Taking a fresh 'look' at the survival horror genre, Sony's Siren for the PS2 is a cool game that offers plenty of challenge and suspense. Siren's gameplay is fairly unique to the genre, with many unique elements such as non-linear storylines, multiple characters and the ability to 'Sightjack' the enemies. This allows you to see their locations and anticipate their actions. This is clever system gives the gameplay a unique feel. There are definitely some cool ideas, but does the game offer enough frights to keep your interest, or is it relying on cheap gimmicks? Read on and find out if you can resist the call.
Set in an isolated Japanese mountain village of Honuda in the 1940's, Siren has you trying to unravel the mystery behind the forces that have come to transform the Honuda's unfortunate inhabitants into terrifying undead creatures called shibito. As night falls, the village is surrounded by red water, which calls the villagers towards it. When the villagers emerge from the water, the have become evil beings caught between the world of the living and the dead. As one of ten different characters, you have to use your wits and intelligence to survive through three long days of horror before the evil forces have been defeated. As you explore the village, you'll encounter many shibito wandering around. They are evil beings who will stop at nothing to kill your character and any companions who might be following you. Seeing you will set them off into attack mode and they will be alerted to your presence by hearing your footsteps and seeing the glow of your flashlight. In order to reduce your visibility, you can turn off the flashlight and move slowly. You can also reduce your presence by crouching and moving around close to the ground. This makes for a challenging game as you try to evade their attacks
However, some contact with the zombies is unavoidable. Luckily, different characters come equipped with pistols and shotguns. You can also escape close-range attacks when the shibito grab you by shaking the analog controller, do this quickly, since they can kill your character quickly with a stab of their knives. Unlike the zombies in other survival horror titles, the Hosaku can also brandish weapons and guns, making them more dangerous foes. While you'll probably want to avoid coming into contact with the shibito, you can also draw them out into the open by calling to them. Even though most survival-horror games focus on a single protagonist throughout, Siren allows you to take control of ten different characters. Players will switch characters as they unlock the story. Completing one of Siren's 'key' missions allows you to unlock additional missions, with more than 70 in the game. However, the missions don't come in chronological order, with many unfolding in parallel times. Siren's non-linear approach also means that completing a mission can significantly affect other mission when you go back and replay them. This makes for an incredibly interesting storyline that draws you in with a plot that unfolds like a jigsaw puzzle with each mission a small piece of the larger storyline
adding the the game's sense of unease. While the plot unfolds in a seemingly unrelated fashion early on, the story gradually comes together as you play the game and each character's stories begin to intersect. Adding to the feeling of all the events in the game being interconnected, is each character's psychic ability to "sightjack" enemies and other characters. This is especially helpful since no in-game maps are provided. This is done by 'tuning' your left analog controller, as you would an old TV, with the closer characters easier to jack than those who are far away. Once you have sightjacked a character, you can assign their viewpoint to your default position, so you can easily call them up again. This lets you look through that character's eyes and see where they are and what they can see. When you're in this psychic mode, the position of your character, other humans and even shibito is also displayed, allowing you to see what lies ahead. However, when you are sightjacking, you can't defend yourself against attacks. This vulnerability makes for some interesting strategic decisions. For example, Sightjacking allows you to see from a sniper's viewpoint, which makes it easier to see which areas to be careful around, but doesn't allow you to change your position at the same time. The ability to see what other characters see is really interesting and adds to the game's tension and strategy. This sightjacking technique definitely helps to separate Siren from the flood of survival horror titles on the market.
Siren's control system is fairly intuitive, most actions are menu driven and allows you to perform most actions, such as picking up items, calling other characters and more easily and simply. The interface is surprisingly straightforward, which makes playing the game easy. Siren's sightjacking system is probably the most interesting part of the game, and the elegant system of 'tuning' this to a certain psychic 'channel' gives the gameplay a unique feel. Siren's jacking system is nicely implemented, easy to learn and fits in well with the action without becoming too distracting or gimmicky. Controlling the characters and moving around isn't much of a problem, and the game also provides a decent first person perspective that makes looking around and surveying your environment a snap. Firing your weapons is simple and Siren allows you to shoot manually or with a lock-on. The non-linear storyline is a bit confusing at first, but the in-game flow chart helps to straighten out the timeline, making it easier to see how everything fits together.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the blood-soaked environments create an ominous sense of foreboding, with dilapidated buildings, empty streets and dark, claustrophobic environments. Your character's restrained viewpoints offer limited visibility, which allows hidden shibito to jump at you from the shadows. Siren's many cinematic cut-scenes add to the tension, and unfold using an odd mix of photo-realistic depictions of actors faces and cel-shading, with jerky camera movements to create a dreamlike and unsettling experience. Siren's character animation is excellent, with realistic movement for the humans contrasting with the awkward staggering of the shibito characters. The game's unnerving sound effects and ominous music adds a subtle tension to the terrifying atmosphere, effectively adding to the sense of doom. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent production values are undermined by the poorly dubbed voice-overs. This is disconcerting and doesn't match the characters at all. Why do these obviously Japanese characters speak with noticeable British accents? This makes the dialogue seem strangely distant from the action, but maybe this was part of the plan to throw players off the trail. Despite these problems, the game generally looks and feels quite impressive with an excellent mixture of standard horror-movie conventions and Japanese mythology that makes for an engrossing adventure.
On the surface, Siren seems to offer all the conventional elements of the genre, and it does so with a solid interface and challenging gameplay. The action sequences are challenging, with some intense, action filled levels. However, when you go deeper, you'll find a complicated game that offers a strong mental challenge as well. Even though sightjacking your enemies allows you to look around each corner, that doesn't make the game a cake-walk. Additionally, the clever use of a non-linear storyline adds to the challenge, since some of the puzzles require you to replay levels in order to unlock additional levels and secrets. However, this technique isn't over-used and fits in with the game's overall feel nicely. The gameplay is interesting, and by flaunting the traditional rules, makes what could have been a tired retread into a fresh and engrossing gameplay experience. Siren's innovative use of multiple-characters moves the narrative forward quickly without seeming gimmicky. Siren is an entertaining game, that offers enough fresh twists and creative elements to keep even veterans of the survival-horror genre guessing.