Insert Disk collects Forbidden Siren for the PlayStation 2 (PS2).
Today’s retro game review is Forbidden Siren for the PlayStation 2 (PS2). This retro gaming classic is an unusual mix of stealth horror and survival horror. With unique mechanics such as sight-jacking you must survive the mystery of the Siren. It’s a game that won’t appeal to all horror fans but worth investing the time if you enjoy an alternative horror experience.
Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. Now there are a lot of retro horror games out there offering up various shocks and scares. There’s the classic survival of Alone in the Dark. The tongue in cheek horror of Horror Zombies from the Crypt, the frantic action of Sega’s House of the Dead, the graphic shock of Rule of Rose, the eerie suspense of Fatal Frame, the monster combat of Nightmare Creatures, the text adventure intrigue of House of Death on the Oric 1 and of course the evil of the Chiller for the ZX Spectrum.
But there’s another category of horror game out there, seldom found and rarely executed in a way that makes an impact on the gamer. The elusive genre of the stealth horror. And what could be better than a Japanese stealth horror?
Well, today I’d like to share with you a game that I believe really does have the creep factor. I of course refer to Forbidden Siren. Just for clarity you may know this game simply as Siren on the PS2 although several regions such as the UK did elect for the Forbidden Siren title. It’s also worth noting that there were two sequels in the way of Forbidden Siren 2and Siren: Blood Curse. Today though let’s take a look at where it all began.
Whilst Forbidden Siren isn’t exactly unknown to most horror gaming fans it is a title that I feel gets a little overlooked at times. It’s weird and wonderful with unique game mechanics and an undeniably unsettling graphic style.
This review will be slightly shorter than usual today as I don’t want to drop any spoilers here. Forbidden Siren is very much story driven and that’s where the main payoff will be for you if you are yet to play the game.
So, what’s it all about? Well for the first half an hour or so of the game your guess is about as good as mine. The game drops you straight in to a story that already seems to be half way through. It’s all a bit detached, you might even say unsettling. You’ll be treated to some engaging cut scenes of some sort of ritual. There’s no context and no explanation. As the gamer you sit there and feel not quite sure footed about what is going on. The pure brilliance of Forbidden Siren is that it instantly sets a tone of confusion and an ominous intangible fear that’s hard to define. Right from the off the sound design is excellent. You really feel that you’re there at the ritual seeing something that you shouldn’t. It’s brilliantly conceived. Next minute, you’re running from some sort of possessed police officer. In one fell swoop the game takes you from a narrative driven piece to survival horror.
The game does give the player some structure in the way of a developing timeline to help give a sense of placement. The first stage also goes a long way to introducing the main mechanics, the most important being sight jacking. And here’s where the unique selling point of Forbidden Siren kicks in. The sight jacking feature allows you to psychically tune in to those around you and see through their eyes. It may be your companion or something much more insidious. This is perhaps where the creep factor really starts showing its hand. There is a purpose to this mechanic of course and that’s to assist you in the stealth element of the game. For reasons unknown early on in the game its clear that there are undead enemies known as shibito stalking your every move. Using your sight jacking ability to tune in to their vision is your best chance to avoid them. The mechanic raises an unusual challenge for the player in the way that you will have to balance using your skill to see through the enemies eyes but also ensure that your character is safe. Using this skill well will untimely help you plot your way through the sinister level. And wow are those levels dark. They’re amongst some of the darkest you’ll see in a game of this type. I’d go as far as saying that some levels are near enough pitch black. And of course this is all by design. You do have a trusty torch but bear in mind turning it on will make it easier for the shibito to track you down. The additional kicker is that running will also alert them to your presence. So to survive, the game forces you in to a situation where you are actually safest where you are walking slowly in the dark. It’s a brilliant and organic way to ratchet up the fear of walking around in a Japanese forest at night with limited weaponry. The game has you right where it wants you by its clever design. Ignore these mechanics and expect to be dead in no time at all. The game will be absolutely ruthless with you at times if you fail to play by its rules. Some players will appreciate this style of game play, I imagine that it will simply infuriate others. In Forbidden Siren it’s a brave gamer that dares to attempt a speed run.
