One of the things I’ve noticed about recent Japanese horror games is just how blasted unnerving they can be. Well, except when I’m looking at the Resident Evil series, but that’s neither here nor there. The more I’ve played games recently, the more I’ve seen games that strive for scary and miss the mark. At it turns out, the latest Japanese scare-fest, Siren, hits the mark dead center.
Siren takes place in a remote part of Japan over the span of three days, and during that time you have to figure out how all manner of ghosts and monsters have come to life. The player takes turns controlling a slew of characters, each of whom is trapped in this living nightmare, and each of whom influence the path other characters will walk. Siren also jumps around through time, back and forth across those 72 hellish hours, and it can be really confusing for a long time. Once the game starts putting the pieces together, you’re in for a real treat, but in order to get to that point, you have to wade through a large amount of genuinely freaky scenarios.
It’s safe to imagine Siren as the horror-equivalent of Splinter Cell, only the bad guys are the living dead, called Shibito, and they cannot be killed. To make matters even more fun, you will have to deal with them differently depending on the character you’re inhabiting on each level. For example, one character starts out with a pistol, and another has a rifle, yet another character just has a flashlight. The Shibito can only be knocked out for a few minutes, but when they get back up they will come looking for you and unless you’re extremely careful they will find you. All of this takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride, and is it ever worth taking. Just be advised not to get too close to the characters in Siren, as the game has a tendency to surprise you with just how badly it will screw over the protagonists.
The graphics are really standard issue for the horror genre, with the exception being the models. All the characters were motion captured, thus watching them run and interact with the game world ratchets up the tension several notches. The Shibito, in particular, are really freaky looking for standard issue zombies. Unlike other zombie thrillers, when you look at a Shibito you can see the person they once were, and the way this is handled makes them even scarier. The fact that the Shibito’s AI is as exceptional as it is pushes them into the running as some of this year’s premier villains. These things will hunt you down unless you are as stealthy as Splinter Cell‘s Sam Fischer, and even then they will keep up the hunt for as long as possible.
I got really jazzed during the intentionally bizarre cut-scenes that are very well rendered, but have a lot of grain and grit in them. The overall effect makes you feel like you’re watching a snuff film. This went a long way towards creeping me out in The Suffering, which used a similar technique. I really liked how the Japanese landscape and the village at the epicenter of the terror looked. Everything feels authentic for a rural Japanese village that mixes modern technology with quaint rustic charm.
One element that’s exceptionally well implemented is the effect of light in the game. The Shibito have a killer instinct and extreme intelligence. As such, if you switch on your flashlight and wave it around, they will come after you in a hurry. If, however, you leave it off, then you only have to worry about being too loud for them. One thing I really liked about Siren is that, despite its reliance on your use of the flashlight to obtain small clues on the ground like keys and notes, once you turn off your flashlight you still have a slight glow about you to help you see. As it turns out, this glow is not detectable by the Shibito unless you’re right in front of them.
Sound is the most crucial element of Siren, and based on the name you should be able to figure out why. The Shibito hunt you relentlessly, but unless it’s daylight out or you’re waving your flashlight around, then you only have to rely on sound. The great part about Siren is how sound becomes either your enemy or your friend, depending on the situation. At pretty much any point in the game you can hit the triangle button to pull up a menu selection for things to do. The one constant option is shout. You can always shout, and whatever hears you will come running post haste, during which time you had better clear out. It can help you out in a pinch though when you’re trying to distract the enemies for even a tiny bit of time.
For example, if you need to get past a Shibito that’s inside a house or building, you might have the chance to open a door, stand behind the door, and shout, which might cause the monster to come looking. Once the monster gets to you, should you have either a gun or something very heavy, you can attack and knock it out or you could open the door and throw something on the ground, and the monster will come and investigate the aural disturbance. This allows you to sneak by unseen. The beauty of Siren is how there are a dozen plus solutions for such puzzles, and how you solve each one is really up to you.
There really isn’t too much in the way of music in Siren, as what’s there is really just the standard ominous fare that accompanies horror games.
I really liked how the controls handled in Siren. As I mentioned, you have to hit the triangle every time you need to pull up the menu, which turns out to be quite frequently. If you’ve picked up a set of keys and are standing in front of the door you need to open, you hit the triangle to select the option to use the keys. You then hit it again to select the option to open the door. This can get really tough if you’ve got a bunch of Shibito hot on your tail, but then again if that’s the case then you did something wrong along the way. The X button is the default button to pick things up, open unlocked doors and so forth. The circle button crouches and stands back up, and the square button will turn your flashlight on and off. You have to hit the R1 button to draw your weapon, should your character have one, and R2 to go into first-person mode.
But the kicker for Siren is what happens when you start playing with the L buttons. A short ways into the game you will meet a mysterious guide who instructs you in the controls of the game. While this part should have been the very first thing in the game, it appears early enough in that I can forgive it. What this guide really shows you though will wind up being the cornerstone of your survival through Siren. The technique is called the Sightjack, and you hit L2 to enter that mode. When this happens, the screen will go to complete static, and you have to move the left thumbstick around to essentially “tune in” nearby monsters and people. When you have “connected” to a nearby being, regardless of whether it’s human or not, you will be able to see through their eyes and hear what they hear. At this point, you can then hit one of the four main buttons on the PS2 controller and “lock in” that being’s viewpoint. For the rest of the stage, whenever you go into Sightjack mode, you can then hit one of the four buttons and see through the eyes of whomever you assigned to that button. This is absolutely one of the cooler things I’ve seen in horror games lately, and its implementation is terrific.
The only reason Siren doesn’t get higher than an 89 for gameplay in my book is the sheer unrelenting difficulty associated with it. This is a chess match on a city-wide scale, and I love it for that. The implementation of the Sightjack feature is brilliant. It works wonders for immersing the player even further into the game, but there’s a huge cost. While the player is in Sightjack mode, the player’s character stands completely still and is thus vulnerable to attack. You also can’t influence the actions of whomever you’re seeing the world from. Just make sure that when you use Sightjack, the nearest Shibito isn’t shuffling up behind you to kill you. Seeing that just one time just about made me leap off the couch.
I thought the best part of Siren was how I had to shift my tactics depending on whom I was playing at the time. Playing as a terrified kid is one thing, but playing as a cocky adult teacher with a pistol is quite another. Both have to rely on stealth when surrounded by unkillable monsters naturally, but there are different options available to each character for completing their respective levels. Siren is a thinking-man’s game where an action sequence means you screwed up somewhere.I really got a big kick out of Siren, despite it being filled with puzzles that at first glance seemed no where close to making sense. Upon reflection though, I had to give the developers kudos for making the game just challenging enough to warrant my continuous play. I do like to think during my games, but what I don’t like is retrying level after level due to bad design killing my avatar. In Siren it was rare when I would get killed that it wasn’t directly my fault. Usually this happened when I would misjudge the intelligence of a Shibito or think I was just out of range of a sniper (yes, there are Shibito snipers). Siren proved time and again worthy of my stepping up to the plate, but as for repeated playing after the game is complete I can’t say. Were I looking for a hefty challenge in the future, Siren would be up there with Splinter Cell, but I couldn’t say whether it would be my first choice or second.