Written by Jonathan Wojcik
A Silent Hill Monstrouspective:
Why do they hate us.
I barely even want to do this one.
I promised I'd review the monsters of every core Silent Hill title, and that's what I'm going to do...but sometimes, something is so terrible you can't even find joy in belittling it. I had a ball tearing apart the monsters in Homecoming, and that's because, as many marks as they missed, they were still actually interesting. They exhibited imagination. There were levels on which I earnestly liked creatures such as Asphyxia and Siam. There were even contexts in which I believe the final boss, Amnion, could have worked as-is.
I called Homecoming "overwrought" and "schlocky," but those are at least amusingly shoddy qualities.
Silent Hill: Downpour can boast no such bright side. As the last full-fledged Silent Hill game before the mysterious cancellation of Silent Hills, it may very well go down as the game that killed one of the most celebrated series in video game history. The final nail in the coffin. The blight at the end of the tunnel.
So why is Downpour so bad?
There's a laundry list of gameplay reasons fans have already pointed out, which means, for starters, Downpour isn't even good as a game. It isn't fun to play. This I could forgive, of course, if it were fun to watch being played, since this franchise has always been more about telling a good story than the thrill of running around and wailing on monsters, but it fails on those levels, too. It fails at everything, and the worst part of all is how good is once sounded like it was going to be.
We were told, at one time, that Downpour's team were passionate fans of the original four games, as disappointed with the series direction as the rest of us. We were told that this one finally wouldn't rehash the Nurses or Pyramid Head, and that it would even move away from the overused environmental motifs of previous titles, to boot. Silent Hill 2 had teased us with the idea that everyone experiences a truly different version of the town, and this sounded like the first time we might really see a solid exploration of that compelling theme.
Just look at this batch of early conceptual art for what could have been Downpour's monsters. This entry's protagonist would be a guy serving prison time, his personalized Silent Hill would be a wet, moldy, waterlogged place of nearly constant rain, and his monsters, apparently, were almost going to focus around a grey, dreary, gas-masked aesthetic.
All off to a great start. A refreshing change from more faceless, meaty mannequin women and rusted, blood-stained grates. This sounded like what I'd been wanting from the series. This sounded like it couldn't possibly go wrong.
Now let's see how terribly it did exactly that...and just by looking at its finalized monsters alone.
No. I'm afraid what you are seeing here is what Downpour's art team, after a solid couple years of development, somehow decided was something that qualified as a "monster" interesting enough to put into an entry in a video game series almost entirely famous for the strangeness of its monsters.
This does not even qualify for the term. A "monster" can't just be a person who never washes their hair.
Suddenly I can't believe I criticized any of Homecoming's monsters. They were masterpieces compared to this. Effort went into them.
I suppose I vaguely understand what the team may have been thinking when they approved these designs. Our hero is a violent criminal, right? And he's been in prison, surrounded by other violent criminals. I'm guessing they were thinking this guy would be haunted most of all by the ugliness of his fellow man. There was probably some sort of "PEOPLE are the REAL monsters!" epiphany flying around the office, and we wound up with "creature designs" that amounted to little more than a bunch of dirty hooligans.
A Closer from Silent Hill 3
Trouble is, that's always what Silent Hill hurled our way. Every version of the town held a shattered mirror up to humanity. What made its designs frightening were those points at which the familiar intersected with the alien. You could tell that a Closer represented a person, but it represented a person the way a Pixar movie represents an insect; a loose, distorted interpretation through the eyes of a vastly different being.
The Doll does at least have a vaguely interesting gimmick, in that its real body doesn't move, but its "shadow" will attack you until the body is destroyed. A cool mechanic wasted on a seriously underwhelming design.
Maybe these would be more interesting if they at least showed some variety. If some of them were missing limbs or heads, and they were all dressed up differently like old department store mannequins, that might be pretty eerie. They could have filled environments with broken, silent mannequins and just given some of them the killer shadows, maybe even randomized ones every time. Mannequins are rather overused by this series as it is, but if you're going to keep doing it, at least try a little harder to mix it up.
The Weeping Bat
All in all, the Weeping Bat is a solid enough Silent Hill monster, but therein lies the problem. It's a good enough monster to feel like a starting point, like one of the more subtle, early-game horrors before things really spiral off into the deep end, but little else in this game will ever live up to even the "good enough" standard set by the Weeping Bat, and for that matter, little else in the game will ever even feel like it's from the same game as the Weeping Bat. It's as if this one was conceived by a completely different art team with a completely different vision of the final product, and by the time the game inexplicably settled into its "tattooed Joker fanboy" aesthetic, enough money had already been spent on the Weeping Bat to just shoehorn it in.
The Tormented Soul
"Tormented Soul" sure is a melodramatic name for what ultimately lives the life of a wooden box.
