Mixing Japanese and more traditional, Western-style horror elements to eerie effect, “Siren: Blood Curse” delivers on its core promise to freak players out. But Sony’s decision to deliver this game as a series of downloadable episodes is a frustrating head-scratcher, as the process of installing each of the 12 episodes on a Playstation 3 in two hour chunks — even longer than it takes to play them — is its own terror. Sales are likely to suffer as gamers endure agonizing waits and wonder why they can’t just walk down to their local GameStop and buy the damned thing.
The game is actually something of a rehash of 2004 PlayStation 2 title “Siren,” with a noticeable reworking of the plot and characters. The core theme remains the same — young people in an eerie mountain village stumble on the gruesome, secretive occult rituals of the inhabitants, and soon find themselves running and hiding from possessed, zombie-like victims called shibito.
One notable change sees a broad variety of the game’s previously Japanese characters reimagined as American tourists, similar to the decision made with American adaptations of flicks like “Ju-On” (which became “The Grudge”) and “Ringu” (“The Ring”). The result is somewhat less believable, as distinctly Japanese-style horror images become more caricatures than true thrill.
But “Siren” is still dread-inducingly terrifying, due in large part to the lack of combat. The game de-emphasizes fighting in favor of running and hiding, and the objective of each episode is usually to avoid enemies and safely reach a certain destination. The “sightjack” system lets players steal the shibito’s point of view so they can see their own hiding place from the enemy’s eyes as he slowly shambles toward it in the dark, weapon in hand. The result is sheer terror as players try to find an escape route before it’s too late.
Though a fear-enhancer for sure, the sightjack system will likely feel fussy and tedious to all but the most hardcore survival-horror fans. Most players will wish they could just look around to find out where their enemies are. Success in an episode usually relies upon experimentation, through several frustrating deaths, to learn the precise pattern in which an area should be traversed.
Shibito can be neutralized for a short time through the use of blunt objects or, occasionally, guns — it’s fortunate that the player isn’t meant to rely on combat much, because the controls are stilted and often delay responses. The game’s dark atmosphere enhances the fear, but makes it very tough to find some objectives.
Given its sheer size and the surprisingly high quality of the graphics and sound, “Siren” is certainly one of the most ambitious downloadable videogames to date. Conceptually, the episodes work just as they should, feeling individual even while they’re part of a larger plot. But the entire game takes more 20 hours to download and install — ruining the promise of the Internet to provide content on-demand. “Siren: Blood Curse” may be a mixed bag as a game, but it’s a clean-cut argument to keep most vidgames on disc until digital delivery is dramatically improved.