Review: Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2, the sequel to the excellent survival-horror game on the original PlayStation, is a game that lends itself to a lot of superlatives and hyperbole. The scariest game I’ve ever played? Yes. The best and most affecting story I’ve ever experienced in a game? Yes. The best game of its generation? Probably not, but it easily nabs a respectable top ten spot. I’ll get to the details next, but if you’re the type that reads game reviews to find out whether or not a game is worth your time and money, stop reading now and buy this game immediately. If you are at all interested in narratives or stories in games, you cannot afford to miss out on Silent Hill 2. For the rest of you, read on…
I usually break up my reviews into sections - gameplay, story, and then presentation (visuals/sound), since with most games, each of these aspects exists independently from the others. But that method makes less sense with this game, as each of those aspects is wrapped up in and supports each of the others, and they ultimately all act in service of the narrative. I’ll still do it, but start with story this time.
STORY/NARRATIVE- You play as James Sunderland, a young-ish widower who receives a letter from his wife Mary, now dead from cancer for three years, asking him to come to their “special place,” the town of Silent Hill. Now, you and I can see this is a terrible idea, but James is a neurotic and broken man, wracked with guilt and sadness over the death of his wife, and he decides to follow her summons to the town. Upon arrival, he finds an eerie ghost town, covered in fog and devoid of almost all life, save for a small handful of people of dubious trustworthiness.
Once you arrive in town, you go about the task of figuring out where you are supposed to meet your dead wife, and how to get there. Unlike in the original Silent Hill, you really never concern yourself with why this town is deserted, and why there are terrifying creatures roaming the streets. You don’t even attempt to solve this mystery. This story is a much more personal one, and I think it’s better for it.
That doesn’t mean that the ancillary narrative of the town is not interesting, though. With each new area you enter, you catch fleeting glimpses of things not related to the main story, but incredibly engrossing anyway. From patient logs at a mental ward in a hospital, to diaries and photos left behind in motels, to terrifying accounts of murders in a tossed-out newspaper. All of these flesh out the creepy town of Silent Hill, and they all serve to build upon the growing feeling of dread and unease the game so masterfully creates. The most frightening early examples of this are the first and second appearances of Pyramid Head. [MILD SPOILERS AHEAD] The first time you encounter this hulking, powerful creature, he is merely standing on the other side of a gate from you, not posing a threat or even moving, but his mere presence is frightening. The second time, you actually stumble upon Pyramid Head appearing to rape another one of the monsters in the game. You hide in a closet while you witness this. Again, he poses no direct threat to you, but the intrinsically horrifying image of rape, coupled with the notion that this man is capable of doing this to enemies theoretically on his side is extremely unsettling. [END SPOILERS]
But ultimately it is James’ story that keeps you moving, and it is a tragic one. The game is scary and unsettling most of the time, but the rest of the time it is just plain sad. There are a half-dozen possible endings, each acheivable through small, unnoticed in-game actions. Konami has decided not to canonize any of them, so there are no “real” and “alternate” endings. After reading up on the alternatives, it turns out the one I got was the rarest and the saddest, but I felt the best. At the end, the writing, the voice acting and the art direction all combined for the most brutally, bone-crunchingly sad ending I have ever seen in a game, but it was so beautifully done I wouldn’t dream of complaining. The game subtly psychologically profiles you as you play, and so in a way the ending you receive is the one you deserve. To say much more would be to spoil it, so I’ll just say this: the story in Silent Hill 2 is the most affecting, engrossing, and well-told videogame story I have ever experienced.
GAMEPLAY- You do all of this from a third-person perspective, with a slightly overhead camera view. The survival horror genre has always had a habit of using fixed camera angles, showing you only what they want to show you. This can create lovely cinematic angles, but can also be really frustrating in combat. Silent Hill 2 strikes a balance by setting up their preferred angles, but allowing you to switch to a behind-the-back view at any time. It is still occasionally frustrating, but works pretty well most of the time. Interestingly, the game’s default camera angle is actually in front of the character, so that you are walking towards the camera. Most of the time I switched back to behind so that I could see what was in front of me, but the default is pretty cool at times, too. It also allows you to use one of the games better new features: when there is an important object nearby that James can pick up or use, he will turn his head and look at it. It is a subtle effect, so it’s not like a huge glowing marker that takes all challenge out of the game, but it’s realistic and effective, and a very nice touch.
The main gameplay modes are combat and puzzle solving. The puzzles are pretty solid and range from standard “lock and key” puzzles to more interesting ones involving riddles, and information picked up several rooms/areas ago. Most are not terribly challenging on the default difficulty, but they are interesting and well-implemented.
As for combat, this game follows the first game in having a normal everyman as the lead instead of some space marine. This is supposed to mean that you aren’t always great at fighting, and you may want to run away as much as possible. That may have been true in the original, but in this sequel there is plenty of ammo around, so you don’t have to worry about conservation, and 80% of the game takes place in tight corridors, so you don’t really have the option of running past your enemies. Either way, the combat works well. There are several weapons, and they are all pretty fun to use, and taking down your enemies is pretty easy to do, even if it’s not the main focus of the game.
PRESENTATION- As I said, the visuals in this game are there to serve the narrative, and do so really well. The dense fog in the town creates a feeling of mystery and claustrophobia. Actually, the eerieness of the town is enhanced by the fact that it is so normal in most other ways. Everything is a little out of date, but otherwise these are the same streets, shops and buildings you would see in any smaller town in the Northern U.S.
The outdoor environments are nice, and work as an easy introduction to the game, but most of your time will be spent in the dark corridors of apartment buildings, hospitals and prisons. Luckily, the visuals here are incredibly detailed and authentic, too. Much like the first game, these corridors will be illuminated via a flashlight held in your breast pocket. It is here where you will really begin to see the monstrous enemies that lurk in this town. Each enemy type, of which there are only a handful, are grotesque and horrifying, and continue to reinforce the uneasy feeling of not knowing what is real and what is in the protagonist’s head.
The audio work is also really nice. What music there is is haunting and eerie, while the silence makes each footfall or mechanical vibration stand out. There are occasional sound effects or even screams that really get the heart racing, and have you wondering what is beyond the next door or hallway. The voice acting is decent, but not great, save for the voice-over that reads your wife’s letter at the end. That is a terrific piece of acting that absolutely makes the ending for me.
CONCLUSION- If you’ve ever complained that videogames have stupid, ham-handed stories, you must play this game. If you love having the pants scared off of you by psychological horror movies, you must play this game. In fact, if you are interested in any games other than Wii Bowling or Farmville, you must play this game. I pity any serious gamer who has missed this, and curse all the years I spent without playing it since it came out.