Lately I’ve been battling my way through Siren. I haven’t had a lot of time to play games lately, but a couple of times a week I am sitting down and trying to make some progress.
Siren is an interesting game. It seems to be universally loved or hated (GameRankings’ page shows the reviews of the game divided almost evenly into thirds: 60%, 70% or 80%), and I understand the confusion. While I usually try not to pass judgment on games until I’ve completed them, I thought I’d post some of my impressions of Siren so far.
Siren gets a whole lotta things right. The graphics are excellent, both in terms of technical prowess and art style (though the way they use texture maps for facial animation is very strange). The game looks amazingly good, even though it is quite dark. There are a lot of really nice touches to the visuals too, like the bad VHS dub effect they put over the view when sightjacking.
The soundtrack is astoundingly good, perhaps the best of its kind that I’ve ever heard. The zombies (“shibito” in Siren) make horrible noises, the background sounds are amazing, and the sound effects for in-game events are top-notch. The voice acting is a little weak (a flaw which is compounded by the odd juxtaposition of British accents and Japanese faces), but it’s certainly passible.
The controls are great. The buttons are a little difficult to remember sometimes (it’s a little odd that the circle button is cancel), but the control and collision detection is easy and smooth. There are some things about the control scheme I don’t like, but I’ll get to those in a minute. Mostly, the control is perfect for this style of game.
I’m really hip to the design. Siren isn’t like any other horror game to date, even though it certainly took some visual cues from Silent Hill 2. The play mechanics are pretty unique, and the focus on sneaking above all else is new to this genre. The sightjacking mechanic in particular is really well done; the use of the analog stick as a tuning device is brilliant.
Not everything is perfect, however. The single biggest flaw with Siren is that it’s just too damn hard. Siren is a sneaking game, which means that rather than solve puzzles or take out enemies, your ultimate goal is to get past the shibito without being seen. It turns out that not being seen requires a lot of patience and waiting, but it also causes the game to be scary as all hell. However, since such an emphasis has been put on sneaking, it’s often the only option you have. If you are seen, your chances of survival are slim. On many levels you have no weapons, and on some you actually have to escort another character through the level. All of these mechanics sound fine in theory, but Siren’s implementation seems very poorly balanced. One level will take an hour to complete after 15 tries, while the next will be beatable in 20 minutes on the first try. I am not very far into the game, but one particular level took me twenty-odd tries (over a period of three months) to beat. That’s just unreasonable.
This level of difficulty is compounded by the ineffectiveness of the combat system. When you do have a weapon to wield it’s still very hard to beat the zombies. Siren uses an odd combination of button pressure and timing to allow you to select how hard you want to hit an opponent, so the harder and longer you hold down the button, the longer your attack takes to complete and the more damaging it becomes. This takes some getting used to, but even now going up against an unarmed zombie can mean death for me at least 60% of the time.
So long, convoluted levels + ineffective combat scheme + ultra high difficulty = frustration. Frustration is the enemy of fun, and Siren really suffers from it. To win, your only choice is to sneak past your enemies perfectly. The margin of error is far too small.
All that said, some levels are better than others. The design of the levels themselves is pretty great. I am looking forward to finishing Siren, and I hope the later levels turn out to be better tuned than some of the first. Even if it doesn’t get much better, Siren is a great example of how developers might go about developing horror games that are unique and innovative.