Silent Hill review
Horror as it should be
If there’s one thing that the East does better than the West, then it’s horror. From movies such as The Ring and The Grudge, to games like Ju-On and Fatal Frame, the Japanese just seem to have a knack for identifying the sounds and images which are able to terrify us the most. For someone who isn’t typically a horror fan, imagery and atmosphere will always be superior to panicky quick-time events or jump shocks, which is why I’ll never understand why the Silent Hill series has been usurped by Resident Evil as survival horror’s flagship. And it’s a great pity, because gamers who only stick to the mainstream and don’t bother to revisit old classics will never know what they’re missing. I can’t emphasise enough the brilliance of Silent Hill as a concept. Throughout the series, it’s never clear whether the eponymous town is a fixed location, or rather a metaphor for a particular state of mind. The games’ protagonists are invariably troubled, traumatised by some previous event which characterises the way that the nightmarish world presents to their specific psyche. The way the town looks, your objectives, even the appearance of the monsters all change as a function of the subconscious feelings and fears of that game’s characters. It reaffirms classic settings like schools, elevators, hospitals and amusement parks as staples of the genre; wandering through Alchemilla Hospital’s desolate corridors in pitch darkness is one of survival horror’s scariest and most defining sequences. This, coupled with in-depth character exploration, meaningful storylines and a deep lore – about which entire wikis have been written – means that Silent Hill’s universe is one of the most immersive that horror gaming has to offer.
In this first instalment of the series, you play as recently widowed, single father Harry Mason. Despite the ominous name, Silent Hill is apparently a popular if quiet holiday destination; while driving there with his 7 year-old daughter Cheryl, Harry crashes his car when a young girl suddenly appears in the road. Upon regaining consciousness he finds his daughter missing, and sets out to explore the town in order to find her. Once inside, however, he finds Silent Hill seemingly deserted, save for a lone police officer and the occasional demonic beast. If the clichéd paternal instincts aren’t enough to prevent you from abandoning Cheryl and fleeing with your tail between your legs, then you’ll soon find that all the roads out of town have been destroyed. Harry’s left with no option but to set out through the unsettling town with nothing but a pistol, a flashlight and a handheld radio for company, uncover its dark past in order to right past wrongs, and get the hell out of Dodge before it’s too late.
Silent Hill itself makes for one of the most fantastic settings I’ve ever experienced. It feels like a true ghost town, aided spectacularly by the fact that monsters only spawn occasionally, as well as the permanent fog that permeates the streets to create a hauntingly gloomy atmosphere. You can never see more than a few feet at a time, making navigation difficult and causing you to depend heavily on your map. As with any survival horror worth its salt, exploration will inevitably reward you with precious health kits or ammunition, but the ever present knowledge that monsters are out there somewhere makes you incredibly reluctant to do so. But if you thought the foggy rendition of Silent Hill was bad enough, wait until you get a load of a hellish Otherworld. Roads are replaced with gauze and industrial walkways, colour schemes change from depressing, isolating greys to grotesque browns and bloodstained reds, and the occasional monster is replaced with hordes of demonic sentinels. Worse still, the fog is replaced with a fulminating darkness that crushes your soul and forces you rely on your miserable flashlight like a crutch. The eerie town is replaced with one of horror’s most effective realisations of a genuine, living nightmare, full of occult imagery and a constant sense of foreboding, which quickly becomes the true source of Silent Hill’s incomparable dread.
The game’s graphics aren’t fantastic, but they’re pretty good as far as PSX-era games were concerned. The blocky character models are unappealing by today’s standards, and dialogue during cut-scenes is reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid due to the characters’ complete lack of mouths. Otherwise, the grainy textures are actually conducive to the game’s atmosphere, further impairing your already limited vision in the case of the Fog World and enhancing the contrast of lighting effects in the Otherworld. The lighting during darkness sequences is used to particularly excellent effect, all the more since monsters are attracted to the light, and so pitch blackness is sometimes your preferred option (you can see where Amnesia’s inspiration came from). Perhaps the monsters aren’t as repulsive as they could be, and many buildings look exactly the same, but it isn’t a major letdown and the superior gameplay more than makes up for these shortcomings. One thing I will praise is that the CGI cutscenes – few and far between, granted – are outstanding for a 32-bit machine. The graphics can become a major hindrance however when you’re searching for items, since they don’t appear with arrows over them or illuminate when you look in their general direction. Even items necessary for progression are miniscule and incredibly difficult to spot, so you basically end up spamming the interact button whenever you walk into a room in the hope that you find what you need. I’m not sure whether to praise Silent Hill for this unforgiving, realistic difficulty, or criticise it as a major limitation of the third-person perspective on this generation’s hardware. Suffice to say, you’ll need either brilliant attention to detail or saintlike patience if you want to conquer the game without a walkthrough.
