Overlooked Gem – Siren: Blood Curse

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Horror is a genre that has existed within the videogame medium for the majority of its history and as a fan of horror games myself, it’s been good to see the recent high-profile resurgence of the genre in these still fairly early days of the latest console generation, as found in titles such as The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation. (Although publishers Bethesda and Sega should be ashamed of their greed in shoehorning season passes into these single-player, narrative-focused titles).

This resurgence has been good to see because although horror was certainly never a dead genre on seventh-generation consoles as some people have ignorantly and hyperbolically claimed, its presence did diminish during this generation. This was largely thanks to a number of publishers suddenly deciding that no one wanted to play horror games anymore, even though there was no real evidence to suggest that this was the case. For example, Resident Evil 4 was one of the most acclaimed games of the previous console generation while later on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the original Dead Space would expertly carry the survival horror torch, being both a critical and commercial success.

But sadly for the Dead Space series, publisher Electronic Arts was the perfect example of a publisher deciding that a successful, straightforward survival horror game wasn’t profitable enough anymore: see Dead Space 3 with its co-operative gameplay and focus on over-the-top action and poorly implemented cover-shooting, not to mention its grotesquely out-of-place microtransactions and the fact that the fucking ending of the game was cut out and sold separately as DLC. Another terrible offender was Capcom, whose greed for that oh-so-shiny Call of Duty dollar led to them beating the Resident Evil series into the shape of the Michael Bay fever-dream that was Resident Evil 6.

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But although the seventh generation of consoles was certainly a dark time for the horror genre, there were still some high-quality games that focused on offering a great horror experience. Siren: Blood Curse is one of those games.

A PlayStation 3 exclusive released in 2008 on disc and as a series of downloadable digital episodes, Siren: Blood Curse (known as Siren: New Translation in Japan) was developed by Project Siren, a development team within SCE Japan Studio, and published by Sony. Although the game is the third in the Siren series, following Siren (known as Forbidden Siren in PAL territories) (2003) and Forbidden Siren 2 (2006), Siren: Blood Curse is actually a reimagining of the first game but one containing a number of gameplay refinements and improvements, some of which had initially been introduced in Forbidden Siren 2.

Fun fact: the director of all three Siren games was Keiichiro Toyama, who in 1999 had directed the original Silent Hill while working at Konami. The man knows his horror.

Siren: Blood Curse is set in Japan, specifically a remote and isolated mountain village named Hanuda which becomes cut off from the outside world when it is suddenly surrounded by a sea of blood while nearly all of its inhabitants are transformed into murderous undead beings named Shibito. You play as a number of different characters throughout the story, all of whom have been caught up in the sinister and supernatural events occurring in Hanuda.

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One major change from the original Siren is that Siren: Blood Curse features a mostly American playable cast, lessening the number of Japanese characters. While this might initially seem to be a creatively lazy concession in order to make the game more commercially mainstream for a western audience, thankfully Siren: Blood Curse doesn’t suffer for this change – it loses none of its edge, instead retaining the dark, sinister atmosphere of the previous two games in the series.

In terms of structure, the game is made up of numerous chapters contained within twelve larger episodes, the focus shifting between the various members of the cast as the story progresses. The game can be played in either third-person or first-person and the gameplay is stealth-orientated, although combat does come into play as a fairly regular – if often risky – option for the player, apart from certain chapters in which stealth is mandatory.

There are occasionally firearms such as pistols and shotguns but for the most part the combat in Siren: Blood Curse is melee-focused, with numerous melee weapons being made available throughout the game, including obviously effective weapons such as shovels, hand sickles, hatchets, metal pipes, and daggers; to more unorthodox weapons such as water ladles, mattress-beaters and even an acoustic guitar – yes, you too can now act like an unimaginative musician and smash up a guitar as if it was some kind of meaningful gesture.

Combat is simple and direct as you either shoot the Shibito if you happen to have a gun or run up and batter them with whatever melee weapon you have to hand, the latter often being crudely effective if your stealth tactics fail and you find yourself confronted with a Shibito. However, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and killed if you’re confronted with more than one enemy simultaneously, especially when taking into account the fact that the Shibito carry their own weapons, including guns. The twist is that no matter how much you beat, cut or shoot them, the Shibito never die – they simply collapse and lay stunned for a few minutes until eventually rising again, no worse for wear. As such, violence isn’t a permanent solution for the majority of enemies, thus emphasising stealth over combat.

