Casual Gamers Need Not Apply
To be more specific, the game takes a traditional Japanese horror story about a wandering ageless nun which serves a mystical monstrous mermaid, whose flesh (sometimes called "mana") when consumed grants eternal life, and gives it a much more frightening and much more apocalyptic retelling. The story is placed in a small rural Japanese village called "Hanuda". This small rural township is mostly isolated from the rest of Japan, and has a small subculture very distinct from the traditional Japanese culture. You see, this village worships its very own god, a creature known as the "Datatsushi", which grants eternal life to those who serve it and consume its flesh. This god is served by the town nun, a woman who never ages and along with the male priests, performs a ritual every couple of decades or so to summon the god to make a physical appearance in the township. The purpose of this appearance is to consume a female "bride" victim as an atonement to placate his anger. As the priests and sages in the town start the ritual, they are interrupted by one of the main playable characters in the game. The call of the god echoes through the township, vocalized as the sound of a nuclear warning siren, and the town is plunged into a nightmarish state. The waters turn red and the townsfolk are transformed into the undying Shibito, a Japanese term for the walking dead. Though never explicitly stated, this transformation seems to be from drinking the red water, the "blood" or mana of the god. Anyone who loves the “Silent Hill” series for its ambient mood-driven horror will likely see a spiritual connection to “Siren” from the beginning. The parallels between the story told in "Siren" and the one told in the original "Silent Hill" are remarkable. Where "Silent Hill" told the story of a small American town with an isolated secret cult which initiates a ritual which turns the town into a nightmare, with elements and themes familiar in most American Gothic horror stories, "Siren" tells the story of a small Japanese village with an isolated secret cult which initiates a ritual which turns the village into a nightmare, with elements and themes familiar in many Japanese traditional legends and manga stories. None of this should be surprising. The same game designer who laid out the framework for "Silent Hill", Keiichiro Toyama, also laid out the framework for "Siren". "Siren" truly is to Japanese horror what "Silent Hill" is to American horror.
The storyline of “Siren” is presented in great form through the aesthetic presentation of the game. Graphically, “Siren” is a great compromise against the technical limitations of the Playstation 2. Though this game doesn‘t push the technical limitations of the system to the edge, it uses the system in some new and innovative ways. The township is constructed in great detail, and has a very aged look, giving the impression that the town has been isolated from the mainstream Japanese society for quite some time. The dark and foggy atmosphere could have been added as a cheap trick to hide textural flaws resulting from the limitations of the Playstation 2, as it has in so many other horror-themed games on that platform, but this game doesn't resort to that sort of charade. Instead, it uses these attributes to create a terrain that is both difficult to traverse and in which fear of the unexpected looms large. Player and enemy characters have very believable, well-orchestrated movements, but where they really impress is in the facial movements and expressions. Due to some innovation on the part of the developers, in which real actors' faces were motion-captured and super-imposed on the character models, the expressions are very realistic, and in the case of the Shibito, positively ghastly. The downside is that this method makes some of the faces seem a bit flat when viewed from certain angles, but this doesn‘t take too much away from the presentation. The sound effects and incidental music are incredibly mood-inspiring. The incidental music has a positively frightening tone to it. Recorded voices of the Shibitos' grunts, groans, mutterings, and shrieks are just plain disconcerting. If there is any one criticism in the sound department, it is in the voice-work. No, it's not unbelievable, but it is a bit odd as an American to see obviously Japanese characters speaking in Chelsea British accents. This doesn't take away from the believability of the game, but it does every now and then quench the fearful mood with a good chuckle.
You will play ten different playable characters in 78 different missions which take place over a period of three days, the three days of the ritual, in a collective attempt to escape the madness that has enveloped the town. The missions are out of sequence, which allows the player to gather bits and pieces of the storyline as he plays, in a very dramatic but gradually unfolding manner. One mission will unlock another mission at another time, or will unlock a movie sequence to reveal a bit more of the story, as will various informational items gained along the way. The items are organized in a collection screen, which will act as a library to look up the meaning behind them. Additionally, a relational chart will keep track of which missions are tied to which occurrences in the overall storyline. You will actually need this chart, as the story is sometimes so complex and out-of-sequence that it becomes virtually impossible to keep track of the details without it. This unique and engaging storyline is the most rewarding aspect of the game. It is impossible to witness this story in its entirety and not appreciate the marvel that it really is. But to get the story in its entirety, you must actually play the game through to its completion, and that is much easier said than done.
