Platform: PS2 (also available for X-Box)
When you’re talking about horror games, there are three names that inevitably come up. Resident Evil. Fatal Frame. Silent Hill. Resident Evil started it all, Silent Hill altered the genre by taking the focus off combat and making it more story oriented, and Fatal Frame inherited the best of both worlds by blending action and emotional story content with thrill-a-minute frights.
Considering the relative age of the first two series, it’s no wonder that their creators are taking steps to keep them fresh. We’ve all heard and debated about Resident Evil 4’s mass departure from its predecessors in both content and style. You may not have heard as much about Silent Hill 4’s similar departure, but I’m here to tell you that this is not the Silent Hill of the past. In fact, one could say that this literally isn’t a Silent Hill game.
This entry in the series, subtitled The Room, is based in Ashfield, a larger, metropolitan area a few miles away from the rural resort town of Silent Hill. That’s just the first step away from the series’ roots, but I’m happy to say that the departure is a good one.
You play Henry Townshend, a quiet young man with a history rooted in Silent Hill who recently moved into Room 302 in South Ashfield Heights, an apartment building in downtown Ashfield. Henry has a cute next-door neighbor named Eileen, a conscientious building superintendent named Frank Sunderland, and an arrogant neighbor who lives across the courtyard named Richard who has a bad temper. He also has a series of locks and chains barring his exit from his apartment.
You see, about five days before the start of the game, Henry began having terrible nightmares full of hellish visions involving his apartment. At the same time, the chains appeared, and he found himself unable to escape his apartment or even draw attention by pounding on the walls or yelling.
From the start, SH4 sets itself apart from its predecessors. The first-person view as you explore room 302 is the most obvious change, but the very nature of the connection to the town of Silent Hill is also a big step. As mystical holes begin appearing in the walls of 302, you find yourself in some rural, outlying areas of Silent Hill, such as the forest near Toluca Lake and the orphanage referred to as “Hope House” in previous games. (For some reason, it’s called “Wish House” here.) Still, while this may be seen as a spoiler, it must be said: this is the first Silent Hill game where you never actually enter the town of Silent Hill. No hospital, no school, no mall, no amusement park. The closest thing you get to a view of Silent Hill itself are pictures on Henry’s walls.
Some of you might read that with the same kind of worry plaguing those who fear the absence of zombies and the Umbrella Corp from RE4, but fear not. What we have instead is a tight psychological thriller involving a serial killer who has managed to tap into the mystical arts of the evil Silent Hill cult we’ve seen showcased in the original game and the most recent sequel, Silent Hill 3.
While this game doesn’t further the overall mythos surrounding the cult and ancient religion of Silent Hill, there are numerous ties to previous games to satisfy those who have played them. The cult showcased in SH3 is at the center of the plot, and even the series of murders featured in SH4 was referred to in a news story found by James Sunderland in SH2. The Sunderland name should look familiar, the South Ashfield Heights superintendent appears to be James’ father and Mary’s father-in-law. And of course, the disturbing shift between two worlds that is the standard in Silent Hill is still the status quo here.
By stepping outside the overall Silent Hill plotline, the developers gave themselves the freedom to explore a very different story. SH4 almost immediately strikes you as darker and grittier than any of the previous entries. The movie visuals are influenced by more modern horror such as Blair Witch and Ringu as opposed to the John Carpenter-esque almost music video imagery from the previous games. Gone is the cheery J-Pop intro and demo video we’ve become accustomed to. In it’s place is a harrowing, disturbing montage of gameplay set to a throbbing, intense mix of horrifying sounds and music. If you’ve seen the long trailer available on the Internet, that’s what I’m referring to.
As you explore room 302, a sense of claustrophobia takes over. Things are wrong here, very wrong…but only you’re aware of it. Even as the people surrounding you start dying horribly, sequential numbers carved into their corpses by their killer, you remain the only one aware of what’s really happening. Disconnected phones ring, nightmares become reality, hideous monsters populate a world that looks like your own but clearly isn’t…and all you can do is keep peering out your windows, through your peephole, and through a hole in the wall to your neighbor’s bedroom, even though you know death itself is hunting those you watch.
