"There comes a time in the life cycle of every franchise where its developers are faced with one of two choices. Should they cut their losses now and bow out respectfully? Remembered if they're lucky for their crowning achievements and other assorted mile stones. Or should they risk everything and plow forever onwards? Hoping against hope that the magic of old will carry them on, even when such concepts as innovation and originality have fallen by the wayside. On one hand there is honor and respe..."
There comes a time in the life cycle of every franchise where its developers are faced with one of two choices. Should they cut their losses now and bow out respectfully? Remembered if they're lucky for their crowning achievements and other assorted mile stones. Or should they risk everything and plow forever onwards? Hoping against hope that the magic of old will carry them on, even when such concepts as innovation and originality have fallen by the wayside. On one hand there is honor and respect while the other offers a few dollars more at the risk of a sullied name and a dirtied reputation. It's a tough choice to be sure, but it's one that Konami would do well to ponder. For it is with this, their fourth entry in the perennial Silent Hill series, that the franchise has finally begun showing signs of decay. Running hot on the heels of a successful third installment, Silent Hill 4: The Room once more attempts to drag players kicking and screaming back into the dark realm of psychological horror. Whether or not we should be returning to this well so soon after our last visit however is still open for debate...
The descent of the Holy Mother has begun...
Conceptually at least, Silent Hill 4: The Room gets off to a promising start as players are introduced to Henry Townshend. Single and living alone in his Ashfield Heights apartment building, Henry has found himself mysteriously locked in his room for the past 5 days unable to get out. Waking suddenly one morning from a terrible nightmare, he discovered much to his horror that his front door had been chained shut from the inside. And as if that wasn't reason enough for concern, all attempts at alerting his neighbors had also fallen on deaf ears. Surely they couldn't have been totally oblivious to his cries for help? So why then didn't anyone respond? With Henry at the end of his tether, the situation then took a turn for the nightmarish as a gaping big hole suddenly appeared in his bathroom wall. A hole that, for all intents and purposes, seemed to lead into the very heart of hell itself. With nothing but a slow agonizing death to look forward to anyway, Henry is set to step into this new world in order to escape his predicament and ascertain the truth behind this apparent insanity. Who is the child that seems to be stalking his neighbors? What connection does all this have with his recent vacation to Silent Hill? And just who the hell is Walter?!
Much like its spiritual predecessor Silent Hill 2, The Room acts as a side story of sorts giving players a chance to further explore the dark legacy of the sleepy American township of Silent Hill. And though It may have no actual bearing on the events seen in previous installments, it none-the-less manages to stand on its own as a shining example of great storytelling. As is the way with any good Silent Hill release, the story has been perfectly paced in order to get in under the player's skin and drive them onwards towards the all too damning truth. And while it certainly holds the player's attention, it sadly comes as a terrible disappointment to find that much of the spoken dialogue has been delivered with all the emotional response of a brick to a sledge hammer. Stiled and wooden, Henry and those he encounters invariably speak in the clear yet flat tones commonly associated with ESL classes. A hold over from it's original Japanese release perhaps? Or sheer disinterest on the behalf of Konami? Either way, this botched line delivery continually brings players crashing back to Earth thereby undoing much of the atmosphere generated by the otherwise excellent story.
For what it's worth however, Konami have at least tried to take the series in a new direction thanks to the fresh implementation of a series of major gameplay elements and assorted minor tweaks. Most notable among them is the concept of Henry's apartment which will serve as a refuge for players between each journey down the rabbit hole. For it is here that players can reclaim lost health, save their game and store items in an inventory box ala Capcom's Resident Evil series. In a surprise change of heart, SH4 now forces players to manage their inventory carefully as Henry can only carry up to 10 items at a time. Sure it may seem like a nuisance, but the extra thought required when planning what to take makes the game seem that much deeper than it really is. Of special note however is the way that Konami have chosen to present the apartment ''hub'' via a novel first person perspective. This break from the series traditional third person view is an interesting concept, and in a way really hammers home exactly how isolated Henry is. Players that take the time to gaze out of their living room windows will see that life outside has carried on exactly as usual, totally oblivious to the evil nearby. Taxis drive past, balloons float through the air and people go about their daily business without a single care in the world... such calm, such peace... such an interesting contrast...
It's having entered the ''other world'' though that players will find themselves back in familiar territory. Much like its predecessors, each of SH4's 5 environments has been masterfully crafted with nothing but the finest attention to detail. Whether it's the ghosts that pull themselves painfully from the walls in order to attack players or the little details present on Henry's face during actual play, SH4 is a game that is visually set to stun. It's having inspected each area however that a single ugly truth begins to make itself known. That many of the obtuse riddles and brain tickling puzzles that once separated the Silent Hill series from its competitors have been replaced by simple fetch quests that are about as typical to the survival horror genre as hell hounds and inventory boxes... oh... yes... roger that Houston, we have a problem. The very fact that much of SH4 is already familiar to players with previous genre experience could have been over looked had the necessary effort been put into making the 8 hour journey from beginning to end visually appealing. Which for the first 4 hours it certainly is. It's not until half way through the game however that things take a turn for the worse and suddenly players will find themselves backtracking across the many landscapes and environments previously visited. In other words, the sense of mystery and suspense felt when entering a new area has now been effectively rendered D... O... A...
