"The Silent Hill series moved from episode two to episode three on the back of new imaginative content alone. The technicalities of gameplay barely changed. Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4) comes on not unlike the prison guard who, caught nodding off, wakes suddenly and starts cracking his whip at everything in sight. This is an arduous game, and I came out of it feeling more unhappy than not about the experience, even angry with the game's conclusion and my inability to alter it without resorting t..."
The Silent Hill series moved from episode two to episode three on the back of new imaginative content alone. The technicalities of gameplay barely changed. Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4) comes on not unlike the prison guard who, caught nodding off, wakes suddenly and starts cracking his whip at everything in sight. This is an arduous game, and I came out of it feeling more unhappy than not about the experience, even angry with the game's conclusion and my inability to alter it without resorting to a restart. There was no fix to be had by stepping back only a few save games. This is SH4's biggest flaw in multiple areas: it is uncommunicative about functions of gameplay which turn out to be extremely important. By the time you've realised you're handling an entire aspect of the game poorly, it's probably four hours too late to do anything about it. As such, this is the first Silent Hill to feel like something of a grind, but I realised as I struggled through it that 'grind' and the kind of extended horror duress sought upon entrance to a Silent Hill game can sometimes blur indistinguishably in terms of ultimate effect, even in those moments when the game is really at fault. This is not intended as a compliment to this title, which is assuredly the most annoying Silent Hill to date, but it grudgingly becomes one due to the series' unique place in gaming. Even when the gameplay turns as unkindly as it does in The Room, the world of Silent Hill remains somehow impregnable so long as the same creative team remain at the helm. SH4 is simultaneously a worthy continuation of one the great visions of horror of our time, a game with plenty of irritation in store for fans and a game with zero crossover appeal to non-fans.
The Room of the title is an upstairs apartment belonging to Henry Townsend, the third washed out male protagonist in the series. While younger and less attached than predecessors Harry and James, he is the tiredest looking and sounding lead so far. When we step into Henry's shoes, he has just risen for the day to find that his shut-in lifestyle has taken an extreme turn; he is imprisoned in his apartment. A loom of Hellraiser chains secures the door, the windows are unbreakable and no sound will carry beyond the room's confines. There is, however, a newly smashed hole in the back of the bathroom leading to another world. Or is it just to the train station across the street? With no alternative available, Henry crawls into the hole...
In gameplay terms, The Room is a hub, and a series of exterior locations accessible via the hole are the levels. These levels are all set in locations familiar from modern life – train stations, hospitals, apartment buildings, estates – but subject to some kind of logic that springs wordlessly from dreams and nightmares, and infested with monsters and ghosts from the same. Just why you are being directed to these times and places via a wormhole in your bathroom is the game's central mystery. The solution is an impressively elaborate construction, but if you're ever going to reach it, you'll need to fend off scores of monsters in order to be able to explore the locations thoroughly. SH3's sticky bad guys and dodgy camerawork hardly made for fluid combat, but SH4 makes life much worse at a fundamental level by lumbering you with a bunch of boring, badly engineered weapons. The first and weakest melee weapon in the game, the pipe, has better reach and a faster recovery time than anything you'll find afterwards. The baseball bat is a waste of space, while the pickaxe takes so long to heft that it's too dangerous to use in most situations. If you could easily switch weapons on the fly there would be less to complain about, but one of the nasty gameplay changes this time around is that you're cursed with finite inventory space, even more finite than in a Resident Evil game. You can't drop or swap items anywhere during a level, only back at the item box in your room. This results in a great, boring conservatism of play – for me, it meant dragging the pipe through the whole game. On top of this, if your inventory is full and you try to pick up some glittering object, you immediately receive a 'You can't carry anymore' message, but are not told what you just tried to pick up. Without knowing if the unnamed item is crucial for advancement of the game, there's no choice but to make space for it so that you can find out what it even is in the first place, by squandering health items (a particularly bad idea in SH4, discussed later), wasting ammunition on thin air, or if you're really unlucky, having to walk all the way back to The Room so you can dump some stuff in the box.
While you're busy swinging a rusty pipe around, the enemies are exhibiting a few difficulty-enhancing firsts for the series. The blood-drinking dogs in SH4 can outrun you as a matter of course. If you flee, they zip after you, and faster than you, though at other times they exhibit a lot of creepily inscrutable behaviour, as if they were blind or simply uninterested in your existence. Ghosts are also new to SH4, ghosts who can fly and float through walls, and are are in fact immortal. Their presence alone drains your health if you aren't wearing one of the protective saint medallions found about the place, and the medallions break every five minutes. The most you can do to a ghost is stun it in combat then anchor it to the floor with one of the rare Swords Of Obedience. If you pull the sword free later, the ghost will rise again. The physical gymnastics required of your fingers to quickly select and use the Sword Of Obedience are demanding, and must be executed within a split second of the ghost's fall, immediately beside the ghost's body, at which point there still seems to be a seventy-five percent chance that the ghost will repel the attack and immediately rise anew. While there's no doubting the ghosts' power to inspire dread, they are a prime example of SH4's habit of giving no indication as to which matters are really important to attend to as a player. After I spent anxious hours trying first to discover if the ghosts were defeatable, and then, after the Sword Of Obedience was introduced, what could be gained by staking them, I finally realised that the answers to these questions were 'no' and 'next to nothing' respectively. The player should flee from all ghosts, a simple lesson taught by this game in dysfunctionally murky fashion.
