Version tested: PlayStation 3
The first two Siren games may have been inspired and joyously original, but fun wasn't the right word for them. The brutality meted out by the 2003 PS2 original, which took the survival-horror template to ferocious extremes, was something to behold, even for hardened veterans of the genre. The result was the most hardcore survival-horror around - not necessarily something to charge your glasses about.
However, if you poked around in there long enough - adapting to the unique gameplay demands of high-jacking your enemies' eyesight, and one of the most complex and interwoven narratives in games - you eventually hit the bones of something very special. It might not have been fun, most of the time, but it was certainly progressive, challenging and engaging. All the elements were there for Siren to take the next step forward for horror gaming. It just needed a sharper focus to make the pieces fit.
The question is whether Siren: Blood Curse - a 12-episode series reboot sold on PSN - can deliver. As Rob Fahey noted when he reviewed the first three episodes (the game is available in three-episode lumps for GBP 6.99 or as a single 12-episode game for GBP 19.99), many of the things that crippled playability in the past have been fixed - or at least tweaked sufficiently to make the game more approachable and enjoyable.
Simple things like movement, camera movement and combat are now less stilted and clunky - and while by no means as refined as they could be, the rough-around-the-edges feel imbues an appropriate balance of panic and control. As you flail makeshift melee weapons and rifles towards lumbering undead, often you'll miss horribly and with dire consequences - and with an unease that's in-keeping with the complete terror of the characters under your control.
Whether this removal of complete control is by accident or design isn't exactly clear. For example, switching from the game's chaotic and disorientating over-the-shoulder 'Type A' camera position to a generally fixed behind-the-player 'Type B' instantly improves your character's stability, but surely this should be consistent across the controls? That lack of consistency speaks volumes about why it has taken until the third iteration of Siren before the jigsaw of good ideas has fallen into place. And even then, sometimes you're still expected you to make the pieces fit using a horrible, almost unusable first-person/aiming mode, and a less-than-brilliant context-sensitive climbing control.
Fortunately, Siren: Blood Curse more than makes up for it elsewhere. Unravelling the mysteries of a 'lost' village was always one of the most appealing aspects of the original, and Sony Japan's rethink of the plot retains much of that allure. Somewhat thrown into an already ongoing story, it gradually becomes evident that some of the cast are there to find out what's going on while others have been taking lessons at the Scooby Doo school of sinister agendas.
In order to appreciate all this, you get to see the story from ten different characters' perspectives, which keeps the gameplay fresh and offers absorbing insights. It's not always clear who are the good guys are, but it's fun - there's that word again - to uncover certain characters' true intentions deep into the game. The skillful way Siren toys with your loyalty and pulls surprises points the way for future attempts at this style of multi-faceted interactive storytelling.
Even if the story doesn't grab you, or you don't enjoy the haplessness of the new American characters, the way you're adapting to a new challenge in bite-sized chunks adds a continual incentive to see what's coming next. Somewhat similar to Alone in the Dark's compelling episodic structure, if you can't get past a particular episode, you can always try the next one (though it's important to point out you can't just skip to the next chapter - just the next episode, which wasn't something AITD allowed you to do). Skipping around the story isn't the best way to take it in, but the game itself makes some provision for this when it does a temporal backflip halfway through, so don't worry too much.
Comparing Siren: Blood Curse's approach to the old interweaving, timeline-hopping confusion of old, it's a simpler, more linear tale to follow, and on one level this cohesion comes as a relief - previous Sirens were host to scores of vignettes scattered around a vast table of events. On the other hand, the regulation linearity means a chunk of what made Siren intriguing has been 're-cut' to fit the digestible episodic format. It's hard to make your mind up about which approach works best.
There is a positive side to this enforced focus, though. Having made the change to an episodic structure, Sony has been able to beef up the actual missions you undertake, which are generally more interesting than most of the perfunctory fetch-quests that dogged the originals. Siren 1 and 2 might have been much longer games, with many more secrets, but most of it was unnecessary padding.
Perhaps more controversially, the game's unique Sight-Jacking system has been sidelined to such a degree that you barely have to use it more than a handful of times. While previous adventures had you feverishly scanning the airwaves (brainwaves?), tuning into the viewpoints of Shibito sentries so that you could sneak past them undetected, there are precious few occasions in Siren: Blood Curse where this is necessary. Most of the time you can simply shuffle past while crouched, or run the gauntlet with a posse of undead swishing their scythes in your wake. Precious few of your enemies now wield rifles, and even getting shot a couple of times doesn't spell The End.
As with a lot of what's changed, there's ups and downs to this approach too. A lot of the cloying tension in the PS2 games was down to ever-imminent death, which is missed. But then again, there's something to be said for not dying every time you put a foot wrong, and the game retains its atmosphere and capacity to scare you. On balance, we forgive the diminished tension, which now has to be built rather than assumed. It's easy to observe that regular checkpointing and less deadly enemies dials down the true hardcore survival element of the game, but it's a far more enjoyable and accessible prospect as a result.
The game does other things to make itself accessible, too. As with Siren 2, the in-game map marks your objectives (and precisely where to get objects), which removes the complete sense of the unknown that came with clueless, painstaking (and often frustrating) exploration. Fortunately the balance is usually right. For example, you might be told that you've got to follow a posse of shambling, muttering Shibito to retrieve an artifact, but actually working out how to get it off them unarmed is another matter. We also say goodbye to those hateful psychic rooftop snipers, replaced with often equally tense but far more playable alternatives. Only on a few notable occasions do the mission objectives become needlessly straightforward, but on balance you really have to think carefully about how to pick your way through the game. There's still an essential amount of trial and error, but the solution is never that far away.
It's worth noting, for those of you still hung up on the hilariously plummy voice acting of the original, that the overall standard has improved immeasurably. Featuring the right blend of Japanese and American actors, Sony has deftly avoided making a gaudy, dumbed-down Western remake. And with lifelike avatars and richly detailed environments providing such a visually arresting proposition, it's the sort of game people can't help but stop and admire.
Another fact that's difficult to avoid when discussing Siren Blood Curse is the incredible value it represents. You're getting a game that could happily compete for a full price - around GBP 40 these days - for half that. Whether this episodic experiment pays off for Sony remains to be seen, but you can't fault it from a consumer perspective.
With these value considerations in mind, you might think that pinning a score to this excellent slice of survival-horror would be extremely tough. Do you praise the value and boost the mark accordingly, or stick resolutely to the merits of the game? As it turns out, it's not a difficult call to make, because Siren: Blood Curse would be highly recommended even if it was a full price offering. A few niggles remain in the control and combat department, but those of us schooled in slightly wonky survival-horror mechanics won't be put off. Not quite unparalleled excellence, then, but more than enough chills to keep horror adventure fans gibbering.
8 / 10