Sunday, July 14, 2013

Silent Hill Downpour

Silent Hill is one of my favorite video game franchises next to Castlevania and Bioshock. (I haven't played Infinite yet so maybe I'm going out on a limb there.) It's just in general the best put together horror games in plot and atmosphere and music and... horror. That being said, there was a clear high point which will likely never be outmatched. That was Silent Hill 2 and 3. After that, the original development team disbanded and the developers since then have struggled to emulate such quality.

Downpour has its own identity which is good because every protagonist is supposed to experience Silent Hill in their own way. It's not some place that looks like this and has XYZ in it. It's like a Rorschach test or an acid trip; what you see depends on who you are. This is why Pyramid Head should be in only one game. He's a manifestation of James Sutherland's mental baggage so it doesn't make sense for him to exist anywhere else but in his mind. When he appears in Homecoming, it ruins everything that Silent Hill is. It makes it a stagnant/concrete place where Pyramid Head lives instead of a fluid place that takes shape to become your worst nightmare.
You are Murphy Pendleton, An Inmate locked up in a nearby prison for an unclear reason. While being transported in a van, the driver becomes distracted and you crash. You survive but so do several other inmates and one of the correctional officers on board. When you wake up, you find yourself alone in the forest near Silent Hill. It makes sense that the inmates took off but the CO not being there the second you wake up to hold you down until backup gets there is probably just plot convenience.

As the cashier rung me up when I bought this game, he gushed over how much he liked Downpour. He played through it two or three times and got the platinum trophy. He said that the game was more geared around running because combat was terrible. "Don't ALL the Silent Hills have terrible combat?" I chuckled unknowingly. NO! NO, THEY DON'T! NOT ANYMORE! Downpour has set a new precedent. Any weapons you may find are usually just destructible random objects which are generally weak and awkward to use. Not only does attacking with them lessen their damage and lifespan but blocking with them does as well. Some weapons don't block at all. Enemies take A LOT of hits without a good weapon. If a weapon breaks, your fists do nothing. The camera is always against you. Lock-on seems to face you the wrong way about as much as it does the right way. Enemies are much quicker than you and very effectively block and evade your attacks. If you ever get into it with more than one, you'd better forget that shit quick.

If you get a gun, you'll find that aiming it is extremely difficult. It has auto aim but the reticule shakes around so much that you might as well be firing with your eyes shut. And I'm pretty sure that while an enemy is charging you, they're immune to bullets. There are two different types of guns, handgun and shotgun. Naturally you'd want to have one of each if you find them but it's not that simple. For the most part you can only carry one weapon. No more than one melee weapon and it has to be in your hand. If you have a handgun equipped and pick up an axe, you put the gun away and hold the axe. But if you equip the gun again from your inventory, you discard the axe on the ground because for whatever reason you can never have a melee weapon in your inventory. Now if you still have the handgun equipped and try to pick up a shotgun, you end up discarding the handgun on the ground to hold the shotgun. Now what the hell is with that? You had room for the gun in your inventory a second ago. Why not now? If you try to pick up the handgun again while holding the shotgun, the shotgun automatically goes on your back/in your inventory and you hold the handgun. ??? Then if you equip the shotgun again, you discard the handgun on the floor again. So technically you can have two guns on your person but you have to have the handgun equipped at all times because if you switch, you throw it on the floor. That's pretty stupid. Just make it so you can have two guns in the inventory! You can tuck a handgun into your waistband. Accessing weapons shouldn't be some kind of horribly nonsensical puzzle. I really don't think they remembered to figure out this aspect.    

So I'm trying to get to the town by going through the caves. When I got to the train ride, I couldn't figure out how to start it. It's a puzzle of colored buttons which are also labeled with letters A-F. You have to enter a sequence based on a poem you find. I quickly noticed the colors crimson, emerald and bronze within the poem so I entered the corresponding buttons. Nothing happened. I then noticed that the colors also begin with the letters C, E and B which could easily correspond to the button letters A-F. I tried and nothing happened. Well, I'm out of ideas because if neither of those work, the puzzle is just faulty somehow. I opened a walkthrough and found the solution: Crimson, Emerald, Shadow, Bronze... Shadow? SHADOW? Shadow is NOT a color! Shadow doesn't equal grey any more than window equals blue. This is like if they said here's the code to a door lock; it's 6,1, Sea Cucumbers, 5. This puzzle can kiss my ass.

