SummaryA masterpiece and a benchmark for smart, psychological horror.
The GoodIn my restless dreams...
Today, I would like you do to something for me. If you have the chance, please go to your local Gamestop/EB Games/GAME store and have a look at the selection of games on offer. If you notice an endless slew of corridor shooters, Halo clones or poorly developed "casual" games then it doesn't surprise me whatsoever. The video game industry is different now. The video game industry has mass market appeal wherein if everything is bigger, bolder and better then it is a guaranteed seller. Take Modern Warfare for example, quite possibly the most popular series of the last few years yet totally bereft of creativity. That isn't to say it is impossible to find an inventive, quality game, it's just harder than say 10 years ago where the shelf was full of them because that is all developers had.
The story of Silent Hill 2, the conceptual design behind it and the execution of the marketing promotions stands as a testament to a time that modern gamers and kids born after 1995 couldn't possibly begin to understand or appreciate.
Silent Hill 2 was comprised of a team of men that were so irrepressibly talented and that displayed such genius in the subtleties surrounding the game design that any awards they received for the game were well deserved. Masahiro Ito sat for hours in front of his mirror, studying his own facial expressions in hundreds of positions to get the perfect set of expressions for his characters. Akira Yamaoka retreated to his home for 3 days merely to compose the games iconic theme song and Hiroyuki Owaku employed actual psychological phenomena such as the division between Eros and Thanatos when writing the scenario.
These men didn't simply rely on motion capture, a stock horror storyline with a simple twist and a thumping electronic soundtrack to rely on scaring the player while they played the game. The level of immersion, the way the characters moved, the sound design, the believability and ambiguity of the storyline were all paramount concerns. In other words, virtually every single stylistic element of Silent Hill was polished to an incandescent sheen in the same space of time it takes developers now to roll out another Halo clone or casual game collection.
The level of commitment the team displayed while developing the game is not immediately evident, which is a shame. The labours of love are something that need to be allowed to soak in to appreciate. When you begin to notice subtle environmental hints like gunshots in a wall or subtle changes in a characters intonation that you might have missed several times before the layers begin to pile up and you feel how much of a grand work that Silent Hill 2 is.
Being so isolated, so alone in a totally alien place is the fundamental driving force behind the fear generated by Silent Hill 2. From the long walk at the start to the dark, quiet buildings that dot the foggy town you are always alone and no one is there to help you. You cannot call a helicopter or a buddy in a jeep, there is no one left to call. James is thoroughly alone in this horrible place, yet he is also accompanied by a ghost, or is she really who she looks like? Is it all in James' tormented mind?
Controlling James is very familiar, R2 readies your weapon and X fires it. Your inventory is basically lifted straight from Silent Hill and the line up of weapons is very similar. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way James controls but the combat can be a bit hit and miss.
One genius feature introduced in Silent Hill 2 was the prompt to decide the level of difficulty when solving puzzles as well as general gameplay. The variety provided by this mechanic requires a level of familiarity with the puzzles on previous difficulties and when playing on hard the cryptic and baffling clues provided by the game require some real thinking, that is if you haven't played the game before.
The general flow of the game, gentle prompting from location to location and genius design of the "dungeon" areas eliminate any wandering you might encounter through the vast, intimidating streets of Silent Hill. The actual map isn't at all big, however the brilliant use of volumetric fog and the inclusion of optionally explorable alleyways and side streets lend to the town feeling much more massive than the map alludes to. You feel so tiny and fragile, helpless and alone. It's one of the most effective devices at eliciting fear in a player I have experienced since the Camera Obscura in Fatal Frame.
I wanted to mention Akira Yamaoka. I am a devout fan of this musical genius' work. He has this innate ability to stir emotions in you through his music. I'm not simply saying his music makes you feel frightened, sad or happy. I'm talking about something deeper. His music makes you feel the basest versions of these emotions, something in Akira's music has the power to burrow into you and force the most profound depression, anxiety or contentment from you. Every chilling, otherworldy sound effect that is uttered from the aberrations that stalk the streets and every single foot step has been meticulously recorded and filtered to augment James' dire situation. Take time to appreciate Akira's work as it is one of the highlights of the entire experience.
The BadWith so much effort into presenting a believable environment with believable characters it is a shame that James seems to run in a spastic sort of way, flailing his arms as he blocky feet pound the pavement. Everyone else animates fine, there is just something odd about the way James runs and walks with an almost cocky self assurance.
Some environmental details that were not intended on being the focal point of a room lack textural detail and look slightly cheap. It's noticeable in things like bed frames, shop fronts or signs. You're not going to notice it a lot as you'll have other things on your mind, but it's definitely there.
Combat is a little hit and miss. Camera angles occasional work to your disadvantage as you'll have to judge the depth between you and an enemy on the fly and often the enemy will come off better. It happens with bosses as well, I've been in situations where boss fights should have been shorter but I simply kept missing shots or melee weapon swings because of the way the camera angle was designed.
The Bottom LineSilent Hill 2 is a profoundly moving game, full of subtlety and psychological nuance that is missing in a modern video game market bereft of creativity.
The sheer level of dedication displayed by a team composed of genius level designers, scenario writers and art directors shines through an almost faultless veneer of graphical competency. Each face has been exhaustingly designed, each character has been built from a foundation of typical human flaws, each location is packed with subtle detail and tense atmosphere and each chilling encounter leaves you out of breath and with chills running down your spine.
What few faults there are make no difference to your enjoyment of and immersion in the games twisted reality. Silent Hill 2 is like nothing ever made nor will any game ever transcend how visceral and terrifying it is no matter how closely they ape the style.