" being the charming Murphy Pendleton, in Silent Hill: Downpour's case, first seen hacking a fellow convict to death in a prison shower room. It's a shocking opener even for Silent Hill, distancing the player where older, wimpier leading men roused empathy. But despite flashes of verve, Downpour isn't all that jarring on the whole.
Czech developer Vatra keeps all the fine and not-so-fine old traditions alive. Silent Hill's brand of beastie has been on the downturn since Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head, and Downpour's new faces scrape the bottom of the bucket. The environments are icky, malevolently-lit masterpieces, riddled with skin-crawling ambient noise and artefacts hinting at terrible secrets, but the fiends that patrol them are about as horrifying as - well, a raggedy, shirtless tramp. Or police cars that transform (pop!) into gaggles of angry women in cassocks. Or a sort of lanky frog thing. Right.
As if to compensate, they're by far the handiest Silent Hillers yet in a punch-up, reading your combo timing with preternatural skill and bashing your makeshift weapons to bits. There's a block button but no dodge, so it's just as well replacement axes, chair legs and the like are in ready supply (firearms, of course, are a carefully hoarded luxury). Toss in patchy visibility, the occasional crowd and invisible wraiths, and you've got combat that alternates between nail-bitingly tense and clumsy.
Pendleton's eventual tour of the Hill covers the usual motels, morgues and sickly schools, plus a few novelties like an underground tourist attraction turned portal to hell. Downpour's gating and funneling mechanisms are screamingly obvious: massive barricades and chasms ensure the over-world never feels too open, despite a handful of worthwhile optional puzzle rooms, while collapsed hallways and busted locks keep you from wandering off indoors. The rejigged "alternate" Silent Hill - a warren of hideously symbolic real world architecture - rarely pretends to be other than a glorified getaway sequence: balls of obliterating light chase you down passages dotted with dead ends and traps, trading suspense for pace.
While there's a smattering of keycode tedium, larger-scale puzzles can be quite creative - among other weird moments, you'll stage-manage a production of Hansel and Gretel to coax out Silent Hill's trademark dimensional shift. But they're also a touch out of place, failing to chime with the pedestrian plot. It's hard to shake the sense that the level designers are just goofing around, however glorious the results. Later on, Pendleton steps straight into a flashback after scuffing out a blackboard drawing of a lock and chain.
If only the past were so easy to recapture. Or rather, escape. Downpour is an engrossing, eerie play, but it's simultaneously empowered and constrained by its necromantic heritage. There are two sides to every Silent Hill, and like every studio since Team Silent, Vatra hasn't brought enough to the party.
Silence isn't quite golden
- Repellently beautiful
- Accomplished level direction
- Tough brawls
- Enemies annoy rather than scare
- Chained by its past