Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams
The greatest story ever told
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James Sunderland watches his own face in the mirror of a filthy roadside
bathroom at the observation deck overlooking Toluca Lake. He had to make
a stop here when he found out Nathan Avenue, the only road leading to
the resort community of Silent Hill, is blocked by some sort of construction
James sighs, then mumbles to himself: "Mary, could you really be in this town?"
He takes a map of the area out of his car and decides to enter the town on foot, making his way through the forest around the lake.
His reason to be here is the letter in his pocket, a letter he just received, in which his wife Mary wrote she's waiting for him at Silent Hill, in their "special place".
The thing is, Mary's been dead for three years.
In the polarized and belligerant gaming community, there's a long standing
bloodfeud between the minions of two horror/survival titles: Silent Hill
is the game (and subsequent series) with which Konami answered
to what's considered THE classic of H/S: Capcom's Resident Evil. The main distinction between both is that, whereas RE consists
mostly of class-B zombie-hunting journeys starring a bunch of iron-willed,
gorgeous-looking heroes in tight, brightly-colored, sexy outfits that already made a career
in the Army AND the Police before they hit their mid-20's fighting
the evil "Umbrella Corporation", which is hellbent on perfecting the resurrecting
of the dead for a purpose that probably beats even themselves, where
they have monsters pouncing on you all of a sudden to give you the "boo!"
type of scare; SH leans towards a more psychological kind of horror, putting
rather everyday next-door type of characters to deal with supernatural
situations that constantly tilt between the unveiling of a darker side
of reality and allegories of the character's way of dealing with
his own inner demons. While Konami also resorts to the "boo!" resource
to make you jump off your seat, the true strong point of a SH game is
its dark, gloomy, dreamlike atmosphere, where just about everything could
happen. In Silent Hill, you drop into a hole and you appear at the reception
office of a prison camp from the early 1800's.
That's how we do things here at the Hills, foreigner.
And yes, you just did figure out on which side of the this fanboi wars I stand, you smart thingie, you.
Silent Hill 2 is a rare beast even in its own series. The other SH's are connected plot-wise, all of them mostly centered in telling different bits of the story of a cult that preyed upon the children of the tourist resort of Silent Hill, pursuing the ultimate goal of resurrecting an ancient demon-god and turning the town in some hellish demon-infested no man's land; but SH2 puts that story on the background and focuses in the main's character personal quest, which ultimately turns in an interesting study of the way human beings deal with the feeling of guilt.
The story starts more or less as a typical horror story, with a clueless
character lured and trapped in a ghost town of sorts infested by demonic
creatures, by some obscure entity that promises closure to a particularly
painful chapter of his life. As he makes his way through the nightmarish
settings, determined to uncover the truth behind the ghostly letter
that drove him to the town, he meets a few characters seemingly brought
to the town in a similar fashion, each one of whom having received a call
related to their own ghosts from the past, and thus involved in their
own personal quests.
And this is where everything starts getting really odd.
Instead of teaming up against a mysterious threat, each character wants to keep going on their own. Each one of them seem to be hiding something. Every time James runs into one of them he learns a bit more about their secrets, but they seemed to have learned about James too, and as well as they unwillingly fill the main character in with details about themselves and their quests, they also uncover some rather obscure aspects of Jame's own story, ultimately teaching the player that there's a lot he needs to know yet, up until the point in which he ends up wondering whether Mary is even dead AT ALL.
Halfway into the game James meets the only character that will join him in the quest: the mysterious Maria, an impossible carbon-copy of his late wife, but whereas Mary was the low-profile, housewife kind of woman, Maria is a daring, sarcastic seductress, and she's probably the most puzzling of all the characters; at times it looks like her true identity is a mystery even to herself.
And then it starts getting even stranger, because there's the town too.
Silent Hill is deserted, it seems to have been abandoned for a long time.
Every exit of the town is blocked by either construction work or unexplainable
chasms that engulfed the streets. Inside the buildings there are obvious
evidences of either bloody struggles or paranoid inhabitants having vanished
while trying to shut some unimaginable threat outside.
A thick mist covers the town, preventing from seeing anything far past a couple dozen feet and turning daytime into an eerie, claustrophobic, experience where death could be hiding right in front of you. And then it gets dark, and darker still, because Silent Hill shifts at night: the familiar locations change, become even more decaying, as if a hundred years took a toll on them overnight.
