Version tested: PlayStation 2
A little ambition is a dangerous thing for a videogame these days. Any game that tries to shake up narrative structures, mess with the player's perception of timelines, and throw a mass of different characters at you had better be worth the ball of confusion that comes with it.
For many, 2003's seminal Forbidden Siren represents the perfect encapsulation of Asian horror gaming; a title that skilfully draws on a myriad of the best movie concepts of the era and reinvents and distorts them for videogaming consumption. Telling a twisting, overlapping story through the eyes of multiple characters, it was a game where the horror came from knowing what your aggressors could see and the helpless terror of trying to avoid them. It was a game where your main weapon was being able to 'Sight-Jack' into their vision and take advantage of their momentary lapses in concentration and slip past them unnoticed. A brilliant idea that works wonderfully in a horror context.
But it was simultaneously the most wilfully inaccessible game we've seen in the genre. It wasn't just plain hard in that it was often ridiculously easy to get killed, but seemingly bloody-minded by design. For starters, there was no means of permanently killing the undead 'Shibito' enemy, meaning that the essential task of scouting out locations (for objects to solve the inevitable puzzles) could be sheer torture if you stumbled the wrong way and had to run the gauntlet all over again - and all without any checkpoints at all.
Loops of fury
Even more aggravating was the way the game was constructed around time 'loops' which meant that unless you'd picked up certain objects during individual scenarios, you ran the risk of having to repeat the loop until you satisfied an inexplicable check list. To the player, though, none of this was explained adequately (or was mistranslated) and you ended up feeling like you were being arbitrarily forced to re-do previously completed scenarios for no reason. Often, progress would be made by pure accident; for example, you'd pick up an obscure object on an otherwise useless rooftop and get a message to alert you to the fact that you'd unlocked another mission somewhere else in the timeline. Unless you had oceanic reserves of patience or didn't mind playing with a guide (in this case pretty essential), you'd probably just give up and do something more fun.
Having said that, there were loads of moments of pure magic in the game that made a lot of the so-called survival-horror games look incredibly unambitious and stuck in their ways by comparison. Through the red mist of frustration, it was still easy to see that all the ingredients were there to make a stunning sequel that used a similar template and chucked out some of the more insane design decisions.
Sadly, Forbidden Siren 2 is not the stunning sequel we were hoping for.
It's hard to put your finger on exactly where it goes wrong, when so many of the flaws of the original have been eradicated. For a start, the game does a much better job of spelling out what you're supposed to do throughout each scenario, and does so alongside a generally excellent in-game hint system that eradicates most of the petty frustrations of the past. Not only that, the game has the decency to checkpoint-save key events, meaning that you can play with a much greater degree of confidence in the knowledge that you haven't got to repeat 30 minutes of painstaking, stealthy play just to explore an otherwise useless building to grab an artefact that opens up a new mission later on.
It also shifts the balance slightly, empowering the player with new abilities and giving more characters the ability to fight back than was ever the case last time. More missions start with characters armed by default, meaning that you don't always have to worry quite so much about Sight-Jacking at every turn. This makes missions more accessible and hence less frustrating when things don't go to plan, and Shibito aren't so unerring in their aim - a major relief. There's even an Easy mode to allow you to take more damage, so that missions don't go pear shaped the second you're spotted, so if you're just interested in solving the puzzles and becoming immersed in the storyline it's relatively straightforward to play it this way. It does take away a chunk of the tension when you're not sweating quite so much over the enemy threat, but the payback is not losing your rag over endless mishaps. The point is, the choice is yours. In fact, if you've got a completed save of the original, there's even a Hard mode available from the start if you want to play it in the most excruciatingly challenging way possible.
Another plus point is the vast increase in variety in the character's abilities, meaning that missions have a distinctly different flavour. For example, one partially sighted character needs to Sight-Jack his guide dog in order to see, while another has the ability to Sight-Jack into the past, or see things in the present that others cannot see. In addition, the new light-fearing Yamibito enemies (which essentially look like murky brown clouds) mix up the combat variety a touch, as does the great increase in the number of weapons that the Shibito carry around with them. It's no longer just a case of stealth horror where you're monitoring the precise moments of sentries and staying well out of their way. It's much more confrontational than before - though it can still be a hassle to deal with the fact that you can't keep a good Shibito down. Somehow we wish there was a means of killing the little swines, but admittedly it'd make it a very different game.
Where the game ultimately falls down is how routine most of the missions feel, how short most of them are, how disappointingly basic almost all of the puzzles are and how hard it remains to get a proper handle on the fractured storyline.