Take a trip through Silent Hill, if you dare

March 29th, 2012

The Silent Hill franchise has taken quite a beating recently. After the lukewarm reception of “Silent Hill 4,” publisher Konami began outsourcing the survival horror juggernaut to western developers. Results have varied from terrible (“Silent Hill: Homecoming”) to excellent but ignored (“Silent Hill: Shattered Memories”).

Either way, the series has never again reached the heights of its pinnacle entries, “Silent Hill 2” and “Silent Hill 3,” which are considered two of the best and scariest video games of all time. “Silent Hill: Downpour” changes all of that. Almost.

In “Silent Hill: Downpour,” players take control of Pendleton Murphy, a convicted prisoner who has had a bit of a violent streak,and is being transferred to another prison. On its way, the bus travels through Silent Hill, and naturally crashes, sending Murphy into a nightmarish world that forces him to come face to face with his past.

Throughout the story, players learn more of Murphy’s mysterious past in clever ways as he fights to retain his sanity. While still not as compelling as “Shattered Memories,” “Downpour’s” plot is ahead of other recent entries, and Murphy and other supporting characters are charismatic and interesting.

Controls are a bit of a strange animal. They try to embody both old-school and new-school techniques. At times the camera moves freely, but in certain situations, the camera will become fixed, and give a frightening cinematic view. This works exceptionally well and the cinematic views are a real treat to fans of older horror games.

Combat on the other hand, can be unnecessarily frustrating. Murphy can only hold one melee weapon at a time, and they break after prolonged use. This can add tension to the game, but is often annoying when you accidently trade in your axe for a brick. It’s also hard as hell to actually hit an enemy, and Murphy is constantly just swinging at air. This works fine in the first half of the game, when you find yourself fleeing enemies instead of fighting them, but towards the end enemies are plenty and relentless, and it almost ruins the experience.

Luckily, the game is heavy on what really matters: scares. The foggy town is just as eerie as it’s always been, and the infamous Silent Hill “otherworld” is just as dark, rusty and terrifying as ever. The game has a tension that lacks in other games, especially in sequences where Murphy is chased by a red glowing entity which he cannot fight, meaning his only option is to run.

The locations of the game, ranging from an old orphanage to an underground mining tourist attraction, are lovingly crafted and fun to explore. The game offers several horrifically grand set pieces that really deliver the goods, such as a creepy school play that comes to life, and a terrifying mine cart ride that’s both disturbing and pulse-pounding. This is all accompanied by a surprisingly spooky score by Daniel Licht (of Showtime’s “Dexter”).

The game is pretty rough around the edges, graphically. You can tell it’s not a high-budget game, and at times the frame-rate drops, which can really take away from the atmosphere.

Despite technical shortcomings, “Silent Hill: Downpour” is mostly a joy to play. From its multiple joke endings to its countless references to past games, one can see the amount of love put into this game. It’s a trip worth taking, as long as you don’t mind the nightmares.