Siren: Blood Curse should have been the next Silent Hill, and it’s absolutely criminal that Sony squandered the opportunity. Sure, I still have hopes for a Silent Hill reboot, particularly if Hideo Kojima is once again attached as rumored. But Siren: Blood Curse, released digitally for PlayStation 3 in 2008, was written, designed, and directed by Keiichiro Toyama, creator of the original Silent Hill. How could Sony not assign his Project Siren, which was part of Sony Japan Studio, to a sequel the moment it had seen Blood Curse in action?
Siren: Blood Curse is technically a remake of the original Siren, which graced PlayStation 2 back in 2004. Both titles have you playing as 10 different characters, trapped in a village that, accompanied by the titular sound, has suddenly been surrounded by a vast ocean of red water. With other villagers transformed into half-dead creatures known as Shibito, staying alive is no easy task.
However, the problem with the original Siren is its trial-and-error progression mechanic. It’s revealed that, instead of having just been transported to whatever realm the village now occupies, time has been repeating itself for a long, long time. When you take control of the characters, you just step into one loop. In order to change things, to access another loop, you need to make subtle changes to the world.
However, Siren never really explains what these changes are, forcing you to repeat each level until you stumble across the item you need. Picking up a trowel might trigger the next loop, but you’ll have no idea where to look. Yes, it puts you through the same kind of time-looping torture as the characters themselves, but it’s not fun and the game was rightly criticized for it.
Siren: Blood Curse, on other hand, takes everything about the original Siren, reassesses and refines it, and in turn delivers a superior survival horror outing. Granted, The Escapist’s own review wasn’t particularly charitable, but others have been kinder. Eurogamer, for example, hailed it as “… the best thing to appear in the genre in a very long time.”
It’s no small thing that, at a time when Konami was handing Silent Hill over to western developers, Siren: Blood Curse was being developed by a Japanese studio. It channels the unease of Japanese horror, and by casting you (mostly) as one of several outsiders and throwing you into a backwater village, it makes you a stranger in a strange land.
At times, it feels like a J-horror version of The Wicker Man, particularly because your initial presence has something to do with the village’s upheaval. Then there are the foes you face, which take inspiration from Silent Hill’s foes, nurses included. But unlike those enemies, which are mindless manifestations with one exception, Siren: Blood Curse’s “Shibito” are sheer, sentient nightmare fuel.
Yes, there are some horrifying “evolutions,” such as the Maggot Shibito, but that’s not what makes them so terrifying to behold. What’s distressing about the Shibito is that they’re still people. They’ll attack you on sight, but they’re clearly not mindless zombies. The Policeman Shibito who pursues you early on is exercising his frustrations at his job, while the Villager Shibitos will return to planting if left alone (or whatever task they performed while alive).
That, in turn, throws up some moral dilemmas. A lot of the time you have to elude the Shibito, but there are times when you do have access to weapons. However, when you do dispatch one, it’s not like killing a zombie; you’re dispatching a person who was warped against their will. Admittedly, Shibito have a habit of getting back up eventually though.
Sight-jacking will also have you shifting in your seat. In order to dodge the Shibito, you can use this special skill to look through their eyes, pinning their view to your screen if you so desire. It’s a cool mechanic, but you’re also privy to every mumbled comment the Shibito make. And while it never happened, I was terrified that whichever Shibito I was occupying was going to realize I was there and scream at me to get out.
You sometimes wade waist-deep through red water that reminds you you’re not in Kansas anymore, but there’s no otherworld, save for the world you find yourself in at the beginning of the game. Although, you do get the next best thing, an alternate world where “What if?” becomes “What now?” I’m loath to delve any further into spoiler territory, but don’t count on the “right” characters getting a second chance at things.
Like Alan Wake, Siren: Blood Curse is split into episodes even though it was released all at once. The “previously on Siren: Blood Curse” intros do start to grate a little, but by splitting the game into bite-sized pieces, Toyama is able to deliver some great cliffhangers.
Is Siren: Blood Curse perfect? No. I loved revisiting its locations more than once because it still felt like I was making progress. But I recognize that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and admittedly, it did get on my nerves when I was playing Silent Hill 4: The Room. Though in the latter case, it didn’t help that the game had turned into a slow, tedious escort mission.
Siren: Blood Curse has a deeply unsettling atmosphere, even when you’re not actively sneaking past Shibito, bolstered by a suitably eerie soundtrack. And it tells a story with real emotional punch, using the time loop to play with your expectations. Sure, physical copies of the PlayStation 3 release are going for silly prices, but since it’s available through PlayStation Now, there’s no reason not to experience or re-experience it. And Siren: Blood Origin was absolutely the right game to pick up the survival horror torch from Silent Hill.
So why didn’t this kick off a whole “new” franchise? At the time, Sony made an effort to promote the game, including a Blood Curse-related mini-game in PlayStation Home for a start. But since games charts didn’t reflect digital sales back in 2008, its sales figures aren’t easily accessible. It may well be that it wasn’t the smash Sony was hoping for.
So, even though there was a Siren 2 that could have been remade into Siren: Blood Curse 2, that was the end for the Siren series. Project Siren went on to work on the Gravity Rush series, and ultimately, Keiichiro Toyama left Sony Japan Studio. He’s now working on Slitterhead with fellow former Project Siren members Kazunobu Sato and Junya Okura, though it seems more action-heavy than Silent Hill or Siren was.
If the game was indeed a commercial disappointment, it’s understandable that Sony didn’t give Siren: Blood Curse a sequel. But is it fair? Absolutely not. There’s potential for another Siren, perhaps even one that offers an urban spin on the game. Imagine, for example, working in a skyscraper and suddenly discovering that, aside from your building, there’s nothing but a red ocean as far as the eye can see. It gives me the chills just thinking about it, and with the status of Silent Hill still up in the air, Kojima rumor or not, there’s no better time for the Siren to sound once more.