Even as the action picks up and you begin to figure out who is really responsible for the killings, the sense of exploration from the previous games is missing. That was one of the main features that set the world of Silent Hill apart from other survival horror games, the concept of having an entire town laying before you, dark and foggy, full of horrible mutated creatures and the worst memories of your past. With only the holes to access this other world, the game takes on a very linear path and that does kill a little of the joy of discovery. When you find yourself revisiting the same environs twice during the course of the game, that joy dies a little more.
While that lack of discovery and exploration is a bit of a downer, in the end it’s balanced out by the renewed regard for frights and storyline. I felt that SH3 started to feel hackneyed and repetitive, more of the same, and that feeling is long gone now. This story is deep. Very, very deep. Richer than most horror novels. It strikes many emotional chords as well, by refusing to paint it’s villain in entirely negative light, despite the horror of his crimes. They set you up early, the first time you run across one of his victims, but then make you pay for your hatred later when you learn of his true nature. It’s just fantastic storytelling. The voice acting has also improved to match the story, thankfully.
Okay, enough about the story, what about the gameplay? The changes here are also dramatic and entirely for the better. You have an onscreen health bar. Combat mechanics have been vastly improved, even giving you a charge-up attack with melee weapons. Much negative talk has been thrown about regarding some enemies’ ability to respawn and basically never die. Once you play the game, however, this makes perfect sense when it comes to the story. Is it annoying? Of course it is, but kudos to Konami for staying faithful to the story and keeping these critters the way they are. This new kind of enemy makes you work the new combat system hard, and it measures up.
The changes don’t stop there. You now have a limited inventory, 10 items. You have a storage chest in your room, similar to RE’s chests. You can only save in your room; there are no mid-level saves. Also, health items are rare, but for most of the game you can regain health by spending time in your room. Holes back to your room are pretty common, so all of this works out very well and greatly enhances the game in my eyes. You spend far less time juggling nutrition drinks and med packs and more time playing the game. The time healing in your room is well spent anyway, checking for new notes under your door or peering in on your neighbors for clues.
One more thing I have to mention: this is, by far, the scariest and most messed up Silent Hill game ever. Even hardened gore and horror freaks like my girlfriend and me had many cringe-inducing moments. This game is just incredibly harsh and graphic. It also packs in the creeps by the truckload. This one has many movie references, including the aforementioned Ringu and Blair Witch as well as Ju-On and even Rear Window, The Frighteners and Event Horizon. (There’s a huge visual reference to the latter at the end of the game, see if you can catch it.) If you’ve seen the trailer for the game, that’s what you’re in for, 10+ hours of that. It’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve had disturbing nightmares for the past two days, and I partly blame this game for that.
Do I have any complaints? Only two, really. One, for the latter half of the game you have a companion that you must protect. She is particularly stupid and frequently gets in your way while you’re trying to attack, or continues to attack a creature that will never die so you can’t continue through an area until she decides to let it go and move on. While she can defend herself with weapons you provide and while she won’t actually die, the amount of damage she takes can harshly affect the final battle and the ending you get, as well. That’s my second complaint: there are four basic endings, two “good” and two “bad”. In order to get the better of each set, you have to achieve something that really isn’t made clear in the game and is incredibly difficult to do. I only discovered it by researching it online. If the “bad good” and “bad bad” endings were better, that wouldn’t be a big deal. By making the best ending so difficult to achieve, and by making the next-best ending kind of a “stinger”, I think they could alienate players who just spent over 10 hours plugging away yet missed one or two subtle, key events.
Those complaints don’t come close to overwhelming the positives of this one. This is another Silent Hill classic, but one that takes many necessary risks and makes some welcome changes to the Silent Hill tradition. As the final Silent Hill game before we move to the next generation of consoles, it should provide a hearty dose of terrifying horror action for even the most jaded gorehounds.
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