Version tested: PlayStation 3
Americanised remakes of Japanese horror. Depending on your perspective, that phrase may or may not induce absolute revulsion - but even those who insist on the originals would have to acknowledge that Americanised remakes tend to work best when the Japanese creative team is deeply involved (The Grudge), and worst when the films are so heavily Americanised that their origins are entirely erased (the execrable Pulse).
So when I tell you that Siren: Blood Curse is, in essence, an Americanised remake of the original Siren, bear with me for a moment more - because it needs to be emphasised that this is a remake by the original creative team, working out of Japan. They have chosen for their own reasons to replace several key characters with Americans and record much of the dialogue in English - a decision that's initially jarring for fans of the first game, but whose impact on the quality of what's on offer is actually negligible.
Besides, Blood Curse is far from being a straight, frame-for-frame remake of its progenitor. Few game series have ever evolved quite as quickly as Siren has - from the launch of the first game, intriguing but desperately flawed, to the arrival of the second, vastly more playable, more enjoyable and more interesting, and now finally to Blood Curse. Here we find the Siren team matured, experienced, and returning to their first game to show that they've become a world-class developer.
As in the original game, the premise is that a group of characters find themselves at the site of a village which was lost exactly 30 years ago - only to discover that it has mysteriously un-lost itself, and is now inhabited by its former residents in hideous, undead form, together with a host of other less frequently glimpsed but far more unpleasant nasties. There's an ancient religious cult at work, and some of the characters know more than they should about what's happening. It's standard Japanese horror fare, but superbly crafted, and almost unique among survival-horror titles for offering an ensemble cast of playable characters whose stories intertwine as the game progresses.
In the process of recreating the game, the team has transformed much more about Siren than its line-up of characters. The controls have been reworked, still resembling Siren 2's but with a great deal of thought given to allowing players to feel scared rather than frustrated. Sightjacking, the strange power that allows you to see through the eyes of allies and enemies alike, has been refined - unlike previous games, you can move around while you sightjack someone, a development that has been carefully designed to ensure that you're still vulnerable (your own peripheral vision is massively cut down), without actually being helpless.
Movement itself is significantly simplified. Characters jump and climb much more intelligently than before when you push them against the edges of roofs or ledges, character motions feel crisp and precise - and a really well-designed, informative map screen makes sure that you don't get lost, and have a solid overview of your objectives and routes. The result is a game in which the threat comes from the foes you face and the tension of working out the best way around them - not from the fear that the controls will let you down at a crucial moment.
Even combat is more fun. Siren 2 showed that the developers had learned that players don't always want to run and hide from the evil creatures that stalk them - sometimes, you really want to fight back. That won't always be the best option in Blood Curse, but with some characters, picking up a blunt object or firearm gives you a chance to rid yourself of your undead foes, at least for a while.
Sometimes, however, combat won't be an option at all. In the first mission of the game, you need to run and hide from an armed police officer with a gun and an unfortunate case of zombie eyes. The fact that you don't get a useful weapon until the very end of the mission makes the tension all the better. The game returns to that theme in the last mission of the three-chapter chunk we're reviewing today, where you play a defenceless young girl who can't risk being spotted by any of the undead nurses who infest the ruined hospital in which she finds herself. Even knocking over something in the dark and making a noise can have them screeching and converging on you, resulting in heart palpitations as you hunt for somewhere to hide. It's superb, creepy, unbearably tense stuff.
Graphically, the game is nothing short of stunning. Eschewing the clean, crisp look that many other HD games - including present PS3 poster boy MGS4 - have opted for, Blood Curse demonstrates ably how to achieve the gritty, murky look that works so well for survival-horror. The ruined village and its forested surrounds are full of dark, moving shadows, every texture is corroded and rough, and the air is full of swirling mists which add flavour to the environment, rather than obscuring your vision. Indoors, the use of light and shadow is brilliant - on occasion, your first heart-stopping indicator of an impending threat will be a shadow in the light from a doorway.
The characters themselves look great, nowhere close to the incredible detail of MGS4's faces but still nicely crafted and all brought to life with a unique visual style. It's the monsters who really stand out - in the first three-chapter chunk, you'll only meet standard undead humans, but these are brimming with malevolent personality as they go about their sinister business, each still attired and acting according to their role when they were alive. Best of all, their sound samples are magnificent - burbling, shrieking phrases in rural Japanese, the men harsh and guttural, the women like nails being drawn down a blackboard, and all punctuated by high, cackling laughter.
As to the American characters, you'll quickly get used to them - although fans of the original will probably pine for the reintroduction of Kyoya and pals all the same. The bulk of the American cast is introduced by a film crew who turn up to make a special about the "lost village". Several other characters are still Japanese, although there are a few other Americans floating around for no readily explained reason - some chap called Howard who appears to be an American schoolboy and just happens to be in the area (great explanation, guys), and a mysterious woman in a red cloak who lives among the villagers.
The storyline thus far has stuck relatively closely to the tale of the original game, although it threatens to diverge in a few key areas. This is no bad thing. Siren's story was fantastic, and won't have been experienced by many players since the game itself was so utterly impenetrable - while the changes in Blood Curse give fans of the original plenty of reason to play through this vastly improved version of the game.
Of course, the real question is whether Blood Curse is actually worth spending your money on. When we originally received these chapters for review, we were expecting them to be charged at a few pounds per chapter - and we were particularly wide-eyed about the first chapter, which is really just the prologue and doesn't boast more than about 15 minutes of actual gameplay. Later chapters improve this significantly, and you'll get easily 40 minutes apiece out of them - and much, much more if you subsequently replay on the game's very challenging harder modes.
However, with the chapters being bundled in threes for a fiver each, the value is undeniable - even taking into account the brevity of the first instalment. The Siren team is, arguably, the most talented team working on this style of survival-horror at the moment, and Siren: Blood Curse is the best thing to appear in the genre in a very long time.
So even if Americanised remakes leave you screaming and running for the hills (for all the wrong reasons), Blood Curse comes with a strong recommendation. For a fiver, we're struggling to think of any reason why you shouldn't try out the first three chapters of what will, at this rate, turn out to be a superb game overall. Look out for our full review of the 20-quid whole closer to its 24th July release.
9 / 10