Silent Hill: Origins (PSP) review
"The spectre of Dahlia—the cult’s resident fanatic, bent on raising a god borne of pain and suffering—still serves as thematic backdrop for a lonely trek guided toward fate by broken doors and crumbling streets which gape at oblivion."
Travis Grady is a lonely trucker living quietly with clawing demons sealed away. One night he almost hits someone, gets out of his truck, sees a little girl. When she disappears and he heads off on foot towards the town of Silent Hill, we can almost hear those demons tearing at the seal.
The original Silent Hill was harrowing, its sequel haunting, and the third game, well... unremarkable. I could have lived with that trilogy, but Silent Hill 4: The Room came along, and doing so on the heels of SH3, gave the impression that the franchise was in a downward spiral.
The decline of the series, this being the first handheld incarnation, plus the fact that the game was made by an upstart American developer--all these things conspired and promised us Origins would be an utter failure.
They didn't make good on their promise.
Somehow, Origins manages to be a good time. It manages to make us feel much of the same glorious stomach-churning trepidation we used to know and love. The spectre of Dahlia--the cult’s resident fanatic, bent on raising a god borne of pain and suffering--still serves as thematic backdrop for a lonely trek guided toward fate by broken doors and crumbling streets which gape at oblivion. It all feels right again. And while everything isn't explained away as the subtitle suggests, somehow, Origins rights the sinking ship.
I say somehow, because the game has its fair share of flaws. It’s scary, but often for the wrong reasons--the awful camera gives us blinders and doesn’t let us take them off. It’s annoying to come through a door and hear the guttural utterances of some nearby abomination and not be able to see it. And we know dramatic camera angles are a series’ staple. But that’s ostensibly what the camera button is for--to correct the camera when it does its cinematic thing at inopportune moments.
In reality, the function does nothing. Go ahead, try it. Toggle, toggle, toggle. Chances are, you’re still looking at a wall while something in a coat of loose slick blood and raw skin maims you. The best you can often hope for is to find a viewpoint that will allow you to see the monster coming when it’s already too close for comfort. That's not good when many of them are able to spit at you from a distance.
The spitting monsters aren’t through causing problems, because they assist in making the new ‘melee weapon system’ obsolete. While it’s novel to be able to use anything from TVs to drip stands to bludgeon monsters, it will be difficult to avoid taking otherworldly saliva in the face while you manoeuvre in (blindly) for the kill.
A more viable option is running, which is a good plan in any Silent Hill game when you want to avoid clumsy confrontations. But the developers saw fit to introduce another bit of innovation which doesn‘t quite work: Travis will get tired quickly, like a chain smoker, and he'll stop running. Unless Travis takes a swig of an energy drink, monsters will catch him, and kill him. Oddly enough, in my refusal to accept using these drinks, I discovered that Travis finds his second wind after a while of dragging his feet, and will take off running again. So this new and admittedly more ‘realistic’ twist, while potentially irritating, actually turns out to be a non-factor.
When I couldn’t run, I let bullets fly. Unlike other SH games, Origins provides lots of guns (is this a sign of things to come in survival horror’s post-Resident Evil 4 era?). Just as your current gun is running low on ammo, you’ll come across some new firearm and accordingly, lots of ammo it, and little to none for your old gun. It’s like weapon evolution. From a starter pistol to an assault rifle--you’re provided quite the arsenal. But assault rifle notwithstanding, there isn’t anything quite as satisfying or as powerful as the shotgun. To save ammo (and to be sadistic), I found myself tearing down foes with the shotgun, un-equipping it, and then stomping out the downed, squirming bodies like cigarettes. Truly, Origins is made playable by the abundance of and focus on, guns. The camera issue still persists, but now it doesn’t matter. You’ve got auto aim, so you can mow shit down, and tell the corpses you’ll see them when you see them.
Already keeping in mind the broken camera and the poorly implemented melee system, Origins manages to make one more misstep, and to somehow overcome this one as well. Instead of the game deciding when it plummets you into the dark, bloodstained otherworld from the desolate world of fog, you'll use mirrors to willingly transport between the two. Putting Travis in charge of his travels through places of pain and despair and places of nightmares and persecution, just doesn’t seem right. There’s less menace this way, less dread.
What’s more, it’s decidedly unflattering for a horror game, with all this moving back and forth, to bring to my mind memories of Zelda III: A Link to the Past. But because Origins so often has Travis tinkering with some puzzle or another in one world, only to mirror back to the other to reap whatever spoils await, the comparison is sadly appropriate. This amounts to some fairly tedious backtracking, particularly in level two, the sanitarium area. It's a shame things get bogged down so early on.
In stark contrast though, the following scenario, which takes place at the Artaud Theatre, actually pulls off the flip-flopping tremendously well, effecting rewarding, linear progression and a logical play path even as you navigate with a pair of sprawling maps. The music does its part, switching from spare and melancholy, to harsh, discordant and percussion-driven when the day is stripped away and we’re left with bloodied fences and gates and other metal work representing the raw skeleton beneath the everyday.
And the culmination at the theatre struck a chord for me, filling me with that enjoyable dread which is so difficult to evoke. We know what’s coming. We know that we will meet the boss on the very stage of the theatre to play out the ultimate act, and everything builds to that moment. The puzzle which gives rise to the boss’s appearance is Silent Hill-weird, but so fitting that there could be no better groundwork. Having Travis arrange props and backdrops to literally set the scene for the arrival of our nemesis--this is nothing short of brilliant.
Regrettably, it’s back to not being able to see much after that, even in the wide open motel area. The level offers The Butcher, as the most vicious and personal monster with which Travis must come to grips. Diffusing the power of the area, if only slightly, is the anticlimactic sprinkling of empty-ish rooms, which ostensibly offer insights into our character and his late family. It’s a good penultimate level, but I could have done without the nothing bits.
But the way Origins came to a close… it saddened me the way great moments always do when couched in inconsistent efforts--why couldn’t more of the game be made this way? This 'nowhere place' brings it all together. Here, you can actually see, and it is here that the game is at its most frightening. The end of Origins is Silent Hill hell. It’s the best of Silent Hill since Pyramid Head stalked the otherworld with knife in tow.
Monsters are everywhere. They roam rust-red, as though they were caught in a thin blood-rain thick with yesterday’s hurt. They are grotesquely pulpy and unwaveringly violent--from straightjacket monsters, to one called Caliban, which is as big as a truck, big enough that you can run between its legs. These things roam blind in the evil dusk, but you can see enough that you can evade them, but seeing them this close, and in these numbers, actually, legitimately frightens. You’ve got to brave this hell to get to a single point marked on your map where it all will end. And where it all began.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 10, 2008)
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