After the initial stages the game shows it’s hand a little by switching your playable character. Again the diary system makes it clear at what time the events are happening and to whom. Before long you realise the brilliance of an interconnected tale of several characters. Again, there’s very little context. This is a story that only reveals itself once you progress deeper in to the game. It’s an example of ingenious storytelling to keep you guessing your purpose and what the significance of the initial summoning ritual and shibito are. Graphically it’s clear that the game knows what it wants to be and unashamedly sticks to its goals. Everything about the presentation is designed to make the gamer feel slightly ill and confused. When it comes to the graphics of the human characters we’re deep in to uncanny valley territory. To achieve the realistic look of the characters real life actors faces were scanned and wrapped on to the 3D models. It can produce a really disturbing effect at times. The graphics are on the edge of looking photorealistic but in a way that suggests there’s something not quite right. This flows through in to the audio. The background effects are sparing and music minimal to make the player feel isolated. However, it’s the voice acting that plunges the game right back in to the uncanny valley once more. Rather than posting any Japanese speech with subtitles Western versions of the game were recorded with mostly British sounding accents. To someone with a native British English ear, trust me the voice acting really adds to the experience. Most of the voice acting is very stiff and what I would describe as an over engineered British accent. It’s the effect you get when you try to impersonate yourself or listen to yourself back on an audio recording, there’s something that just never quite rings true to the listener. The overall effect in combination with the graphical style really does conjure up some nightmare fuel situations. In terms of game progression and just pure understanding you may need to refer to the manual and the game designers knew this.
The manual will give you an introduction to the game in the way of an explanation of the summoning whilst not spoiling any of the game content. You’ll also learn more about the village of Haunda and it ten regions. This is at least a bone that the game will throw you. In game there’s very little in the way of map navigation so the help from the manual is very much appreciated for context of the world. The manual goes on to give some general tips including not to run unless far enough from the enemy.
You’ll also get bios of the main character set and hints for day 1 and 2 of the game. Although these are also rather cryptic such as:
“It will melt between the gap in the kitchen. Go to the front door before the pig cries”.
“Pay attention to the praying woman. The first one is the lion”.
So, yes. The tips can be helpful but only if you can understand them. In terms of the rest of the physical presentation the PS2 case has some decent artwork and this does feel like a mature horror offering for the system. Over time Forbidden Siren has gained notoriety, mainly from its two sequels. For a copy of the game expect to pay around the £20 mark or around $15 in the US in today’s market. The legacy of the sequels Forbidden Siren 2 and Siren Blood Curse are perhaps better known but it’s always worth revisiting the original offering for most retro game collectors.
Interestingly the game also spawned a 2006 movie adaptation. Which is well, er, yeah.
So, is Forbidden Siren worth your time? If you are the type of gamer that gets frustrated easily by stealth games then I’d firmly say give this game a miss. The stealth aspects are firmly engrained in the game play as much as the horror is. So if stealth games really aren’t your thing you perhaps won’t get the best out of the game. If you however you are a bit over exposed to the Resident Evils and Silent Hills of the genre then Forbidden Siren is very much worth your time. The stealth survival horror genre still remains relatively niche but it is most definitely worth exploring. Forbidden Siren happens to be one of the better examples of this unusual mix of game styles. In my view, a combination of a very Japanese story driven horror in combination with the disturbing presentation makes Forbidden Siren stand out from its contemporaries. Particularly those that were available upon it’s initial release. The interlocking stories, the fact that the narrative holds back major plot points until deep in the game and the creepy execution make Forbidden Siren particularly memorable if you played it in your youth.
It may not be the perfect game for everyone but I can wholeheartedly recommend it for those looking for a deeply disturbing Halloween night in. Until next time… happy gaming and sleep tight.