Over the years the Silent Hill name has become the benchmark of videogame horror and because of this, Konami is able to assign both a large team and budget. The results can clearly be seen on the screen, especially with the third iteration showing off some of the finest graphics ever seen. Despite being created by the same person and featuring a similar look, Keiichiro Toyama’s Siren is an all together different beast. While Silent Hill has become almost like Hollywood with its successful showboating and extravagant set-pieces, Siren displays a far more grounded and low-budget appearance more akin to Hideo Nakata’s classic horror Ringu. Indeed, Siren feels extremely restrained, especially when compared to the mechanical horrors of Toyama’s previous horror legacy.
Perhaps what sets Siren apart from such a large number cheap Biohazard clones and the kings of the genre, is how the general real-time gameplay is equally terrifying, if not more so, than any of the subtle scripted moments. For all of Silent Hill’s positive attributes, the atmosphere is largely all bark and no bite. It makes the right noises at the right times, however the player is rarely in any genuine danger. For Siren, the player is always in danger, and the game will never let you forget this.
It is rare for a videogame to be as mentally draining as Siren. Play the game incorrectly, and death will occur almost instantly. Gone are the days of green herbs, red herbs, blue herbs and mixed herbs, Siren is simply about not getting hit in the first place. Death can be so sudden and come from so far away that the player must always be aware of what is happening in their surroundings.
Sight-Jacking is an original and expertly implemented key feature of Siren, and it allows the player to ‘tune in’ to any surrounding enemies. Pressing the L2 button brings up a fuzzy screen usually associated with a detuned television set and by slowing moving the left analogue stick you can locate a signal, before finally locking-on with one of the pad's face buttons. The system allows the player to actually view the game through the eyes of the enemy, and by keeping tabs on all surrounding signals you should be able to avoid danger by learning patrol patterns.
As ideas go, sight-jacking is both extremely clever and fresh. However, best of all it creates unprecedented levels of tension and atmosphere. Some may remember hiding in a dark corner within Looking Glass’ superb Thief series, only to find an armed guard walk just inches in front of your face while muttering about their unsatisfactory job. The atmosphere really got cold when the guards knew you were in the room, but weren't quite able to locate you.
Siren features a similarly chilling atmosphere, a real sense of being the hunted rather than the hunter. The locations are suitably detailed yet graphically distant, creating a unique visual appearance that could only work within the genre. The variety of environments also impresses, ranging from the more urban areas right down to rural farmland – each featuring a very Japanese look and feel. Though the game is controlled in a similar manner to Silent Hill complete with third person view, Sight Jacking is entirely in first person. So imagine hiding in a corner knowing you are being hunted, but with the ability to see exactly where the enemy is looking, even when they brush right passed your position. Indeed, imagine what it would be like when they are really giving chase…
It’s here where Siren really sets itself apart from the competition within the genre. When you’ve been spotted, it is difficult to recall many games that can offer a similar fear-fuelled adrenalin rush as you make your (usually futile) run to safety. Knowing that you’re being persued, and being able to see them actually persuing you, is simply unlike anything else the videogaming medium can offer. Every time you switch view to the eyes of the enemy, the atmosphere just grows and grows, since their sheer ferocity and believable enthusiasm at the thought of finding you is unforgettable. While the enemy usually goes about their preset routine almost with a sense of boredom, complete with what can only be described as demented ape noises, as soon as the hunt is on the mindset instantly switches; hyperactively looking in every direction, feverish breathing and just a general air of childish excitement. A genuine feeling that these enemies want to hunt you down, and they can’t wait to find you.
It is no mistake that this review has been referring the foe merely as enemies, rather than what are essentially zombies. The undead zombie characters so commonly thought of as slow-moving demented buffoons from the likes of Dawn of the Dead and Bad Taste have been replaced with the ultra-fast intelligent horrors from 28 Days Later. In Siren these zombies are smart, fast and surprisingly agile; essentially able to do everything the player is able to do, including climbing up objects and jumping back down. When being hunted, unless the player plays smart, the player will be found, caught and killed. One major difference between you and them however is that they cannot be killed, merely put down for a few minutes.
The horror genre has traditionally been about suspense, the build-up to ‘the moment’ rather than the moment itself. Perhaps the best way to sum up Siren is that, while the suspense is certainly still present, ‘the moment’ itself takes centre stage. It could be argued that the tension diminishes with every retry, but that is just an unfortunate flaw of the videogame medium. Frustration too makes itself very present, but it is a by-product of the tough difficulty required to keep the tension high. Indeed, Siren does have problems that harm the gameplay. However, these are established areas of the genre that are needed for the sake of the atmosphere and horror integrity. The combat for example is slow and cumbersome, though more friendly than that offered within Silent Hill thanks to an auto lock-on system. The game is presented via a variety of playable characters through many scenarios, each interconnected by the scenarios the player finds themselves in. The story is very Japanese, both in terms of language and theme, and though it is told well, the unfortunate decision to force the player to replay a story loop (a handful of scenarios) in order to meet certain secondary criteria is damaging to the pacing that is otherwise well developed.
Much can be written about Siren, far more than any review can ever hold in fact. However there is only one way to end this review, and that is to say this; Siren has joined the ranks along side the very best of the genre. Extremely different to any of the Biohazards, Silent Hills or Fatal Frames, but equally as accomplished.
Text by Pete Johns