While I was waiting for my Playstation 2 review copy of Forbidden Siren to arrive on my doorstep, I did a little research on the title and ended up finding out the following useful snippets. Firstly, this title was 'directed', (that's movie speak spilling over into video games again) by the guy responsible for Konami's original and seminal survival horror title, Silent Hill, which meant I already had some idea of what to expect in terms of style and content. Secondly, I'd read that the confrontations in this game were much more deadly than in, say, a Resident Evil title and as such I should stay relatively sober while playing it in order to keep my concentration span in check. Thirdly, my final insight regarded 'sight jacking'; the rather bizarre ability to look through the eyes of your pursuers. That sounded very intriguing since the tactical advantages are obvious, but would it turn out to be the ground breaking stealth tool we're looking for, or just another pointless, short-lived survival-horror gimmick? Well, that all remained to be seen; I thought I'd reserve judgement until the review code had made it through our antiquated postal system and actually graced my PS2.
When the disc arrived and I got to finally sample the game, I was struck straight away by the quality of the presentation. We should expect nothing less these days from any horror title, granted, but rarely are shaky, 'Blair Witch' style cuts scenes handled so menacingly and the photorealism of the character models is impressive to say the least. The siren sound effect too is extremely haunting and the score is excellent, but the whole package is let down by one fundamental problem. The dubbing is atrocious.
Imagine watching the original Japanese version of 'The Ring', but dubbed with voices by the cast of 'Lock, Stock and Two smoking Barrels', and you'll get the idea. In fact, with such a reliance on Japanese faces and locales, it's criminal that they didn't include an original language with subtitles option. Without it the credibility of the story suffers and we're left with an experience which, at the wrong moments, is unintentionally quite comical.
Still, if you can get over that initial rant of mine, there's a neat little game here. It's set in a small Japanese village named Hanyuda, where one night the villagers (the ones with the cockney accents) are awoken by an immense earthquake and a frightening wailing siren. Blood rains down from the skies, the rivers turn a shade of crimson and the villagers panic as nobody knows what's going on.
Those who drink the water get it the worst, though. Those poor soles mutate into 'shibito' - a kind of insane zombie with the irritating ability to reanimate every time they are slain.
The central plot revolves around a group of seemingly unaffected characters and their fight for survival over the next three days. Well almost unaffected, each of the survivors seems to have developed the ability to sight jack. Good for some, but if you screw things up it just means you get to see your own death through your killers eyes…
It's funny, actually, how many assumptions we online journalists make before we even get to play a game like this. I don't claim to know everything about video games - I'll leave that honour to you kids that write reviews on Amazon and GameFAQs - but I was mildly surprised to discover that Forbidden Siren played exactly as I'd expected it would. 'Stealth' and 'horror' instantly screams Tenchu mixed with Silent Hill, and that's exactly what you get. The difference this time is just that rather than leaping from roof to roof surveying your territory, you're stuck on the ground with minimal athletic ability, but you do the gift of sight jacking. The way it works is like this; you use the left analogue stick as a dial and sort of 'tune in' to the vision of your assailant. When you've just about got it, you can assign that vision to a button and quickly go back and 'tune in' to another bad guy's eyes and repeat the process. Soon enough you'll have most of the shibito's first-person perspectives assigned to the four buttons and by flicking between all those, and the map, it's feasible that you can build a picture of how any level looks.
In practice, however, this is a nightmare; trying to get any useful information about your environment from the crazed mubbling, head-turning, shuffling shibitos is a frustrating experience to say the least. I found myself shouting things like, 'look away from the wall, will ya?' and 'stop staring at the ground, you idiot!' all the time, but no matter how loud I screamed, the blood-soaked crazies wouldn't listen to me. To really get the most out of this game, you need more patience than your average hospital (yes, I know, it's 'patients', not 'patience', but that ruins the gag so shut up.)
However, after a few frustrating trial and error deaths on each level it becomes easier to work out where you are and, more importantly, where you are in relation to your pursuers. It's perhaps a design flaw that early deaths are so frequent, but once you do have an understanding of your environments the sight jacking element comes into it's own and a tense but entertaining game of hide and seek ensues. Watch out especially for the involuntary split-second, blood soaked sight jack which occurs whenever you stumble into the line of sight of any alert shibito; it really catches you off guard and as such it's no surprise that the standard reaction is to panic and run for it. Um, that's what mine is, anyway.
The mission structure in Forbidden Siren is quite engaging, with criss-crossing story arcs for each of the characters you get to play as unravelling more and more of the plot as the game progresses. The game does shamefully suffer from the same monotonous 'door and key' game mechanic that has plagued the survival horror genre since it's inception, and here it is exaggerated since now the problem can span levels and often you are required to back track over early levels because you missed something quite mundane. (What - Kyoko didn't find that screwdriver on his second mission? But Reiko needs that when they meet on the forth mission! Back you go...)
Of course, that's not the end of the predictable survival horror cliches (I told you I saw these coming) since the other gaping black spot is the combat engine. Ever tried to shoot a zombie running towards you at full pelt with a sniper rifle? No, obviously not, and neither has anyone at SCEJ for if they had then maybe you'd be able to use it without first having to equip the sight, focus the zoom and aim correctly when at close quarters a simple crack of the rifle butt would do the trick fine. Oversights like that have blighted the survival horror genre for nearly a decade now and nothing has changed for Forbidden Siren. It doesn't ruin the experience massively since this isn't a full-on action orientated title, but it's still a shame nonetheless.
A lot of time and effort has obviously gone into Forbidden Siren, but like nearly all famous survival horror efforts, it's just quite good rather than brilliant. If you can get past the wonky combat, the dogmatic mission structure, the initial confusion that sight jacking causes and the awful dubbing, then there is a game here genuinely worth discovering. Neat touches make or break games like this and this one has enough to keep most fans of the genre happy; there's always more than one way to skin a cat, after all. One of the earlier levels had me stumped for a while, until I tried throwing the broken radio down the well (oh, of course, why didn't I think of that sooner?) At this point the pesky zombie I'd been desperately avoiding shuffled over to find out what that crackling static noise was. As he leant over the well to look down it, I jumped out from behind a bush, shot the sucker in the back of the head and watched smugly as he plummeted to his doom. That showed him, I guess.
So, at the end of the day we have another decent survival horror, but as usual, it could have been just a little better. Let's hope they sort out the glitches for the inevitable sequel since the concept of a stealth and survival horror hybrid game has massive potential, if it's done right. That game may well be a bonafide classic, but until then you could do a lot worse than giving this little baby a go. Now, where's that flashlight…
Incidentally, this feature was bought to you in association with ThunderBolt Games. Make sure you check them out for all your latest video game news, reviews, if you're into all that stuff.