Until a few days ago I hadn’t played Siren – or Forbidden Siren as us PAL gamers called it – since it was new. Isn’t that weird? I love horror games, and I love the PlayStation 2 – why wouldn’t I have played this since 2004?
I hadn’t played Siren for almost two decades because it is the most irritating, obtuse, unfair, and BS-riddled horror game I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing.
It’s also absolutely incredible.
And a teeth-grinding abomination too.
We’ll start with the plot. If you read a spoiler-filled FAQ you’ll find yourself pulled into an enthralling story filled with cursed bloodlines and supernatural intrigue, of blood-soaked tragedy, sacrifice, and dark events set in motion generations ago. If you play the game you’ll find this intriguing tale has been run through a paper shredder and then hastily taped back together during a tornado, events deliberately experienced out of order and spread across far too many unrelated characters in what I assume is an attempt to convey a heightened sense of mystery and unease, keeping players at arm’s length to the truth for as long as possible.
Unfortunately it works far too well, and you struggle to relate to or empathise with any of the cast (or remember their names in some cases) because you’re constantly chopping and changing not only your narrative point of view but time and place as well. To use a more mainstream series as an example of how damaging this is: Imagine Resident Evil 2 and 3 were one single glorious narrative. Now imagine that story started out with you playing as Brad running away from a pack of zombies, then once you reached an arbitrary street the scene faded to black and you found yourself watching Annette Birkin explain the G-virus outbreak to Ada Wong, the interactive event after that involved Carlos trying to create a serum to save Jill, and your reward for successfully doing so was to then see Claire chatting to Marvin inside the police station – oh, and you won’t get to play Sherry’s escape-the-dad scenario unless you happened to pick something up as Leon, half an hour earlier.
It’s all still in there – but it’s all wrong.
But that doesn’t matter too much if it plays like a dream (well, nightmare), does it? And to be fair Siren does make sure you’ve got all the tools and techniques you need to defend yourself against the shibito – Siren’s highly mobile, intelligent, alert, and unkillable equivalent of any comparable game’s zombies/glistening flesh bags/ghosts – roaming its small selection of detailed maps. Characters can beat them down with melee weapons they’ve found along the way, shoot them with guns, or quietly crouch-waddle behind a building after sight-jacking (Siren’s term for telepathically seeing and hearing whatever someone nearby – living or undead – can see) them first to double-check where they’re patrolling.
Every problem has a solution, and Siren is jam-packed with problems.
Which would be great news if the damned game didn’t go so far out of its way to make sure none of that mattered as some bastard you can’t see – and who can’t actually see you – shoots you dead from his unreachable vantage point way off into the impenetrable fog. Or if they didn’t catch you crouching in the dark, literally out of sight (something you can personally confirm by sight-jacking them as they walk by), even though they were shambling on their way to a distraction you’d set up elsewhere. Bog-standard shibito have a visual range and physical abilities that makes the Metal Gear Solid series’ European Extreme setting look easy, and by making every enemy so powerful and tenacious, and characters so universally weak (weaponless characters can do absolutely nothing if a shibito blocks their path, not even feebly kick or push them away), Siren doesn’t present you with a series of tense encounters against deadly foes or scrappy fights for survival in imperfect conditions but a string of binary win/lose scenarios. You’re always either completely fine or dead within seconds (with some exceptions) when enemies see you, and before long you’re very conscious of the fact that getting spotted doesn’t give you the adrenaline rush of a fight-or-flight response but results in more of an eye-rolling “Ugh. Here we go again…” followed by a weary sigh. It’s a stealth game that demands nothing less than constant perfection from its players – something actual stealth games don’t – and every other event that doesn’t see another unarmed person helplessly stumbling around in the dark seems to be a sodding escort mission.
Nobody likes escort missions.
And in spite of all this the most infuriating part isn’t the endless stream of sudden deaths caused by someone you couldn’t see or shibito deliberately set to never wander from their point blocking the one place you need to go; it’s being able to see that every single idea in here is a good one – the chilling plot, being able to play through multiple strands of the same overarching event, the unstoppable brutality of even the lowliest enemy – but it still not feeling it come together into a whole I actually want to play. You’re always doing stuff rather than making progress, the story leaping erratically between people you might recognise from one cutscene three missions back, the disorientation coming across more as a muddle of disconnected horror shorts than a group of people caught right in the thick of a desperate situation. This is only exacerbated by the “Go here” and “Do this” mission objectives printed on-screen during each segment and intended for player eyes only, giving you the solution to problems you didn’t even know you had yet without ever taking a moment for characters to maybe ponder on where an item could be used or even to mumble something like “If only the generator was working then I could…” to themselves, Siren apparently incapable of deciding whether its players are supposed to be freewheeling through a grand enigma or doing exactly what they’re told.
And I keep coming back anyway.
And I don’t really know why.
It does look incredible. Siren’s “realistic” in a fabulously stylised way that’s aged like fine wine. It’s got texture and expression and that grimy horror look that seems to come so naturally to the PlayStation 2. Everything is so dark it’s almost monochrome, which after a while makes colour almost feel like a threat – if you can make out much more than a few grainy shapes then you’re either too close to the suspiciously blood-red water found throughout the village or standing exposed in the open. And the sight-jack system is nothing short of horror genius: the guttural noises of former humans on patrol, the glimpses of places you’ve just been through someone else’s eyes – and catching sight of yourself as they sneak up behind you, rusty weapon held high.
I desperately want to finish it. I want to see, understand, and appreciate the vast amount of work that’s clearly gone into the game. There’s a lot of good in here… somewhere… I’m sure of it.
And then it all comes crashing down again as I’m tasked with finding some kite string I’m supposed to connect to one very specific cupboard in one room, then tie the other end to an extractor fan, then turn it on so the noise attracts one very specific shibito away from their sentry point by the level’s exit…
And all of a sudden I don’t want to play it ever again.
…Until I do.