When it comes to your stealth options, you can move in a half-crouch to help avoid detection, hide in wardrobes or lockers (although if the Shibito see you doing this, they’ll swiftly drag you from your hiding place), and distract enemies with signal flares or environmental objects such as clocks or cooking timers. But by far your most useful tool when it comes to stealth is a gameplay mechanic present in all three Siren games: “sightjacking”.

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It may sound like the crime of running up to someone and stealing their glasses but sightjacking is actually an ability shared by the various characters you play as in Siren: Blood Curse, one that allows you to see through the eyes of any Shibito near your current location, meaning you can see what your enemies see. This obviously comes in very useful when trying to stealthily navigate the levels, as by figuring out an enemy’s location and movements by paying attention to what they are seeing through their distorted and discoloured vision, you can then slip by unnoticed (or smash a sake bottle over the back of their head, whichever you prefer).

The sightjacking mechanic is expanded upon at times, such as when one particular character gains the ability to sightjack into the past, seeing objects that aren’t there in the present. Another interesting example is when two human characters are in a hospital room and, playing as a third character in a different location, you have to remotely figure out which particular room it is, and you do this by sightjacking one of the two characters and looking at the room number written on the room’s telephone. Although there are a couple of other examples of sightjacking being used in imaginative ways, it would have been nice to see even more in the finished game as it’s a very cool gameplay mechanic with a great deal of potential.

The game also offers the player other, less prominent, gameplay features that are context-sensitive, such as bracing doors to stop Shibito gaining entry or knocking loose a building sign so that it drops onto an unsuspecting Shibito below. An interesting feature / weapon worthy of mention is the beartraps – although these can be hazardous to the player, they can also be used against enemies, causing them to drop whatever weapon they are holding, which can then be picked up for your own use. Like the potential inherent in sightjacking, this idea of trapping enemies could have perhaps been expanded upon further as a more frequent alternative to combat, although it works well enough in its current form.

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Something that the original Siren was known for upon its release was its very high level of difficulty, which has been dialled down for Siren: Blood Curse, making it a more approachable and less frustrating experience without ever feeling dumbed-down or neutered. The game auto-saves at checkpoints, which are fairly frequent, so there’s no having to repeat overly lengthy sections of gameplay – a boon considering that certain chapters can end in failure simply by your character being found by a Shibito.

At the same time, the game’s more forgiving difficulty can also work against it, as there are chapters which can be completed simply by running around and battering anything in your way, ignoring stealth completely and quickly completing your objectives while the Shibito are stunned. Although this method is risky and will cause the player to miss out on the smaller details of a level, it’s occasionally an option nonetheless, which goes against the game’s emphasis on stealth and its sightjacking mechanic.

Still, on the whole the difficulty is well-balanced, a good example of which is the game’s several escort missions. If you’ve been playing videogames long enough then you’ll know that escort missions are very rarely implemented well and can often be frustrating, unfair slogs that stop a player’s enthusiasm and momentum dead in their tracks. (Ask anyone who played GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64 about the Natalya escort mission and chances are you’ll see their face twist into a mask of contempt and rage at the memory of that hateful experience). However, Siren: Blood Curse does a laudable job in this regard as its escort missions add a little extra challenge and strategy without being frustrating, a situation helped by your ability to issue commands to the NPC in your protection, telling them to move or wait or even hide.

Atmosphere is incredibly important in a horror game and thankfully it’s something that Siren: Blood Curse possesses in spades. For one, the soundtrack fits the game perfectly as it’s sinister, surreal, haunting, bleak – and good enough that a couple of years ago I actually ordered a physical copy from Japan. The voice acting is solid as well so we get no unintentionally amusing, Barry Burton-esque performances from any of the voice actors: “I hope this is not Chris’ blood!”

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As for its graphics, Siren: Blood Curse holds up excellently for a game released early on in the life of the PlayStation 3, but far beyond the purely technical merits of the graphics is what the developers managed to achieve with them in terms of creating the game’s visual atmosphere.

The game is often very dark, both thematically and visually – in some chapters your character is equipped with a flashlight essential for traversing locations that are almost pitch-black. But darkness isn’t used as some kind of graphical crutch as you will also explore parts of Hanuda by day, and even during daylight hours the atmosphere remains bleak – and sometimes hauntingly dreamlike – via the use of mist, rain and a cold light often tinted red. In fact, red is a prominent colour throughout the game and is implemented in the game-world in other ways such as when a red rain falls, red clouds fleetingly illuminated by lightning in an otherwise black sky, and the seemingly infinite sea of blood that has surrounded Hanuda.

