Silent Hill has been struggling to recapture its success for the better part of a decade, with most of the installments after Silent Hill 3 feeling like failed experiments at bringing the franchise back to its former glory. Downpour is a chance for the series to return to its roots, and to do what The Room, Origins, Shattered Memories, and Homecoming could not.
Whereas the last game, Homecoming, was more combat heavy, Downpour takes the confidence that comes with being able to easily dodge, attack, and move somewhat gracefully, and gives you the decidedly less agile Murphy Pendleton. You can still block, dodge, and use light and strong attacks, but the response time is much slower. Murphy's ability to fight back against the monstrosities that are constantly thrown his way is unreliable at best and frustrating more often than not.
This usually means when faced with a group of enemies, it's almost always better to run. Standing your ground against more than one creature can be met with deadly consequences, and while tank-like combat is a staple of the survival horror genre, I felt like Downpour reverted too closely to the original games' combat. You never feel too powerful, and that's important for a horror game, but it shouldn't be as frustrating as it was to fight, especially when there are moments when you need to clear an area.
Because Murphy is a prison convict and the very first thing you do when you jump into his shoes is brutally murder a large man in the shower, I wasn't expecting to like him as much as I did by the time the credits began to roll. What starts off as a seemingly merciless murder ends up getting some light shed on it as the story progresses. Without ruining anything, by the end of the game you'll be on Murphy's side of all this.
Everyone outside of Murphy, including a majority of the monsters, is horribly uninspired. The characters you meet along the way are rarely interesting, and it doesn't help that they're backed by some pretty bland voice acting. The creatures are easily the most disappointing aspect of this game, because they're rarely interesting to fight or terrifying to confront. The first three you come across look like they could be found in any other horror game, but certainly don't match up with the series' arsenal of incredible monsters, like Pyramid Head or the nurses.
It might sound like there isn't a single interesting foe in the game, but there are, it's just unfortunate how few there are. Thankfully, Downpour makes up for this weakness with some of the coolest set pieces in the series so far. To give you a taste of how incredibly creative this game can get, there's a section in an abandoned theater where you have to set up a play. Once the lights are off, the spotlight is centered, and the rain and thunder machines are rolling, the play comes to life and you can actually enter the scene. It looks very cool, and there are several equally as interesting moments spread throughout the game.
One of the unique things about this game -- and this is something I was worried wouldn't be implemented as well as it was -- is the more open-world set-up. We've been able to explore the foggy, secluded resort town at will since the original game, but never has it been filled with so many details, and more notably, with truly fascinating side quests, than with Downpour. A great majority of the side quests I completed were either interesting story-wise, or useful in the items they gave me upon completion.
You'll want to complete the side quests, and not just because the main story only takes around six hours to complete. They reveal pieces of the town's sordid past, and whether or not you're a fan of the series, there's always a good reason to complete one should you come across it on your adventure.
In 2007, Silent Hill: Origins added breakable weapons to make the combat more realistic. I'm rarely for games doing this unless it's absolutely necessary, because it's almost always implemented poorly. A steel wrench should not break after only a dozen swings, and while I understand why a developer would want this feature in their horror game, especially one where you're usually urged toward flight over fight, I'm on the fence about it here. I liked having to switch tactics mid-fight when my weapon broke over a monster's skull, but on the other hand, when it happens during a boss fight and the only thing you can find in the heat of battle is a brick or rock, it gets frustrating.
Speaking of bosses, Downpour is surprisingly lacking in this department. Whereas most of the games in the franchise have generously sprinkled on the boss encounters to test your skill and shake the monotony of fighting the same creatures over and over again, in Downpour you'll go through most of the game without fighting a single one. Then, when you do, the anticipation the game had just spent the last 4+ hours building up ends in a brief, 5-10 minute shuffle with a painfully dull hammer-wielding man.
True Silent Hill enthusiasts are undoubtedly big fans of composer Akira Yamaoka's work on the soundtrack for every game in the series. His audio work is one of the most iconic things about the franchise, so when news of his departure came out many fans, including myself, were worried about Downpour's score. Then I heard that Showtime series Daniel Licht was composing Silent Hill: Downpour and my anxiety eased up a bit. I'm happy to report that Licht's masterful scoring fills Yamaoka's shoes nicely. It's more cinematic than what we're used to, and many of the muted industrial tones have been replaced by more fluid sounds that represent Downpour's central element of water. It's a more than worthy addition to any Silent Hill fan's musical library.
One of the things the survival horror genre is known for more than the tank-like controls that are prevalent in a majority of its games is puzzle-solving. Resident Evil and Silent Hill are known for their puzzles, and with the latter, you can actually adjust the difficulty of the puzzles (as well as the combat difficulty) to tailor it to your individual skill level. In Downpour, the puzzles start off weak, but get far more inventive later on.
This is a trend that permeates practically every aspect of the game. The first hour or so is pretty dull, as you fight uninspired enemies in an equally as uninteresting old mine. Once you get into the town of Silent Hill, things get far more engaging, and everything gets better from there on. Downpour isn't the strongest installment in the series, but it is a very good old school survival horror game. If anything, it'll make you nostalgic for the days when finding that evasive red key so you could unlock that mysterious red door to find the blue key for the other door was the most important thing on your to-do list.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Silent Hill Downpour provided by Konami.