The road to Paradise is closed for repairs.
Due to pesky regional release schedules, our European friends played Silent Hill 3 weeks before we did. Europeans like to vent about things and, fortunately or unfortunately, many of them have telephones. Even now, I can still hear the voice of one French girl in particular, who despite her mastery of English had to grope for her words (I can't do a disgusted, female French accent too well, so you have to use your imagination): "Oh, Silent Hill 3. Oh, no, no. You'll see. It is'so"nasty!"
I thanked her, politely wrapped up the phone call'and sat there in silence. And then I started smiling. Yes, we'd soon judge for ourselves. The game arrived the next day.
Perhaps moreso than any other video game series, Silent Hill can be called nasty. This third entry once again revolves around a basically ordinary, believable person; no corny secret agents or "elite cops" here. Seventeen-year-old Heather Morris (the series' first female lead) is also more likeable than her two bland-o male predecessors, having some attitude, some vulnerability and even some snarky teenaged wit. When an adult character introduces herself to Heather with a rather dramatic, Thespianic "I'am Claudia" (shortly before which Heather has seen her entire world turned nightmarishly inside-out), Heather shoots back with a mockingly-dramatic "So...what."
Heather doesn't even start out in the town of Silent Hill. She's just a girl who wants to enjoy a day at a local mall. And then the monsters start showing up, right there in the food-court, as it were.
If you haven't had the "pleasure" (if that's the word) of the Silent Hill series, then there's one salient fact you need to know above all others: the normal, everyday world can change at a moment's notice, suddenly shifting to a darker, uglier, nightmarish reflection of itself. Overall floor-plans (as per the map) may remain largely the same, but commonplace rooms can become blood-spattered torture chambers, empty hospital corridors become suddenly acrawl with awful things that can no longer be called "nurses," and the most banal of city streets or mall escalators can suddenly be shorn off by industrial barriers or black gulfs of inexplicable nothingness. And in terms of sheer amounts of red present onscreen, Silent Hill 3 is also probably the goriest, bloodiest game ever made.
We've seen dynamic, virtual blood-spouting many times before ("FINISH HIM!"). We'Ave seen bloodied, static backgrounds (Resident Evil). But walls that actually, actively throb and bleed? That's a fairly new one, at least to this degree. There are probably hundreds of video games one would be well-advised to not play under the influence of psychoactives, but Silent Hill 3 truly takes the cake'and then kills you with it.
The monsters are everywhere, their proximity only heralded by the ever-increasing shriek of static from a malfunctioning pocket radio. And not just your hulking, Doom-style video game monsters, either, but really icky, nasty-looking ones that your eye can't quite categorize. Silent Hill 3 creature designer Ito Masahiro must have some really juicy nightmares.
Mechanically, Silent Hill 3 is essentially the same as its predecessors. Heather can wield an arsenal of weapons, including a switchblade, a handgun, a shotgun, bludgeoning instruments, a stun-gun, a katana, and even a sub-machine gun (it's easy to waste ammo with this, but God, it's satisfying). Both the standard 2D and 3D types of control are available, the inventory screens are almost identical (with the ability to access all previous clues and the current area's map, if you have it), and combat has been slightly improved. Heather can strafe left and right as she confronts the horrors of Silent Hill, and if she punctuates her attacks with well-timed, one-button blocks, the katana is a surprisingly effective weapon, more than capable of taking down bosses. It's not easy, but it's certainly possible.
So, what starts off as a normal day at the mall (gone horribly wrong) proceeds to a tour of the town so many horror-gamers have played in'and died in. If you made your way through Silent Hill 2 as James (or Maria!), you'll definitely revisit some old haunts, including the Heaven's Night strip-club (which, for your secular dollar, is still probably the last place on Earth in which you'd want to get a lap-dance).
But the bulk of the Silent Hill experience certainly isn't "secular" by any means - in fact, there's a lot of religion floating around here. While Silent Hill 2 eschewed much of the first game's occultic nature (in favor of a more internalized horror-tale), Silent Hill 3 is filled with questions of occultism, belief and destiny. It certainly feels much more like the first game, and in fact makes many, many direct references to it, as well as references both oblique and direct to a number of modern and classic horror movies. Visually, it's obvious that the creators of Silent Hill 3 have noted such movies as Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (one of the game's new environments makes a blatant homage to that film). It's also obvious that they spent a great deal of time perfecting the look and concentrating on keeping things immersive, evidenced by the fact that the fantastic cut-scenes are all in-engine.
Aurally, sound designer Yamaoka Akira also makes his intentions and passions known; the U.S. release of the game (unlike the Euro release) actually includes a separate 25-song soundtrack disk. It might make you re-think the value of the normally dubious "video game soundtrack," as it includes not only gorgeous female vocals (a series first), but also mesmerizing space-out tracks and even dramatic, emotional songs that slowly build to guitar-heavy rock licks (redolent of something Slash might have a hand in) that brilliantly incorporate recognizable musical themes from earlier Silent Hill games. And despite one or two instances of iffy translation, there are some really startling lyrics, too; here I'm thinking of the powerful female singer's voice crying for a miracle, imploring "The high that is sending me, is most likely ending me." Yikes.
Suffice it to say that Silent Hill 3 revisits some old themes and locales, while introducing some new perspectives on both elements of the first and second games. Those wading in completely wet-behind-the-ears will be a little lost, and rightfully so, but even Silent Hill veterans from way back won't ever have all the answers'although if they survive long enough, they will certainly be closer to the heart of the mystery.
Not all the quibbles of mechanics and game-camera have been completely ironed out, but this is certainly Silent Hill at its functional best, despite the now familiar gameplay. Occasional camera problems crop up, and oddly, time does not stop while you are futzing with some of the puzzles. Getting bitten on the butt by some hell-spawn while fiddling with a logic conundrum can be trying. And Hard mode is truly hard, with a distressingly high monsters-to-bullets/health ratio, and one or two really harsh puzzles. Hope you know your Shakespeare.
But you probably knew the dangers when you arrived here in Silent Hill. If you're more familiar with the second game than the first, you'll doubtless find the heavier occultic, religious tone a little distracting. It's okay, though; you will deal, or you will die. And the road to Paradise may be truly scheduled for demolition. Proceed with caution.