Review: Siren: Blood Curse

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Siren was a big-time flop for Sony when it came out for PS2 way back in 2003, so much so that the sequel never made it stateside. So for SCEA, Siren: Blood Curse is a bit of an experiment on two levels. For one, it’s a sort of westernized “reimagining” of the original game with American characters and a sweeping redesign of the stages and other core game content. Secondly, it’s available exclusively on the PlayStation Network (in the US, at least) as a downloadable series of 12 episodes, a release plan that enables Sony to bring the game to market with less risk and a cheaper price while simultaneously gauging consumer interest in episodic content on the PS3.

So how did Sony’s little experiment work out? Well, if you ask me it’s a tremendous success on both counts. The “Americanization” of the game has made it far more approachable to a wider audience of gamers, enough to even turn staunch haters of the original into rabid fans. And I’m living proof of that. I didn’t particularly care for the old PS2 Siren, but I’ve absolutely loved every second I’ve spent inside Blood Curse’s demented world. In addition, the episodic structure makes it extremely easy to try the game before deciding whether or not to invest the full amount. The 12-episode series is available in three four-episode bundles for $15 each or you can buy the full thing for a mere $40. There’s a free playable demo as well.

Of course it also helps that the game is pure survival horror gold. Over the 12 episodes, you experience the gripping horror story of seven playable characters trapped in a cursed Japanese village overrun with zombie-like undead beings called shibito. The story is actually quite confusing in the way it loops around and weaves together the events of so many characters, but by the end it all comes full circle and pays off with a satisfying, albeit kooky, climax. An in-depth archive accessible from the main menu plays a vital role in obtaining a complete understanding of the plot, too, so between episodes it’s always a good idea to browse through and read any new entries you may have unlocked. What’s also cool are the 24-style story recaps and previews that bring continuity to the episodic format. At the beginning of each episode you get a short recap of the events from the last episode, and then at the end you get a teaser look at the episode ahead. It’s a nice touch.

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In terms of gameplay, Blood Curse presents a distinctive brand of survival horror. It’s akin to Silent Hill in certain ways, but in general has its own unique identity. Unlike most horror games that are more action-heavy and rely on unexpected jump-out moments to conjure up scares, Siren’s brand of horror is more methodical and puzzle/stealth-oriented. Combat does play a role and is surprisingly satisfying thanks to brutal kill animations, some of the most realistic blood effects you’ll see in a game, and a tactile, fleshy sensation you get when landing a blow (man, it sure is great having rumble back!), but in general it is best to avoid the shibito at all costs.

Because stealth is so important, however, trial and error does become a factor and moments of extreme frustration can set in as the difficulty ramps up in the later episodes. Blood Curse isn’t nearly as challenging as the original, but it’s no cakewalk either, not by a long shot. Sight jacking, the Siren series’ trademark play mechanic that allows you to psychically tap into the vision of nearby enemies and characters, is also back again to play up the emphasis on sneaking about, but it’s functionality isn’t entirely ideal. When you sight jack an enemy the screen splits in two — one side showing your view, the other side the target’s view – and gets kind of blurry and disorienting, which in turn makes it difficult to see what you’re doing. I found myself not using the feature unless absolutely necessary because of this.

Above all else, Blood Curse succeeds so well based on the tense atmosphere it generates. It’s not one of those horror games that is jump-out-of-your-chair scary, but one that is just plain creepy and bizarre. Like a good psychological thriller, there’s this constant sense of fear and paranoia that keeps you unnerved every step of the way. Numerous devices are utilized to pull this off. Take, for instance, how the DualShock 3 begins to pulse and a heartbeat sound kicks in when an enemy draws near. When you feel and hear those sensations, you freeze up on the spot as if you are actually the one being hunted. Another paranoia-inducing device is the invincibility of the shibito. You can knock them out of commission for a short duration, but as undead beings they cannot be permanently killed. Therefore you can never lollygag about and feel free from harm’s way.

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High-end graphics and audio also heighten the horrifying atmosphere. The shibito designs are the creepiest I’ve seen in a horror game, bar none, and they sound the part too with breathing, groaning and mumbling effects that’ll give you goose bumps. The main human characters are impressively detailed as well, and are likewise supported by quality voice acting performances. The lighting and blood effects are worth a lot of praise, too. I was especially impressed by the blood system in how it realistically splatters on nearby surfaces, even your character. All this audiovisual content does equate to a large 9GB install size for the whole game, but thankfully as long as you have the first episode installed you can delete the other episodes as they are completed (and redownload them again as much as you want).

Siren: Blood Curse is a masterful work of survival horror game design and a landmark achievement in episodic gaming, one that deserves the mainstream success that the original Siren never achieved. At around 8-12 hours in length (episodes last around 30 minutes to an hour depending on skill; it took me just over 12 hours total to beat the game), $40 is a steal of a deal, I think. I’ve never really been the biggest fan of episodic downloads since few rarely offer what I deem enough play value for the asking price, but this game’s full-length format has done a lot to change my mind. If this is what Sony has in mind for future PSN content, I am very excited and you should be too.

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Pros:
+ Riveting, edge-of-your seat storyline with characters that you actually begin to care about
+ The shibito are the creepiest enemies you’ll ever face in a horror game
+ Tense, paranoia-filled atmosphere keeps you looking over your shoulder at all times
+ At around 8-12 hours, it’s a surprisingly long game; unlockable archive items and episode challenges add good replay value

Cons:
– Trial-and-error gameplay comes with occasional frustrations
– Blurry, split-screen sight jacking view is a little too disorienting

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN Download
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Release Date: 7/24/08
Genre: Survival Horror
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!