Hey, North America! Today’s the big day! Siren: Blood Curse is about to hit the Playstation Store. You can instantly download all twelve episodes of the survival horror game to your PS3 for a reasonable US$40. Instead, though, I’m thinking about splurging and getting the Japanese version on disc for $60 at play-asia.com.
To clarify, Siren: Blood Curse and Siren: New Translation are the same game. Much of Siren: New Translation, the Japanese version of the game, is in English, since its main characters are from the United States. The game is subtitled in Japanese.
The original Siren is easily the most frightening game I’ve ever tried to play. Originally released for the PlayStation 2, it had impressive graphics for the time. The face-mapping seems comically dated now—photo-realistic faces are grafted onto subpar models—but in 2004, the uncannily human adversaries were positively shit-yourself terrifying. Wikipedia explains:
Rather than employ traditional facial animation methods with polygons, images of real human faces were captured from eight different angles and superimposed on the character models. This eerie effect is similar to projecting film onto the blank face of a mannequin.
Siren was, above all, a stealth game—you had to slip past the zombie-like shibito undetected—and in that regard, its utter lack of combat broke the survival-horror mold. In terms of plot, the subsequent Capcom title Resident Evil 4 owes a lot of its essence to Siren: these villagers aren’t exactly zombies, and good luck with solving the village mystery! But Siren more closely resembles the original Silent Hill. No surprise there; the two games share the same director, after all.
Although it is remembered as arguably the scariest game for PS2, and although the game received generally favorable press, Siren never quite achieved commercial success here in the United States. It didn’t help that the game was notoriously difficult. Worse, the controls were fairly complicated, a bit much to master from the get-go. In some ways, the troublesome controls deepened the fear factor—a lot of survival horror, the Retronauts crew once agreed, relies on the sense of helpless panic only mushy controls and a crippled camera can bring. Siren’s gameplay innovations—and its unyielding commitment to those design choices—made it tough for anyone but a totally dedicated survival horror buff to play the game from start to finish.
Siren: Blood Curse is not a wholly unique work. Rather, it attempts to rework the original Siren plotline into a more navigable, accessible game experience. And although Blood Curse is being released to multiple markets, including Japan’s, I think it’s safe to say this revision largely targets gamers in North America. The original Siren lacked any real combat; in Blood Curse, you can creep up to the shibito and brutalize them from behind. Incorporating more action makes Blood Curse, well, not breakneck, exactly, but surely not as plodding and ponderous as its original incarnation was. But in playing through the demo, it’s clear that Blood Curse disposes of the very patient puzzle gameplay that made the original Siren (and its Japan-only sequel**) so frightening.
The storyline in the original Siren game—a disjointed, cinematic narrative, revealed in out-of-sequence ‘missions’ and cutscenes—relied on a lot of Japanese mythology and urban legend, rather like the Fatal Frame games or the Japanese horror movie Ring. Many of Siren’s protagonists were residents of the cursed island village, too young to know of their town’s macabre history.
To appeal to a broader (read: Western) audience, Siren: Blood Curse takes what I call The Grudge approach. This is to say, the game centers on a new set of protagonists, this time an American film crew (oh god; in Japanese horror cinema, it’s always a film crew), and these English-speakers are essentially hot-dropped into the middle of the horror.
As a J-horror cinephile, I’ve long found this ‘remake’ method interesting. The United States is a very young country, of course, so it might be more difficult for its residents to understand concepts like ancient, mythological, or provincial evils. But setting the action of the story anywhere but a remote Japanese village would deny the original plot of its evil-spanning-the-ages gravitas (although, to be completely fair, the U.S. remake of Ring did a fantastic job of recasting the story in a remote village near Seattle). The only shortcut, then, is to make the horror more foreign, more alien than it already is, by making the protagonists not just outsiders, but also Americans—and therefore, I suppose, immediately relatable.
Blood Curse takes some other cues from The Grudge, the Sam Raimi -funded U.S. localization of Takashi Shimizu’s seminal ghost movies. For one, the narrative of Blood Curse looks to be more streamlined, rather than out-of-sequence. The U.S. version of The Grudge was similarly adapted—Ju-on: the Grudge’s overcomplicated timeline was actually crucial to the plot, albeit difficult for short attention spans—though, to The Grudge’s credit, the movie alluded the whole space-time interplay at the plot’s most crucial moments.
The Grudge also combined story elements and ‘scare scenes’ not only from Ju-on: the Grudge, but also from Ju-on: the Curse, Shimizu’s excellent direct-to-video prequel. In Blood Curse’s downloadable demo, the protagonists roam through mine shafts and are pursued by zombie coal miners: given that this is a huge part of Siren 2’s plot, I suspect that the two Siren games have been combined into one superstory. If this is true, it’s actually a very nice touch, as the Siren sequel never enjoyed a release outside of Japan.
It’s true that I haven’t yet played the game beyond the download, but I have my reservations about Blood Curse. After all, ‘catering’ to a broader audience is just that. Patient, difficult gameplay might have a very niche audience, but it does have an audience. I would admit to being a purist and a snob, except for one little truth: for all its attempts to be translated into a product a broader world market might enjoy, The Grudge was not the better movie.
There are definitely aspects of the original game that Siren: Blood Curse gets right. You’re still hobbled by maybe-I-should-adjust-my-televsion depths of darkness. Your third-person vantage is also somewhat limited by your absolutely enormous character model, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to see what you’re running from, or toward. These aren’t exactly snipes—I’m a huge fan of the survival horror genre and form, and I really do think these design quirks contribute to feelings of fear and disorientation, even though they sideline tighter gameplay.
And because Blood Curse is much simpler, the controls aren’t quite the nightmare they were. The characters’ facial expressions are top-notch. And most importantly—beat on them with pickaxes as you may—most of the shibito still don’t die. There is nothing so frightening as watching in dumb horror while a recently-felled zombie slowly staggers to his feet again.
I do think that, in yielding to Western tastes, game developers (and filmmakers!) should use caution—it seems such a shame to lose anything in translation. No matter what my concerns, I will be front and center when the game goes live on the Playstation Store today—hopefully, Siren: Blood Curse doesn’t tamper with the series’ template too much.
Siren: Blood Curse is available as a single US$40 download. You can also purchase missions in bundled sets of three.