Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stumbling into the good stuff

I have always enjoyed finding a moment of excellence in an otherwise bad or disappointing game. Silent Hill Downpour isn't bad, but it certainly isn't what I was looking for. Far too  much time is spent wandering around doing pointless side quests and not enough time is spent actually bringing the scary. Finally last night all the open ended nonsense was put aside for a level as good as anything the series has ever done. There was an extended section in an orphanage/chapel that had excellent puzzles, little combat, atmosphere, good sound effects, and actually a tingle or two to the spine. I would put it on the level of the Shalebridge Cradle from Thief 3 or the haunted hotel from Vampire The Masquerade: Redemption. Those pretty heady company, but it also an indictment of Downpour missing the mark again. Those were to very good 'scary' areas in non-scary games and it is the best the Downpour has come up with.

While it is difficult to pin down what is scary and what is not I have a pretty good idea of what Downpour is doing wrong: the other world areas are handled terribly. Forget how ugly the first Silent Hill is and think back to the first time the world changed. If I remember correctly it was in the school. You come up from a tunnel into the same area you left from, only now the whole place is trying to kill you. There was malice there and I don't know how they did it, but it worked. Now, take this place that is uncomfortable to look at and fill it with puzzles that require critical thinking. This same formula was used in the next two games and it worked every time. The puzzles actually intensified the fear.

Well, pyramid head raping mannequins helped.

Downpour's other world sections are almost all chase scenes. There is not enough time spent in any of them to develop any mood. Instead you spend the whole time running from a glowing ball, usually in circles, until you stumble across the correct turn and move to the next area and do it all again. They aren't mentally challenging because they are frightening or because they require thought. The level I mentioned above finally got back to what works, if only briefly: there is an interesting puzzle in which Murphy needs to go through the behind the scenes motions of putting on a play. He turns off the lights, starts a record, makes the sound effects, etc. When he gets it right the entire theater turns into the play and he has to run through the woods while being chased by monsters. When Murphy finally gets to the house there a puzzle of reasonable difficulty he has to solve while the monsters bang on the door. Horror plus puzzles equals more intense horror.

It worked. Briefly. Then Downpour gave up and went back to aping Silent Hill 2's plot twist, but more on that once I finish the game.

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