From the moment I*Motion's original genre-creating masterpiece Alone in the Dark
first appeared on our computer screens more than ten years ago, original ideas for the survival horror category have been few and far between. As regardless of what studio these games eventually come out of, it seems that nearly every single member of the genus has done its best to copy the model set forth by Infogrames; while adding little else to further the class. Though titles like Resident Evil
and Silent Hill
have indeed built entire empires off their strong presentation and storytelling elements, the core gameplay design itself is only one-degree north of where it originally started in 1992. Suffice it to say, the need for some innovation is definitely there.
Apparently SCE Japan's newly acquired Director Keiichiro Toyama felt exactly the same way when he sat down to create his latest survival horror entry, Siren. Having already directed and helped to design the original Silent Hill title for Konami, Toyama had a distinct vision of how he wanted to scare people like they'd never been scared before. That is, what if players could see the world through the eyes of the game's other characters? And to take it a step further, what if they could see their own death through the eyes of the thing that is stalking them? It's a creepy idea for sure, and it's also the premise of Siren; an overly atmospheric and highly stylized attempt at the terror genre.
As intriguing as this concept is, however, the real trick is to make it work. Sight-Jacking into the eyes of friend or foe alike certainly sounds like a great idea, but using that feature effectively can means the difference between Clock Tower 3 and Clock Tower 1.
Powerful storylines can often be what makes or breaks a survival horror title and luckily for Siren, its plot is one of its strongest elements. Taking place over a three day period in the small Japanese village of Hanuda, Siren's narrative is a disjointed tale of spookiness right out of The Ring and Ju-on. As the story goes, there are unspeakable occurrences in the Hanuda Township every 30 years or so and tonight just so happens to be that tri-decade anniversary. In an instant, the surrounding bodies of water have turned the color of blood and the skies have opened up with a relentless rainfall. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the village have been affected too and have transformed into mindless zombie-like creatures known as Shibito. From that point on, your one and only goal is to survive the three-day phenomenon and discover the source of this madness.
Though it sounds a little derivative at first, the plot is actually quite complicated and fascinating. Rather than follow the game's underlying mystery in a traditional way, Sony has opted to take a more Tarantino-like approach to the structure and reveals the plot in segments outside of any traditional chronological order. So while the game begins with an 18 year old student named Kyoya Suda discovering the girl Miyako Kajiro at 9am on day one, it quickly switches to the viewpoint of Professor Tamon Takeuchi who is lost in the night with his scared companion an instant later. In all, there are ten different characters and each one of them has their own motivations, fears, and back stories that affect the overall tale.
Because of its non-linear structure, Siren can definitely get pretty confusing in its earliest moments, with the identities of your protagonists, why they're in Hanuda, and how they're able to use psychic powers turning out to be as big a mystery as the origin of your enemy. Eventually everything will begin to make sense, but your understanding of these events is entirely dependant on how well you can piece together the clues provided and how well you can spot the little details that make everything come together.
Unlike every other survival horror title on the market, Siren's main gameplay hook is that it allows you to Sight-Jack both allies and enemies to aid you in your overall strategy for survival. Activated with the L2 button, Sight-Jacking is almost like tuning a television set with an old antennae; as once activated, players are presented with a snowy television screen that can only be altered by manipulating the left analog stick in the direction that their target resides. Should you want to Sight-Jack into the mind of an NPC directly in front of you, for example, simply pressing upwards on the stick results in you seeing yourself through that person's eyes. Continue to move the stick around, and you can pick up on other people's mental signatures too; or should we say, other "things?"
While it sounds a bit like a novelty (and in the beginning it is), Sight-Jacking is actually the key to successfully surviving your missions. If one of your earliest goals is to cross a wooden bridge with a sniper on point, for instance, then you'll need to Sight-Jack into that gunman's mind and figure out exactly what it is he can see. Understanding his pattern and where he's looking is what can tip you off as to when it's safe to move forward. In the chance that you can't tell what it is you're looking at, though, the game provides an additional benefit by providing multi-colored cross-marks to identify what kind of a character you're seeing; blue represents yourself, green represents allies, and red represents the Shibito.
Once players have determined their course of action, stealthy movement and quiet navigation is the next step to survival. Though the moveset in this regard is actually quite small, most of the techniques provided are pretty helpful. Crouches, slow walks, and the ability to climb onto low-level ledges is pretty much all you can do -- but we can't even begin to tell you how many times a patient squat-and-shimmy saved our cowardly hides when traveling past a random patrolling Shibito.
Unlike games like Resident Evil, however, there's very little to fall back on if you're spotted. As not only are Siren's enemies overly aggressive and inclined to team up with other creatures in order to get you, but your overall health and means of self-defense are quite paltry too. With few exceptions, your character will almost always have no weapon to fight back with, and unless you can master the art of moving in the shadows you'll be dead meat after one or two attacks at the maximum.
Luckily, the game gives players hints on whether or not they've been spotted by quickly flashing the screen red and shifting the point of view to that of the approaching enemy. Though this sequence only happens for a split-second, it allows the opportunity to drop your current strategy and run like a chicken towards the hills. It may not be the masculine thing to do, but at least it kept us going and after awhile, becomes the most important survival skill to master.
