The way the story is narrated is all in one with the structure of the gameplay, and it's the more convincing element of the whole experience. Siren is divided in about 80 different missions, each corresponding to a part of the story. Anyhow, instead of developing in a linear way, the story goes back and forth in the three days in which the game takes place, jumping from one character to the other. Things seems pretty straightforward at the beginning, but after the first missions you'll need to use your intellect to link all the clues and all the pieces of the story together; adding to that, while at the beginning you must play a series of predefined stages, later you are given the chance to play the next available stages in any order. The "Scenario Link Navigator" helps you a bit; it's basically a table, accessible through the game menu, which shows the position of each chapter within the overall storyline. Not only it puts all the chapters (or "stages") in chronological order, but it also lets you see how each chapter is related to other chapters. Players must "build" the story also reading the many documents they can find during the missions; while this is a classic element of almost any survival horror game, it becomes more important in Siren because of the already peculiar structure of the game. Reading notes, collecting clues, and looking for these documents is necessary to fully understand the links between characters and events of the game.
All the missions follow the same basic structure. You must usually travel from point A to point B, within a not too large environment infested by zombies (ok, ok, Shibito), using for 95% of the time a stealthy approach. In each mission, you take control of only one primary character, but often a secondary character can be controlled indirectly by issuing commands using an in-game menu. Each stage has a primary mission objective, which implies you must reach a certain point on the map, and a secondary mission objective that may become available only after you have completed other stages. In order to complete also the secondary objective, once it has become available, you must go back to the stage you have already played and complete it again; the Stage Select, which works exactly like the Scenario Link Navigator, will help you finding the stages with a secondary mission objective to be completed.
While the overall structure of the game may seem extremely intriguing, Siren reveals its problems once you have started moving your first steps in the early missions of the game. The first thing you will notice is that Siren isn't a game for everyone, and not because of its "M" rating. This game is hard, terribly hard in fact; one of the PlayStation 2 games with the steepest learning curve ever. I think that half of the average target audience of survival horror games could give up after the first four-five missions, and not because they don't have the skills to play the game, but just because they have all the rights to not have the patience to go through its too tedious, too slow, and sometimes ridiculously difficult game mechanics.
"Sightjacking" is the game's most advertised feature, and in fact it's the core of its game mechanics. The characters of the game have a psychic power that enables them to see through the eyes of the Shibito or of other human characters that roam the stage. To enter Sightjack mode you must press the L2 button and then you must "tune" to the Sightjack signals by rotating the Left Analog stick. When the Left Analog stick points to the direction of a nearby person or of a Shibito, you start seeing through their eyes in first person view. Then, you can map the signals coming from the many Shibito or persons in the level to the main 4 buttons of the Dual Shock; in this way, you can access the viewpoints of the many nearby enemies and allies by simply pressing the assigned button, without having to tune in again to the signal. This is actually much simpler than it sounds. For example, if you have a character directly in front of you, by pressing the Left Analog stick upwards, you'll see your main character through his/her eyes.
Sadly, this sounds more intriguing than it actually is. Sightjacking, instead of an element used to build up tension, must be considered like the rough in-game radar of a stealth action survival horror game. Too bad that it's far from working as well as in any other stealth action game; too bad that for good part of the game you'll be thinking that it would have been much more useful to have more character moves than this whole "Sightjacking" thing.
The main problem is that Sightjacking makes the whole game too slow. Let me show you how you will have to play most of the missions. Basically, at the beginning of each mission you will find yourself tuning in to all the signals of the nearby Shibito - and sometimes there are really too many of them around. Once you have tuned in, you have no other choice than looking at each Shibito's viewpoint until you have figured out the pattern of his movements. Easier said than done. In fact, when you tune in to a Sightjacking signal, you are given no indication of the distance between you and the sightjacked character - nor you are given any indication of his position on the map. Actually, in Siren, you don't even know your own position on the map. In fact, unlike almost any other survival horror game, you have no indication of where you are on the map of each level. Like in real life, you must try to orient yourself looking at the many reference points signed on the map. Once again, this could sound like an augmented dose of realism used to build up tension, but in practice it just gives a substantial contribution to the overall difficulty of the game. In fact, after you have figured out the movements of the 4-5 Shibito in the surroundings, after you have understood how close they are to each other, after you have managed to understand where they could be on the map using the clues scattered by the developers, (for example, if you see a car when looking through the Shibito's point of view, you can try to see where that car is in the game map), well, at this point you can start moving, trying to figure out also where the hell you are on the map. The rest of the mission will be a painful attempt to reach the exit of the level avoiding to be spotted by the Shibito patrolling the area, keeping in mind their patterns.
