"Know from the start that every glimpse of promise, every flicker of macabre brilliance and every fleeting second of spine-chilling horror will crash and burn, leaving only a lingering air of disappointment and wasted potential. Because from the second the game starts, so does its biggest flaw."
Some ways into Silent Hill 4: The Room, protagonist Henry Townshend slips into an alternative version of his own apartment building. Rather than tread the pristine hallways that he's always called home, corridors are coated in a rust-red substance that squelches underfoot and drips down walls. Rather than pass by friendly neighbours as he explores the complex, he instead encounters the mundanely-named sniffer dogs, canine catastrophes with elongated tongues that snap towards him, or suck at gore-filled puddles like a fleshy straw. The twisting of what was once an everyday event is something that has long been a trademark of Silent Hill, and the Other World Apartments are unquestionably eerie.
You enter one room to find it crawling with slate grey leeches that explode into a puddle of guts and unhatched eggs when stomped upon. You march through them, raining boot leather down upon any foolish enough to block your path, leaving a graveyard of gore in your wake. There is a telephone in the room, and, upon prompting, a number on fast dial is activated.
A new phone rings in the background. A sharp, shrill noise that pierces the sombre atmosphere.
You move through the floors, the ringing noise getting fainter or stronger depending on how hot on its trail you are. Finally, you reach the right apartment door and enter a well-lit room; a jarring contradiction to the gloom-filled apartments you've thus far travelled. Portraits hang on all available wall space depicting characters you have or are yet to meet; axles, paints and brushes are strewn carelessly across any unladen surface. The room is almost normal; a startling opposite to the twisted abominations of this new reality you'd witnessed in your journey. And on the kitchen counter is a ringing phone. You've spent a lot of time tracking down the source of the noise and now you've found it. Nervously, and with a sense of real dread, you lift the receiver.
"There is no one on the other end."
Silent Hill 4: The Room is all about anticlimaxes like this. The set-up is there: the finish is not. This frustrating quirk runs throughout your journey, slaughtering potential before it has the chance to blossom. It's easy to lose count of the solid beginnings that are amateurishly demoted by dreary conclusions. Know from the start that every glimpse of promise, every flicker of macabre brilliance and every fleeting second of spine-chilling horror will crash and burn, leaving only a lingering air of disappointment and wasted potential. Because from the second the game starts, so does its biggest flaw.
Henry wakes up, and, looking through his eyes, you notice the twisted abomination that his apartment building has become. Sturdy mahogany tables are now piles of detritus, their splintered remains cloaked in a sea of cobwebs and viscous goo. Where translucent window panes once existed is now only a continuation of the dirtied, rotten, vomit-coloured wallpaper. The distant tracings of a window's frame are barely visible, hinting at what once was. Indeed, many of the room's characteristics are like this: a humble yet faint recollection of a picture frame, a clock, a mirror. Even the front door has been swallowed up by the oppressive walls, visible only as a fading memory. You glance around at your dilapidated television set and the ghostly remains of your couch; the perversion of normality is what strikes you hardest about this scene.
The ominous wallpaper starts to decrepitate, blistering messily, arcane-looking cracks racing across its surface. The wall bulges outwards, a skull-shaped dome materialising slowly, gathering solidarity from the wall itself. Agglutinative filaments stretch and snap, connecting the growing form to the brick and mortar that has seemingly borne it. A torso becomes recognisable: arms, hands, a waist. It crawls onwards hungrily, battling to free itself from its stone prison, hands clawing at you, a dripping jaw issuing pain-filled sobs intensifying with growing volume. And then it breaks free, lunging at you, bleak, inhuman eyes locked onto yours. You stumble away from the menacing apparition, falling backwards in your horrified haste. Following suit, your pursuer's still-weak legs spill it over the remains of a chair, but it drags itself towards you, steadily, hungrily. It will only be a few seconds until it has you. Your screen is filled with pale ghost-white flesh and snapping, decaying teeth.
Then you wake up in your bed again. All looks normal and neat. Your bedside table is but a table; your windows contain all the expected characteristics of normal windows. Still trapped in the first-person perspective, you roam about your apartment, relieved to see all is normal again. Then you stumble across your front door, laced with an intertwining congregation of locks and chains. Slowly, crimson red words -- Don't Go Out -- Walter -- scatter across the whitewashed wooden frame, literally spelling your predicament out for you. You have no hope of leaving your room. You're trapped unless you find an alternative escape route.
This works. However, the new first-person viewpoint used to explore your room throughout quickly diminishes into an inconvenience and a pain. The fact that room exploration is a lethargic and time-consuming chore doesn't help with the creeping sense of dread other games in the series have built. The vast majority of the time, your room is merely a stopgap in which you can heal and discard unwanted items that clog up your limited inventory.
