Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Forbidden Siren 2 (Emulated/PC, 2006, Japan): Delightfully Dreadful
February 27, 2011, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Forbidden Siren 2 (Emulated/PC, 2006, Japan)

This game is absolutely dreadful…and I mean that in the best possible way. Playing it filled me with dread. Every night before turning down the lights, settling in my (un)easy chair,  putting my headphones on, I got this distinct feeling of not really wanting to play Forbidden Siren 2. I spent a lot of time in the game with my character just standing there, nervously shifting from foot to foot, because I didn’t want to go around the next corner or open the next door.  I’m serious.

I never had that hard feeling of dread when playing any of the recent horror games, like “Dead Space” (which I LOVED—“Dead Space 2” is on my shelf right now), “F.E.A.R.” (1 or 2, and waiting for 3), “Metro 2033” (which I LOVED), “Alan Wake” (which I LOVED)…on and on. There’s been plenty written on the differences between decade-old titles that would truly be filed under “survival horror,” versus more recent horror titles which are more aptly classified as “action horror,” so anything I might say won’t expand the argument significantly—however, to me the demarcation is accurate. Of the “horror” games released in the last 3 years that I’ve played, really NONE of them made me feel that serious unease and heavy dread—I mean the kind of dread where you regularly ask yourself “Do I really want to play this depressing game?” Many early survival horror titles (from “Silent Hill” to “Fatal Frame” to “Resident Evil” titles, and the “Siren” games too) all bothered me quite a bit—which is the point. Of course, there are always exceptions. “Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason” (2009, Ukraine) is a more recent fave of mine that tries (and adequately succeeds) to crawl under your skin, and then there’s Frictional Games’ “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” (2010—currently sitting on my “to do” shelf) that I’ve heard described (by some of my students) as “wet your pants” scary. But overall, the distinction between newer and older horror games sticks.

I think it has to do with the slickness of the production and, frankly, the guns. In “Dead Space,” Isaac carries around a backpack full of powerful mining lasers that can eat through a Necromorph’s limbs like a hot knife through butter (and he’s got a curb stomp that shakes the in-game camera so damn hard it almost loses focus). When you get right down to it, you rarely feel vulnerable in such games, and hence the dread-factor is minimized.

In contrast, while playing Siren 2, there’s a point at which I controlled a mostly-blind man (yes, from his point of view—the camera looked as though it was smeared with an inch-thick layer of Vaseline—everything bizarrely out of focus) armed with a useless flashlight while running around a dark village attempting to not become a midnight snack for a pack of ravenous zombies (known as Shibito and Yamibito). Sure, you’ve got your trusty seeing-eye pooch with you, but come on! Or how about playing as a traumatized 4-year-old little boy whose legs can only carry him so fast (away from the pulpy corpse of his father in the livingroom he discovers—this is the uplifting beginning of the game, by the way), while trying (and often failing) to dodge zombies. Mmmmm, little chicken wings for lunch. Or how about playing as a 14-year-old school girl with the running speed of a dialup internet connection and the strength of a wet Kleenex—but thank God she’s got that crowbar anyway (that she can barely wield). Get my point?  This is classic survival horror—the more helpless you feel, the more the game fulfills its objective (more on that nightmare later). But for now, let me share the real-life nightmare of just trying to play this game.

I spent a lot of time, money, and head-scratching trying to play “Siren 2,” as have lots of other folks. Various forums tell all. It was never released domestically in the U.S. (which has got to be one of the biggest videogame travesties in the last decade). Its predecessor, the PS2 original “Siren” (released in 2003 as “Forbidden Siren” in Europe and Australia) wasn’t a smash hit here in the states, but it also wasn’t a complete bomb. In my opinion, it was one of those games whose narrative didn’t completely translate to western culture; hence, its lukewarm reception. But reviews pretty steadily said the game was scary as hell anyway (I did play it and agree), even if its storytelling techniques and control scheme seemed awkward or backwards. The upshot? ”Siren 2” was only released in Japan and the U.K. (as far as I know). So, what does that mean for a videogame-playing dude living in the middle of Americana? It means LOTS of expensive and time-eating hoop-jumping. I’m telling on myself here, but in order to be able to actually see this game on my screen and to get through it (trembling), I bought a used modded PS2 Slim with a chip that allowed me to play a U.K. retail version of the game (which I had to import). While the chip essentially deactivated the region-coding on the machine, as well as convert a U.K. PAL signal into an American NTSC television format so it could be properly displayed, even then the game still didn’t work perfectly. It was off-centered on my TV, and about 2 inches of the bottom of the screen (where important text info and subtitles flashed from time to time) was missing. Ugh.

