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Silent Hill (PlayStation)

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Written by  :  Zovni (9355)
Written on  :  Dec 15, 2003
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Summary

Above everything else, a really smart game.

The Good

What truly makes Silent Hill a great horror game is that it's a very intelligently designed game. 1999, Console-land. Thanks to a little thing called Resident Evil the survival/horror genre is the next big thing, and everyone is making their own version of it, with names like Squaresoft, Sega and SNK all putting out their own brand of Resident Evil clones. Thus Konami decides to try their hand at the new hot game only they made the right thing and didn't copycat Capcom's formula and instead cooked up their own radically different version of the game, enter Silent Hill. From the get go you realize the game is something different, it doesn't open with a fastpaced action sequence showcasing the game's horrors, instead it starts with a relatively slow-paced clip made from FMV sequences out of the game with a weird folky tune going on in the background, obviously this is going to be a different story.

The storyline of Silent Hill has been object to much debate and widely and (to my understanding) wrongly considered as "da best thing eva" by many fanboys, but without going into that for the moment it is true that it has touches and ideas of pure sheer genius...Or actually, it's not genius at all, it's just common sense! I mean, doesn't the idea of an unexplained supernatural situation happening to an average joe strike you as more disturbing than a commando team facing hordes of science-born nightmares? Horror movies have realised that for eons and every now and then a videogame does so to. Thus the protagonist of Silent Hill isn't some twenty-something supermodel with designer clothes out to kick butt and take names. Instead he's Harry Mason, an average widower with a young daughter that makes the fateful decision of taking a vacation to the far-off town of Silent Hill, (which joins such lovely places as Hobb's End, Red Hook, Innsmouth, Dunwich, Raccon City, Amityville and the Bates Motel in the elite group of top vacation spots for the summer vacations). Anyway, the shit hits the fan from the get-go as Harry gets involved in some weird-ass road accident (that never gets really explained) and faintly sees his daugher Cheryl dissapearing into the misty town. From that point on it's a downspiral ride into madness as Harry goes out looking for his daughter (a powerful and frankly much more moving objective than most videogames of these type usually use) and finds out that there is something terribly wrong with the town. In what will go down in history as one of the best introductory sequences to any game ever, Harry loses track of his daughter and after a nightmarish sequence awakens in a cafeteria facing a female police officer, Cybill, who informs him the town is strangely deserted and that there are some "weird things" lurking about.

As Harry explores the world of Silent Hill you are treated to the many smart ideas that make SH so unique in the world of survival/horror games. For starters the game lets go of the pre-rendered backgrounds and instead uses an entirely polygonal engine, which allows for a typical Tomb Raiderish 3rd person perspective pov, as well as the oddly-angled fixed camera views that have become a staple of the genre, but with the new addition of wild dynamic camera moves that pan, dolly and track your character as he explores around maximizing it's already creepy effectiveness (watch the overhead tracking shot in the intro sequence to see just what the fully 3D engine brought to the game). The detail in the enviroment is pretty solid, with plenty of urban landmarks rendered and depicted in real time, but I can hear you say "Hey, this is a psx game! What's the catch?" Well, the obvious catch is that the game has a draw distance of about 10 feet when on outdoor areas, but this little drawback is actually worked around, and the design of the game actually builds upon it as a means of increasing the horror! Draw distance? Let's add a perpetual snowfall to it and make it a claustrophobic element of gameplay!! Indeed, the game uses it's foggy landscape to really bring to life (or death actually) the deserted town of Silent Hill, as you have to explore every location up close and personal and don't get to see from were the threats come until you have them all over you... That is, unless you use the Radio! What's that you say? Another touch of genius.

As you find out in the opening sequence, the many monsters that haunt Silent Hill share a common link, they apparently all emit some sort of radio signal that causes static to spout from your handheld portable radio. What does that mean? That the game incorporates into it's already stellar design the aureal dimension, as it includes the radio's alternating static bursts as the means for you to avoid what dangers lurk around. And avoid them you'll want to! In another stellar choice, Konami continued the idea behind Harry as an average Joe and thus gave him all the combat prowess of a two-year old, with an endurance that's just as fickle and an arsenal composed mostly of melee weapons that he can barely use. Watching Harry waste all his bullets on an enemy that's 5 feet away and having to resort to his awkward skills at handling a wooden plank (complete with perfectly animated sluggish moves) is an all too common experience in Silent Hill if you don't learn that the best way to defeat the monsters is to just run the fuck away from them...