Moving through the stages can get even more difficult than this when you must take care of a secondary character. Sometimes, starting from the first missions, your main character, the one you control, will be accompanied by another character, that you can guide only by issuing basic commands through the simple in-game menu; you can ask him/her to run, follow you, hide, or simply wait. Missions with secondary characters can be twice as painful as those with just one character to take care of; secondary characters can have problems to follow you in narrow spaces, and they have little hopes to survive a Shibito's attack or to hide from them. For these reasons, the easier strategy to complete a mission with a secondary character is to explore the area, learn the Shibito's movements, decide which is the best path to reach the end of the level, go back to the secondary character, and then walk to end of the level together. As you can imagine, you will need a lot of patience, and even small stages may take a long time before you are able to complete them. Eventually, you may have to incapacitate some Shibito along the path to make it safer for the secondary character, but you must be fast enough to incapacitate the Shibito, go back to the secondary character, and reach the end of the stage before the incapacitated Shibito come back to life. Nothing is easy in Siren.
Avoiding enemies is almost always a necessity, not a choice. In good part of the levels you have no weapons at all to use, and you have no means to stop the Shibito. Unarmed characters are completely defenseless, so if you are spotted by a Shibito your only possibility to survive is running. In some stages the characters can use some kind of melee weapon; more rarely they have firearms. While melee weapons can be occasionally useful if you have good timing (fans of the first Silent Hill who loved to use that juicy pickaxe shouldn't have big problems), firearms come with a very limited amount of ammo, which makes of them more a sort of last resource than actual offensive weapons. To make things even funnier, the developers had the wonderful idea of making of the Shibito immortal creatures; yes, you read it right, these dirty zombies can't be killed, you just can temporarily incapacitate them. This means that if you stop a Shibito and you roam around for too long, you'll have to incapacitate the monster again, using other precious bullets or doing your best with the poor melee weapon you have.
And don't dare to think that the Shibito are your average sleepy and stupid zombies. They relentlessly patrol the stages following predefined patterns, but once they spot you, they are just deadly. Thankfully, the game warns you when a Shibito spots your character, switching for a second to the alarmed Shibito's viewpoint. The AI isn't as smart as in stealth action games, but it's complex enough to make Shibito smarter than any average monster seen in survival horror games. Shibito are extremely sensible to the noise of your footsteps (but they strangely don't seem attracted by louder noises like gunshots), so the only way to avoid being heard is walking while in crouched position. Actually, you will pass half of the game walking in crouched position, which makes your characters move like hens. Shibito have also an eagle eye. They can see you from good distances, and they can detect you more easily if you have your flashlight turned on; strangely enough, once they have spotted you, they seem to be able to follow you everywhere even if you turn your flashlight off. Shibito know how to fight. They move fast and they can have many kinds of weapons, from knives to common tools for a rural village like shovels, billhooks, or hammers. But they often have also firearms, and they are more skilled than Clint Eastwood in using them. If they shoot, most of the times they will hit you. If they hit you two or three times, you are dead.
Relying on stealth is the only true strategy in Siren, whether you have a weapon or not, but this doesn't mean that Siren is a game made with fans of stealth action games in mind. Action in Siren is dull at best. The characters have a very limited set of moves to try to avoid the enemies, and no gadgets at all. Your characters can just crouch and move slowly while in crouched position to make no noise. That's it. There's no peek behind a corner action, but you have at least the chance to look in first-person view and to move sideways. The game makes use of a classic 3D control scheme, where right and left are used to rotate your character and back makes your character walk backwards; this is often considered to be the most precise scheme, typical of Resident Evil games and of the first Silent Hill, but it's also the one that feels more clumsy; unlike Silent Hill 2 and 3, Siren has no option to switch to a more intuitive 2D control system. Even after you get used to the controls, the movements of the characters in Siren feels always too inaccurate and unbalanced for a game that's supposed to be almost entirely played relying on stealth.