And the town has a backstory of its own. As we progress in the game we gather pieces of information about it, from the fragmented written testimonies of the people who succumbed to whatever it was that emptied the town, to newspaper pieces speaking about missing children, gruesome murders and religious cults trying to break the barrier of death, to historical documents that delve further back into the past, to the days of a plague, the victims of a shipwreck in Toluca Lake that were never found, the brutal, medieval-style crimes committed in a Prison Camp in the early 1800's, further back to the days where the town was built on the ground which settlers previously abandoned all of a sudden for unknown reasons, and even further back, to the days when early inhabitants called the land "The Place of the Silent Spirits".
There's something wrong with Silent Hill, something that looms over the town, entangled within the very mist that perpetually covers it, but has deep roots in the ground as well. The land is sick, and apparently it has always been.
Now, there's been a lot of criticism towards the rather bizarre storytelling,
mainly to the way characters make so seemingly incoherent decisions that
defy even the most generous laws of common sense; you need to look no
further than some of the reviews in this very website. However, call me
a fanboi, but I believe this bizarre storytelling is not incidental.
You see, if you come here expecting the Clive Barker type of horror story, where everything no matter how crazy ends up having a perfectly understandable, and, however supernaturally wacky, rather reasonable explanation, you sure have another thing coming. I, on the other hand, tend to compare this story to the likes of Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder" or David Lynch's "Lost Highway"; the kind of story where the authors have no fear to drive over any storytelling conventions whenever the story demands it, for the sake of the dreamlike atmosphere. Not only I don't criticize that kind of thing, but I even applaud it. Normally, a horror story will start with a number of questions you will figure out piece by piece as you progress, until the final revelation strikes and you finally get it. My problem with this storytelling structure is that the final answer is never as fulfilling as the questions were enticing. There are a few honorable exceptions, sure, but most of the times I receive the typical Final Revelation of a given story with a "so this is what all that was about..." and either a shrug or a yawn. In fact, I rather be left with a lot of unanswered questions and a few hints to try and make any sense of it all by myself, than to have it all blown up by being told it was all the works of a paramilitary company with an obscenely stupid name.
SH2 starts with a rather conventional horror story, what with the ghost town and the monsters haunting the derelict apartments, but somehow seems to GROW as it progresses, and while at the end you ARE given a bunch of answers and a major revelation to complete the puzzle; the whole experience, the JOURNEY towards that end changed the way you look at it all. By the moment you reach the conclusive encounter you're no longer wondering what is the secret hiding behind the impossible letter, but rather whether any of what you just experienced was real or you were just doing a bizarre trip inside James' own subconscious, somehow influenced by this undeniably cursed town.
To top it all, you have the possibility to reach three different endings,
depending on the way you played through the game, each one of which giving
a whole different meaning to James' quest and his way to deal with the
truth he ultimately uncovers. This not only enhances gameplay nicely,
but actually manages to change the meaning of the entire story; a device
that, storytelling-wise, is nothing short of impressive.
Furthermore, in a replay game you also have the chance to get A FOURTH ENDING, one more related to the town and its obscure damnation, which is a nice bonus.
And then you have two more endings, two sick, sick, sick Easter Eggs of joke endings that just have to be seen to be believed. Suffice to say, one of them follows the infamous SH tradition of the "UFO" endings, while the other one has a dog playing the puppetmaster of all the mystery.
Sure you can still bitch about a few particular weak sections of the story, or about how outrageously stupid the main character can come to be; but the storyline itself, and especially the way it's told, is great in its own oddball, niche style.
- OK, genius, so you defended the arbitrary and capricious storytelling against all those unforgiving badmouthers by basically saying that they don't get it, thus not-so-subtlely called some of our own fellow MG reviewers a pack of flaming morons. Sweet. Now were you planning on saying something about THE GAME, or is SH2 just some interactive book?
The first thing that pounces upon you is how astounding the game looks. The whole "thick mist" thing is sure a convenient way to place the far clipping plane suspiciously close, but instead of leaning on this feature to justify their own laziness, the developers took some serious advantage of it, packing the characters and the general gameworld with the most amazingly high poly-count to ever grace a videogame. You might not see far past 20 feet away, but what you do see, looks jaw-droppingly beautiful. The character bodies alone are more detailed than even most games released today, some 4 years later.
The design of the monsters deserves a special note, there are only about 3 or 4 different classes, but they're more than enough, and they show a huge deal of imagination from the developers. And quite a twisted mind, too.
Among them, a special-special note must be done about "Pyramid Head", hands down the coolest and most disturbing villain to ever not do good things. Not to spoil too much what we're dealing with here, but in a few occasions you'll see him sexually abusing some of the other monsters, so you do the maths on how much of a villain he is.
Also, it's really interesting to read further about the ideas behind the creatures, since it turns out their appearance and the relationship between them is not casual, tying up to the main storyline with some classy symbolism.
To push the graphics bar even further up, the textures are drop dead
gorgeous, the animation is so lifelike I don't think I've seen more believable
characters until Half Life 2 came out, which enhances especially the dramatic scenes to
heights you wouldn't believe, and the implementation of the lighting is
a masterpiece in itself, especially if we think this is a DX-8 generation
game, meaning no HDR lighting or any of those fancy F/X we have now.
Once you get a hold of the flashlight, it becomes not only your best pal in the game, but also one of the main atmosphere-building factors, with every single object in the scenery casting dynamic shadows. We all know how scary the shadow of, say, a chair can be when only lit by the dancing beam of a flashlight, and SH2 nailed the idea beautifully.
Next, we have the sound department, one of the main reasons why I re-wrote
The thing is, the voices are fairly decent, the sound effects are very good with some truly memorable moments of sudden noises or unidentifiable whisperings that come to nicely fiddle with your nerves, but the last time I said something like "the music score is not ground breaking", for which I stand corrected and apologize. The first time I played the game, I didn't pay much attention to the music, other than recognizing how good a job it did to match every scene in which it was used, working as a very effective atmosphere-builder. Then I played the game a few more times, and the tunes started to stick in my head, and I found myself enjoying them more and more. Then, thanks to a fellow MG'er, I got to hear the full soundtrack album, and boy, did that thing hit me hard. Not only listening to the tracks takes me back to some of the most intense moments in the game, but they are all so beautiful on their own that I -not precisely much of a soundtrack kind of guy- bought the album and to the day it remains one of my top-3 favourite music albums of all times. Basically, we are talking about a mix between elaborated, oddball Angelo-Badalamenti-style experimental sounds with some fresh, radio-friendly, cutesy pop sounds; resulting in an unimaginably effective product, extremely likely to be enjoyable by anyone, be it a snotty, overly demanding musician looking for daring and innovative sounds or a lighthearted, casual, top-40 kind of listener.
On a side note, the albums for all the other SH games are also worth getting. Akira Yamaoka is undoubtedly one hell of a gifted musician.
Finally, the PC version of SH2 is the one sub-labeled "Restless Dreams" in the XBOX, which means we get to play a 30-minutes sub-game with Maria; getting a new and interesting perspective of a rather relevant part of the story.
No good can come without drawbacks, and when it's THIS good, sadly it
makes the flaws look worse.
In the first place, I was annoyed to see that as much care had been taken in every little detail in every aspect, while some things were just left aside. They are mostly little stupidities, but being so "small" makes them even more annoying, as one can presume they could've been taken rid of quite easily. First, the way James swaps weapons. There's no animation at all, the weapons just appear/disappear in his hands like magic. That's simply awful, considering the details at other levels (you can even see the movement of James' feet when he runs, Goddamnit!).
There are more of those, like the way the character turns around like if he was standing on a giant record player, without even moving a foot, or the HORRIBLE animation given to the roaches, not only the worst animation of the game, probably the worst animation EVER.
The AI does not exactly shine, and while that would be expected since
we are fighting mostly zombies and their brains are probably rotten and
all, then there comes Maria, who as I said joins James for a long
part of the game... and what a BURDEN of a NPC she turns to be! I've never
suffered a sidekick this idiotic in my entire videogaming life, not even
the prisoners in the coin-op "Missing in Action" were this STUPID.
First, Maria won't defend herself at all. Oh OK, that's good, we can play the knight-in-shining-armour and protect the girl... but the girl not only doesn't fight back when attacked, she doesn't have any survival instinct at all! SHE WON'T EVEN RUN WHEN ATTACKED! SHE WILL JUST STAND THERE LETTING A GIVEN CREATURE JUST KILL HER WITH A BLANK EXPRESSION IN HER FACE! Even worse, in this kind of situation she will be most likely standing in your way, preventing you from killing the monster without hurting her. Because you can hurt her too. And you WILL, as the girl just seems to love to stand in the way of swinging melee weapons and flying bullets.
The action parts of the game can almost always be bypassed, and it is
recommended to do so a couple of times, since there are way too many enemies
around (especially on the streets), but one of the main reasons why you
will rather do this is because how badly James sucks at using weapons
-especially melee weapons. Hitting a creature with a wooden plank involves
an animation that takes up to 2-3 seconds, that's not only annoying to
withstand but more often than not gives the enemy enough time to attack
before being hit.