It was then I discovered the marvel-in-progress that is PCSX2 (about 6 years in development at this point in time, 2011), a free PS2 emulator for the PC. PCSX2 (Google it) basically turns your PC into a PS2 game-playing machine. For a prehistoric cave-dweller like me, there are some pretty significant technical hoops to jump through to make this emulator function properly, but with some persistence, I got it to function adequately on my laptop. For a variety of reasons, emulators like PCSX2 are a little hit-and-miss—its effectiveness is completely dependent upon your computer’s specs of course. (And one word of warning to the adventurous:  At a couple points during Siren 2, the emulator could not properly display the screen’s contents [like a combination lock code I needed] which completely stopped my progress, and I had to transfer my game save from my PC back onto my PS2 memory card and play through several sections on the actual PS2 console itself.) When it comes to emulation apparently, some games are notoriously difficult to emulate, while other games work flawlessly. “Siren 2” falls squarely in the latter category. When I fiddled around with initially setting up PCSX2 and trying it out, I found that while it ran well enough, it could be a little slow at times (a common problem on emulators). Worse, the screen was intermittently full of the emulator-infamous “sps” (spikey polygon syndrome—basically unrelated junk graphics that flicker and sometimes fill up the screen, completely obscuring your view). Oh, one more problem: There were constant thin black vertical stripes about 4 inches apart overlaying the picture that I could not eliminate regardless of the settings I tried in PCSX2 (I farked around  with it for days).

Besides all that nonsense though, one awe-inspiring aspect of the PCSX2 emulator is that it will upscale your crappy-resolution PS2 game to whatever resolution your PC can handle. So, if your PS2 game has a somewhat fuzzy native resolution of 640×480 (which many of them do), PCSX2 will literally re-draw your game into a resolution of 1200×1200 or 2800×2800, or whatever your PC’s video card can tough out. The upshot is a game that looks NOTHING like its original state—clean lines, crisp colors, well-defined edges, less pixilation and aliasing. It is all quite amazing…as long as it runs. In the case of “Siren 2,” what I ended up playing was a game that had garbage graphics floating in and out of the screen the whole time—but wow, underneath all that was a really amazing picture that looked leaps and bounds better than the original PS2 signal. No comparison. None.

To the game: There are at least three elements (in my opinion) that set the Siren games apart (and somehow mark them as distinctly non-western). If you’ve played these, you’ll know immediately what I’m referring to. First is the structure of the narrative. Siren 2’s complex story involves a group of 8 (or so) people who “accidentally” converge on Yamijima Island off the coast of mainland Japan. Approximately 30 years earlier, an underwater cable was mysteriously cut, and all power to the island was lost, resulting in a blackout (and a little problem with the seas turning blood red)—but when the lights came back on, no one was left. Cue the mysterious music. As the game begins in present day, a magazine editor, Mamoru Itsuki, is visiting the deserted oddity to conduct research for an article when the ferry he and a small group of other passengers are on capsizes, after it is hit by a blood-red tidal wave. The survivors, as well as a few military personnel who crash on the island by air, must all find ways to survive the island’s “monsters,” which are zombified natives inhabiting the forests, abandoned villages, and defunct industrial settings that dot the island. Unlike other zombie games though, these undead opponents never completely “deactivate.” You can incapacitate them momentarily, but they always reanimate no matter what. This regularly puts you into situations where you must take a Shibito down in order to accomplish some task quickly before he crawls back onto his feet again to munch on you. Tense.

The disappearance and subsequent zombification of the island’s original inhabitants are connected to an ancient curse and some nasty events that happened 29 years before the game begins with your current crew. Three decades ago, the island-dwellers hunt down a young girl (Kanae) who they fear is a witch. Led by the head honcho fisherman Ohta (a real ass) and his snake of a daughter (Tomoe), they did some not very nice things and ended up paying for it supernaturally. Now the island is what you’d call an anti-vacation spot, and in the present day, someone, somewhere, is ready to get some revenge. To be honest, I am short-shrifting the neat cast of characters and the complex web of nastiness they’ve all been swept up into. Some of the characters are easy to hate because they are venomous; others you feel genuinely sorry for, and the relationships between them (especially the 4-year-old orphan, Shu, and his babysitter/best friend/surrogate mother Kanae [the supposed witch who is soft-spoken and as protective of Shu as a real mother would be].

