Bloody Japanese villages: safe havens for murderous occult types, intent on turning their human sacrifices into a shambling posse of frothing undead. There are easier ways to commit mass benefit fraud, but there's no telling them. What's more, after decades of zombie education, a dozen Hideo Nakata movies, The Blair Witch Project, Scooby Doo, and all those spooky survival-horror games, you'd think people would reconsider 'investigating' a village that vanished 30 years previously. That shaky cam footage isn't going to help anyone, really, is it?
Still, so begins the latest attempt to inject some life into the cankered, festering corpse of survival-horror. Essentially a more coherent, polished and playable take on the inspirational (but woefully broken) 2003 PS2 original, Sony's Japan studio intends to release Siren: Blood Curse in 12 downloadable episodic chunks via PlayStation Network this summer. Having been given the first three episodes to cast our eyes over, one thing is immediately apparent: it's about ten times more playable than its often ludicrously exacting predecessors.
Jumping between characters each episode, you kick off playing as Howard Wright, a high-school student who just happens to be there the same day as a dim-witted US TV crew intrigued by the village's history. For reasons not adequately explained, there you are, as Howard, alone in the dark and trying to escape the attentions of a deranged undead Japanese police officer who feels that it's his duty to apprehend you by shooting on sight. Cue much flapping around in the inky blackness, trying to get your bearings, running into dead-ends, getting shot and killed a lot, and generally being unable to defend yourself in any way.
Eventually, you stumble across a pathway and discover a wooden hut that you can hide underneath. Of course, all the while, our friendly local zomcop breathes his way heavily around, waving his torch, and muttering undead thoughts to himself. It's all very tense, and this cloying game of hide-and-seek continues once he wanders off, enabling you to dart inside and, you guessed it, hide in a nearby cupboard. Once again, much tension ensues as rot-face staggers around haplessly, failing to check the obvious hidey holes. After that, you manage to creep outside, grab a shovel and blat him across the skull and make your escape. End of episode one.
Evidently pitched as little more than an interactive tutorial exercise, the game wastes no time introducing the controls at your disposal. Unlike before, you're not simply left to your own devices and given barely any direction as to what to actually do. Instead, Siren: Blood Curse is proactive in letting you know where you should head to next, and a decent 3D map screen marks each sub-task clearly on the specific location. This ensures that you can get on and tackle the next task head-on, rather than spend ages running down blind alleys and dying repeatedly (which was one of the key frustrations of past iterations). Coming across as an even more focused refinement of Siren 2, the gameplay works well, and plays to the strengths of the brooding atmosphere. Far more of your time seems to be spent doing the things you should and progressing the intriguing storyline, rather than feeling lost and completely up against it.
Progressing into episode two, attentions switch to one of the TV crew loonies, Sam Monroe, who finds himself (as you do) wandering around an abandoned mine, sneaking past Shibito miners, still quite happy to work the nightshift despite their somewhat unfortunate predicament. This continuing stealth element is, as you might expect, a necessity, given that the game's a bit stingy with weapons, so again you're forced to avoid confrontation at all costs, luring enemies out of where you need to be and creeping past them.