Most people will agree that the Survival Horror genre is in need of a little change. What else can you expect from a genre that has taken us everywhere, from fighting zombies in decrepit old mansions to prisons and abandoned towns. Siren attempts to change things up a bit by having players take control of people in a quasi-real world setting and making as spooky as possible. While this all sounds great, it's not pulled off well.
The fictional village of Hanuda has some strange things going on. After a sudden earthquake, red rain starts to fall from the sky and the dead, known as Shibito, rise from the grave. You take control of ten of the village inhabitants, consisting of residents and visitors, as you try to unravel what the cause of the strange occurrences are over the period of three days. The story is far from linear, you'll jump from one character to another and at different times of the day. It all has a Quentin Tarentino-esque feel to it and you'll want to find out how the different stories come together. This is by far Siren's strong point.
The game hits the ground running at the start. After the introductory cut scene, involving Kyoyo Suda, one of the game's ten characters, is seen eavesdropping on a strange ritual and is chased by a not-so-human police officer. You're then given your mission objective, to escape from the cop, and you're dropped into the chase without any on screen indicators, a flashlight, and a Shibito cop in pursuit. While this first experience sounds a little overwhelming, it introduces you to the game's trial and error Gameplay system, which you have to follow a few smaller aims to complete the overall objective. In this first level for instance, you have to evade the cop, grab a key in a shed, and use that to start a truck to get out of there. Not all of the objectives make sense though, in other levels you'll have to find towels, soak them in water, and freeze them. Who could have thought that one up? You can also accomplish hidden objectives for the other characters that will be going through the level later on, which is cool to know that all of your crazy actions you're doing now will help someone out later on. Depending on the character you're playing, you'll either be armed with a flashlight, pistol, rifle, or nothing at all. Some characters will also have allies in tow which can hinder things even more, because if your ally dies, it's game over. All along, you'll have to be cautious and try not to alert surrounding Shibito to your presence, this is especially true for the unarmed characters that you'll play. The Shibito can be especially brutal and will give chase and barely give up. If you're armed, you can take them down, but they don't stay down and will get back up after some time. Staying quiet is a must. Aside from running and walking, you can crouch to sneak past patrolling Shibito. Where do you know where the Shibito are? Well, this is where sighjacking comes in. Sightjacking is enabled by hitting L2. You're taken to a screen of static where you use the left analog stick to “tune in” to the sight of enemies and allies in your area. As you look through their eyes, you can try to pick up their patterns of patrol, or if they're stationary, you can see if they periodically look in certain directions allowing an opening for you to get past them. You can map these views to the controller face buttons for easy access to their sight. Through their eyes, your character shows up as a blue cross and allies are green. You can see these crosses through any obstacles in your way so you can gauge how close you really are. You'll have to take the time to tune in at the beginning of every level or after you die, which breaks the flow of the game. This is supposed to help you from being seen by the Shibito, but you'd have better luck drawing a map in the dark as it's not executed too well.
The game also uses a somewhat primitive menu system. You can't pick up items or weapons by simply hitting the X button as it will only describe what you're looking at. You have to hit triangle to bring up a menu of actions, like “pick up” to take the item. If you're dragging around an ally, you can also issue commands like “follow me”, “wait here”, and “hide”. Nothing has been this intuitive since Dragon Warrior.
Aside from the menu quirks, the gameplay has some other shortcomings as well. Ally AI can be pretty dumb at times as their pathfinding isn't all that great. It's not Daikatana bad, mind you, but still pretty bad. If you're going through a narrow passage and come across a Shibito, there's no use turning around, as your ally will just stand there and block the way. The combat system is also frustrating. You aren't able to hit Shibito with a pistol until they're almost right in front of you. Melee combat is like playing rock, paper, scissors as you trade blows with Shibito back and forth.
Siren's visuals are average at best. Levels are full of fog and aren't large. They also lack any real detail aside from the rivers of red water and foliage. Environmental textures are pretty muddy as well. Player models are average as well. The developers used a technique to put the Japanese actors' faces on the models, which looks good in certain cases like the professor (who strangely looks like Kaga from Iron Chef), but others look like they have their faces smashed up against a window. The Shibito also have some crazy contrast to them as far as looks go. Everything up to their faces is scary, but what's with the mops on their heads? One wouldn't know whether to scream or laugh.
As far as sound goes, well, what hasn't already been said. Japanese characters and British voice acting are like peanut butter and mustard, they just don't make a good sandwich, or go together well for that matter. Characters footsteps also sound like they're running through mud and glass no matter if they're in water or on a solid road. On a good note, the effects of hearing the Shibito while sightjacking are pretty cool. You can hear them breathing and talking their deadite jibberish all with a neat muffled effect.
Siren seems to be the victim of a game that means well but has gone wrong. The story itself is interesting and prods you to go along to the end, but the game's shortcomings greatly hinder the experience. The controls are clunky, the battle system could have used more work, and sightjacking is a bit flawed. On the plus side, the environments are definitely creepy. Fans of the genre might find something for them here with a rental, but casual gamers are better off trying something else to appease their need for horror.
Maybe I lack the patience this game needed, but I found it to be a frustrating experience. As I said a few times in the review, I found the game's story to be great, but it just wasn't any fun to play. While I applaud the producers that attempted to do something new, it all just fell flat for me. Word is that Siren 2 is in the works right now and maybe we'll see some improvements made to actually make this franchise a great experience for hardcore and casual gamers alike.
- Brad Hicks (aka Dr. Swank), SwankWorld Media