There’s a pervading school of thought in gaming that says good combat is an anathema to good horror. In other words, having a character that’s capable with a weapon automatically makes a game less scary. After all, horror is about being vulnerable, and we can’t feel vulnerable if we can slice our enemies into pieces. But I think games often mistake vulnerability for weakness, that a character must be physically weak for us to feel in danger. Weakness does result in vulnerability, but feeling vulnerable doesn’t have to stem from physical weakness. There’s a way to make combat fun while still making it tense and terrifying. Silent Hill: Downpour finds a solution that seems so obvious in retrospect I’m shocked no one has done it before: breakable weapons.
The combat in Downpour is very simple: you block and you attack. When attacking, you can lock-on to individual enemies to make aiming easier, or you just swing in whatever direction you’re facing. Both styles are effective depending on the situation. Blocking is easy. All you have to do is hold down a button, and it’s always effective — as long as you have a weapon.
Since you can block most every attack, it’s easy to grow confident after your first few fights against the game’s throwaway monsters, but once your weapon breaks for the first time, you’ll realize just how suddenly and how violently the balance of power can shift in this game. You can still fight barehanded, but you do very little damage. Your punches are more like stun moves, meant to give you just enough time to retreat and find another weapon. This is the essence of how Downpour makes the player feel vulnerable without feeling weak. The burden of weakness falls to the weapons instead of the character or controls. This allows the game to show off its truly competent protagonist.
Murphy can fight. He can swing an ax hard enough to break the shaft, and whenever a monster falls over, he’ll gladly kick it when it’s down. He fights dirty because he knows he’s fighting to survive. In addition, his normal walking animation is a calm swagger, and whenever he meets people, he asks the questions you want him to ask, mainly, “What the fuck is up with this town?” The story shows us he’s smart (or at least more observant and forthright than other horror protagonists) and the controls show us he’s dangerous, but his competence is reliant on his toolset. You’re only as good as the weapon in your hands, and most weapons in this game are crap.
They break easily. Wooden weapons are only good for a single fight, metal weapons can take out a few enemies, guns are rare, and axes are a godsend — dangerous, long-lasting, and capable of breaking down doors. Since these tools will break often, you’ll spend a lot of mental energy taking note of the environment and the potential weapons around you. Thankfully, they’re scattered everywhere, and they’re all wonderfully mundane items: wood planks, lead pipes, shovels, rakes, chairs, fire extinguishers, axes, hammers, bricks, rocks, crowbars, and the like. Silent Hill is a ruined, dilapidated town, so it makes sense to see all this junk scatted in the streets and in people’s yards. This context grounds the combat in reality, despite the fantastical setting, and makes the town itself feel more lived-in, as if it really could have once sustained life.
The balance of combat and horror works because Downpour doesn’t actually try to combine the two. It allows them to be separate and instead finds a way to shift between them in an instant: When I’ve got an ax, I’m a king, but as soon as it breaks, I’m reduced to nothing and I have to scramble to find another weapon. The game is constantly shifting between action and horror depending on the state of your weapon.
The weapon health then replaces your own health as the thing to worry about in combat. You still take damage, but the weapon is far more brittle than Murphy. It takes damage from every block and every attack, so you’re essentially always losing health. Whether it’s for the weapons or for Murphy, some meter that measures your well-being is always being drained. Combat is thus a constant struggle to stay ahead of this perpetual drain.
While Murphy is effective and dangerous in a fight, that power is temporary, which means the effective combat is never empowering and thus retains an element of horror. It’s an excellent balancing act between controls and tone, and it proves that these disparate genres (action and horror) are not totally incompatible. You can still feel vulnerable while beating a monster to death with a table leg.