I've been describing Siren to people--specifically, to the comics and manga dorks I know--as what would happen if Junji Ito designed a game. Ito's an artist who did a manga series called Uzumaki ("Spiral"), about a Japanese town's descent into a sort of shape-based insanity; he's probably the closest thing Japan has to an H.P. Lovecraft.
Siren deals with several of Ito's, and Lovecraft's, basic themes: something unthinkably evil is going on, of such enormity that the human mind can barely comprehend it. It's a game about bad things in the dark, which cannot really be fought, and can barely be understood.
This is not the bastard son of gore-splattered zombie films and watered-down adventure games that we call "survival horror." Siren is full-on, straight-up, nobody-here-gets-out-alive horror. It's going to confuse you, infuriate you, and fill you with a slowly building sense of dread, and there isn't going to be anything even vaguely resembling a happy ending. You knew that the moment I said "Lovecraft." The question then becomes what's going to happen to these people, and what they'll do between then and now.
The game begins, on "Day One," when Kyoya Suda, a college student, is bicycling near the town of Hanyuda in rural Japan. Suda interrupts a bizarre ritual, conducted by robed men and women, and takes off running. The man who chases him isn't a man at all, but a dead thing in a policeman's uniform, moaning and wielding a revolver.
When Kyoya gets to Hanyuda, the river through the middle of the town is running red, and he's seeing things through other people's eyes. Something has turned them all into "shibito," walking corpses, parodies of humans. What that something is probably has to do with the red water, which in turn fits neatly into the apocalyptic prophecies of the strange religion, Mana, that the people of Hanyuda practice; that, in turn, seems to be somehow linked to the earthquake that shook the region in 1976.
Over the next three days, Kyoya, and the scant few other human survivors in Hanyuda, are going to be hard-pressed to survive. Shibito cannot be killed; hit them with a train, shoot them, stab them, beat them, whatever. You'll just knock them down for a little while. They're slow and stupid, yes, but they're everywhere, and they just keep coming. They're also smart enough to use revolvers, and to post snipers.
Siren soon settles into its own bizarre rhythm. With seemingly no rhyme or reason, you'll be thrust into the role of one of the survivors--the priest of Hanyuda's religion, an arrogant college professor, his assistant, an old man, a perky hostess of a television show on the supernatural, various members of a cursed family--and play out the next few minutes of their lives. Finish that level, and you'll switch to another character, often without any real way of knowing what happens between one mission and the next. There's a handy plot chart on the inventory screen, letting you know how each mission relates to every other mission, but unfortunately, you play through the game in a preset order.
You're usually alone, or escorting someone who's about as useful as a rubber crutch. Whether you're armed or not, it probably won't do you much good. Further, Siren subscribes to a peculiarly realistic health system; two gunshots, three hits from a bladed weapon, and four hits from a bludgeon, and you're dead. You don't get to heal, either.
The only real advantage that any of the characters have is the ability that the game calls "sight-jacking." Press L2, and you'll enter a state of awareness where you can see through the eyes of anyone else in the area, whether they're human or shibito. You can sort of "fish" for eyes to steal with the left analogue stick, which also gives you a crude idea where whoever you're sight-jacking is. It's like seeing around a corner, but better.
Most of Siren's missions are vaguely reminiscent of old-school adventure games, although the goal is usually to sneak into a new location somehow. By collecting items and using your environment, you'll be able to solve puzzles and make further progress, while simultaneously evading the shibito in the area. You will spend most of your time in this game crouched in the dark, waiting to be sure that none of the shibito are looking.
Sometimes, admittedly, the puzzles you solve won't become obvious until much later; for example, the first time you play as Kei Makino, the priest, you have the option to put a wet towel in a freezer. This won't pay off for quite a while, but when it does, it'll save your life.
