Silent Hill: Downpour Hands-On Preview

Silent Hill: Downpour

Murphy tugs at the knob; the door opens. On the other side, a stained, dirty hallway offers two paths: one dark, the other light, but dripping with rainwater from the long storm outside. The walls creak and ooze water, now collecting in shallow puddles on the floor. He sidesteps a misplaced dresser and is stopped suddenly by a black and purple vortex whirling a few feet down the hall. It mutters something he can’t decipher, then screams and begins edging forward. Murphy takes off down the dark hallway, opening into a dimly lit old lab, counters splayed with dried blood and barbs. He lunges for the nearest exit, but a gate crashes, barring the way — almost sentient. A second gate closes off the next nearest opening, forcing Murphy to double back, staring into the eye of the vortex. Barreling at the last gap, he skirts by the amorphous energy. The floor drops out.

“Bringing light to darkness.” That’s the self-proclaimed definition of Vatra Games, the developer for Silent Hill: Downpour, eighth in the storied survival-horror series. As Downpour is the first Silent Hill title in its library (though the developers boast a robust horror video game stash at the office), Vatra is taking inspiration from every possible angle, including the somber Czech Republic hub it hails from, Brno. Like so many Eastern European cities, Brno’s modern graces sit atop mountains of dark history, a legacy that Design Director Brian Gomez says “inspires all their work.”

brno ossuary

In 2001, archaeologists discovered what was revealed to be the second largest ossuary in Europe under the streets of Brno, bringing to light a dark and diseased past. Cholera, plague, starvation — all the cornerstones of a dying civilization lay buried in neat piles beneath the city. The find revisits an old Moravian culture burdened by ever-present death that survives to this day in the folk tales and haunting standards of Brno’s past. One story recalls the Godmother Death, a human-like figure who bestows healing at the cost of unwanted immortality. Morbidity and mortality — grim concepts that the developers at Vatra admittedly grew up with, and now channel into the unexplored Southwestern region of a fictitious locale.

Silent Hill: Downpour relies on psychological horror like its predecessors, but employs the element of water to practical and thematic effect. In the opening sequence of the E3 demo, the player (as Murphy) sees a kitchen explode into flames and must activate the alarm, and thus the sprinkler system. When the room is drenched, the walls deteriorate and the furniture hovers, disturbing and disorienting. A live circuit board along the wall turns into a death trap if the water isn’t emptied, so Murphy searches for a shut-off valve. Later in the demo, steep slide through the crumbling building is likewise drenched with water. Once outside in the rain, Murphy dodges swipes and paralyzing screams from banshee women. Every instance of water brings with it danger and opportunity, a dichotomy Vatra is well aware of and promises to realize in the narrative.

silent hill downpour

Players control the narrative, though, with mechanics that were built to terrify. Murphy’s sluggish movement, walking and in combat, add a disarming quality to each supernatural encounter. And while running, L1 positions the camera to look behind — a blessing and a curse for the high-action chase sequences. Interaction with the environment is largely governed by the X button, grabbing chairs for weapons and knocking over armoires to block pursuers.

In a nod to the beginning of the series, some rooms have the dreaded static camera. This forces players down unknowable paths or into blind spots for that extra boost in tension, and it removes some valuable control (a tested benefit to any survival horror game). Every element is geared towards heightened surprise, though hopefully not just for shock value. Scripted events, then, pepper traversal, like the “never-ending hallway” trick placed in the middle of a chase scene coated with sinister and playful intent.

For a game this drenched in metaphor and Japanese narrative tradition, it nails the pure ecstasy of a good scare. From the sopping, creaking environments to the malicious entities, Silent Hill: Downpour reveals a depth of inspiration the survival-horror genre has been begging for. I played just a brief (but surprisingly difficult) demo, and was astounded by the thematic direction, the removal of sacred controls when the game cries for it most. Downpour has the potential to bring light into a darkened genre and an even darker series. Murphy’s haunting, so far, gives hope.

silent hill downpour

*If I were to make any recommendation regarding Silent Hill: Downpour, it would be to avoid the 3D version. The textures could not be more upsettingly choppy in 3D, and the game looks fantastic in 2D.*

Silent Hill: Downpour will be released in late 2011 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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