"For a while now, I've felt that the Silent Hill series is dead. For me at least, the beginning of the end was in Silent Hill 3, a game that moved the horror away from psychological terror and put it squarely into the arena of teen flicks and B-movies. Still, while it may not have been the horror masterpiece the first two games were and eschewed much of the exploration structure of the first two titles, the gameplay structure was mostly still in tact and the game contained a lot of the genuinely ..."
For a while now, I've felt that the Silent Hill series is dead. For me at least, the beginning of the end was in Silent Hill 3, a game that moved the horror away from psychological terror and put it squarely into the arena of teen flicks and B-movies. Still, while it may not have been the horror masterpiece the first two games were and eschewed much of the exploration structure of the first two titles, the gameplay structure was mostly still in tact and the game contained a lot of the genuinely thought-provoking thrills of its forebearers. That can't be said for the two most recent releases developed primarily for a console. Silent Hill 4: The Room had a potentially intriguing and dark storyline which was squandered in a host of contradictions and a gameplay system that lacked a real sense of discovery and exploration, leaving it a chore to play without strong rewards in the storyline for seeing it through. Silent Hill Homecoming made some great strides in the visual department and had an interesting storyline to boot, but by turning the game into primarily a combat-heavy action game, the thoughtful aspects of the story were de-emphasized. These two games attempt to execute a reimaging of the series, following a trend of series reinvention that has proven wildly successful for some. But the results are not comparable to Resident Evil 4, as they neither bring the series to a new fanbase nor renew the waning interest of existing fans. In fact, these entries have done more to alienate fans of the original games in the series than spark new interest.
Silent Hill Origins, developed originally for the PSP and now ported to the PS2, is one of those games that sparks the kind of anxiety in fans of the series to whom I most relate, namely those fans who wish that Silent Hill as a series could continue being the kind of series it was in the first two near-perfect entries. What kind of series is that? One that doesn't try to continue the first game's uncontinuable storyline in awkward ways or otherwise squander the potential thought-provoking horror those first two games are known for, and one that doesn't try to turn itself into a linear adventure or an action-game primarily about combat. For the longest time, Silent Hill Origins seemed like it would be a combination of both of these atrocities by acting as a prequel to the original story and taking a combat-heavy approach similar to that of Resident Evil 4. Through its many years of development, suffering a switch to another development studio in the process, that focus changed to something fans of my persuasion can be more at home with -- a game that treats the Silent Hill township as that haunted place we visit inside of ourselves in our dreams and nightmares, a place where lost souls come to exercise their demons and face their fears, and in facing them either perish or leave freed of their burdens.
The game's story still attempts to connect itself to the events that took place prior to the original Silent Hill's storyline, and you'll see some of the events that led to the first game's scenario as well as meet some of the most important figures in that game's cast of characters. There will even be a return to a location from the original game which will leave the hearts of many fans pattering in blissful nostalgia. It won't take long though to realize that most of these circumstances associated with the original game are superficial at best, providing a backdrop and some motivation for the main character, a truck driver passing through Silent Hill named Travis Grady, to face and resolve a few personal tragedies of his own. At the start of the game, Travis encounters upon a main event that anyone familiar with the series will already recognize, a childhood experience which defines Alessa's character in the original Silent Hill game. His participation in the aftermath of that event serves to trap him in the alternate reality of Silent Hill. And while he continually seeks out Alessa in an attempt to understand what happened to her, this motivation serves only as a rouse, leading him to locations and situations that switch his focus away from Alessa's childhood and fate and back to his own, forcing him to face his own painful childhood experiences as a corollary to hers. In this way, the game's storyline is much more in line with the masterpiece that was Silent Hill 2, in that its primary focus is on the experiences of Travis rather than the experiences of yet another incarnation of Alessa. The monsters that Travis meets here are images from his own mind, manifestations of his own nightmares, rather than those of Alessa. The resolution he's seeking is to his own trauma, not Alessa's.
But the storyline isn't the only thing that fans of the traditional series will find refreshing. The gameplay itself takes a page right out of the first two games, presenting the same sort of exploration and discovery. Like the first two games, you explore the Silent Hill township to find the next important location. The downside is that because the game was developed for a handheld, the township isn't quite as large as it was in previous entries. Still, this game represents a happy return to that formula that worked so well in the series' beginnings. As mentioned, one location is revisited from the first game, but most of the new locations you will explore are very new and extremely well designed and executed. They are as fitting as they are innovative, eschewing the randomness that has plagued the last few entries of the series, as each location relates directly to the storyline in ways that will be obvious as you experience them.
For all the similarities this game bears to the original two games in terms of gameplay, there are two new gameplay mechanics that are worth mentioning. The first one is the limited use of melee weapons. With few exceptions, melee weapons in this game have only a set number of uses in combat, after which they will disappear. This mechanic was obviously added in order to put more emphasis on the scarcity prevalent in the first two Silent Hill games, necessitated by the emphasis on melee combat with which this entry is saddled. The limitation does seem to put the scarcity and "survival" back into the formula, but it also serves to be a bit of an annoyance, especially the clumsy execution of the expiration, which ends up with the weapon simply disappearing mid-battle with little indication to what actually occurred.
The second new mechanic fares much better, being a reinvention of the transition to the "nightmare" world that forms a foundation for the plot and gameplay of each entry in the entire series. Unlike its predecessors, in which passage to the hellish version of Silent Hill is something that just happens to the main character and the player at specific plot points, in this game the player transitions to and from the spectral plane through a series of well-placed portals through his own direction. Each portal is a mirror location which toggles Travis between worlds each time he accesses them. This works amazingly well, serving to turn the transition between worlds into an environmental puzzle element rather than a mere plot transition. There is a price to pay for this new treatment of the dark world, as the movement from a plot device to a puzzle element removes some of the feeling in previous games that these nightmare scenarios are something you are subjected to in ways you can never predict and not easily escape. Still, the overall effect is positive, serving to add some spice to the traditional gameplay structure of the series without completely redrawing it.
For many, the word "Origins" in the title will feel a bit misleading, especially upon realization that this game is really Travis' story and that Alessa's story is little more than a backdrop, but I feel it is perfectly fitting for a game that brings the wandering series back to its roots. Some gamers will be less happy with it, considering it a regression, especially if those gamers are fond of the most recent attempts at reinvention previously mentioned. But the game will speak to many of those who just wish Silent Hill games could continue to be Silent Hill games and not some new series branded frivolously with the Silent Hill name. Silent Hill Origins demonstrates that the formula we've grown to love can be shaken up minimally in targeted ways to breathe some new life into it without throwing it out in its entirety, along with the baby and its proverbial bathwater. Because this industry in general seems so steeped in tired old formulas at the expense of new concepts, it can be tempting to put so much emphasis on new ideas that old ideas which are still relevant are thrown in the legacy bin. It's important though for games that we've grown to love not to lose their identity in striving for innovation. Silent Hill Origins accomplishes that, and thus is an effort I hope we see more of in the future.
Community review by m0zart (February 10, 2009)
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