The first Siren was a divisive experience; praised by some, loathed by others, and I… well, it’s probably best you read about it for yourself. But whether you view the original as an unflinchingly brutal nightmare played out within a dense tangle of plot or nothing more than a deeply unfair game loosely attached to a string of indecipherable events it’s hard to deny there was some obvious room for improvement in there, and I’m happy to say 2006 follow up Siren 2 makes a genuine effort to address many of the most common complaints levelled at its predecessor. Basic controls and character capabilities have been have been refined and expanded, allowing everyone to sneakily crouch-run past unsuspecting enemies and fight barehanded (or at least give something a desperate shove), and you now spend far less time fiddling with the action menu to perform basic tasks thanks to the introduction of context-sensitive commands. Escortable allies are sadly still occasionally present but at least now they don’t completely shut down if you dare to move more than three slow steps ahead, and some will even make an effort to throw a kick or a punch at an aggressor instead of passively standing by as you fight for your life. Sight-jacking – the series’ unique psychic ability and a highlight that needed little work – is for most of the cast the same as it ever was while a select few others find themselves able to see things otherwise invisible to the naked eye, or in Shu’s case able to see anything at all, as his poor vision needs to be complimented by his faithful dog’s psychically accessed monochrome sight.
Enemies have been given plenty of attention too, rebalanced and diversified away from the nigh-endless shibito of old (there’s still plenty of those around though) and they’re all generally less observant and determined to pursue you to the ends of the earth than before. Everyone will be pleased to hear there are less of everything patrolling Siren 2’s dilapidated island, making the game’s enforced stealth much easier to handle, and the number of instant-kill rooftop snipers seems to have been (at least on the Normal difficulty setting I played on) reduced to the zero it always should have been – and when a rifle-equipped shibito does land a hit it’ll now take several direct shots to bring even a physically weak character down, giving you the chance to desperately run past them to the exit if you wish. You’re also far less likely to trigger any violent encounters at all thanks to Siren 2’s new alert mode, warning you via controller rumble and a siren-like sound when someone dangerous is close by (including above, below, and through walls) whether you’re personally aware of their presence or not, giving you the time to at least close a door or crouch in a dark corner until it passes rather than running into something lurking around a blind corner and finding yourself once again knee-deep in corrupted fragments of flesh and darkness.
The plot has been given a welcome overhaul as well, and although it’s still presented as a series of segmented story slivers it’s now much much quicker at intertwining the varied cast member’s separate threads together and also makes an effort to play out a single character’s events sequentially, making the frequent hops between several other people much less disorientating than they were before. You find yourself clearing stages on your first attempt. You build up a growing understanding of the awful time-bending horror around you just by playing the game. You bear witness to a dramatic reveal that changes everything…
And then Siren 2 just stops.
Now anyone familiar with the first game will know this is where you go back through the Link Navigation menu (your interconnected flowchart of playable events and cutscenes) and start pursuing the secondary objectives available in already cleared stages to unlock further story-nuggets of old and new characters alike… but as an experience Siren 2 leads you towards something absolutely fascinating after doing everything you were told to do correctly, and then… nothing. Not even something as awkwardly delivered as a “Now make sure you play everyone’s second missions!” or “Find special items to unlock new events!” message, or as simple as automatically dropping the cursor on any old scenario that needs replaying to unlock something else.
You’re given no idea why you should either: No later insights make you think “And now I know this, I should try this in [Earlier Stage]“, or “If I do this with [Person A] at 2:00am, then [Person B] at 4:00am can…“. You do it because Siren 2 says you have to if you want to carry on – and worst of all Siren 2 thinks that’s the only reason you need to do anything.
You can find this “Because we said so” philosophy embedded in every facet of Siren 2’s design. Hints and basic instructions on what to do and where are now doled out before tackling every stage, a fresh feature that’s genuinely helpful but only in the most papering-over-the-cracks way possible. If a horror game needs to routinely dish out multi-point advice complete with illustrative thumbnails just to make sure players have a chance of completing the level then it’s fair to say there’s a fundamental flaw or ten in the basic design that’s not been adequately addressed. This frustration is further compounded by the stream of unsatisfying and often (from everybody’s point of view) pointless mission objectives and sub-tasks given throughout the game: Why does one scenario conclude when a character looks at something in the distance from one specific room? Why is it so important a doomed soul who’s never been on this cursed island before must use one very specific exit road to escape when they clearly have no idea where they’re going? Why does Siren 2 rush to tell you what a key you’ve just picked up is for or where to go next when everything the person you’re controlling’s said and done proves they have no idea where they are or what’s going on?
Here’s a “good” early example: You find yourself playing as Akiko, who has been separated from her friend Soji, and the mission goal is to find him and then escape – that’s reasonable enough. The first thing anyone runs in to in this chapter is a driveable pickup truck parked up by the side of the road, and then… well, then the questions start coming in and Siren 2 only has one answer for all of them – “Because we said so“. Why do you want to get in this truck, and what are you going to do once you’re in it? Why can’t you drive it down the big open road ahead but have to (really have to; the game resetting the event and making you do it again until you get it “right” if you try anything different) park it up in one spot next to one specific building? Because you’ve been told to, and the game has no interest in accommodating players who wish to do otherwise. Because Siren 2’s making you solve problems it hadn’t allowed you to discover on your own. Now if this had been reframed – if she’d she’d heard Soji calling out from inside the building, or had a convenient psychic flash of insight, or stumbled upon a crashed-but-climbable truck in the same spot and all the other routes were either blocked or extremely dangerous making this the only sensible option, then the same tools could’ve been used to give the player a sense of personal agency and a chance to do something – anything – for themselves. PlayStation 2 video ’em up The Fear offers players more genuine choice than Siren 2, and that’s nothing more than an OK-ish FMV game.
There’s a real case to be made for games having texture, for proud of being their own imperfect selves, for existing for not other reason than to satisfy their creator’s desire to see an interesting idea out in the world. Nobody should want this hobby to be an endless beige wall of generically pleasant experiences or a constant supply of focus-tested AAA “perfection”. And so in many ways I respect Siren 2 for being so determined to be itself, but I do also honestly believe its issues go far beyond “It’s just not for you” as well. The game is as eager for players to become immersed in a big mystery as it is terrified they’ll actually do something for themselves, something they’ve not been told to do, and when you’re on the receiving end you feel like you’ve been stuck with a bad Dungeon Master, the sort who spends months meticulously planning an epic campaign only to fill every second of each play session with “No, you were supposed to notice this first…” and “No you can’t walk past you’ve got to go through here and trigger the special trap…“. Even when you realise time and reality are highly malleable substances in Siren’s world free to do exactly as they see fit you still don’t find that important cause-and-effect connection between your own actions and the events they unlock or the deeply stylish sequences that play out afterwards.
And in spite of these issues I sincerely hoped the moment where everything would fall into place would come along if only I kept going, a magical tipping point that turned a laundry list of tasks into an enthralling horror experience… but it never happened. I was an unwelcome unknown variable the game would rather be without.
In the end Siren didn’t want me to play the role of any of the potentially fascinating characters within, but only that of the obedient gamer.