Survival-horror games are defined by constraint: In horror, characters are trapped, with no apparent way out. Movement is slow, and combat inexpert. Born of the original PlayStation generation, the survival-horror genre was defined by technological limitations and strict conventions. The environments aspire to realism, but exploration is limited, the camera is often computer-controlled, and aural cues work in tandem with visual fog to suggest more than consoles could show. The most common videogame objective, in a general sense, is triumph, but in survival-horror, true victory is elusive. As the name suggests, escape is often the best players can hope for.
Konami’s Silent Hill helped define those genre conventions, but lately, the series has struggled with evolution. Silent Hill: Downpour flirts with modernity by giving camera control to the player, and offering freedom to roam through some of the game world. As the new protagonist, a prisoner escaped from a transport convoy, a player who indulges the game’s first couple of sluggish hours will find one of the best representations of the horrific town of Silent Hill to date. Absurd puzzles add a touch of weirdness (one highlight puts you behind the scenes of the creepiest-ever school play) as optional side quests reveal new flashes of the town’s history.
Combat is plentiful, and the attack system feels like rudimentary flailing rather than a representation of an unskilled brawler. Eventually, players might dread the game’s interface, rather than events within. So perhaps the slim bestiary, limited to just a handful of enemy types, is a blessing. Still, when the occasional thunderstorm ups the enemy aggression level, and players are armed with a weapon that could break at any time, Downpour’s combative tendencies feel like a misstep. The defiantly old-school game infrastructure doesn’t help, as the one-button interaction system means players will inadvertently swap useful items for crap on more than a few occasions.
Yet the atmosphere—Silent Hill’s distinctive tourist attraction—is only battered, not broken, by those underdeveloped aspects. The music by Daniel Licht (Dexter) provides the slow, sawed strings and hollow drones that are the breath of the town, with occasional splashes of tinkling giallo influence. Downpour isn’t quite an evolutionary leap, but it demonstrates that Konami’s thinking isn’t entirely constrained by the past.