Silent Hill, like many quaint towns, has sprawled into suburban monotony. Developers Vatra have gone too big, aimed too high, and fallen short. There's a sense they lacked the money, the time and even perhaps the expertise to pull off the grand, high-production-value epic they had in mind. Everyone ends up in Silent Hill to learn their crime. Murphy Pendleton's, sadly, is of boring his audience.
It's a shame, because every few hours Downpour kicks into life. Its Otherworld sections are bursting with imagination, and easily surpass the original oooh-everything's-gone-mouldy transformations. Vatra play with reality in a way we wish more developers would, in a way only videogames can, making stairs break the laws of physics, corridors stretch and reflections fall apart. A tiny crimson black-hole chases you. At times you find yourself on the ceiling with the controls reversed; at others half the floor becomes the wall before your eyes, and stage sets become real. And all within locations that become ever more grandiose.
Yet even the Otherworld is oddly pedestrian to actually play, amounting to little more than running, the odd bit of simple timing and plenty of button pushing. Turning valves involves rolling the stick in mimicry of the motion. Is it more fun than pushing buttons? No. Is waggling a stick to get a screaming woman off your back more fun that pushing a button? No. It's just different.
Its biggest problem - outside of technical issues - is this lack of focus. What is it you're here to enjoy? There is pleasure to be had, especially for Hill fans who push past the seven-hour mark to reach the good bits - but nothing stands out. The puzzles can be satisfying, but they're too widely spread for this to be a puzzle game; the exploration is good, but it's too linear to be about exploring (it hints at just what a great mystery game a free-roaming Silent Hill could be, though); the combat is fine, but it's too limited (block, hit) to be a combat game, and you're too strong for it to be frightening. We ran away from many encounters out of boredom, not fear. Crushingly, Downpour is never scary.
The monsters are predictable and limited, while having weapons that break is, again, neat but not actually more fun. The locations are often fantastic and highly detailed (is that where the time and money went?) but our review version took ages to load and suffered awful frame-rate drops. Some sections lacked sounds too, and the absence of ambient noise kills the early outdoor sections dead. Some might say those sections were a very pale imitation of the original Alan Wake, and those people would be right. We would give them a biscuit, if only they weren't so smug.
Downpour desperately wants to beSilent Hill 2, going as far as playing its music on its radios - the DJ is ripped from cult road movie Vanishing Point, for some reason - but it just doesn't understand. Downpour tries slow-burning tension and manages slow. It tries mystery and manages a lack of decent signposting (hilariously, even in a task that involves ribbons as signposts). And it tries foreboding and manages silly.
In one classic moment, Silent Hill 2 showed you an overturned wheelchair in a filthy hospital. The wheel squeaked to a halt as you took in the bloody smears leading round the corner, the bullet holes in the tiles, and imagined what you'd only just missed. Downpour pays homage to this evocative moment: you're at a petrol station and hear squeaking. You climb a ladder and there, on the roof, is an upturned wheelchair. This is very much a no-wheelchair access area. Perhaps it belonged to a disabled stuntman who's in the bushes after failing to leap the pumps. Perhaps it was thrown there by its disgruntled owner, who'd grown tired of circling on its one haunted wheel, the wheel that spins... forever. Vatra took that classic SH2 moment and missed the point entirely. And quite sadly.
Still. They tried. A smaller, more tightly-focused mystery (Mutants? Mines? Really?) would have played to Vatra's strengths, but despite the issues, we kept coming back - if only for the closure. Downpour is too big, too thinly-spread and too unsure of what it is. Hill fans will find a sightseeing pleasure; the rest of us should probably drive on by.
Sometimes superb to look at but always unremarkable to play, Downpour lacks the nerve to be either great or terrible. The series needs reinventing - fast
- Highly detailed, looks fantastic
- Otherworld locations show real imagination
- Decent puzzles
- Iceberg-slow pacing
- Predictable monsters
- Not scary. At all. At any point