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SummaryIt's a rough but enjoyable return to Silent Hill
The GoodFirst of all I need to point out that, while I wasn't using any proper modifications for the game, I applied fixes to enable modern resolutions and some hardware improvements through my graphics card's panel. While these options aren't available directly in the menus they're all things that the engine can do natively. With these tweaks applied the game looks truly fantastic, especially considering that it came out in 2002. While the environmental lighting is rather flat and basic, the effects of the portable flashlight are also wonderful. The only problem with the game engine is that it's locked at 30 FPS.
Silent Hill 2 tells the story of James, who has received a letter from his dead wife. Despite the unlikely situation, he's decided to return to Silent Hill anyway and visit the resort where they had a holiday together. The game starts after he is forced to abandon his car and continue on foot, due to the road into town being blocked. The story revolves around James' obsession with his dead wife, Mary, and his confusion as he meets a woman named Maria who resembles her in an uncanny manner. I found Maria to be a rather well written and interesting character, while James felt very sloppy and his actions and reactions rarely made sense.
Both creature and level design are top notch: a complete new roster of incredibly creative monsters is introduced. All the locations are expansive and complex without being confusing or dispersive. There's a wide variety of places that James will explore in the search for Mary, ranging from the ever present hospital to a prison hidden beneath the bowels of the earth. Of course, most of these are reached by free roaming through the town, this time on the south side of the lake.
One of the biggest improvements that the development team brought over the first Silent Hill is that they've let the choice of control type to the player: people used to the “tank” system seen in the prequel or in the Resident Evil titles can continue using it, but also available is a much more comfortable and fluid-feeling directional control system. It's also interesting the double difficulty selection: players can choose settings for both the action and riddle elements. The first one will affect how many enemies show up, how hard they hit and how accurate they are, while the second will concern only the puzzles, with the higher settings making them more cryptic and hard to decode. As far as riddles and puzzles go, they're a bit hit and miss: most were fun to figure out, but occasionally they relied too much on a very particular interpretation of the hints received.
Besides the portable flashlight, other features from Silent Hill have come back. The most iconic is undoubtedly the crackling radio that emits static noise whenever there's an enemy nearby. My favourite, however, is the map system: the clean and easy to read maps that get updated automatically as you try to open doors have come back and are as good as ever. A fantastic feature that appears to me has gone often unnoticed and I've never seen in another game is that James will look at items that can be picked up: in the first Silent Hill there often was the risk of missing something because it was behind a corner, hidden in shadows or maybe just slightly off-screen. To solve this problem the developers, instead of having glowing items or some ugly floating marker highlighting the item, made it so James' head will nod towards the nearest item. This is incredibly subtle and non intrusive, yet extremely useful. While there are still save points scattered around, represented by red squares generally on a wall, the game implements also a free saving system that allows the players to record their game whenever they want. The presence of several different endings will help keeping the replayability high for people who enjoy them. The New Game + mode doesn't offer much besides a few special weapons, that are, however, fun to use.
Added as a bonus after the main game there's also a mini-campaign called Born From a Wish, which tells what happened to Maria until the point right before she met James. It's rather short and should only take about one hour, but it's a nice bonus. Unfortunately it is marred by a puzzle that could have been good had its interface been better: the player needs to arrange a few tablets in a specific manner and the only way to try the combinations is to go through the inventory each time. The short fade-out that happens every time one of the menus is opened, normally unnoticeable, becomes very tiresome when done several times in a row.
The BadSadly not everything can be good. The game itself is very slow to start. Unlike the prequel which throws the player directly into the thick of things, in this one there's a long walking sequence on a path down the hill, that's supposed to set the mood. The problem is that like the rest of the game, the overall atmosphere is not as claustrophobic and smothering as the original title managed to do. The light and darkness mechanics have been almost dropped, because most monsters will still be able to see James even if his flashlight is turned off. The result is that there's very little reason to stay in the darkness and attempt to sneak around because the disadvantages of doing so far outweigh the benefits.
The voice acting and writing have actually improved significantly. They are still awkward and weird, but at least they're not just comically bad.
The worst aspect by far of Silent Hill 2, and what can ruin the experience completely, is the camera's behaviour and controls. Similarly to the previous instalment it has an annoying tendency to face the front of the protagonist. However, in this case, it's also very hard to manipulate it so that it's facing the correct direction and, when you've finally managed to orient it correctly, it will refuse to stay put and constantly try to get back in front. This irritating behaviour makes navigating narrow hallways and corridors a real pain. The second aspect that was made worse from the first game are the melee attacks: they've become sluggish and very hard to time correctly, making close combat not a fun choice.
It doesn't matter that much anyway, because just like its predecessor the game starts off pretending to be a survival horror, just to end up showering the player with ammunition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in particular with the terrible melee controls it means that the combat is overall bearable because there's no particular need to pay close attention to the bullet use. Healing items are abundant as well.
The boss fights were a huge let-down. Most of them were relegated to small arenas, way too cramped to have the proper mobility. Dodging the attacks resolves usually to just running along the perimeter of the room, trying to shoot whenever possible. Pyramid Head in particular, who appeared to me, before I played this game, like he was an important icon of the Silent Hill series, turned out to be pathetic and laughable.
I found that the hard difficulty wasn't well balanced: the common monsters were fun and challenging, but the bosses became just plain unfair. If you consider that they deal massive damage and their speed increases, and pair that with the fact that most of the arenas where they're encountered are small, you get to the conclusion that survival is more based on amount of healing items left in the inventory rather than actual skill. The easier difficulties are understandably unchallenging. Overall, normal felt like the perfectly balanced setting to me.