It's this missing suspense that unfortunately damns Silent Hill 4 the most. Whereby each of the previous releases have kept players on the edge of their seats through a heady combination of carefully designed environments and ambient background sounds, Silent Hill 4 feels more like a haunted house attraction than the fully fledged journey into hell that its predecessors were. Though the background screams and soft whispers that once sent chills up our spines are still present, their once perfect execution is now seemingly random in nature while the emphasis has been squarely placed on a more visual style of horror. Sure the occasional sudden shock may momentarily startle players, but even those few fleeting moments of kilo shedding horror don't make up for the missing overall sense of fear and oppression. And unfortunately for The Room, it was this psychological fear factor that once defined the very essence of what constituted a Silent Hill release. Now it seems Konami are happy to embrace a philosophy similar to that which Capcom uses in their own Resident Evil series. One where the fright factor is instilled by what's on the screen, not what's around the corner. If this is intended as a new direction for the series then I would urge Konami to reconsider their decision until they are more comfortable with the concept... as what we have now is just a horrible mess of ideas.
As if to further this theory of stylistic imitation, many of the monsters that haunt players would appear to be more at home in the forests around Raccoon City than anywhere near Silent Hill itself. While the concept of a hell hound that roars like a mountain lion could seem alien and therefore be considered somewhat spooky, for the life of me I have been unable to justify the existence of SH4's demon spawned monkey men. More laughable than scary, these supposed denizens of hell represent everything that is inherently wrong with the concept of rushing a sequel to street. Perhaps if more of an effort was made, a monster more suitable to the story could have been designed in their place. And while they may be unnerving to look at, this feeling of unease has been generated for all the wrong reasons. That's not to say that it's all doom and gloom as a good portion of the character designs are actually first class. Instead it's more indicative of how a few bad apples can spoil the bunch. The ghosts are horrific in design while the wallmen are disturbing for all the right reasons, but in the face of those angry monkeys it all seems rather laughable... what happened to the classic nightmarish designs of old?
If you've started to feel more than a little disenfranchised with it all then I for one certainly couldn't blame you. Before ye abandon all hope however, The Room still has a few tricks up its sleeve... or stashed in the closet as the case may be. For one, musical maestro, Yamaoka Akira, has returned to Silent Hill with a soundtrack that can only be described as ''hauntingly beautiful''. Part melodramatic journey into sorrow, part Nick Cave touched by the words of Satan, these wonderfully atmospheric pieces manage to tap all the right veins while pulling players deeper into the story's vice-like grip. Further more, Konami have fine tuned the otherwise series standard combat with a slew of new additions that make a big impact on the way the game is played. Henry's quick evade and chargeable melee attacks are without a doubt a stroke of genius. And their presence in the game can be taken as evidence of the fact that someone, somewhere, was actually paying attention to what the fans were saying. Oh, and the multiple endings were, as always, a nice touch too. You see, good things do come to those who wait. Now if only there was more to go around...
Don't go out! - Walter
When all is said and done, Silent Hill 4: The Room is ultimately a fairly run of the mill survival horror release... minus the genre's all important atmosphere. More creepy that truly scary, many of the game's faults would seem to be a product of Konami's decision to cash in on the popularity of the series with a quick release that ties in with the Japanese summer holidays. The fact that it uses the same graphics engine as the previous release is neither here nor there as graphically speaking, The Room pushes far more envelopes than honestly expected. And while Konami deserve to be commended for the interesting additions to the game's combat and presentation, they would do well to go back to the drawing board and consider the future of this series carefully. For what we have here unfortunately fails to live up the legacy of greatness, natch darkness, laid down by its fore-bearers. From some of the questionable creature designs to the flat voice acting and excessive back tracking, Silent Hill 4: The Room is a game plagued by the successes of its ancestors. Though fans of the series may still find reason to keep coming back, players new to the genre would do well to look to previous installments of the series to see how truly compelling the genre can be. Better luck next time...
* A strong story keeps players motivated at all times
* An improved range of combat options make fighting groups of enemies much easier to manage
* The apartment room ''hub'' has been wondrously detailed
* New Ghost enemies break from the Silent Hill mold
* Visually The Room is set to impress with rich detail and flawless character models
* Multiple endings give players something to strive for
* The soundtrack is, as always for Yamaoka Akira, breath taking
* Some of the monster designs are just blurgh... and not in a scary way either
* Much of the voice acting sounds flat and emotionless
* The atmosphere SH4 generates is less Silent Hill and more haunted house
* A good portion of the game is spent backtracking
* As hard as Konami have tried, The Room is Still overly generic
Community review by midwinter (August 22, 2004)
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