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.
But rather than end the episode abruptly, the action switches to Howard, with a task of escaping to another village, Karuwari, with a long-haired teenage girl called Amana. Again, for reasons not adequately explained, she's wandering like a loser in the dark as well, but has some curious powers that you can take advantage of - namely Sight Jacking, the game's key unique innovation that made the original duo so memorable. In a nutshell, Sight Jacking is the ability to literally see through your enemies' eyes, and Siren: Blood Curse makes the whole process somewhat more user-friendly.
Previously, the right analogue stick acted as a kind of radio tuner, and dialling into the Shibito's perspective was relative to their direction. So, for example, if Shibito were standing at six o'clock on a rooftop with a sniper rifle, you'd hit the Sight Jack button and rotate the stick downwards until it 'tuned in'. Then you'd sit and wait until they were looking the other way, go back to your own viewpoint and dart off (hopefully) out of sight. This time around it's a lot simpler: you hit L2, and flick between the various Shibito in the vicinity with left and right on the d-pad, and a vertical split-screen view allows you to see both their perspective and your own, making it a whole lot less risky in the process. That said, at this stage in the game, there aren't too many points where you really need to study what the Shibito monsters can observe, so we'll have to wait and see how it really pans out once we has access to all 12 episodes.
Eventually, the need to simply avoid these nightmarish souls changes, and you do get access to your first firearm. With one armed Shibito somewhat preoccupied, you creep up, smack him over the back of the head with a blunt instrument and snatch his pistol. When his mates decide to investigate, you've got a few pellets of hot lead waiting for them. Elsewhere, you're given a chance to use one-off items to your advantage, such as alarm bells, rotten trees, rickety signs, or even deadly mantraps, which is particularly satisfying. All-round the game does a far better job of making it clear what your aims are, and only a modicum of trial-and-error appears to be necessary to move things on. Whether it'll remain this straightforward later on is another thing.
One thing the game is very good at is changing the rules repeatedly, and it's a clear sign that variety is high on the agenda. Part of the third episode of this sneak preview illustrates that point perfectly, with Bella Monroe tasked with escaping from Saiga Hospital. In what amounts to pure survival-horror stealth, you can't risk poor little Bella even being confronted by beasties, as she simply curls up into a ball with fright. But such harsh Game Over penalties aren't as frustrating as they might have been, with smart checkpointing and quick reloads launching you back into the action in seconds.
In a presentational sense, the episodic nature of the gameplay not only tightens up the narrative thread immensely, but gives Sony Japan Studio the chance to cut together TV-style 'next on Siren: Blood Curse' previews which offer tantalising glimpses of what horrors you're about to face. Some residual control clunkiness remains as one of the only niggles that has carried over from the previous games in the series, but on the plus side, the combat appears to be largely trouble-free, and much of the hassle of performing more complicated actions has been resolved by a host of context-sensitive tweaks.
With immense improvements in the voice acting, an intense atmosphere, fantastic audio and some of the best visuals to grace the PS3, there's every reason to look forward to this episodic onslaught. Check back soon for the full review.