Konami's Silent Hill franchise, as iconic as it has become in modern horror, has seen its once-mighty brand slowly degraded over time. After it peaked in the original trilogy (and took one hell of a weird departure in Silent Hill 4: The Room), it was placed in the hands of Western developers who dabbled with its DNA like mad scientists. They tried to virtually clone the original trilogy, going so far as to shoehorn in rehashed characters and cribbing liberally from the mythos of Silent Hill 1-3 to try and recapture the original magic. However, like any clone, the constant reprinting of the same genes and chromosomes without introducing new material resulted in a handful of inferior, inbred titles that tried to capture the Silent Hill mood but wound up feeling derivative and tired.
This is where the team behind the latest entry in the series, Silent Hill Downpour, has proven itself to be a group of superior scientists when it comes to breeding a new experience. Deftly plucking the right chromosomes from Silent Hills past and fusing them into a new DNA strand, the team at Czech developer Vatra Games and Silent Hill comics scribe Tom Waltz have created a fresh, exciting organism that expands upon the series mythology while remaining true to the series' roots.
In traditional Silent Hill fashion, we are introduced to our lost soul: Murphy Pendleton, a man incarcerated for unspecified crimes. The game starts off painting Pendleton as an unsympathetic character, as the tutorial has Pendleton learning controls as he stages an ambush and viciously shanks a fellow prisoner to death in the showers. Shortly thereafter, Pendleton is transferred to a different prison, but his transport bus crashes, leaving him on the run in the hellish burg of Silent Hill.
However, this is a different borough of the infamous town, set in a tourist-trap style area that celebrates the town's mining roots (and further cementing its connections to the real-life "burning city" of Centralia, PA) while offering a unique new aesthetic. At times the yawning gorge of Devil's Pit and the towering pines that fringe it called to mind Alan Wake, but then the return to the suburban streets reminded us, in fog-shrouded splendor, that we are trapped in the distinctly Northeastern town that we've grown to love over the years.
The other major change in setting comes from the rain, which drowns Silent Hill in an eponymous downpour throughout the game's run. It soaks Pendleton to the bone and gives the game its own sickly sheen that's never been seen in the series before. True, Shattered Memories mixed up the weather patterns years ago by freezing Silent Hill in a crust of ice and snow, but Downpour perfectly balances the old with the new in a way that somehow feels greater than the sum of its parts. Balancing out this new rainy weather pattern is the return to the franchise's iconic Otherside, an industrial hell of blood and rust that now holds an imposing new threat in a pursuing darkness that threatens to consume Pendleton unless he can stay just outside its grasp.
These threats bleed over into the rest of the game, which mercifully shrugs off the attempts at beefing up the combat that the previous entries (unsuccessfully) attempted. Hand-to-hand is a brutal, clunky dance that leaves you open to enemy strikes and firearms are made a last-ditch fallback with their wavering reticles that barely guarantee you a hit. Some gamers may find this lack of accuracy and power a bane, but the overwhelming feeling of being human makes you feel the genuine helplessness and fear that birthed the series in the first place.
It's this understanding of the series on a deeper level that makes the game truly excel. The script by Tom Waltz, who has dipped his pen into the Silent Hill inkwell many times in the past in comic form, shows a deeper understanding of the mythology than previous Western attempts have shown. Most refreshing, however, is Murphy Pendleton himself. After the initial brutality to which we are witness, the layers slowly peel away revealing just what he's running from and fighting for. Spoilers prevent me from expanding upon this, but Pendleton is one of the most sympathetic characters we've seen walking the streets of Silent Hill. His story makes us ask some pretty unpleasant questions about our own motivations (although nothing as seedy as James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2) and it makes him a far more intriguing character, and Silent Hill Downpour a more intriguing game, for it.