The train finally takes you to Silent Hill proper. So get out and wander around like a hobo until you find something that grabs your interest. Walking around, you'll find many impromptu destructible weapons like shovels, bricks, fire extinguishers and whatever. There's just a whole lot of shit laying around everywhere that you can pick up. It's difficult to tell the difference between a weapon or a plot item or side quest and mystery items. Whenever you see something unusual, you just have to pick it up to see if Murphy carries it in his hands as a weapon or it goes straight in the inventory like everything that's not a weapon. It's really annoying that you need to scrutinize every single thing you see and it could have been easily fixed. When the words 'Pick Up' come up on screen, just make them color coded depending on the category of the item you're next to. Green for health item. Red for weapon. Blue for plot item, etc.

It takes quite a while before you actually have an encounter with a monster. In fact it seems like there are a lot of big lulls in the monster threat. In the beginning of the game I kind of liked this because it accentuates the game's ambiance while generating an excruciating tension that just keeps building the more that nothing keeps happening. Every time you expect something to happen and it doesn't, it heightens your vigilance and makes you paranoid and jumpy wondering when it WILL happen. Every Silent Hill game has a memorable scare or event. The one I remember best in Downpour, beside the Hansel and Gretel play, happened pretty early in the game, just before the mine I think. As I walked along the boardwalk I saw a pair of legs getting dragged and disappearing behind a small building. Oh, I thought to myself, it's that tired old horror trope where a character investigates something extremely obvious and then finds that there's no determinable cause of the phenomenon. Then a coin flip decides if the character gets ambushed or not from behind. I rounded the corner expecting to see nothing but instead saw a screamer standing there over a body and staring at me. That's not supposed to happen, it makes too much logical sense. In that moment, my brain stopped. It was a bait and switch reliant upon the player being a jaded hororphile. Then a second screamer burst through a door from behind and latched onto my back. I was so surprised and distracted by the initial switch that I was actually surprised again when they added the regularly scheduled cliche ambush on top of it. Maybe I'm giving the designers too much credit but it doesn't diminish the effect at all.

As you explore, you scribble red marks and make notations on the town map you carry. In every game, you scribble out the broken doors and places you can't go so that you don't have to keep checking them because you've forgotten. Murphy however, thinks he has everything memorized and only scribbles out the BARRICADES AND GIANT OBVIOUS GAPING HOLES in the road. Everything else like buildings, fences, gates and people's yards surrounding said roads are left for you to guess about over and over again. His notations are pretty vague sometimes.
There are police cars patrolling around which I thought was weird because why would there be police officers going around business as usual in Silent Hill... aside from Cybil Bennett in the first game and the ones in Homecoming and the police woman that's actually currently chasing you in Downpour and the other Cybil Bennetts from the movie and Shattered Memories reboot if you want to count those. Huh... I guess there's a lot. You know, that's kind of weird. The franchise now has a running theme of police women as main characters and none of them are off duty or lost/confused like everyone else seems to be. They're all just trying to do their jobs. Anyway, it's not actually weird for there to be patrolling cars in Silent Hill in this case because Murphy is actively running from the cops so it makes sense that he'd see cops there. So the next objective is to stop the patrols. You do this by going into the police station and using the dispatcher to recall each unit. The actual police station is completely unusable for anything. It's a dilapidated building with no roof, a pit for a floor and it's completely gutted except for this one device on a table that controls the cop cars. This is both completely ridiculous and ingenious. A man going into a destroyed police station to use a machine inside to escape police cars that can't possibly exist is like a textbook example of a severe paranoid schizophrenic.

Then there's the puzzle that you have to do to stop the cars. This is the first side quest that you come across in the game. On a blackboard in the station are three alphanumerical sequences, (one for each car) but each one is missing a character and maybe has a smudged character. You're just supposed to enter the sequence and do trial and error for the characters that aren't quite clear. Well what happens when you go through every character and none of them work? You open up the fucking walkthrough again. FUN. For the code that I couldn't do, I found that one of the given characters, one that you're supposed to be able to read clearly is actually something else. The 8 was supposed to be a B. I looked closely at the "B" on the blackboard thinking it was just a stupid mistake I made when reading it but no. It doesn't look like anything but an 8. That's not fair. Two puzzles in a row were ruined for me because they gave me false information. It's like they're intentionally misleading me.

All around town there are other side quests you can do (if you can gather up enough evidence to figure out what the hell you're doing.) Some of them are really interesting, on par with a good Twilight Zone episode... okay, maybe more Tales from the Crypt than TZ. But none of them ever seem to have a satisfying resolution or reward at the end. It's always, I did all that for a couple of med kits? I used a couple of med kits to finish the quest. I went all over town collecting paintings to create a map to open a crypt. Why would I care about a crypt? What's the point? Oh, when I open one of the sarcophagi I get a tomahawk from it. Yay? It just doesn't make any sense. Why would I invest so much time and go so far out of my way to accomplish something completely inconsequential? It's not like I don't have other shit to do. I'm trying to escape Silent Hill and spend the least amount of time here as possible. If I'm doing a side quest, I expect to be compensated with something that will aide me significantly on my main quest. In Silent Hill 2 there was that safe that, if you could get it open, had like 40 bullets in it and there was that game show puzzle box in the hospital that held a huge cache of medical stuff. In Downpour you will spend five times more time and never get anything even close to those. Like I said, some of them reward you with entertainment value but really other than that, they're pointless, tantamount to stopping to solve a Rubik's cube you found in the gutter on your way to work. 

One of the quests is actually glitched. The objective is to find this homeless guy stuff that he asks you to get like food and a jacket. In exchange, he gives you maps of the subway stations that basically allow you to warp between places, saving you walking time. This would be great if the quest itself didn't offset the benefit with all the time it wastes and if the subway was really quick and simple to navigate and didn't also waste your time with how confusing it is. I got him the first two things. The third thing he wanted was a fishing rod. After thoroughly searching all of the places it was supposed to be and finding nothing, I did some internet research and found that if you pick up the rod before taking the quest, it disappears and you can't complete it. I didn't even remember picking it up that was so long ago. Not only that but I found later that all the subways were closed off again when I loaded the game after completing the first two requests. So all of that got me absolutely nothing. Thanks, idiots.  

There are about four areas in all which can be called levels. That doesn't sound like much but they're HUGE areas. In traditional Silent Hill gameplay, you play a level, the level turns to alternate Silent Hill then you play it some more and probably fight a boss then it turns back to normal. In downpour the alternate Silent Hill levels look pretty unique like some kind of nightmare prison designed by M. C. Escher. There are not really any bosses but instead extended running segments just like in Shattered Memories. You're running from a... uh... quantum singularity? And also like Shattered Memories there is the very real possibility of getting lost and running around in an endless loop. The last running segment in the game is by far the worst. You have to run through guillotines while the black hole is chasing you. You can't just run full speed ahead because you'll run into the blades and it hurts bad. So you end up standing there, waiting for the blade to drop and go back up while letting the singularity catch up and tear you a new asshole. And when it does, it makes everything slow-mo, throwing off your sense of timing. Also extricating yourself from it is annoyingly slow.

You know what's really the most annoying thing in this game? Accidental interaction with the environment, like climbing down a ladder or ducking underneath something or worse, balancing across a beam and then getting right back on, having to balance back to where you were and then back again. Just put a damn button prompt for all interactions. I realize that having a prompt interrupts the game a little but so does accidentally climbing up and down a ladder three times in a row. And in real life you don't just accidentally climb a random ladder that you happen to be in close proximity to. You have to make a conscious decision to do it. So have me press a button.

The camera is extremely buggy, often shooting up into the sky for no reason. The game lags a lot and the textures are always popping in and out. I'm no graphics expert but can't you just make the load screen a little longer if... you know... the game's not fucking done loading yet?

Downpour is sorely lacking in monster variety but I will say this, most of them are pretty freaky, especially the weeping bat. I think that stems from the fact that they're all humanoid in form but have exaggerated and twisted features about them. Their faces are messed up and they move weird. They play up the uncanny valley aspect nicely. I thought all the prisoner monsters were a lazy addition though and the design of the bogeyman sucked. It just reeks of Resident Evil. He looks exactly like Vector from Operation: Raccoon City.  

There are a couple of Easter egg references to past Silent Hill titles in Downpour. The jukebox and radio play the original Silent Hill theme but the biggest one is the fact that you can climb up a fire escape and enter... Henry Townsend's apartment from the 4th game. Doesn't make any sense since Henry lives in Ashfield, not Silent Hill. And no, you did not go through a portal, you clearly come in through the window. Now most might say, well it's just a pointless reference; don't read too much into it. But in a game where you play as an escaped prisoner, you crossed over into another game where the protagonist is trapped in his own home, also a prisoner. Then there's the fact that the antagonist of that game is also a murderer like Murphy. In both games there are prisons, orphanages and subways. There are definitely some big overlapping themes between Downpour and The Room... Wait, do Henry and Murphy look similar? 

(Obviously someone thinks so because I didn't make this comparison image.) Hell, they could be brothers. Fan theory time! It's funny because before I played Downpour, Henry was the video game character that looked the most like me. Now that I've seen Murphy he's pretty much a dead ringer clone of me in physical appearance. Even my wife looking over my shoulder as I played asked how I got into a video game. 

This is the best Silent Hill since The Room. I know for many fans that isn't saying much but at least it's a step in the right direction.