In its first few hours, Silent Hill: Downpour runs through a checklist of Silent Hill tropes with an almost cynical flair – the combat is clunky and awkward, the puzzles are obtuse and sometimes absurd, and zombie-like monsters shamble out of the fog and/or darkness with irregular frequency. It seems to be just another disappointing Silent Hill also-ran, going through the motions without any real purpose other than to give fans what they expect. And in those first few hours, you might make the mistake of dismissing it as just that.
Downpour actually has some smartly compelling, surprising and, yes, even scary moments up its sleeve, but it takes a little while to get to them. You do sort of get one right off the bat, though, considering that this is the first Silent Hill to introduce players to its combat system by making them brutally murder (or appear to murder) a man in a prison shower. The protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, has some excellent motives for this crime, which you’ll discover – along with the various other facets of his identity – very gradually as the game unfolds.
In any case, Murphy doesn’t stay behind bars for very long; during a transfer to another prison, his bus runs off a cliff near Silent Hill, the foggy, empty resort town where the streets are patrolled by monsters and frequently end with sharp drops into bottomless pits. Confused and hounded by a female prison guard who seems to have some kind of vendetta against him, Murphy flees into Silent Hill, and spends the rest of the game trying desperately to find a way out.
The game’s beginning – that “first few hours” we mentioned earlier – is a fairly linear plod through the outskirts of Silent Hill, including a huge mine that runs deep underneath the town. It’s here that you’ll really get a feel for the game’s combat, which relies largely on breakable weapons – axes, knives, pipes, bricks, beer bottles, etc. – that are scattered liberally throughout the game world. (If they break and there isn’t a new one nearby, you can use your fists; these aren’t nearly as effective, but they can still kill).
Guns and ammo are extremely rare, especially at first. So are first-aid kits, and while Murphy seems to gradually heal on his own (there’s no real indication of how hurt he is, other than the blood on his clothes and the way he walks), the lack of resources means it’s sometimes better to just run from confrontations, even though you probably won’t.
Above: You can probably take that thing in a fight, right?
While the “everything’s a weapon” approach is interesting, the combat itself isn’t, as it largely boils down to clumsily flailing away on the attack button while remembering to block whenever it looks like the monsters are about to attack. Memorizing the monsters’ attack patterns isn’t too difficult, either, as there are only five basic monster types in the game (none of which are as terrifying or grotesque as those in previous Silent Hills).
As Silent Hill fans know, purposely awkward combat is one of the hallmarks of the series; Murphy, like so many before him, isn’t a trained fighter, and he’s therefore lousy at it. However, knowing that doesn’t make the fights any more fun, especially not when they make up a large portion of the game.
Above: Shaking off stun attacks and grapples by waggling a thumbstick doesn't, either
When you’re not fighting, you’ll usually be wandering around trying to solve the seemingly inane puzzles the game tosses up to block your path, which frequently involve elaborate fetch quests (that force you into the paths of monsters) or hidden messages (often inscribed on the walls and visible only with a UV flashlight) for the combinations to locks. Some of these are actually fun and rewarding, like one in which you have to set off stage effects in the right order for a ghostly school play (which then rapidly transforms the auditorium into a dark, rainy forest). Too often, though, you’ll waste a lot of time scouring your immediate area for crucial hidden messages, items or hard-to-see doorways, which can really throw off the game’s pacing.
So, OK, that’s not the best start. Things get a lot more interesting once you reach Silent Hill proper, though. While this version of the town is filled with just as many sudden drop-offs, barriers and monsters as previous incarnations, it’s a quasi-open world filled with unique side-quests. These aren’t openly advertised; instead, you’re simply free to wander into any house, apartment or storefront that isn’t boarded up.
Once in there, you’ll find things that range from simple combination locks and uncomplicated puzzles to ghostly mini-narratives that unfold in front of you, if you can just ferret out the right items. Some of the side-quests can be pretty lengthy, involving scavenger hunts for objects scattered across town, and most carry Achievements/Trophies once you finish them, making them worth the effort. They’re also the source of some of the game’s most memorable moments, and – considering how easy it is to get used to the game’s tiny variety of monsters – some of its most terrifying.
It’s tempting to say that the side-quests are the high point of the game, but the central narrative also starts building up steam once you reach Silent Hill, with more interesting (non-optional) objectives, more revelations about the characters, more varied puzzles and more memorable set-pieces, several of which involve Murphy getting chased relentlessly through the twisted, barbed-wire-filled "Otherworld" version of Silent Hill by something that looks like a ball of red light and behaves like a sentient black hole.
The game makes decent use of 3D (for those who have the capability), using it to add considerably to the impressiveness of its bigger set-pieces. It’s also not afraid to bust out occasional, unexpected camera and lighting tricks that – while rare – can make for wonderfully effective scares. Also effective? The portions where you’re shoved into complete darkness, with monsters lurking around you and your field of view limited to whatever small area your flashlight or lighter can illuminate.
As much as Downpour managed to win us over in its later acts, we should point out that our play-through was buggy, with significant stuttering and lag whenever the game auto-saves. It's a nuisance more than anything else, but it's still infuriating when it happens.
In spite of its flaws, Silent Hill: Downpour does manage to be smart and imaginative in bursts, although again, most of those bursts are reserved for later in the story. Even so, exploring Silent Hill to find creepy new places to break into can be surprisingly addictive, and it's worth noting that Downpour is surprisingly long by the standards of modern games; our play-through took about 14 hours, and we only completed a few of the side-quests. The actual gameplay leaves a lot to be desired, but as recent Silent Hills go, this is one of the better ones.