Review: Silent Hill 2

Official web page; Konami (creators)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Good, but smallish
Writing and dialogue
Not bad, sometimes pretty good
Could have been more of them, but pretty good
Good, except for the endings structure

I usually end reviews with a "conclusion". I think this time I'll start with a comparison of Silent Hill 2 with its predecessor: subtler, less hallucinatory, tremendously more... okay, "beautiful" isn't the word. More visually stunning. Ultimately, I would say, a bit less coherent and a bit less powerful. (But I like unsubtle, you see.) Still very impressive, nonetheless.

(I am going to go deeper into spoilers than I like to for a game I like. Everything I want to say, it seems, has to do with specifics of the storyline or game design. I won't give away the ending, but if you want to encounter SH2 as a completely fresh experience, don't read any more.)

(Same goes for the first Silent Hill game, actually, as I'll be comparing them.)

SH2 isn't a sequel to SH; the storyline is unrelated. James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, Mary, who has been dead three years. The letter asks him to return to the town of Silent Hill. Where it's foggy.

I suffer a bit of disappointment right there. I don't mean that I demand a true sequel -- the events of SH stand on their own; it would be absurd to follow those characters beyond that storyline. No, my problem is that the structure of SH2 is very much like that of SH, whereas the underlying story is different.

The strength of SH was its story, and the game structure, and the slowly emerging relationship between them. The protagonist (and player) experienced a strange, distorted world -- and then an even more distorted and horrific world -- and then both worlds collided, mixed, and finally fragmented into complete psychosis. Really, that's what I remember the game being like. The descent into madness, pardon my cliche; they did it right. And, one step behind that sequence, the protagonist learned things. Not everything was explained; but you could guess (eventually) why there were two worlds, what that meant, and why they fell apart. Why, in fact, your first guesses were wrong, and that the madness had been there all along.

It was a great structure, but you see, SH2 replicates it. Foggy world, darker world, back and forth, reality breaks down, end. I was expecting it. I guess my disappointment stems from that. If the story is different, shouldn't the shape of the game be different? SH2 betrays the spirit of its predecessor by duplicating its substance -- by treating the zombies and the alter-world and the disintegrating maps as the vital elements of the Silent Hill series. Which they are not.

And, as usual, I have made a good game sound like a failure. SH2 is not a failure. My friend and I, playing through, in front of the PS2, in the dark -- it was a rare ten minutes when you could not hear us say, "Holy crap." Or "This is insane." Or "This is freakin' nuts." Or "Aaaaa." We said "Aaaaa" to each other a lot, as I recall.

The designers understand pacing. And timing. (Timing is a single unanticipated thump; pacing is a long walk in the fog, during which nothing happens at all. Both are necessary.) The sound design is terrific. The design of the creatures, their movement, is terrific. Horrific. Aweful.

Here, a tangent:

We have reached the point, here at the end of 2001, where a 3D polygon world can look as good as a pre-rendered, fully raytraced world does. SH2 has no betraying angularity or overrepeated textures. It looks right. The technology of Doom has finally caught up with the technology of Myst.

Now don't get me wrong; these are still different technologies, with different strengths. Pre-rendered images can far exceed 3D engines with curves, intricate models, reflected images and refracted light. We cannot do Myst 3 as a walkthrough world, not yet. My point is this: a 3D world can now sustain the illusion. The world designer must still choose his subjects carefully, to avoid hitting the limitations of the technology; but he can succeed.

Ramble ramble -- I just wrote and deleted a half-paragraph comparing the immersive plateau that Myst, with its own pre-rendered technology, reached in 1994. Make your own analogies. The point is that, in the past, designers struggled to make 3D games less crude; from now on, they can concentrate on art. Stick around. It's going to get scarily good to watch.

End tangent. SH2 is scarily good to watch, if you'll pardon the word. Also: BEST DAMN FOG EVER. Ahem.

The gameplay incorporates some interesting ideas, although I'm not sure they're completely successful. First, you can choose the level of challenge of your game -- the fighting difficulty and the puzzle difficulty are separately controllable. That's good; my button-mashing reflexes are mediocre, and I'll happily accept that all the zombies are wimps. (The ones in the first SH weren't all that tough, either.)