In-between all this running and Sight-Jacking, Siren plays out like most other survival horror games and offers more than its own fair share of "find the key" quests. Though there are other popular genre conventions in there too (find the combination to the lock, discover the secret code to solve the next clue, escort so-and-so to safety, etc), they're nowhere near as obvious as they are in other games. At first this seems like a blessing in disguise and definitely contributes to Siren's overall difficulty factor (and yes, it gets extremely hard). But as time wears on, you realize that some of the things you need to pull off in order to proceed are not only bizarre in nature, but they're also close to impossible to figure out. How are we supposed to know to put a broken radio into a well bucket in order to eliminate a pesky Shibito? At what point does it become clear that we need to soak a towel and stick it in a freezer for another mission several steps down the line? Some of these requirements are just plain wacky.
Things are further complicated by the heavily menu-driven gameplay system. While most videogames simply require you to press an action button to pick up or use an item, Siren further confuses things by forcing you to press Triangle any time you want to perform an action. A great example of this kind of scenario takes place at the very beginning of the initial scenario: It all starts when you spot a truck key sitting on a table by pressing the action button (X). Afterwards, you'll have to press Triangle and choose "Pick up" in order to actually pick it up. Once you've grabbed that key, it's time to unlock the locked truck door outside; but if highlight the door with the action button, it just tells you what you need to do -- as you'll then have to press Triangle again to access "Use Key" from the menu to unlock the door like you intended. Unfortunately the door doesn't open, so you'll have to press Triangle yet again and select "Open Door" to proceed. Once the door is open, you'll find yourself in front of a steering wheel which forces you to again go to your Triangle menu and select "Insert Key". Once you've done that, you'll need to go back to the menu again one last time and select "Turn the Key." Once the key is twisted, the sequence ends and you're off to your next mission. Doesn't anyone else see how unnecessary all those extra steps were? Sadly it continues like that for the rest of the game.
It's this combination of confusing mission objectives and extra command steps that ultimately bog Siren down in terms of its accessibility. And while we could certainly live with the rather stiff control and frequent camera issues that accompany player movement during the majority of the adventure (and let's face it, most survival horror fans pretty much expect this kind of control convention anyway), it certainly doesn't help matters any when you're trying to figure out what it is you're supposed to do. Other bothersome little hitches (like the lack of a player indicator on the map screen to help locate where you are) and the frequency of your demise will definitely try the game's less patient set of players out there; and probably won't win over any first time survival horror experimenters.
More forgiving players (i.e. the horror fanatics), however, should find plenty to like in here. Between the 75-plus missions and ten different characters there's more than enough to keep the devoted busy for an extended period of time. Throw in a list of enemies that are constantly rising from the grave even after you've already "killed" them and plenty of alternate mission paths and bonus scenarios, and you have yourself plenty of reasons to go back. The hitch is, that only the gamers who can adapt and pardon the steep difficulty curve and gameplay flaws will be able to enjoy it; as despite Siren's unconventional approach it still comes across as an idea in progress.
To say that Siren borrows heavily from the Silent Hill series in terms of its visual style would be accurate. But where Silent Hill uses a more surrealistic approach to its surroundings, Siren goes the more authentic route and offers up a nice mixture of real world buildings and settings. But because the game is perhaps the darkest and bleakest game of its kind that we've ever seen, the level of detail isn't quite up to par with more recent examples of the genre like Outbreak or even Ghost Hunter. Even so, the character models look great and the cut scenes have a unique look to them that almost gives the game a "living painting" type quality. Taken pound for pound, Siren's atmosphere is one of the scariest we've seen.
Unfortunately Siren also suffers from the same troubles that populate all survival horror games: its animation and camera work. Though camera perspectives can be switched between first and third-person at any time, the speed of the camera adjustments are about ten times faster than the movement of your character -- making it quite difficult to maneuver your focus accurately without a lot of twitches. We were also sad to see that widescreen 16:9 mode and progressive scan were not supported.
One of the biggest complaints in the European version of Siren (or Forbidden Siren as it's know there) was its god-awful voice acting; and the American version is no different. Rather than utilize the original Japanese vocal track that worked so well in the original, Sony has opted instead to port the UK recording over to our coast word for word. The result is a bizarrely presented amalgamation of Japanese culture and heavy London accents. To make matters even worse, the majority of the characters all speak like William Shatner robots -- with plenty of unneeded pauses and unnatural sentence breaks.
That vocal blunder hurts an otherwise powerful aural experience. Though its used sparingly, the music is incredibly terrifying with a series of tracks that was obviously inspired by Romero's third zombie flick Day of the Dead. But it's the game's audio effects in particular that really stand out. As not only does every drop of rain sound just as it would in real life, but the unnerving psychotic mumbling of the Shibito are as scary a sound you could ever hope to experience. Now if only the translators had chosen to re-record the English vocals or include the original Japanese dub...
©2004, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved