How many times has a game actually been horrifying? Not scary, not intense-not Resident Evil monsters jumping from off-camera at inopportune moments, and not Silent Hill running through a poorly-lit, blood-soaked wasteland-but actually horrifying?
It takes a magnificent feat of artistry to create actual fear in an audience. No wonder then that horror games (and films, for that matter) are so often willing to settle for the sudden stinging shock. What makes Siren such a spectacular experience is that it manages to create a much deeper, more resonant kind of fear in the player-making it eligible, in my book, for the title of the first true horror game of this console generation. And it does it by offering characters that players can relate to and care about, which really shouldn't feel as much like as a revelation as it does.
The gameplay will seem familiar to anyone who has played any of the Silent Hill games. It's played in the third person in an entirely 3D environment. There are enough new features that it doesn't feel like a simple rehash, despite what the titles' similarities might suggest. Unlike the combat-oriented Silent series, Siren doesn't just make stealth an option, it forces it on the player, by making nearly all the enemies invulnerable. The other major change is that the game isn't played in a linear fashion with a single character, but rather in a series of chapters, each set in a single location, at a different time with a single playable character per level.
Siren is an incredibly intense experience. As the game jumps around temporally, I found myself being chased around by a monstrous man with bleeding eyes, only to a find myself a few scenes later playing as that man pre-transformation, when he was just another victim trying desperately to escape the village . Then there was the most terrifying sequence at all: playing as a little girl trapped in a house with a family of zombies living out a crude semblance of a quiet evening of domestic bliss. Defenseless and terrified, the little girl has to find her way out of the house, all the while knowing that if the monsters catch even the slightest glimpse of her she'll be just as dead as everyone else. This sequence is a masterpiece of stealth game design, and the most singularly terrifying videogame situation I've ever been put in.
The first thing about the game that jumps out at the player is the relative plainness of its graphics. Muddy tones, slightly grainy textures, a relatively short draw distance with considerable fogging-none of this makes the game seem like the most attractive package. It certainly isn't the game to pop into the PS2 if you were planning to show off your new big screen TV. First impressions aside, these graphical issues aren't actually flaws. While it's not entirely clear whether the look is caused by a conscious choice on the part of the developers or by a deficiency in the engine, the graphical "limitations" are actually used to create a unified atmosphere that only heightens the game's effect on the player. Simple techniques such as adding false grit to the screen go a long way to imbuing the game with a cinematic feel. At times, it almost felt like I was playing a bootlegged videotape-something dangerously foreign, that never should have found its way into the country, let alone into my game system.
This feeling is carried over nicely into the control scheme, which will feel familiar to anyone who has ever played Silent Hill, the only big addition being a feature called "sightjacking." All of the people in the small Japanese town of Hanuda (the game's central location) have been linked psychically by the bizarre goings-on, which allows the player to see through enemies' and NPCs' eyes. This adds an interesting new dimension to stealth gameplay, allowing the player to discover the enemy patrol patterns firsthand, all while taking a direct view of more unsettling acts. The sightjack screen is represented by visual static. By pressing the control pad in the direction of an enemy, the static fades into your target's POV. Of course, since modern televisions and VCRs go to a blank screen when lacking a signal, and younger players may have lived their entire lives without ever seeing a set of rabbit ears, the clever use of fuzzy television reception as a metaphor for psychic disconnection might not carry the weight it should for the entire audience.
I was even fond of the game's most controversial feature, the interact menu. Unlike contemporary survival horror games which typically assign a single button to act as a catch-all use/grab/look button, Siren has that button open a menu and pause the game, giving players an opportunity not only to take a breather and consider their action, but also know exactly what that button press is going to accomplish. It's a more precise, measured system that hearkens back to the golden days of graphic adventures like Maniac Mansion, when thirty different possible actions were just a click or two away.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this game is how identifiable all the characters are. They cover a wide spectrum of archetypes generally relegated to supporting roles in games, if they appear at all. When was the last time a game featured a middle-aged school teacher? Or a seventy-year-old man? Or a little girl with no special powers of any kind? There isn't a gravelly-voiced ex-marine or a busty police sharpshooter to be found anywhere in the roster. In fact, the "toughest" character by far is a gun-toting university professor who splits his time equally between shooting monsters and verbally abusing his young female assistant-so yeah, this couldn't be less of an American game.
Even more importantly, the game manages to put the player firmly in the shoes of the characters-they're just as baffled by the incomprehensible horror as the rest of us, and because there are so many of them, we know that not everyone is going to get out of this alive. This creates more tension than the average game, where the player is pretty well assured that so long as they make all the jumps at the right time their character is going to cross the finish line in one piece. Twelve people trapped in a small town where a rain of blood is possessing them and turning them into twisted hybrid creatures? They're not likely to be offered that same assurance.
I was blown away by the overall package that Siren offers. Try as I might, I couldn't find anything wrong with the game. The only potential flaw I could find was that the game is more difficult than people may have come to expect. The combination of brutal, mostly unwinnable combat and the level-scouring required to solve some of the puzzles might be frustrating to some. If gamers are patient and diligent enough to really explore Siren and experience everything it has to offer, they'll find a truly exceptional game, one of the first to really earn the "horror" title for the experience it offers, rather than just the content on display.