Even if you will use weapons rarely, Siren also features the less exciting fighting system ever to disgrace a survival horror game. Using melee weapons implies only good timing; firing pistols means you must rely on an imprecise and frustrating auto-targeting function; using rifles means you have to rely only on your skills, since there is no auto-aim function for long-range weapons. This isn't necessarily bad, since almost any action game doesn't feature auto aiming for long-range weapons. The problems start when you have to shoot the enemy amidst a thick fog, where it's terribly difficult to see anything, not to mention to properly aim at a zombie armed with a rifle that in a few seconds is going to shoot back at you - there's no need to say that Shibito-snipers never miss the target. And if you are equipped with a long-range firearm, you must absolutely avoid close encounters, since your character will not even try to use his rifle as a deadly blunt weapon and he will never have the time to aim in first person and then shoot at a close fast moving Shibito.
Problems don't end here. Siren has many irritating design issues, but the most ridiculous - because it could have easily been streamlined a bit - is the redundant menu system that pops up every time you must perform some action with some object. The X button is used to examine objects, but in order to pick anything up, you must use the Triangle button, which opens the in-game action menu (the same used to issue commands to secondary characters. If you see am object, you must first examine it with X, then hit the Triangle button to pick it up. The character will not pick it up automatically; a menu will pop up, and you must choose the "pick up" action to finally grab the key. And this is nothing. In the first mission of the game, before entering a truck (while a crazy police officer is shooting at you), you must first examine the door of the truck, eventually turn on the flashlight otherwise your character is unable to open the door, then hit triangle and select the "open the truck's door" action, enter the truck, then hit triangle and select "insert the key", and finally turn on the engine. In any other survival horror, this could have all been done by pressing the action button once; I don't know, maybe developers thought this could have added something to the suspense of the game (you know, doing all these actions while someone is trying to kill you), but it feels just ridiculously redundant and annoying.
Fear - the thing many fans of the genres want to find in a survival horror game. Unfortunately, because of its structure, Siren is not even close to being a scary game. According to the developers, the game should have suggested a kind of fear more refined than what is commonly experienced in classic survival horror like Resident Evil, but the truth is that even if you play the game at night, in complete darkness, it's hard to be scared when you replay the same missions three four times before being able to complete it.
In fact, one could say that the biggest limit in Siren's atmosphere is that its difficulty makes it almost impossible to complete any missions - including the first one - the first time you play it. Much more than stealth action games like Splinter Cell or Hitman, Siren is entirely based on a trial and error formula. Only after you have played a mission many times, you are prepared to actually finish it and go to the next missions. This entirely ruins the suspense that should be behind any scary survival horror game. Also the fact the game abandons the classic continue structure of survival horror games, replacing it with a mission based structure makes it hard to actually feel empathy for any character or any situation of the game. This was probably the intention of the developers, but if the narrative structure is indeed brilliant, Siren actually never arrives to the point of truly making the player feel part of the storyline. Compared to games like Silent Hill, Siren is a "cold" experience that seems unable to really fascinate the player.
It's evident the developers had a clear idea of what their game should have been like. They decided to invent and use a new narrative structure, and they succeeded. Then, they wanted to make the experience more realistic and more challenging than other survival horror games, but they ended up creating one of the most difficult survival horror games ever, complete with bad controls, unintuitive interface, and a mission based structure that while all-in-one with the narrative structure doesn't really convince.
Yet, the most dedicated players, those intrigued by the game's unique structure and in search of a different survival horror game, might accept Siren's unforgiving gameplay and serious design issues. A proof that if the developers had kept in mind the needs of the player instead of sticking to their initial design ideas, Siren could have been a brilliant gaming experience.