As distinctive as that narrative is, what ups the ante is the fact that it’s not told chronologically. You play different sections of the narrative, controlling different characters, at different points in time—shuffling back and forth in the chronology of the narrative (and of course with shifting perspectives). In other words, while Mamoru the journalist may be one of the central young heroes in the game, you don’t only play the game from his perspective—you also play as the aforementioned blind novelist Shu Makami and his seeing eye dog, as a 4-year-old boy (who is also Shu Makami from an earlier time period—just to complicate issues further), as a schoolgirl, as a clairvoyant, a miscreant named Abe Soji who may be a murderer, a young army dude…the whole crew who were split up by wrecking on the island. One of the main menus in the game, the “Link Navigator,” is a story-grid used to track your progression segment by segment; sections along the grid change color as you “complete” that part of the story. Sometimes you will play through one map with one character who has a specific mission (let’s say you are playing as Mamoru who has to get from point A to point B while also removing a few obstacles and avoiding being eaten); then you’ll find yourself back at that same map at some other point, perhaps entering it from a different direction and at a different point in time (maybe as a young Shu Makami who needs to collect some item within the map, and avoid being eaten). Often, how this works is that actions performed by a previous character within that map will allow your new character during a second run-through to complete a different mission. In this way, you can see the narrative coming together in a strange, almost sidelong sort of way. It is absolutely unique. Sometimes these various characters will meet and help one another, and sometimes not. (Of course, an ending wouldn’t be an ending if they all didn’t meet up eventually, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) As you can imagine, by the time the game wraps up, you’ve got a major job tying together all the various story arcs (that have been presented to you in broken order) to make sense of it all. Of course, the cool thing about this lack of linearity is that you can experience how a relatively coherent story can be told in a way other than from beginning to end—very non-western and challenging. And since the game might drop you right into the middle of a story section without first explaining what preceded it or what immediately follows, the game creates a strange, fragmented feeling (which, of course, is on purpose). Sadly, this is also one of the main reasons, I imagine, the Siren games never sold all that well in the states; we westerners like our stories delivered from beginning to end, by-the-clock, thank you very much. Too bad; our loss.

The second item that, to me, makes all the Siren games stand apart is sightjacking. Sightjacking is an ability shared by every character you play that allows you, at any point during a mission within any map, to stop and see through the eyes of the zombies infesting that map, waiting for you up ahead somewhere. You are vulnerable while you do so, and sightjacking takes some time—finding the zombies’ eyes to look through is a bit like trying to tune a radio station in through static (in this case the tuning dial is your left thumbstick). Overall, sightjacking has a few (probably very intentional) effects. One, since this is classic survival horror, and several characters are completely helpless and without weapons, you must strategically avoid being munched. So, attempting to see through your opponents’ eyes, triangulating where they are ahead of time (if possible) and also their rote patterns (the shibito zombies  often have “patrol” routes they repeat in looping patterns), you can be in the right place at the right time—which is hidden from their line of sight. Gauge their patterns or locations incorrectly—you will be sighted and you will be supper.

The strategy of “getting into your opponents’ heads to beat the game” is certainly not new. But what, to me, SIGNIFICANTLY adds to the creep factor in Siren 2 is that while sightjacking a zombie, you are in the zombie’s head, looking through that zombie’s eyes, hearing that zombie’s muted wheezing and labored breathing, and sometimes the walking dead even bizarrely talk to themselves about their former lives or mention items on their “undead to do lists.” They don’t know you have invaded their privacy, so they just go about their undead business (as long as they don’t spot you in real life). But even if you are crawling into their heads from a safe, protected location, engaging in this absolutely necessary activity NEVER feels safe. Wearing headphones while playing in the dark is a chilling kind of experience, at least for me. You literally BECOME a bloody, limping, machete-wielding zombie for a minute or two just to track their behaviors. Unlike playing a zombie in a fun limb-chewing way—say like in “Left 4 Dead” multiplayer—this isn’t fun at all. You only do this to save your own skin, and having to mentally sidle up to one of these things is uncomfortable. All of it intentional.

The final unique elements are the human models in the game (and the environments as well). Much of this game originates from real video. This was true in the first Siren iteration as well. All the characters are clearly live actors that have been videotaped performing their actions and speaking their lines on sets, and then that video has been altered/rendered (with filters, redrawing, recoloring, etc.) to resemble typical videogame footage. A quick Google image search of “Siren 2” will also result in high detailed photographs taken of specific locations that have been recreated in the game (abandoned shacks, small villages, tunnels, etc.). The result is a unique look all around, with very natural movements of the human models (of course). Sometimes the 2D video images being recrafted into 3D character models can result in some weirdness (mouth movements and eye movements look strange, maybe almost hyperreal), but this certainly adds to the otherworldly feel that permeates this title.