This leads me to the rough part, the part that has kept even the most hardcore of gamers at bay: the infamously difficult gameplay. Yes, this game is difficult -- very difficult -- very VERY difficult! In fact, it is perhaps the MOST difficult game I have ever played in my 30+ years of console gaming! It is the only game that took me four months to complete while playing virtually on a daily basis. Gameplay is actually pretty simple for the most part, at least in how the game as a whole is laid out, but this simplicity of purpose is not to be confused with simplicity of execution. Each of the 78 missions have a different overall goal in mind. These typically fall into one of two categories:
(1) Escape from all the Shibito in the area without being sighted.
(2) Accomplish another mission besides escaping, without being sighted by Shibito.
In addition, of these two types of missions, one or both of the following may apply to an existing mission, just to make it that much more difficult:
(1) Accomplish the mission within a given time-frame, which may or may not include a visible countdown.
(2) Accomplish the mission with another non-playable character in your company, whom you must control indirectly with predefined verbal commands.
What makes these missions so insanely difficult is that the Shibito, a Japanese term translating in some sense to "walking dead", are not your typical mindless zombies. If anything, they resemble the intelligent mobile village folk in "Resident Evil 4" much more than they would the original "Resident Evil" zombies. They are extremely intelligent, and are actively looking out for your player character and any other foolish mortals who dare cross their paths. While they are on patrol, they may be eating a meal, walking the fences, acting as snipers from a tower, playing house, or any number of things that normal folk will do, but they will never cease to keep an eye out for you as you attempt to evade them. Some of them will even take on the personalities, forms, and appendages of animals and even insects. If one of them does happen to spot you, he will pursue immediately at great and typically unhindered speeds. Most of the time you will be defenseless. You will either be completely weaponless, have very rudimentary weapons, or guns with a very limited supply of ammunition. Imagine "Resident Evil" with less than half of the available ammunition, and perhaps you will get the picture. Even when you shoot or strike down an ensuing Shibito, you will be doing so just to buy yourself some time to hide until the Shibito calms down and returns to his normal routine. The Shibito, you see, cannot be killed, only temporarily stunned.
"There has to be a method to this madness", you are probably saying to yourself. I must admit that there is, but if you think that this method makes the gameplay much easier, you'd be vastly mistaken. In fact, this element of gameplay pretty much constitutes almost the entirety of the game's demands on your puzzle-solving mental abilities. This element, or rather feature, is called "sightjacking". The townsfolk and outside visitors, i.e. those among the ten playable characters, have a very special ability to tune into the sense of sight of any of the other characters. This includes your possible tagalong character, but more importantly, it includes the Shibito within a certain distance from you. Once you enter into sightjacking mode, you will be able to use the analog stick as a radio tuner and eventually tune into frequencies, lock on, and watch as the Shibito makes his rounds. Through various attempts to see through the eyes of these villains, you must become familiar with your surroundings, and familiar with the patterns of the Shibito. Once you identify a time window to take an escape route, or just to advance your mission wholly or partially, you must take it immediately and make haste.
Believe me, as hard as this might sound, it is actually much harder. You will be doing a lot of dying, a LOT of dying, and you will probably wish for death out of sheer frustration, or cause the death of one or more TV sets or PS2 consoles in the process of trying to master this granddaddy survival horror. The game isn’t necessarily trial-and-error, as a player can certainly use sightjacking to gain all the knowledge he needs to get through most of the available missions on the first try. But this will require a considerable investment of time locked in psychic observation of the Shibitos’ patterns, and most gamers will likely attempt to rush through without taking that necessary time. To make matters worse, there is no real-time saving mechanism. You will only be able to save progress AFTER an existing mission. My advice is to concentrate on having fun while playing this game, not allowing the difficulty or seeming impossibility to discourage you. This game was made for entertainment value, not frustration. You will need all of your wits to beat these "chess-playing" zombies at their own game, and the best way to dull those wits is to let the frustration that will almost certainly ensue get to you. When you've won fair and square, you will be more than rewarded with one of the richest storylines in any game.
"Siren" is possibly one of the most overlooked games in this console generation. It might even be more overlooked than "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem". The only reason I can imagine is that the game is so difficult to successfully play through to completion. Yet, the sheer difficulty of this game is what gives it so much value. Though I doubt you'll be replaying the game to its completion more than once, the fact that it takes so much time and effort to finish it once gives it incredible value that most games don't even come close to. Many gamers today want to rush through title after title to gain a sense of accomplishment in numbers; however, for those of us who prefer quality to quantity, "Siren" is the survival horror title that, upon completion, really will act as a "red badge of [gaming] courage".