Mini-Review: Silent Hill

Official web page; Konami (creators)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

No doubt your Noble Reviewer has taken leave of his sense. A Playstation game? A Playstation 3D shooter game? Pass the sildenafil, nurse, he's gone senile!

Probably. And I don't intend to spend too much time on this (a promise I chant faithfully before every review I start). But Silent Hill does manage to demonstrate how to make a polygon-based shotgun-fest do the work of IF. In its spare time, anyway.

The town is filled with freezing fog and snow-flurries; the streets are abandoned and the storefronts boarded up; your little girl is missing. Straightforward setup. You see her silhouette in the mist...

Lesson one: the vivid atmosphere. The game wouldn't go a flat inch without that sense of place. Even before the supernatural elements, I was pulled in -- just fog and your own footsteps. Snow falls. The traffic lights are out... The monsters, which you soon encounter, don't jar a bit; fog and footsteps and wingbeats go together just as well.

And that damn radio. You acquire a radio that sings static when evil gets too near, and whoever thought up that touch, I want to bear your children. ...From a great distance. Fog, your footsteps, and "eeeeee..."

Later, of course, things get much worse. Watch for the use of rain versus snow; that's just a grace note. Darkness and, well, unpleasant scenery... I was impressed to discover that, when I shifted back to the snowy streets, I was happy to be there. The fog was bright! Lovely, lovely bright fog and snow. Even the street-monsters felt rather homey, in comparison.

Okay, not that homey. But I was playing in "easy" mode, and I could usually peg their asses.

Lesson two: cinematic cut-scenes, in the third person. The Last Express did this first and better, of course, but nobody seemed to be paying much attention. Silent Hill takes the same tack, and even a few of the same tricks. Fully scripted dialogue, for example -- no player intervention. Paced revelation of the protagonist's history, coming out in that dialogue.

Lesson three: a storyline which wasn't pulled out out of someone's ear in thirty seconds. Okay, it's a mass of horror tropes, from the secret town cult to the cat jumping out. (I laughed out loud when I saw the map of the endgame, including such features as "Lighthouse" and "Amusement Park". A lighthouse! Imagine that!)

But it's reasonably involuted. You find several twists, some characters moving in and out, lots of back-story, a big finish, and enough ambiguity and wonder at the end to provoke an argument or two. It's not "I killed them all and lived to tell the tale," even though the bulk of the play time consists of perforating zombies.

Lesson four: good use of territory. You explore buildings up, down, around and sideways. Returning to places you've been is not backtracking; it's often progress. Silent Hill uses realworld/otherworld parallelism -- a gimmick found in lots of other games, from Darkseed to Soul Reaver, but cleverly exploited here.

I was impressed as hell at the sheer number of ways the authors managed to make the building layouts important. And interesting. And still entirely realistic, if you allow for convenient arrangements of locked doors. The game turns a standard bunch of find-the-key puzzles into a thoughtful exploration.

Well. As this is a mini-review, I won't spend time dissecting the flaws. A quick catalog... Although the plotting is good, the writing itself is pretty bad, all predictable lines and cliches. The hit-button-for-next-line interface ruins any hope of acting: the voice talent tried, but arbitrary pauses between each sentence doesn't allow much room. The realistic town and building design was rather undermined by the shooter-game inventory; ninety-eight percent of the objects you find are ammo and health potions. The exploration puzzles can't carry the pacing on their own, so the game falls back on a set of badly-integrated riddles and mechanism puzzles, with clues set in verse that doesn't even try to be good. (Translation problem? The authors are Japanese, but I have no idea whether there's a non-English original.)

While I'm at it, some random lauds to go with the slurs...

You kill a lot of monsters exploring new territory, but cleared areas stay clear. There's no random spawning -- which is good, because when you're stuck, you want to wander around looking for what you've missed. The game doesn't punish you for that. (In a few cases, new monsters appear in old areas, but only after a major plot development -- when you know you're heading back to an earlier area, with something new to do there.)

In spite of the foggy or dark scenery, important objects always stand out. Watch for bright colors. (As I said, you get real familiar with bullets and drink cans, but other objects appear as well.)

As for the endings: a few are possible, depending on which of the (few) optional sequences you solved earlier in the game. I only saw one, a good outcome but not ideal; I read through Web pages to learn about the others. (Replaying the whole game is beyond my patience.) The endings all give slightly different views on the storyline of the game, but they all fit in. I didn't feel like I saw an inferior story, even though in game terms I could have done better.

Conclusion: Silent Hill builds a town (and another town) that I absolutely did not want to be in, but was unable to leave -- except by finishing the game. Take that as you will. I recommend it.

But decide from the beginning that you're not susceptible to bad dreams. Decide it firmly.

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