SIREN for the PS2 (or as it’s known in Japan, Forbidden Siren) was my first foray into the world of horror gaming. I bought a used copy based on the recommendation of a friend in 2010. I remember booting it up and being in absolute awe of the graphics at the time. I played about 30 minutes of the game and got so terrified I packed it up into its case and shoved it in the back of my closet. A couple of years later that same friend coaxed me into bringing the game out at a party and I never looked back.
Siren was released in 2003, published by Sony Interactive Japan and developed by Project Siren, a team made up of several former Team Silent members. Its nonlinear storytelling was a fairly new installment into the genre, with the Link Navigator system displaying the events chronologically, even though they’re played out of order. The game follows 10 playable characters in the hellish otherworld of Hanuda village.
Hanuda Village is divided into 10 stages on the map and over the course of the 3 days the game takes place in, each area will be visited by select characters at different times, almost always with some sort of environmental change. Team Siren’s addition to survival horror was a mechanic called “sightjacking”.
The player character can form a kind of psychic link with any of the monsters or humans in the area, either to pinpoint your own position or to see what the monster is seeing. The monsters are called Shibito (In researching I couldn’t find a concrete translation, but “dead man” or “corpse” seem to be close to the mark) and don’t call them zombies! The Shibito share a similarity with western zombies except that the Shibito retain a level of intelligence, with the ability to patrol areas, shoot firearms and construct crude buildings.
Gameplay–wise, Siren has a lot of ups and downs. It’s a worthy entry into survival horror, but it shares the burdens of its time period. Like so many others of its era, Siren uses tank controls, a mechanic that is supposed to add to the scare factor of the game, but in most cases it just adds frustration. I’ve played many games with tank controls and while it’s not a deal breaker for me, it’s definitely a shock coming off of playing modern horror.
The main gimmick of this game – sightjacking, was a really cool mechanic that fell a bit short. You would tune in, somewhat like a radio, to the eye sight of the Shibito. Unfortunately there are only 4 hotkeys to bind them to and often more enemies than that in a stage, so you would end up rekeying about halfway through an area, which can be time consuming. I did really like this mechanic, and as rage inducing as it could be – It added another level of fear to the game. When sightjacking the Shibito you would hear them grunt and breathe and sometimes… maybe speak.
Oh boy, there are a lot of them in Siren. I generally hate escort missions, they’re clunky, annoying and just add exasperation. Siren’s approach to escort missions is the least rage inducing by far. While still rife with frustrating moments, the escort missions usually make a lot of sense contextually.
For an example, one of the characters is blind, thus she can only see through sightjacking, meaning she needs you to help her through areas. Other than the ones that make sense to the story, I wouldn’t say that these escort missions were terrible. Generally the AI was pretty good and the character kept up well, but it was still filled with escort missions, which I know is a deal breaker for a lot of people.
Difficulty is definitely a big issue in Siren. It’s a Dark Souls game before Dark Souls even existed. The difficulty is only compounded by the fact that there is no way to turn it down. That’s it… that’s the game… get good I guess. I will never forget Akira’s timed mission. In a game like Siren, time is your biggest ally, and then it’s taken away from you. I do believe that the difficulty is both a pro and a con.
While it frustrated me, it was never anything unfair, and it was always my own mistakes that screwed me over. You very much need to unlearn habits from other horror games to be successful with Siren. The flashlight isn’t your friend. It will almost always attract the enemy AI, which for a playstation 2 game was impeccable. You also can’t just close your eyes and run like in many other horror games that value stealth over fighting. It just won’t work in Siren with the sniper Shibito on the rooftops. I will say though, as someone who plays games on easy mode most of the time, I didn’t struggle THAT hard.
The dub. Oh my the dub. The English versions of Siren are dubbed with English voice actors, which I found to be a little off-putting at first. The voice acting is pretty good for its time despite the accents.
The graphics were done in a really strange yet amazing way. The characters voice actors faces were essentially 3D scanned and superimposed on a blank mannequin. The effect is one that looks really good most of the time, but occasionally delves into the uncanny valley which ups the spooky factor. I couldn’t find any information on if this technique was ever used before Siren, but whether they made it up or took advantage of a preexisting cleverness, the outcome was a graphically beautiful game.
Like a big part of horror games out there, the main draw is the story and Siren’s story is a haunting tale of cults and mysteries, relationships and pain, murder and survival. The story had me hooked since the very first mission. It’s a story that makes you think about it months and years later – it really sticks with you!
On the whole, Siren is a great game that any horror gamer should give a chance. It breaks my heart that this masterpiece has only garnered cult status and isn’t more widely known and loved. In my opinion, it should be in every horror gamer’s repertoire. Despite its flaws, it’s a charming game that’s sure to give you a fright. It’s tough to track down an original copy of this playstation 2 game, but it is available on PSNow. If you loved other survival hits of the time, then you will love Siren.