Silent Hill (PlayStation) review
"What was that noise? It could have been a car backfiring in the street, but you think it seemed closer. Was that a creak on the stairs? Probably the wind in the trees outside, but you can't be sure. Hey, wasn't your door shut before? Now you're just being silly. Oh but look at you, you're very pale, you're jumping at the slightest thing, you're having sleepless nights... You've been playing Silent Hill again, haven't you.... "
What was that noise? It could have been a car backfiring in the street, but you think it seemed closer. Was that a creak on the stairs? Probably the wind in the trees outside, but you can't be sure. Hey, wasn't your door shut before? Now you're just being silly. Oh but look at you, you're very pale, you're jumping at the slightest thing, you're having sleepless nights... You've been playing Silent Hill again, haven't you....
There are several games out there that want to scare you (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and so on), but there are very few out there that actually do. Sure the zombies in Resi may make you jump, but ultimately the fact that they shuffle around like the slow moving dead people that they are means that they are just too easy to evade. The dinosaurs in Dino Crisis just plain aren't scary, and while again Alone In The Dark can send shivers down your spine and make you jump a bit, it doesn't actually scare you. Silent Hill does.
Silent Hill tells the tale of Harry Mason, a man whose wife has recently died. Hoping to get away from his grief for a while, he takes his daughter Cheryl to the town of Silent Hill for a vacation. When he gets there, though, things just plain aren't right. On the road leading into town, he is passed by a motorcycle-riding police officer. Seconds later he passes the bike, lying on it's side in the road. Then a ghostly woman steps out in front of his car. He swerves, crashes, and when he comes to, discovers that his daughter has wandered off into the fog that shrouds the town. And so the nightmare begins....
After the rather superb and spooky FMV intro that sets up this premise, the first thing that strikes you about the game proper is how... well... ugly it is. Silent Hill is a third person adventure game, much in the vein of Tomb Raider, but while Lara carries out her puzzling, running and jumping in some rather sumptuous environments, Harry is left wandering the mist filled streets of Silent Hill, and unfortunately the very low draw distance that the mist brings about makes the whole game appear very bland, with each area of the town resembling the last. To accompany this rather dull look is what is initially a rather dull game. You wander the streets, look for keys and clues, get attacked by (in the initial stages very few-and-far-between) demons and hell hounds, before proceeding to the next part of the town as you hunt for your missing daughter. However, after about an hour's play, things change. It starts to get dark outside, and Harry is left with only a pocket torch to show him the way. This is the turning point for the game, as from this point on you'll find yourself pulled in to Harry's world, and find yourself completely immersed in the atmosphere of the game. Because as soon as the lights go out, the game stops being a gentle stroll around some far too empty streets and alleys, and instead becomes something more, something that so many developers have tried in vein to achieve in the past. It becomes genuinely scary. For reasons that it is hard to pinpoint, every corner you turn, every door you open fills you with a genuine sense of dread deep in the pit of your stomach. The darkened streets have a much more claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere than that seen in Resident Evil - every step feels like you are coming ever closer to something just waiting to take a bite out of you. The sense of trepidation built up by this game cunningly masks the fact that, even later on in the game, there really aren't that many enemies in the game. As such, the fear created by this game is brought upon you for psychological reasons, rather than cheap shocks, and as such seems far more genuine, far more real. And once the game has you afraid to take the next step, dreading the appearance of some monstrosity, it delivers the final terrifying blow - you realise that this game is happening in a town that seems very real. The school looks like any other school. You pass regular looking grocery shops, the hospital is full of regular hospital rooms with regular hospital beds. Seeing evil creatures shuffle around police stations with Tardis-like interior dimensions is one thing, seeing them shuffle around familiar looking environments is quite another. And while things do take a bit of a turn for the abstract later on in the game, by that point it is too late - the mundane familiarity of the settings has made the world of Silent Hill feel so real to you that it's impossible not to relate to the surroundings.
In a way it's good that the atmosphere of Silent Hill is so strong, because the gameplay itself is fairly linear. Streets are blocked off by gaping holes in the road, and the only way to get past is to solve a puzzle or kill a few things in the area that you're in at present. Lather, rinse and repeat all the way to whichever of the five possible endings you've earned (and beyond if you fancy another tour of Silent Hill). It's very basic stuff, although there are quite a few neat touches thrown in. Early on in the game you come into possession of a small, seemingly broken radio. However, this radio bursts into fierce jangling static every time something wicked your way comes, serving as a warning. While it may sound like this would make things a bit too easy, believe me it doesn't - it's pretty much the only thing that stops certain parts of the game from becoming far too carpet-chewing-ly difficult. Also, just as the game goes to great lengths to ensure that the game is set in a real environment, so it goes to equally great lengths to ensure that Harry seems real - Harry is just a regular person, that's the beauty of it, and as such after running for a short while he needs to slow to catch his breath, and even when close to enemies he sometimes misses in his attempts to shoot them (because how many regular people off the street would have perfect aim on their first day handling a gun?). Not only that, but those of you playing with a Dual Shock controller (which must be most of the Playstation gamers by now) get to feel the controller beat along in time with Harry's heart - when things get scary, his heartbeat starts to rocket.
Again, beneath the atmospheric veneer the graphics are nothing special. The FMVs are beautiful, and thankfully quite widely interspersed, but the in game graphics, as well as being bland, are very rough around the edges - there are lots of jagged surfaces on display here, and the animation isn't very smooth. Still, there are some nice touches, such as the ghostly babies that wander the school, through walls and locked doors, that cannot be killed, but cannot hurt you either - just another spooky little inclusion. Although initially disappointing, though, this unpolished and grainy look just adds to the terror, for the same inexplicable reasons that crusty old black-and-white films are often scarier than modern day special effects filled horror yawnfests.
The sound, too, is very underplayed. The almost musical static that comes from the radio is almost comical at first, but soon it starts to seem less amusing, and starts to feel vaguely sinister, even though the actual sound itself never changes. There are also several seemingly unprovoked and random sound effects that just jump out at you - the eerie and heart-wrenching sound of a little girl crying that echoes through the school toilets at one end of the spectrum, the sudden sharp clatter that leaps out of nowhere and is over almost as soon as it begins in the hospital at the other. None of these sounds are remotely special in themselves, but as a part of the whole game they become something far bigger than the sum of their parts.
Silent Hill feels like the low budget independent horror film to the big screen gloss of the Resident Evil games. While the Resi games are far more satisfying initially, their thrills and chills soon become predictable. Silent Hill, on the other hand, feels very unfinished to start with - the controls are very unconvincing, the graphics look very outdated (and did even at the time of the game's release) and the sounds are really nothing special. However, unlike the Resident Evil games, this game gets progressively scarier as it sucks you in. The key word here is atmosphere - it's impossible to say quite why this game is as thick with it as it is, but suffice to say that this game creeps up on you like a shadow in the night, and starts to gnaw away into the back of your mind, what starts off as uneasy trepidation blossoms into full blown, genuinely unsettling fear, and the best thing is that you don't notice it building up. The intelligent but oh so disturbing plot and the horrific surroundings that replace the recognisable ones on occasion mean that this game isn't always a pleasant playing experience, but it is always a compelling one.
Community review by tomclark (March 06, 2004)
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