The puzzles in SH2 are a fairly minor part of the game. Most of the pacing comes through exploration. (And the monsters, no matter how wimpy, do set the tempo of the game. Even if it's easy to kill them, you still have to pay that much attention.) (I have not tried the "beginner" mode of the game, which is supposed to have no fighting at all. I should; I'm curious how they implemented it -- unaggressive monsters, or none at all? -- and whether it affects the pacing of the game.)

Sorry -- I was talking about the puzzles. There are a lot of keys. You look everywhere and find stuff. The plot elements, in general, are keyed to exploring and finding stuff. (It got almost predictable; at the end of every cut scene, I found a key. So that I could explore the next bit. Plot mechanics 'r us.) Some "keys" are actually lock combinations, or groups of magic tokens, but there really isn't a whole lot of sophistication beyond that. A few riddles. I think SH did better in the puzzle department, overall, although SH2 does have one rotating-cube puzzle that I quite admired.

Once again, the layout of buildings is given a great deal of thought. They're realistic, but blocked and locked doors guide the path of exploration, and therefore the path of the storyline. A bit of backtracking, but not much.

(I've played through on "hard" and "medium" puzzle mode, and the spread seemed to be pretty good. Although -- if you do "medium" first, you may not find "hard" much harder. Very often, the difference was how much you were told about what sort of puzzle you were facing -- the range of possibility. In "medium", you are given the rules; in "hard", the first puzzle is often figuring out the rules. But if you've already solved the puzzle once, you know the rules, you see.)

And then, the endings. Many adventure games have taken the tack of multiple endings. The usual failure is that the endings seem tacked-on; you save the game before the end, try each available option, and get a different cut-scene that doesn't really enhance the overall story.

In contrast, there was Shadow of Destiny, in which each ending stood on its own -- made a complete story -- but if you saw them all, the whole set each part in a new light. The "true" story of that game really was comprised of all the endings together -- even though they were all mutually inconsistent events.

SH2 tries something different. The four major endings (plus, I am told, one joke) do not stem from a few critical choices you make. Instead, your overall playing style is analyzed. Do you keep yourself at full health, or only chug a healing potion when you are nearly dead? Do you fight with melee weapons or guns? Do you investigate every single diary, book, and newspaper you see? Do you go back to particular NPCs frequently, when they're in known locations, or do you avoid them as much as possible? When an NPC is with you, do you do what she wants or are you contrary?

Aesthetically, I admire this approach. It's far less intrusive and mechanical than the A/B menu choice that is so often presented. On the other hand... it doesn't give you much of a feeling of agency. You get the ending that's handed to you. If you save near the end, and replay the last part of the game, you get the same ending. You can start over and replay the whole game, but unless you have a walkthrough which gives away the secret metrics, you're like as not going to get the same ending again.

(I'm simplifying somewhat. The second time through the game, certain items appear, and you can reach a particular ending by collecting them all. And the "silly" ending is in a particular room, which becomes available under certain circumstances. So you can save, see those endings, back up, and play to a different ending. That's only two of five, though.)

I'm sure it's deliberate that you have to replay the game from the beginning. The shallowness of the usual replay-the-end strategy is the main reason it works so poorly; it makes sense to create a game where you can't do that. The problem is that SH2 just doesn't have enough replay value. The puzzles, as I said, are easier the second time through, even if you turn up the puzzle difficulty. The exploring is identical, of course, and popping monsters is just popping monsters.

I played through the game twice, and saw three endings (including the collect-plot-tokens ending). The second run-through was mostly tedious. I have no great desire to play through yet again, to see the remaining two endings. It just ain't worth the time.

And the endings (at least the three I've seen) do not add up to more than the sum of their parts. I had greatly hoped they would reveal more about the various NPCs of the game, and the locations you visit; but no, those remain mostly obscure. The endings are just different ways your character can react to the denoument. Enh.

Conclusion: The biggest flaw of Silent Hill 2 is that it's on a par with Silent Hill -- better in some ways, weaker in others. SH set its standard by being a great leap beyond other horror games of its era; SH2 repeats the standard, but doesn't repeat the great leap. Ah well. "On a par with Silent Hill" is still a fine reason to play a game.


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