Friday, December 24, 2010

Forbidden Siren

Ask any horror game fan what there favourite horror games are and the Silent Hill series is bound to come up. Eschewing the cheap jump scares of other horror games, the Silent Hill series instead goes for psychological horror creating a creepy and often depressing sense of unease through it's visuals and isolation. The series is also reknowned for its storytelling, exploring deep emotional themes in abstract ways. Horror fans were rightfully excited to hear that when Team Silent was disbanded after the third game in the series some former members were working on a new horror game, Forbidden Siren or Siren outside of Europe, for the Playstation 2.

Forbidden Siren is set in the small japanese mountain village of Hanuda over the course of 3 days. After what seems to be an earthquake the town has become surrounded by a sea of blood red water and all the water and rain has been turned to the same blood red colour. Most of the inhabitants have become zombie like creatures called Shibito. Although barely sentient these creatures are capable of wielding weapons, even guns and rifles, and will attack you on sight. If left alone most will go about performing corruptions of their usual daily routines.

The game follows over 10 survivors of this catastrophe that haven't been turned to shibito and follows their attempts to survive.  The survivors have found that they have the ability to 'sight jack' any other character or shibito and are able to see through their eyes. This is the major gameplay hook of the series. By holding down R1 and moving the right analogue stick in the direction of any character or shibito will let you see through their eyes. It's essentially like tuning a radio. Sight jacking is a fantastic mechanic that allows you to map out enemy patrol routes so you can avoid them or use it to look for any clues that can't normally see. Shibito have better eyesight than human characters and will let you see further in the dark or fog. It works brilliantly as a device in a horror game since you are totally defenseless while sight jacking, there's nothing more terrifying than sight jacking a shibito only to see the back of your character through its eyes as it shambles towards you for the kill.

The storyline is told in a non-linear fashion with the story jumping between people and events at different points in the timeline. While initially very confusing you will begin to piece the story together about what is happening on the island and about the people that live there to uncover the mystery. It's fantastically told and one of the best pieces of horror writing ever, right up there with the likes of Silent Hill 2 and System Shock 2. Even with so many characters to keep track of all with their own substories it never becomes difficult to follow. The game uses digitally scanned faces of real actors on the characters and even though the game takes a running jump into the uncanny valley at times it does humanise them and helps you sympathise with the characters. You will become emotionally involved and attached to these characters and at times the game is heartbreaking because most characters will not make it to the end. One characters story in particular comes to an end in one of the most harrowing scenes I've witnessed in a videogame.

Each character plays completely differently from each other. Only some characters are armed in the game. Most have melee weapons although a few have access to handguns and one has acess to a rifle. Ammo for these weapons is scarce and has to be used only when necessary to beat stages. Other characters are completely unarmed and must rely on stealth to avoid contact with shibito. Characters vary in their resilience with adolescent characters capable of taking some punishment while one of the children you play as won't survive being hit even once. You will return many times to the same locations in the game but with different characters each stage must be approached in unique ways.
Coming from former members of Team Silent you'd expect the game to hold up very well visually. The setting of Hanuda village is very unsettling, with the small communities in this mountain region now filled with shambling shibito. Most stages take place at night and when not pitch black are covered with a thick nearly inpenetrable fog. It's hard to see more than a few feet ahead of yourself. Some characters have flashlights but using them will only attract shibiot so they should only be used when absolutely necessary. The soundtrack is brilliantly composed and fits the eerie desolate mood of the game.

From the amazing soundtrack, great visuals, fnatastic and innovative sight jacking system and one of the best horror stories ever written we have the makings of one of the best games ever made. However the game is letdown by some very serious flaws. The biggest flaw is that new stages won't open up unless you complete a series of secondary tasks in a level. These might require you to throw a switch or pick up an item but sometimes they are even more elaborate and confusing, bordering on the complicated puzzles of point and click adventures. These are hardly ever sign posted and are difficult to work out and can require a lot of trial and error. Some challenges will require you to find hotspots in areas to interact with the environment that aren't signposted and are only be found after a lot of frustration. These types of puzzles work in point and click adventure games since you take them at your own pace. It's a completely different situation when you have deadly shibito chasing after you. If you don't complete these secondary objectives the game will loop back around and continue making you complete levels you've already finished until you open a new path. The player is never told why the game is looping. It's a crazy design decision. You'll need to be consulting gamefaqs to figure out some of the more obtuse puzzles if you don't want to be frustrated.

The game also requires you to go back and play each level twice with new objectives. Some can require just beating the level in a different way or meeting much harsher conditions or with new objectives. Some of these require you to beat the level in a very strick time limit and which can be really obnoxious. Again some of the new objectives are really obtuse and may require using gamefaqs to save your sanity.

The localisation is really jarring as well. The characters are japanese and setting is in Japan so whoever was in charge of the localisation and gave all the characters voice actors with strong english accents deserves to be shot. This is the perfect game to have japanese voice actors and english subtitles but there's no option. The english voice acting is only passable.

Forbidden Siren is so close to being a horror videogame classic but some really daft design decisions really hold the game back from being counted among the likes of Silent Hill 2 and System Shock 2. It's still a game well worth experiencing, especially for a horror game affecionado due to it's superb plot and sight jacking mechanics. There is a sequel to the game on the PS2 that is said to be a big improvement and a remake for the PS3 called Blood Siren. Supposedly it's a much better game even if many of the characters have been replaced by american characters.