Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Your spine shakes with chills as your heart begins to race. Your mind wanders with the fear of the unknown, and just when you think you were safe from whatever hunts you, you feel it’s grip across your throat. It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means, a series of reviews on some of the scariest horror games out there today! Welcome to my 13 days of horror reviews, where we honor the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky side of video games, both past and present. Today, we look at Silent Hill 2.
In the grand scheme of things, the “Silent Hill” series is often considered the marquee survival horror series along with “Resident Evil.” And for good reason to, since Silent Hill really took off with the second game of its series, “Silent Hill 2.” Made for the Sony Playstation 2 and the X-Box, “Silent Hill 2” is easily the best in the entire series, and perhaps one of the best survival horror games ever made.
James Sunderland, a man guilty over the death of his wife Mary, receives a letter “written” by her, and sets to investigate the source of the letter. He ends up in the remote town of Silent Hill, where he comes face to face with his psyche in so many iterations, that one can’t help but enjoy the cerebral experience the story gives us.
And make no mistake; this is a plot driven game. James is the everyman here, the guy next door who is flawed and is stuck in a predicament he can’t get out of. The supporting cast is actually pretty well rounded, and this also includes the enemies because they have personalities and themes as well, such as the infamous Pyramid Head. Plus the fact that the end is so sweet, and there are multiple endings to the game, depending on what happens during the game adds a lot of depth and hidden weight to your choices overall.
But what makes the game work is the near perfect storm of atmosphere and controls. The game is spooky in its tone, off kilter in its design, and overall what true horror games should be. Survival Horror is always about fear of the unknown, and how to deal with them in an ordinary situation. Games like “Silent Hill” and “Resident Evil,” despite some hiccups every now and again, follow this formula rather well, at least initially. Other games out there try to go for shock value with copious amounts of mutilated gore and disturbing images, and dependent to the game, this is effective, but in a totally different way. What makes a horror game is what you don’t know, because its fear, over shock, that is truly scary.
I can talk for hours about the themes of the game, but that would give away a lot of the plot. Suffice to say it’s worth playing on your own, it really is a great experience of psychological horror and a strong case for video games being living art.
And thanks to balanced controls, it adds to the tension and the overall design of the game. What helped in “Silent Hill 2” was a free roam camera; instead of static, matte images that made controls awkward in most Resident Evil titles, here it gave free range to move where you wished. This also helped in making the combat of the game more enjoyable, if a little stiff in its design. Plus it also added tension for surprise attacks, which would happen often (if you shut the damn radio off) during the games many surprise sequences.
Now there still are quips about the design of the game. The combat, as mentioned, is fairly stiff, requiring you to just pummel enemies to death every now and then by button mashing, as you watch James slowly club a horror to death. Gun combat is also used, but is poorly implemented, which I guess is on purpose because James is not a highly trained urban commando on steroids. But it could of have been done better, at least in terms of the gameplay. Plus I still don’t like the fetch puzzle quests that survival horror games seem to shoehorn into everything to make them longer and more drawn out. You can practically tell when something is going to jump out once you complete a puzzle almost. But at least here the puzzles were, for the most part, not reliant on crazy moon logic or magic jewels, or anything like that.
The game is amazing in terms of graphics. This was an early PS2 title, and it shows a tad in terms of textures, but it still looks amazing. The tone is moody, so everything is atmospheric to it, down to the dark, grainy hospitals, the long, swooping corridors, and even the hellish nightmare worlds, where the walls turn to skin and the blood is the carpet, look fantastic. The character models are also impressive, if not a little wooden when it comes to the faces and hands. The show stealer is the monsters, who have character designs that actually mean something, and something, that I have to point out, to our protagonist, and did not just look cool at the time. This is why “Silent Hill 2” is so highly regarded; everything is thought out, even the music.
Speaking of music, “Silent Hill 2” actually downplayed the background music as much as possible, using it only for scripted events, boss fights, cut scenes and a few other places. When it was used it was dark and brooding, giving off a sinister, two to three note cackle that would make “The Dark Knight’s” Joker theme look tame. The lack of music augments the other sounds, the random bumps you hear, the creaking of the wooden stairs as you walk on them, and yes, that stupid ****ing radio that you can turn off. The character voices were also decent, a bit cheesy and flat during some reads, but others were actually well done.
“Silent Hill 2” left a legacy that will likely never be emulated. It is the best game in the series by far, and is perhaps amongst the scariest games of all time, all thanks to clever design and a strong plot by Konami. While the Silent Hill games have paled to this one, from 3 to Homecoming, it is clear that Silent Hill as a series is not dead yet, and will go on like Resident Evil has, although the direction of the series may be different. Still, with “Shattered Memories” coming out for the Wii, this is proof that Silent Hill is burned into our psyche as one of the scariest series of all time, with Pyramid Head sitting next to the crown jewel of the franchise.