Something similar happens in most of the boss fights. They go from stupidly easy to impossibly hard, passing through ridiculous situations like two guys standing face to face firing guns at each other without moving, for 30 seconds or so, until one dies. The "hard" difficulty mode just makes the enemies impossibly tough, resulting in the last boss battle taking no less than 40 minutes!! to beat.
Your worst enemy in this kind of situation -as in every H/S game- is the control interface. I know it has to suck because it comes from a console and all, but after the freedom of movement that games such as Oni gave me, getting stuck with this clumsy interface is VERY frustrating.
There's yet one more gameplay problem, and it's the camera: sometimes it will stand
in front of James, preventing the player from seeing the enemies
he's facing. You can switch it to James' back with a keystroke, but the
animation is so painfully slow, that you can die twice before you even
see what killed you.
And it will happen. A lot.
In this area, the first SH was WAY better.
In fact, while we are on the subject of comparing, I must say that while SH2
is in lots of ways superior to the first game, there are some things I
really miss from the original, like the snow, the rain, and the effects of the original
"Reversed Silent Hill", which looked MUCH more creepy than SH2's (with
the streets becoming rusty grating over bottomless pits, and the monsters
themselves getting "reversed"). I wonder why those kind of things were
kept apart, it's a pity.
Also, the first game had A LOT of "little scary moments" that worked out GREATLY (remember the locker room in the school?), while SH2 barely has any.
Although I think the way the game decides which ending you are getting
is brilliant, the problem is, there's no really a clear clue to what you
should do in order to get each ending. If you don't have a
walkthrough to guide you, it could turn pretty tricky to figure out, as
none of the choices you make is any clear. Again, this was MUCH
clearer in the first game.
For example, there's one ending in which James commits suicide (come on, you know this has to happen in at least one ending from the get-go). In order to get that ending to happen, the game will account whether or not you readed certain documents and examined a certain item. Now, it may be (and it was, actually) that I readed those documents just to find out what they were about. Not knowing what was written in there, I couldn't possibly figure that they would lead me to that ending.
Bluntly, the game decides that just for being curious about the contents of a piece of paper, I have suicidal tendencies.
Way to make a snap judgement.
Finally, there's a glitch that appears in every scene involving lip-synching
that, however relatively small, IS noticeable. As I said, when a given
scene looks this wonderful, a small persistent glitch looks much more
annoying than ever.
It happens in the faces when the characters talk: "dots" and "lines" that flash every now and then around the lips in motion.
Ah, one last thing, dear console-to-PC porters: please be aware that there are PC monitors that can easily work at definitions well above 1024x768 and still have their refresh rate set at 75Hz and sometimes more, and DON'T CAP YOUR GODDAMNED GAMES AT A MAXIMUM OF 30 FRAMES PER SECOND!!! That's fine and maybe even necessary in a console because of the output of a normal TV, but you're killing the PC gamers forcing such a lame and nonsensical limitation. Some people have complained about arbitrary fraction-of-a-second stops during the game that are nothing else but the framerate suddenly dropping because of a given camerawork, and any drop below 30, however small and brief, means one thing: stuttering.
This is really annoying especially when you KNOW your hardware could very well run the game at 60 FPS or more, if they even gave it the chance.
The Bottom Line
One would think (although I know people that don't) that the most important part of a game is its gameplay. To quote OldManMurray's Erik, if you're looking for a story, go read a book, they have that field pretty much covered up. However, SH2 manages to effectively tell a story that I imagine wouldn't work out so well in any other media. This is one game in which the (many) gameplay issues (some of them inseparably related to the very genre the game belongs to) can be bypassed for a greater good.
I'm an unbearably snobbish bookworm. I'm even more unbearable with my
picky choices of movies. I'm the kind of guy you don't want to be with
when watching a popcorn flick or a comedy, unless you think you'd have
enjoyed going to the movies with Ignatius Reilly. That said, I often dare
to refer SH2 as the greatest story ever told.
It might (it does) have its share of flaws, and many of them manage to cripple the experience seriously (you can't possibly be immersed into the dire need to save a girl who doesn't even bother to look at the hellish abomination that's mercilessly beating her dead), but in the end, it remains a masterpiece in storytelling. It's simple but it's deep at the same time, it's clever, it's disturbing, it's emotional, and -above all- it doesn't crumble down in the end by resorting to adolescent class-B-movie type of explanations -a flaw so painfully common in videogame stories- but rather it treads a narrative path that even many big-time movies don't dare.
I recommend this game to anyone looking for gorgeous graphics, immersive horror atmosphere, and -very especially- a GREAT storytelling.