And just were do you run to? To a collection of common locations such as schools, abandoned houses and "The Hospital from Hell (Tm)" (which would become a landmark in the series) to explore and follow clues that lead to the whereabouts of Cheryl. In these indoors areas SH plays much like your average RE Clone, with you having to collect and manage different items that hold the key to solving some puzzles that occasionally pop up. The difference here is that the puzzles include some really brainy challenges (like the now infamous piano puzzle in the school's music classroom) that seem more fit for a hardcore PC adventure game than the usual yawn-inducing kiddie crap these games come loaded with.

As you progress through the game you'll come into contact with more survivors (that usually trigger fantastically animated CGI cutscenes) and unfortunately uncover (more on that later) a larger plot that involves demonic summonings and medical corruption. As the plot dwelves deeper into H.P. Lovecraft territory, you'll have your encounter with the other big feature in Silent Hill: Dark Silent Hill. Via scripted events your character will eventually find out that the rules of reality don't hold true anymore for Silent Hill, and a shifting process starts to take place towards a darker, much more disturbing reality. A chilling sound cue will occur, and suddenly Whammo! The foggy, eternally snowy town of Silent Hill transforms into a really, really dark hellhole filled with rusty metal plates, chains and grates, and with radically different layouts for most locations. In other words: Silent Hill turns into Clive Barker-Land!!! Complete with grating metallic audio cues and a more thumping, yet utterly disturbing, soundtrack. Yes, location shifting isn't exactly a novelty and games like Soul Reaver already featured it (and did it much better if you ask me), but the feature is perfectly integrated into the game throwing the visibility to the crapper and forcing you to rely on a wimpy pocket light that helps provide even more scares (not to mention atract really unwanted attention).

All that plus excellent scripted sequences like the intro or a certain locker make for a fantastic horror experience and one of the most intense games ever.

The Bad

Silent Hill is a great game, and rightly regarded as so by everyone. But this...should I say "prestige" that comes from it being a wildly innovative and far more serious title than most in the genre clouds the views of many and apparently makes them blind to what are obvious (and rather annoying) flaws.

For starters Yes, there are a bunch of good and rather challenging puzzles, but unfortunately they are lost in a sea of the same mundane and idiotic puzzles that can be found since the days of Resident Evil 1. Silent Hill may be the "perfect game" for those that like to fill their mouth with crap about how the RE series is the most idiotic thing in the face of the earth and how Silent Hill is only for gamers with brains, but you know what? There is just as much Crest-collecting and key hunting in Silent Hill as there is in Resident Evil, with idiotic situations like having to collect the crests of the moon, sun, stars, etc. and getting the magic coins of the proud wompbat of darkness or whatever to open the clock tower in the school... (which is in particular a quite ludicrous location, with many illogical puzzles like locking doors based on a clock's time [What, they could only go to class at a certain moment of the day?], etc.)... Similarly, while most people like to wax about just how original SH is, I'd like to point at the wildly NON-original creatures that populate the game, after all, just how many times are we suppose to get scared by zombie dogs?? And oh yeah, generically gnawed-upon creatures and giant insects.... man, c'mon!! The freaking baby monster and the nurses (which were the only ones to come back for SH2) are about the only creatures that stand out from the rest of generic skinless clones. Just think that at the time Resident Evil 2 had been around for a while complete with it's "lickers" and assorted skinless creatures...

Furthermore, I may have been using his name as a passing comparison when I mentioned Clive Barker over there, but if you think about it there's a lot of stuff that just borders on the plain plagiarism by Konami. I mean, both Barker and Silent Hill draw heavily on the writings of Lovecraft, with their blend of occult, alternate realities and general nastyness, but there are some elements like the rusting metal grates, the mutilation-S&M connections, the doctors, the carnival sequence.... heck even the "Flauros" is a triangular version of Hellraiser's channeling cube...man, either Barker sues or we get to see a cameo of Pinhead on Silent Hill 4!

Finally I like to add my grain of sand to what I think is one of the most overhyped issues behind Silent Hill: It's story.

