A masterpiece of Survival Horror and the last real Silent Hill.
From the very first moment I played the original Silent Hill, I knew that it was something special. The combination of traditional Survival Horror elements with a renewed focus on scaring the player with smartly written dialogue, intelligent camera use and a terrifying set of circumstances gave Silent Hill an edge that Resident Evil clones just didn't have.
Silent Hill was a supremely negative experience, not in regards to the game but in regards to the atmosphere within it. Walls bleed and warp, disfigured enemies stagger from the shadows while your radio wails and Akira Yamaoka's masterful soundtrack pounds and shrieks in the background. It's a combination of atmosphere, soundtrack and aesthetics that helps the Silent Hill series transcend more mediocre Survival Horror pursuits.
Silent Hill 2 presented a more focused, cohesive experience with a more realized town to explore. Everything about the game was refined in relation to its predecessor. The mythology of the town was expanded upon in really subtle ways, expanding on our understanding of the underlying concepts and realities that the town was built upon, while incorporating an adeptly crafted story about a man who may or may not be suffering from a mental illness.
Silent Hill starts in a fairly unfamiliar fashion. Heather finds herself in a nightmarish Amusement Park. After escaping this nightmare she finds herself in a noticeably more mundane place; a Shopping Mall. It seems she fell asleep in a fast food restaurant. The way the game begins, with a horrible nightmare transitioning jarringly into this abject normality is part of the masterful psychological orchestration that runs through Silent Hill 3 like blood through your veins. Every meticulously crafted environment is filled with hints, mythos or elements to enhance the atmosphere.
Using these elements Silent Hill 3 scares you in a decidedly unique fashion. Instead of relying on cliche's or cheap jump scares Silent Hill 3 relies solely on what your mind can compose from the elements provided for you. It's a masterpiece of mise-en-scene, with environmental details or strange creatures performing arbitrary activities while ignoring Heather augmenting the sense of dread provided by Akira Yamaoka's droning compositions.
In many instances Heather seems to appear just when the horrific events have finished occurring. For instance, at one point she finds herself in a basement with a wheel chair lying on its side, the wheel slowly turning down while a trail of blood leads around the corner and into the open doors of an elevator shaft. The sense of dread accompanying this scene filled me with more fear than any pile of corpses of things jumping out of a closet ever could. The game lets your mind paint a picture and those with active imaginations will get the most out of Silent Hill 3.
Heather controls more or less like James from Silent Hill 2. The control scheme has essentially remained consistent since the original game. Holding R2 readies your weapon while pressing square while holding R2 allows Heather to guard herself from attacks. Heather quick turns, controls fluidly and using her feels like Team Silent polished the control scheme to perfection. There is not one aspect of it I can fault.
Heather's weapon choice is somewhat more varied than in previous games, with access to the obligatory handgun and shotgun in addition to more exotic things like a maul or sub-machine gun. The guard move adds a degree of strategy to fights and as usual the level of light and movement from enemies affects Heather's accuracy when firing weapons. Finishing the game while fulfilling certain secret criteria allows access to more weapons upon completion of the game. I will not ruin these for potential players however. I will say though that they are interesting, useful and balanced in their own ways, with each one requiring a level of aptitude to be used effectively.
The way Silent Hill 3 flows is significantly different from both the original and the sequel. The first half of the game is fundamentally linear, giving the feeling of a series of "dungeon" areas being sewn together with a sensible flow that adds credibility to the narrative. The second half of the game does actually take place in Silent Hill and although your exploration opportunities are limited I preferred the focused feel of this game with slight exploratory elements rather than the exploration taking precedence over exposition.
There are many familiar places to explore, albeit rendered with a proficiency unlike I have ever witness on the Playstation 2.
This brings me onto the sheer amazing graphical achievements pulled off on the console. Games like God of War and Final Fantasy 12 look amazing in their own ways however they do also seem far too cartoon like. Silent Hill 3 is the only game I have ever played on the PS2 where I've felt like what I'm looking at it is real.
Heather looks beautiful (in every sense of the word) and has been rendered with such meticulous detail that she looks like something that belongs in a high end Xbox game. Every single supporting character and enemy in the game exhibits this same level of astounding care from everything from the eyebrows to the lips and tiny imperfections in the skin that could have easily been left out but weren't. Environments sit molding with brooding atmosphere under amazing lighting effects and brilliant volumetric fog. Neon signs glow with a dirty vigor, casting odd shades of purple and pink over blood stained chairs and desks. Walls seem to creep with a disgusting film of moving skin and a well used church sits empty with mutlicolored light cast through stained glass windows.
The world of Silent Hill 3 is amazingly organic and this sense of realism augments the sheer creeping dread felt by the player as the wander the empty hallways of the abandoned buildings and slime encrusted tunnels.
Lastly I would be doing the great composer Akira Yamaoka a disservice by not mentioning his haunting yet beautiful soundtrack. Every track that accompanies Heather's journey acts to assist in endearing ourselves to her, emphasising her youth and inexperience or her inner turmoil as she struggles to come to terms with everything she is experiencing. The soundtrack is Heather, yet it is also the environments. The soundtrack fights you as hard as the shambling monstrosities that inhabit the otherworld that Heather wanders through. It screams and shrieks and bangs and fills your head with a sense of lingering negativity and fear.
The lack of adventuring around Silent Hill may seem like a detriment to you if you were hoping for another extended jaunt around the empty streets. Within the portion of the game where you are given relatively free reign to explore there is very little to see and do.
Some enemies are irritating, badly designed and will constantly knock you down. You might say that you could simply kill them or use beef jerky to distract them but if you are like me and take the "Survival" part of Survival Horror very seriously you will be frustrated by the constant knock downs, which Heather is very prone to, while trying to run past or avoid them.
Some characters like Douglas could have been explored with a little more depth, there is a slight revelation about his past later in the game however it is more or less totally inconsequential.
The Bottom Line
Silent Hill 3 feels almost perfect when you are playing it. It's an amazing experience, filled with such unrestricted negativity juxtaposed against the occasional tender moment of raw human emotion.
Heathers journey is frightening and harrowing and yet as a gameplay experience it is fulfilling, satisfying and addictive. There are so many extra's to uncover when you have finished the game from more than 10 extra costumes, weapons and difficulty modes.
The few minor faults present in the game are overshadowed by the degree of mastery expressed by Team Silent when playing the game, which you will be playing for quite some time after you finish it.