That's a pretty good place to start talking about the game's drawbacks. Siren isn't really going to be for everyone. You spend most of your time literally in the dark with no idea where you're going, and if you have a flashlight, you don't want to turn it on, lest every shibito in the time zone jump down your neck. Its story is interesting, and once you're far enough into the game, you won't have much trouble following it, but to get to that point, you'll spend a lot of time wondering what the hell is going on.
Further, one of Siren's central themes is relative helplessness in the face of an ongoing threat. It's the only horror game I know of that enforces that atmosphere; Silent Hill lets you kill off monsters, even if the town itself persists, and Fatal Frame has its magic camera.
In Siren, even a well-armed character, such as Akira, can't afford to fight, and it wouldn't do him any good anyway. In most missions, you'll run away from everything you face, with the occasional and rare exception. This is in keeping with the kind of story Siren wants to tell--ain't nobody walking up to a Shoggoth with a shotgun and casually letting rip--but as a game, it can be intensely frustrating.
It doesn't help that the graphics are hazy, seemingly by design. It's as though you're meant to be wandering in a fog for the entirety of the game, especially in the occasional cutscene. Sometimes, you might as well be looking at a mimeograph, or a seventh-generation photocopy.
The music is straight out of Silent Hill's playbook, which makes sense, as several members of Siren's creative team worked on SH. When music can be heard, it's less a collection of notes and more a series of ambient noises, meant to put you on edge. Much like Silent Hill, Hanyuda is a place where things are just wrong somehow, a half-wrecked hell where it's always raining and it's always night, and it sounds like it.
Both of these factors combine to create an atmosphere where you're surrounded by monsters, lurking in the dark, and constantly on edge. That's good, yes; it's very effective. It does not disguise the fact, however, that nine times out of ten, I am sitting in the shadows nearly wetting myself with fear over the chance that I might be discovered by a shambling madman wielding a garden trowel.
Siren controls like a Silent Hill game, but a bit clunkier. It uses the infamous "tank" control scheme--which I like, thank you--but pairs that with the bizarre choice to pair most environmental interactions with a pull-down menu. It takes a lot of getting used to.
Here's the thing; those clunky controls are the only thing saving those damn shibito from getting the hell beat out of them. The snipers are one thing; I respect them, and keep a safe distance. An individual shibito is only a threat because I'm controlling a character who doesn't move as fast as you'd think he would (if there's ever a time for a serious adrenaline rush, it's when knife-wielding zombies are chasing you through the forest, so I'd like to start running and stop jogging now please), or swing his weapon with any real accuracy.
It gets even crazier when you're wielding a gun; sometimes, you'll miss so badly that it violates all laws of causality and physics. Tomon, the college professor, can sometimes fire his revolver at an oncoming shibito, and hit something that I'm pretty sure was behind the barrel.
Siren is scary, yes, and rightly so. However, it pairs a linear set of missions with a story that's unnecessarily complicated by being told out of order; it doesn't control all that well; and personally, playing a game about a bunch of people who're essentially helpless in the face of a Lovecraftian threat doesn't scare me so much as it irritates me.
On the other hand, it's a genuinely nerve-wracking experience. You don't get to load up on firearms and blunt objects, and then proceed to leave a trail of dead hellbeasts from here to the horizon. Whether you want to or not, you wind up having to run from the shibito, and it's a short step from there to being scared of them.
Further, some of the puzzles in the game will tax the brain of even veteran adventure gamers, since your actions may only have an effect five missions later or more. Most of the obstacles are common-sense stuff, like using a set of tools or smashing open a lock, but the time-delay on some of them is fascinating and well-implemented stuff.
Siren, then, is a mixed bag, pairing a genuinely frightening horror experience with gameplay that's somewhat hit or miss. The ability to choose your missions, some more leeway with how you can deal with the shibito, and a less-deliberately-confusing story structure would go a long way towards fixing its problems. Right now, it's a question of whether you're a big enough horror/adventure/stealth fan to overlook its many flaws.