What? Am I stoned? Didn't I just wrote up there how good it was? Besides doesn't everybody know that Silent Hill's story is the best thing ever and ever? No. The story in Silent Hill is great and all, it starts out as a haunting supernatural nightmare, BUT perhaps losing to the pressures of it's competition it attempted to add all sorts of unnecesary crap to capture the same chaotic twisty feeling you get on, say.... Resident Evil and it's corporate conspiracies and backstabbing. Thus you have an unnecesary sideplot regarding a rather shady doctor and an experimental drug jammed into the Harry/Cheryl story and also a cooky prophecy-related sideplot that involves a long deceased girl and a resurrecting demon... Which is actually rather good and interesting (and relates to Cheryl in an interesting way), but unfortunately when injected forcefully into the game along the other 2 main plots you have a complete mess that only works because of the "naked emperor syndrome". Since the overall story is so convoluted and unfocused everybody just files it under "ahh... it must be that it really is a complex masterpiece beyond my comprehension..." instead of just assuming their ignorance. But don't feel so bad my friend! There is no reason to blame your brainpower! The story is just a convoluted mess that tries to win by brute force what it should do by subtlety (as the superb storyline of SH2 did). There is no hidden simbolism, no clever plot twists, just lots of overambitious ideas all fighting among themselves for the top spot, intentional omitions and GLARING plot holes. Those later a product of the lack of direction (The only thing that seems to drive Harry to do things beside Cheryl is the fact that there are big cracks all around town that he can't bypass...) and more often than not just product of contradictions and general lack of coherence. For instance: "Hi! I'm a cop, and I am going to give you, a perfect stranger, (who somehow is the only person I found alive in all this mess) my gun and just leave and rejoin you sometime in the near future even though there are supernatural freaks out there hunting for us all, that ok by you?" Riiiiight..... Every character in this game seems to have those perfectly logical reactions, I mean, picture yourself in this situation: you are lost in hell-town, with all those RE-reject monsters at your tail and you just found the only human being you've seen in hours... What do you do? Do you greet him as if sedated, only making vague inquiries about the situation at hand and then wave him goodbye as each of you leave to follow your own paths?? Yep, that makes perfect dramatic sense doesn't it? Every character interaction in the game is like that, with a few key exceptions and only because the plot dictates it so, and that just makes more obvious just how ridiculously overcomplicated the whole thing is, leaving little room for much, MUCH needed character development. Really, can anybody out there tell me that they really felt Dr. Kauffman and the nurse babe added anything significant to the game plot-wise? How about Dahlia? Yes, she's important, but would it have made any change at all if her character's dialogues had been documented information? Doesn't is strike you as if every character is just like a cardboard cutout reading off a script that they don't seem to understand in any way?? The whole thing is just so "wrong" that I wondered if it was intentional, the whole lack of authenticity and dramatic "glue" makes the whole experience feel extremely theatrical (as in live-staged theatre, not motion pictures) with characters that talk as in trance and assorted oddities that contradict any scripting sense, but even if we consider it a stylistic choice it's just plain bad storytelling man.

Before going on I'd like to point out that the story is still good overall and probably better than most RE-soap operas in it's challenging posture, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let another fanboy scream about how "Silent Hill has the best story ever and ever and ever!!! Nope. Not by a long shot.

Finally there are technical issues still at hand, the use of a fully polygonal engine regardless of the care taken by Konami still falls to the technical pitfalls of the PSX, meaning you have horribly pixellated graphics with distorting textures and all sort of clipping and artifacts. While the sound design in the game is phenomenal the dialogue is horribly written and incoherent (which takes us back to the above paragraphs) but worse than that is the fact that it's also badly acted (everybody in the game is liikeee soooooo seedaaaaateeeeed duuuuuudeeee) and it appears to be fractioned in individual phrases with quite long load times that make each conversation pause and delay as if the characters were talking through a phone on an international call. Control is also very love-or-hate.

The Bottom Line

While not without it's itty bity shortcomings... uh, well actually glaring gigantic flaws, Silent Hill's use of innovative design and horror scripting allowed it to carve itself a place in videogame history as one of the best horror games ever conceived. Translation: Classic, buy it.

Just don't buy into the fanboy hype and you'll be able to enjoy one of the most interesting console games ever made.