The first time you flee in a damaged state back to The Room, you will discover, to your great relief, that it acts as a source of infinite healing. Spend just a few minutes in your apartment and your health meter will be full. Knowing this amounts to a form of instruction on how to play the game, but this instruction will be reversed later in brutal fashion. During the first half of SH4, there are actually many opportunities to return to The Room, with another hole leading back to it to be found every few locations. Some players have said this made them feel less vulnerable and reduced the game's ability to frighten, but the principal issue for me was inconvenience. To save the game or significantly rearrange your inventory, you must always return to The Room. This means a trek for your character, a load from the game disc and a bunch of fiddling each time. Whenever you make a mistake concerning which items you should have brought with you to a particular location, it's back to The Room again to fix the problem. With infinite healing to back you up, you will probably want to use any health items you do happen to find immediately, so as to be able to avoid breaking off play to head back to The Room. But there comes a point in the game when The Room suddenly turns hostile. The free healing ends and is replaced by toxic hauntings which seep in through the walls and windows. Proximity to the hauntings drains your life, meaning it can now be perilous just to visit the inventory box. This is all pretty frightening when it happens, but the new level of exertion on the player is bedraggling. You've no health in the bank, no health on offer from The Room, and the new possibility of assault whenever you perform the inventory management that's forced on you, or when you move to save the game. It's all really unhappy-making.
Hauntings can be staved off with the aforementioned saint medallions or with holy candles. The latter turn out to be a nuisance in every way. You have to place them in front of a particular haunting to dispel it, but just hitting the 'use' button in the general vicinity isn't good enough. You have to press the button while standing right above one of the invisible, preordained locations in the apartment where a candle can go. While you're trying to work out where these spots are, your life is still ebbing away. If you accidentally stick the candle in the wrong place, it's not moveable and thus wasted. Finally, whether or not you are crazily diligent about clearing hauntings from your apartment turns out to be one of the deciding factors concerning which ending you will achieve when you survive the game. There is no way you could have guessed this, and in-game instruction concerning the hauntings in general is uniformly poor.
The main point of grace in the highly assaultive latter half of SH4 is that you don't have to tackle the adventure alone. Your nauseatingly sexy neighbour, Eileen, joins you in the nightmare world, where it seems she is stuck in a way that you aren't. Part of your mission now is to find a way to free her. Eileen rides out the entire game with a limp, her arm in a sling and a number carved into her back, having been attacked by a serial killer who put her in hospital (long story), which is where you make her acquaintance. In spite of all this, she's a spirited fighter of monsters. There are Eileen-only weapons to be found during the game, starting off with the conspicuously girly handbag but working up to heavier stuff, and if you arm her with these, she offers extremely useful support in combat. Of course with this being SH4, there's some utterly horrible trade off for something as cool as her help, whose consequences you won't be made aware of until too late. In short, you should choose to not have Eileen assist you if you want one of the good endings. You should reject all the fun of collecting weapons for her and have her fighting alongside you, because the more bloodied she is from combat, the more adversely it affects her for the final boss fight, and there exists an invisible threshold beyond which particular outcomes are no longer possible. There is talk of a 'holy candle bug' you can exploit to heal Eileen near the end of the game, but nobody should count on it as it remains semi-random and unverified (I tried it myself, without success). That players are reaching for bugs in a console game to undo something about it which they think just sucks says a lot about SH4's punitive design.
In spite of all its mad oppressiveness, the game continues to demonstrate the series' inimitable way with the horror and mystery elements which are the foundations for its unique atmosphere of terror, excitement and uncertainty. The sense of being trapped in your apartment is impeccably conveyed through a first person view which allows you to stare out your windows at life going on outside the building, or across the street through the windows of other apartments. There's also a hole in the wall of Eileen's apartment and a telescopic viewer in your front door, through which you can bear mute and dumb witness to your neighbours' actions, remaining as isolated from their worlds as if you were invisible. As per all the previous Silent Hills, the game manipulates your sense of recognition in subtle ways. Patterns and structures recur unexpectedly in different contexts, creating a persistent sense of deja vu. The game is full of seemingly endless spiral staircases and identically laid out floors in multi storey buildings, whose revolving symmetry always draws the player into a kind of hypnotic vortex – How long have I been here? Where am I going? Am I even moving forward? Meanwhile, indistinguishable shapes shudder at the periphery of your vision, and Akira Yamaoka's immaculate sound design sketches out threats, presences and other worlds that press in on you subtley but ceaselessly from all sides.
SH4's plot is over elaborated through the written material found in game, but considering its far-fetched complexity, I can accept this. There remains so much in the game which is bizarre, or loyal only to the instincts of dreams, that I never felt like everything had been explained to me in full, a sensation which would wreck any Silent Hill. I already can't remember if there was much rationale for the existence of the level set in a waterlogged prison tower, only that I found this level so chilling that it followed me around after I turned the game off. It is in order to have such peak horror experiences that I play the Silent Hill games, and I was surprised to find that I was still having these experiences during SH4, even as I simultaneously experienced it as the most vexing, hectoringly put together game in the series so far. The series might kill all goodwill if it does this a second time, but as a one-off it's survivable. For series fans, SH4 is a bitter but probably still mandatory experience which will stir up a lot of conflicting emotions. Non fans should never start here.
Community review by bloomer (November 12, 2008)
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