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SummarySprayers, four-legs, pyramid heads, nurses... is this a dream?
The GoodSilent Hill 2 follows the footsteps of its predecessor, which created its own brand of survival horror: rather than liberally borrowing from mainstream images of the corresponding literary genre (like Alone in the Dark) or going for a campy, B-movie feel mixed with cheesy Japanese storytelling (like Resident Evil), Silent Hill created a tense, atmospheric experience revolving around personal issues, obscure semi-occult themes and overall enigmatic approach to storytelling. Suffice to say that the sequel takes everything that made the first game great while fixing many of its gameplay-related flaws and boasting a better-paced, psychologically much more intriguing plot.
For starters, Silent Hill 2 visibly improves upon its predecessor's control scheme and combat system. The game adds the much-needed camera-based navigation that finally does away with the common chronic clumsiness of survival horror protagonists. That is not to say that the protagonist moves like a ballerina, elegantly eliminating monsters with graceful kicks. No, he is fittingly slow and inept, but this time it doesn't feel like an engine limitation: combat is deliberately tough and visceral rather than faultily executed.
Moving on, the monsters are by far more interesting than the rather sad collection of skinless animals frequently spotted in the first installment. In fact, Silent Hill 2 has some of the creepiest, most unsettling creatures I've ever seen in a video game. The famed Pyramid Head is just one extraordinary example from this singularly terrifying bestiary. Stylistically, this means that the series has found its own tone instead of following general stereotypes. Indeed, the atmosphere is greatly intensified by the presence of those fearsome freaks: their emergence from the fog following the ominous crackling of your radio continues to be scary and unnerving throughout the whole game.
Not all of the puzzles in Silent Hill 2 are good, but I feel that in general they surpass in quality the often contrived, artificial tasks of the first title. The good news are that there are several difficulty modes allowing the player to adjust the level of challenge in combat and puzzle-solving separately. The decisions you make throughout the game affect the plot and eventually lead to six or so different endings. This is always a plus, since it adds replay value to the game.
The premise of the first Silent Hill - an average Joe becoming involved in supernatural weirdness while looking for his lost daughter - by far surpassed Resident Evil's prospect of playing as trained agents in terms of emphasizing the horror. However, its story quickly became confusing and (in my opinion) too disjointed to keep the integrity. Silent Hill 2 opens with a similar kind of personal involvement, though on a far more surreal level - the protagonist goes to Silent Hill because he receives a letter from his dead wife. This establishes the bizarre tone of the story right away, making illogical and disconnected events much more acceptable thanks to the overall dream-like atmosphere and feeling of sheer insanity present right in the beginning. That said, Silent Hill 2 does a much better job actually staying within that style, focusing on the hero's psychological baggage above everything else. The supporting cast is also noticeably more impressive and plays a more coherent role in the story.
The graphical boost is instantly noticeable as well. Silent Hill 2 is easily one of the best-looking games of its generation, though the trick of using perpetual fog to reduce the viewing distance does feel a bit cheap at times. Characters are well-animated, backgrounds are detailed, and there are some minor features that show how much effort was put into the game's visuals (for example, if the protagonist steps into blood he will leave bloody traces on the floor). In short, this game comes with the usual high production values one would expect from Konami.
The BadSilent Hill 2 still subscribes to the usual tropes of survival horror, which means its pacing is often hampered by superfluous puzzle-solving that feels even more out of place here than in the less ambitious, more "video game-like" Resident Evil. I don't see how collecting some symbols to fit in a device that has nothing whatsoever to do with the game world fits with its theme and aesthetic presentation. Many puzzles feel unnatural and lacking any sort of context, seemingly inserted into the game just because the canons of the genre demand that.
There is also a bit too much repetition in Silent Hill 2. You are stuck in an apartment building: one third of the many visible doors is irrevocably locked; another third is locked temporarily, i.e. there is a vague hope of getting inside later; the remaining third contains puzzles, keys, and other useful items that will allow you to unlock the second third. It's okay to have one such building; but then there is another one just like that. And another one. And then that other one again, but this time with different items, puzzles, and clues, because there are two Silent Hills in the game: one dark, foggy, evil, and plagued by monsters, and the other foggy, plagued by monsters, evil, and dark. Seriously, I could have lived without an alternate dimension that is only slightly more disturbing than the already spooky reality. In fact, I found the "normal" Silent Hill more scary because it didn't rely on supernatural imagery to convey its horror.
I know that the story of Silent Hill 2 was subjected to meticulous analysis and combed for allusions, metaphors, and what not in various FAQs; I also know that many people consider it the ultimate piece of storytelling in the medium. Personally, I think some of the story was perhaps too cryptic, and certain events struck me as being plain weird and inexplicable just for the sake of it. It actually fit quite well together with the whole strange premise, but I wished for a bit of clarity during its final phase.