Amidst all the sightjacking, scrounging for high-tech weapons (like an umbrella, I kid you not), and narrative headscratching, there are some top-notch freakouts in this game. I mean freakout moments where, even for the mega-jaded horror buff, your mouth drops open, you start laughing inappropriately at the screen while shaking your head and thinking “This is so wrong.” I am ultra-impressed when a game manages to actually freak me out right at a point in my life where I’m certain I’ve seen it all. This puts “Siren 2” in a class above many other horror titles I’ve played. Giving too much away would ruin the game’s dynamic, but imagine a scene where a young lady you are assisting (to rescue her “mother”) removes her blouse mid-mission (while pleading “Look at me…”) not to let you have a gander at her ta-tas, but to show your character something else entirely…a smiling, talking face where a face should not be. Oh, and her mom is a 30-foot tall water-dwelling thing with a tubular neck, instead of a head, that mouths the air like a gasping fish. Real glad I signed on for all of that. Then, there’s the zombie-type whose entire body is a giant grimacing face, with arms and legs extending from the sides (and the face, as it chews on you, keeps telling you to “Wake up, OK?”). Freakout describes it best.

Oh sure, there are a litany of problems: Even the rabid, chin-stroking fanbase (Siren has its own Wiki) admits that the high level of difficulty in the game is compounded by clunky and sluggish controls. Some examples: There’s a 180-degree “quick turnaround” function (mostly for evasive purposes) that requires flicking the left thumbstick back and then letting it re-center. It worked half the time. Usually, the character would slowly walk backwards a step or two and then stop.  And then be eaten to death by a pursuer. On that note, characters are difficult to steer pretty much all the time. The game is playable in both third-person and first-person perspectives, but neither perspective fixes the horrendous lack of precision in walking (I’m not even talking about shooting here). And regarding shooting things, though most weak-armed characters hold high-powered umbrellas or trowels (all part of the dread factor, folks), there are a few guns in the game. However, bullets are rare (this is survival horror after all), and targeting is often blind (though there is a highly inaccurate target lock). Where the game gets you is that your undead gun-toting opponents unfairly have laser-precision and endless ammo; this is especially true in the case of an Uzi-toting 8-year-old girl prancing about in a bloodied school uniform who giggles as she mows you down (I shit you not). There’s a very annoying “kickback” too when your character is hit—you stumble back a few feet, shake it off, breathe once or twice, and continue forward again until—ooops, you are hit a second time and you’re dead. If you’re familiar with the “Lost Planet” phenomena of watching your character roll around on screen for a minute and half after being hit before regaining his footing, you know what I mean.

The flipside to these shortcomings (if you can call them that) is that they ADD to the absolute dread of not feeling in control, which the devs would probably argue is intentional. In fact, the game seems to revel in its uncontrollability in a way; after you finish each mission, there is a “time trial” mode that allows you to clock how quickly you can complete your objectives—but much of the game seems to happen in slow motion, so it all seems strange to me. Nevertheless, these elements work without question if teeth-clenching dread is the goal.

Postscript: Confession-time (and some props). God bless the geniuses who can actually manage to make it through games like these on their own. Me? I had to use a walkthrough, at least partially after reaching gut-churning states of frustration. This proves two things to me (once again): I’m a wimpy gamer. But more importantly, games are becoming easier, generally speaking, as gaming itself becomes more mainstream. There are plenty of critics and fans who’ve been saying this since the beginning of videogame time. But games like “Siren 2” (even though it is only 5 years old) prove it to me once again. Any recent shooter or adventure game I’ve played—anything from “Killzone 2” to “Enslaved: Journey to the West,” I’ve never, ever actually been “stuck.” Developers (and testers) have presumably made it impossible to get lost, to not know what to do; there is very little “trial and error” gaming in existence any longer, even in sandbox games like “Fallout 3.” Contrarily, like many survival horror titles from the early part of this century, “Siren 2” is absolutely full of dead-ends, unclear objectives, hidden and unexplained requirements needed to advance the storyline, vague hints that mean next to nothing (“If you cannot proceed forward, there must be another way around” [no fucking duh])…you-name-it. At times, even simply following a well-detailed walkthrough was a major chore to complete this game. You spend a significant amount of time examining and reorienting a map simply to know where to go and what to do. I’m not saying I’m a fan of “more complicated” or “less complicated” games from this era or that. It’s just evolution. It’s just an observation. Especially the part about being a wimp.