The Wall Corpse
This silly pumpkin mouth spews acid when you get too close, much like a number of vastly more interesting monsters before it. This time, though, the acid sometimes has syringes in it. SPOOKY! You don't want to also get pricked on a needle while acid is getting barfed all over you! You have NO IDEA where that needle might have been before it was inside a tortured corpse monster!
This one is what they meant when they said they wouldn't recycle Pyramid Head again. Just like the Dolls, Bogeyman is only a cheaper coat of paint on a tiresome series standby, without even the decency to imply something unnatural and otherworldly under its funny clothes. Pyramid Head symbolized a specific person, but it was not literally that person, or anything like an actual person. It was something unfathomably inhuman forced into a human shape by unimaginable forces for ambiguous reasons, giving an appropriately caricatured physical form to the brutality and torment roiling in the subconscious of a killer.
"Bogeyman," on the other hand, could just as easily be Farmer Goofus or Professor Dilweed trying to keep a talking dog and some stoners from fucking around in his diamond mine.
Are they serious with this thing? With a giant, scowling old man face suspended between minecart rails? Wearing a giant monocle? Seriously? Really? Somebody thought this was "creepy" in any serious context?
It gets worse, too. Monocle Man represents a cavern tour guide who got drunk one day and accidentally got a bunch of children killed. Now, as a giant monster face, he taunts you throughout his scary mine cart ride. ZOINKS!
Whether or not Murphy actually committed this crime depends on which ending of the game you unlock, but either way he'll have to battle a massive, exaggerated reflection of his victim as the game's only real "boss monster," a fight which consists of disconnecting giant life support cables while the monster tries to squish you with its fists.
Wheelman's design isn't bad, and in fact, it's at least as good as any other final boss in the series. That's not saying a whole lot when Silent Hill's final bosses are usually its cheesiest designs, but Wheelman at least boasts both a compelling premise and a genuinely distressing appearance. That pulverized face and degenerated body are hauntingly sympathetic, wavering between the believable and the inhuman. If you only ever showed me this boss and the Weeping Bats, I'd probably expect only good things from the rest of this entry, and that's perhaps its biggest failing of all; that good ideas were there, but were quickly buried under a series of increasingly bad decisions.
We've got just one "monster" left to talk about, and it pretty much does the best job of emphasizing that issue.
So Downpour decided to expand something like that into a major game mechanic, and the result was the Void, which both does and does not work well. The idea of being pursued by an all-consuming emptiness is definitely scary as hell, and it's another of those early, leaked details that made Downpour sound more exciting than it ultimately proved to be.
The problem with the void, however, is that it tries too hard, and it ends up losing any sense of dread or mystery it could have and should have instilled. The red light was frightening because we didn't know what it represented or how it even harmed us, while the Void is unambiguously an empty space that pulls things in like a black hole, bending space and peeling away matter in a noisy, flashy, melodramatic special effects show that kills whatever atmosphere the game was attempting to build. It isn't any different from fleeing a fiery explosion, and fiery explosions are not something people usually describe as either "creepy" or "disturbing."
This is the issue basically plaguing the entire game. Downpour wants to emulate the visceral body horror and atmospheric mystery aspects of Silent Hill 2 from a boldly different approach, but its every element feels like it tried either far too hard or not nearly hard enough, like it's desperately trying to startle and impress us with its very loose, superficial impression of how "horror" is supposed to work.
From a design perspective, Downpour's worst offense may be its total inability to figure itself out. The core themes of the storyline include the violent nature of mankind, the brutality of the prison system, the corruption of justice and the blindness of vengeance, which are all ripe springboards for grotesque symbolic imagery, compelling social messages and truly harrowing psychological horror, for sure, but only if we can tie those things together in a way that displays some level of thought.
The final game includes wheelchair motifs, prison motifs, roided-up gang members, a guy in a gas mask, spooky cave creatures, a haunted coal mine, a roving gravitational singularity and an abundance of "water damaged" environments. Each of these has an in-game explanation behind it, but none of them mesh. None of them feel as though they play off the same central idea or work as pieces of a whole. There's no evident THEME, even after the game tries to explain to you how there totally was all along.
Let's look at these Bogeyman concepts again. You can see the boring, flavorless final outcome forming step-by-step here, and it is almost physically painful. If exactly the first six designs had been used as the game's entire boss and enemy roster, and nothing else, I could have called it a success. They wouldn't have been as wildly strange as some of the previous Silent Hills, but they would have given the game a memorable, distinct look and feel with a sense of cohesion. They all communicate the prison motif in different ways. The all have a sort of soggy, gloomy atmosphere even without the dripping water. The gas masks could have symbolized the "facelessness" and blending of identity both exhibited by mob mentality and forced upon prison inmates regardless of their individual crimes. It was THERE. It was ALL RIGHT THERE, in the concept art for just one monster, and they still managed to completely blow it.
And if you still aren't sure Downpour is really that cheesy, I leave you with the Monocle Man's entire Spooky Mine Cart Ride:
Rest in Pieces, Silent Hill. We should have pulled the plug on you at least two more games ago.
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