Not brilliant by today's standards, but pretty good for back then
As mentioned, exploration is perhaps the most interesting part of Silent Hill’s gameplay because it becomes a tactical decision. Do you brave the fog and the darkness, knowing what diabolical creatures await you? Or do you scurry from point A to point B as quickly as possible, forcing you to become ultra-conservative with your resources? Silent Hill is particularly effective in this regard because its engaging mystery drives you to explore every last nook and cranny in the hope of finding some answers. The map system is really excellent in this respect – one of the best I’ve seen implemented in a video game. The fog/darkness are such that if you turn a full circle you’ll have no idea which direction you’re pointing in, so you come to rely very heavily on your map. Furthermore, another really clever idea is how Harry automatically updates his map depending on what he discovers, marking locked doors or key items so that you don’t have to waste your time with trial and error. It really makes up for the sameness of some of the locations and mitigates the frustration that you would otherwise feel when trying to hunt down a previously encountered room or item. The PSP edition of the game, however, is unfortunately let down by the console’s small screen since many key locations on your map aren’t readable.
The sound design is generally minimalist; I didn’t notice any music for the most part, except during cut-scenes or the more tense sequences where the horrible, erratic string music really sends shudders down your spine. The game relies more on its sound effects, from the shrieks of the hellspawned monsters to the ever-present monotony of Harry’s footfalls. One of the key mechanics is the transistor radio Harry carries with him at all times, which begins to emit static according to the proximity of a monster. Coupled with your perennially impaired vision, this is a fantastic substitute for typical jump scares because the same panic is generated when a lonely stroll through the fog is suddenly interrupted by your radio going haywire. You never know which direction a monster’s going to materialise from, which really triggers your fight or flight responses. On the downside, the script for the cutscenes is either badly written or poorly translated, and the voice acting borrows from the school of Resident Evil, turning would-be sad or anxious moments into melodrama. As another example, due to his tendency to walk rather than run and his complete lack of whimpering or cowering, Harry unintentionally – and somewhat inappropriately, given his backstory – comes off as a complete badass, slowly and deliberately stalking through the streets, stopping and shooting nonchalantly when the best of us would be screaming like a little girl. It’s not a big deal, but things like this do detract from Silent Hill’s otherwise impressive atmosphere.
You don't say?
And no matter how hard I try, something that I can’t defend is tank controls. I recognise that the intention is to account for the game’s fixed camera angles – which are a big part of its effectiveness – but they’re frustrating and lack sensitivity. Harry turns like a bus and frequently moves in the opposite direction than intended. The chief challenge of boss fights, for example, is grappling with the control scheme in order to make Harry do what you want him to do. It’s even worse on the PSP since you can’t map movement to the analogue stick in a typically lazy example of poor porting. I like how it’s realistic in the sense that, as a civilian, Harry is a terrible shot, forcing you to rely on light and proximity in order to shoot accurately. But by God, if you thought shooting with tank controls was a pain, wait until you try swinging a knife or a pipe. Camera control, likewise, is almost non-existent since the ‘centre camera behind Harry’ button is one of the most useless I’ve encountered. It’s only available in certain situations, swings around in slow, massive arcs even when it’s successful, and is frequently hampered by running into walls or other obstacles. Third person perspective is great and all but there has to be a better way than this.
Other drawbacks which, while ironed out in subsequent games in the series, hold Silent Hill back from being a magnificent game in its own right. The puzzles, for instance, are too difficult. While I’m sure they’re brilliant in their symbolism, they’re so cryptic that simpletons like myself won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of wrapping their heads around them without a walkthrough. The multiple endings, while relatively unprecedented, are somewhat cheapened by the fact that only one is treated as canonical by the series’ later instalments (obviously you didn’t know that at the time, but it makes them a bit weaker today). They’re also brief and unsatisfying considering how impossibly difficult several of them are to achieve. I have no idea how anyone except the most excruciatingly painstaking of hardcore gamers managed to find the Good+ ending, for instance, since there’s literally no clue as to what items you require or when to use them. And while the boss fights are suitably epic and hair-raising, they’re also a bit clustered; the first one makes its appearance about a third of the way through the game, and the remaining four all come within an hour or two of each other. Combined with the short endings, it does make the tail end of the game feel a bit rushed. The PSP version, as usual, also deserves further criticism since it makes no allowances for having fewer buttons relative to the PSX controller. As a consequence, the default settings leave you without the ability to sidestep, which becomes necessary particularly in later boss fights. As such you have to make a further tactical decision of which existing actions you don’t need so that you can map sidestepping to those buttons. I would have thought retro gaming could have been one of the main reasons to buy a PSP, but neglect like that shown here is what will continue to hold Sony’s portable consoles back.
Welcome to someone else's nightmare
Conclusion: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I don’t like horror. But Silent Hill is survival horror done right, providing an experience that is engrossing, challenging and satisfying, even if it isn’t exactly ‘fun’. An intoxicating atmosphere plus an engaging storyline help you to overcome your fear and plough on to the bitter end, even if the rewards for doing so ultimately prove to be a little lacklustre. The first game in the franchise wasn’t the best, but it’s still a very good game that I’d implore all gamers, horror fan or not, to experience for themselves. As ever don’t bother with the PSP version, though, as its specific limitations are an insult to Silent Hill’s legacy.
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