The second inconvenience comes in the form of the unhappy fellow who accosted you so violently from the depths of your wall. Dubbed 'victims', these feisty little troopers will constantly pop up as you explore alternative realities via your only means of exit: the cryptically decorated hole leading from your bathroom. Victims resemble your classic zombie for most part: rotting flesh hangs from visible bone, deteriorating clothing droops from the dead bodies, the ancient cloth often covered in long-dried gore. With cataract eyes locked lifelessly on you, they chase you down mercilessly, charging through walls like on your first meeting, always floating eerily a few inches from the ground. They hurt you; they can reach into your chest, draining Henry of his life-force or simply barrel painfully into your prone form. If that wasn't enough, they surround themselves with an evil aura that, just by straying within their proximity, sucks away at your health. You can't ever stop them; there's a rare item that disables them, and you can gain brief reprieves compliments of a sound pummelling, but they're effectively unkillable.
This means that, for the entire game, you'll be running away from -- and taking constant radiation damage from -- these apparitions. This lends a feeling of desperation to start with as you dart through the stationary tube trains that litter the opening stages of the Alternative Railway-Station, but it grates quickly. Victims don't draw gasps of fear but groans of resignation. There's no detailed exploring of the well-captured rotting underground to be had while they roam free: you'll be too busy running from a foe that still saps away at your life regardless of if it catches you or not.
But not all that lurks in the dark is as cheap and there are those nasties that you can kill, even if they come in a limited supply. The aforementioned sniffer dogs whip chameleon tongues at you when not using them to lap up the blood of fallen brethren. Moth-like bats cleverly titled as mothbats flap towards you in swarms. Encroaching figures lean out of walls, swiping you with talon-loaded claws [imaginatively named 'wallmen'] while the ludicrous monikers continue with the genuinely frightening double-faces. This two-headed [see why the name is so clever now?] monstrosity runs along on its hands, losing nothing in the way of mobility for not possessing any legs, and swipes at you with an intense fury. When struck back, they make infantile crying noises, the faces hidden under the folds of their murky brown cloaks visible just enough to see a set of albino jaws pout in a sulky fashion.
Henry can lay into these with a variety of melee weapons that far outdo the couple of firearms that litter the game, but even in this, a rather inane oddity occurs. Sure, Henry is certainly a more capable fighter than the wimps that have served protagonist in earlier Silent Hill games, even having the ability to perform a power strike made possible by holding down the attack button, but his secret weapon is his deadly stomp. No matter how many axe blows you rain down upon a monster, no matter how many bullets you fill it with or how many times you zap it with a stun gun, the only way to kill anything is for Henry to stand over its prone form and stomp down on it. If you aren't able to reach a downed foe to deliver your death stomp, it'll get back up, forcing you to start a fresh assault.
Over and over and over again.
And there's the real game-killing flaw right there. Everything you do is simply something you've done earlier but in a slightly varied form. While exploring Silent Hill 4's world, you return the each environments at least twice a piece, forced to revisit earlier bypassed dimensions with new marginally-differing goals attached. As you near the end of your journey, these new goals cease to try and even make any sense. You need to bypass one such back-tracked area by replacing mundane items in their correct locations, like returning a lost volleyball to a sports utility closet or placing birthday candles on a cake. Good move, Konami; nothing says fear quite like finding a billiard ball and putting it on a felt table!
Even franchise staples have been screwed around with and ultimately broken. The obligatory but always creepy zombie nurses in this chapter make flatulent farting noises when struck, nullifying their dread factor quicker than a hiccup. The ambiguous mystery the other titles marinate in has been replaced with a frenzied and oft-clumsy attempt to explain every little detail and happening the game throws your way. Remember running through fog-drizzled streets in the original? There, the sense of fear was made all the stronger because you had no idea what was happening around you, the details of a town gone wrong explained to you on a drip feed. Hold on to that feeling, because it isn't here. Encyclopaedic letters are force feed to the gamer, chronicling events, decoding demonic behaviour and demanding that each happenstance is fully explained. And, in doing so, robs it of its dread.
With the creeping fear siphoned out of the game so effectively, it's an optimistic player that can even label the end result as a survival horror; it's more akin to a lacking macabre-themed action title that borrows the name of a more successful franchise to try and boost sales. Because for all the things that Silent Hill 4 does right, for all the atmosphere it builds and all the weight its legacy carries, an unintelligible disaster lurks just around the corner, waiting to bog any positive down.
There is nothing sadder in this world than the waste of potential. The purpose of evolution is to raise us out of the mud, not have us grovelling in it.
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