The manmade aspects of the environments – Hanuda’s houses and other buildings, for example – are aged and dilapidated, and the entire game utilises a washed-out, subdued colour palette to emphasise that dirty, old and faded feeling. Hanuda may be a remote mountain village but alongside its houses and commercial buildings it contains other locations such as fields, a graveyard, a mine, and a hospital. (It’s a horror game, of course it contains a hospital). Some of these locations are larger and more intricate than others but you have a map to help you with navigation and although most of the areas are reused throughout the course of the game, you usually return to them as a different character with different objectives, which adds variety.

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The effective horror atmosphere present in the game-world itself sits nicely alongside the enemies who inhabit it, as the Shibito are fantastically creepy and deranged foes who may at a glance appear to be typical zombie-style beings but who are actually much more than that. The Shibito talk to themselves – and you on occasion, if they spot you – or cackle maniacally, they use weapons, and they can pursue you at speed. Chillingly, some of them can be found carrying out everyday activities such as farming or listening to music, traces of personality and memory clearly still existing within the horrific undead beings they have become.

You also encounter different types of Shibito who are physically mutated beyond the standard type, including, amongst others, Shibito who can fly via the use of wings; Shibito with horribly contorted bodies who can crawl along ceilings; and gigantic, extremely strong Shibito. These mutated Shibito display variations on an insect (and to a lesser extent, arachnid) theme that becomes more apparent as the game progresses.

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Although Siren: Blood Curse possesses a fantastic atmosphere and antagonists, sadly the story itself doesn’t quite match up to the high standards set by these aspects. Although the plot begins well, with an intriguing set-up that throws the characters – and the player – in at the deep end, immediately creating both tension and mystery, sadly it becomes somewhat of a convoluted mess as it attempts to juggle elements such as a religious cult, ritual sacrifice, repeating / cyclical fate, supernatural powers and even time-travel. Also, both the final boss and the location in which you encounter it are anticlimactic due to them being jarringly out-of-place, which is a real shame given how much of the game leading up to this point is so effectively dark, bleak and sinister.

However, it’s important to note that some of the holes that appear in the plot as it plays out in the main game are filled in via information contained within “Archive” items, some of which you receive automatically by progressing through the game while others are hidden around the levels and must be discovered by the player. These Archives aren’t useable in-game items but rather exist solely to flesh out the narrative and characterisation, and some are genuinely helpful in this regard. If you’re looking to understand as much of the story as possible while playing the game, I strongly recommend inspecting the Archives as you collect them.

Also, despite the outwardly convoluted nature of the plot later in the game, this doesn’t detract from some of the genuinely shocking twists and disturbingly memorable scenes that occur earlier in the story. I’m not going to give away any of the twists here, instead I’ll just say that there are some very dark moments that you likely won’t see coming and which Project Siren should be applauded for including – from a story standpoint, the game doesn’t pull its punches.

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Although there are many worthy of mention, one particularly memorable and excellently realised gameplay scene is a chapter in which you play as Bella, a young girl unable to use any weaponry and who is thus completely reliant upon stealth and evasion. In this chapter, Bella has become trapped in a house, the inhabitants of which have all been transformed into Shibito. Your goal is to escape, avoiding the twisted mockery of a family via distraction and other means as they carry out grotesque parodies of their former lives within the house. This chapter is brilliantly tense and crescendos with one of those dark twists I mentioned above.

So the horror genre didn’t die during the seventh console generation despite what some people claimed. Or if it did then its “death” was about as permanent as every time Jason Voorhees has died. There was certainly a lack of horror titles when compared to previous years and today, but Siren: Blood Curse stood as an excellent, high-quality horror game at the time and it remains so to this day.

It seems to me that due to this quiet period for horror games, some people may not be aware of Siren: Blood Curse or may have written it off due to the genre being “dead” at the time. That would be a shame, hence why I wanted to write this article, as I believe that the game deserves more attention and praise than it has received over the years. If you’re a horror fan and a PlayStation 3 owner and Siren: Blood Curse has passed you by, you should definitely make the effort to pick up a copy now as it’s an impressively tense, bleak and dark experience that remains one of the best horror games on the console.

 

Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and videogames. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while two graphic novels he has written will see release in 2015 from Markosia Enterprises. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include interactive novel Eternal Forest and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To witness more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy

 

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