Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW - Siren: Blood Curse

"I know Mommy's scary - but don't cry, Honey."

It's excusable to be blissfully unaware of the original Siren, which tanked so badly in North America we were never given the opportunity to turn up our noses at the sequel. It boasted one of the worst localization efforts ever assembled and thirty hours of the most arbitrarily, obscenely difficult survival horror gameplay you'll ever have the misfortune to suffer through. It was also mercilessly intelligent, and made the genius move of combining the already stress-fueled survival horror genre with the tense, thoughtful gameplay of a stealth title. Along with a smart, creepy mechanic that allowed the player to see through the eyes of his enemies, Siren was an effort rife with originality and promise that was bogged down by some profoundly bad choices.

The current-gen re-telling addresses every issue of the original, courting the North American market directly (instead of as an afterthought), and while the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction the result is an accessible, clever, disturbing experience.

Siren: Blood Curse is at once - intentionally - foreign and familiar. The large, uniformly Japanese (and badly dubbed) cast of the original has been replaced with five Americans and a few of the cursed village's denizens. Beyond the simple, unobtrusive benefit of characters that speak their native languages, the change of cast hits the intended mark of making the whole experience more approachable to a North American player. Wandering around a very Japanese village as an American invites you to feel the same cultural disconnect the character must be suffering, and forgives you for being supremely creeped out as the undead muse to themselves in an alien tongue.

Speaking of the shibito (literally, "dead person"), they're a smart, purposeful variation on the standard video game zombie. Somewhere between the classic, numb shamblers of Dead Rising and the super-charged rage junkies of Left 4 Dead, the shibito are infinitely creepier because they retain so much of what they were before. The creators know well that the closer a monster is to identifiably human, the more monstrous it becomes. They remember their routines, they remember who they were (are?), and worst of all they remember whom they love. They also seem pleased as punch to be dead - gleeful, curious, and cackling wildly as they bludgeon you to death.

Often your pursuers aren't just nameless, stock zombies. They have names, their own histories, their own desires - and once you grow intimately familiar with them it becomes that much more horrifying to see them approach, lines of blood streaming from empty eyes. I know you, I cared about you. And now I have to kill you - as many times as it takes.

Beyond the lighting, Blood Curse's technology won't impress anyone - and in the end, the pursuit of a merely serviceable graphics engine has worked out just fine. Unlike some triple-A titles I could name, Siren's grasp is firmly within its reach, and the payoff is an experience of uniform quality. Objects don't suddenly appear, and there is no texture pop to draw you out of the experience. That simple, workmanship quality seeps from the pores of Hanuda Village, and everywhere you look you discover attention to the smallest minutiae of detail. The important thing is that the village feels like a very real place, where things have gone very wrong. It's filled with obscure archives to collect - which flesh out the story - and weapons. Siren takes itself pretty seriously, but it's got enough of a sense of humor to let you put a noodle cleaver to deadly use.

Unlike any other survival horror title, you don't collect persistent weapons throughout the game. Each mission is designed to toy with your fear in subtly different ways, and you are armed or disarmed accordingly. If you watch your back while brandishing a snub nosed revolver as one character you may feel like a powerhouse of undead destruction for a few minutes, but that's only so the designers can then ask you to feel the contrasting panicked tension of a defenseless ten-year-old, lost in (that old survival horror standby) a creepy hospital without her mother. Compared to more linear games it may sound arbitrary and forced, but Siren masterfully alters its expectations of you from level to level, and gently points the way forward.

I say 'gently' because for the first two-thirds of the game you can open your map and be told precisely where to go and why. This is a drastic (and mostly welcome) change from the incomprehensible original, and while purists will mourn their beloved lack of accessibility, it instead asks you to focus on what you should be worrying about in the first place - exploring the environment and sneaking past the enemies set in your path. This also has the effect of dulling the accomplishment you may feel at solving the puzzle, but in the end the trade is in the gamer's favor. Success in combat is uncertain enough to render the stealth element necessary, but easy enough to allow for experimentation. In the end, the most efficient and satisfying rout is always to creep up on your deceased foe and belt 'em in the back of the head with a good, heavy weapon. Should you have to retrace your steps a few minutes later though, be careful - nothing in Blood Curse stays dead for long, and that nurse you brained with a bedpan is likely back at her desk, frantically scribbling endless loops.

The game's presentation is uniformly "good" (excellent music!) and the mechanics work well, but - fine-tuning the original's innovations in the survival horror genre aside - they aren't what makes Siren a great game. As a whole, Siren actually does become more than the sum of its parts. A keen eye for detail and a thoughtful, measured approach to fear permeate the game. Themes of love and destiny drive the otherwise impenetrable narrative forward to a conclusion I can only describe as mind-bending. At the end of the first Terminator movie Sarah Connor asks the audience to ignore the paradoxical plot by saying "a person could go crazy thinking about this" - but Siren makes no such suggestion. It demands you go back and examine the facts, to try and make sense of the madness, only to discover the pieces fit together perfectly but form an impossible answer. It's insane, and ultimately one of the smartest games I've played in years.

It doesn't just expect fear will manifest by placing you in a cursed, creepy town and asking you to negotiate the walking dead. Instead it continually takes standards and toys with them. The first enemy you face is a symbol of responsibility and service, and he's coming to kill you. The first character who allows you a feeling of confidence and power is the first to abandon hope. Every time a mission featuring ten-year-old Bella appeared I would gird myself, and make ready for another classic moment in gaming - future tastes of the genre will be held up against the standard she sets. Her story is constantly riffing horror on one of the game's most instantly relatable emotions - the love between a parent and child. The game asks you to imagine what you might feel as a wee tot trapped, alone in this nightmare, before it begins playing with its own conventions and finally turning all previous emotions on their head for the game's crescendo of fear in Chapter Ten. After five or six playthroughs, that level still manages to twist my stomach into knots before the game releases you into another brightly saturated, mournful daylight scene.

Even breaking the game into episodic chapters was a smart move - Siren isn't a title you can just sit down with and power through, despite its relatively short length of 10-12 hours. You could, physically, but emotionally you wouldn't want to attempt it. It's easy to play, and hard to experience.

There is a plethora of action-horror games on the market today. Dead Space, Resident Evil, Condemned, even BioShock qualifies. But when it comes to true survival horror, Siren has snuck its way ahead of the legendary Silent Hill's latest outing to become the best of this generation. It's beautiful, disturbing, thoughtful, stressful, and unfortunately it seems to have crept right past most gamers' notice.

-survival horror + stealth gameplay? Oh God, yes
-beautiful, nightmarish atmosphere

-an astounding soundtrack
-a brain-twisting plot
-classic survival horror and adventure gaming
-they dialed back the difficulty
-easier to digest than the lengthy original

-they dialed back the difficulty
-not as complex or epic as the lengthy original

I cannot recommend Siren: Blood Curse highly enough.


  1. Okay, I know this is an older review, but I only recently finished Blood Curse and you described perfectly how I feel about it! Especially the part about how chapter ten is what I consider the game's most horrifying section (assuming you were referring to when Bella must escape from her shibito'd mother).

    1. Okay, first of all, spoilers? Second, the game's like eight years old now so I think spoilers are okay. Third, that's exactly what I was talking about ^.^ I'm really glad you liked the game and the review!

      I was always particularly happy with this one - but then, Blood Curse was an excellent subject.