This is a horror classic that I only recently got the chance to play. I went into it with high expectations; the only other horror game I've seen consistently put on the same level as Silent Hill 2 is Fatal Frame, which to this day is the most terrifying experience of my life. Seriously, the night my cousin and I played it through, we drank tons of Mountain Dew Game Fuel, and now whenever I so much as smell the stuff I have flashbacks. *shiver*
But anyway, you can see how that would set up some powerful expectations. The result? Mixed, but overall highly positive.
Don't get me wrong; I loved Silent Hill 2. It's one of the more psychologically interesting interactive narratives I've seen in a long while, the type of experience you could discuss with a friend for hours just about different interpretations (I certainly did). I am in no way saying it was disappointing, it simply delivered an incredible experience in a way I wasn't quite anticipating.
The gameplay and general design is certainly dated in some ways; this was early in the days of the Playstation 2, after all. The camera can be a pain, but that's somewhat to be expected of games from this era. The combat is woefully simple and slow, and while that's partially intentional (to instill a sense of powerlessness and fear), even just mapping the downward strike to another button would have done a world of good toward less frustration with the controls. The fearful effect of the sluggish combat is achieved, but it definitely could have been done with better design so it feels more powerless than frustrating.
|Get used to this; these hallways make up most of the game.|
The level design also didn't evolve much from the first one. The most open you'll almost ever get in this game is running through the streets between buildings; most of the game takes place in narrow hallways and small rooms, and while such claustrophobic spaces can be nerve-wracking, it gets a bit old after a while. There is still dense fog as well, but as has been noted by many critics, this is both to make up for hardware limitations and to obscure vision for the sake of a more effectively fearful atmosphere, and it certainly doesn't hurt. All in all, the basic gameplay is functional if very much imperfect, and many of its weaknesses can be shrugged off under the excuse that the PS2's hardware was still relatively new at the time.
There are also many puzzles, which can tend to be a bit unintuitive. At first it was difficult because the game expects you to search everywhere before finding a solution, scattering clues and necessary items all over a given area for you to find. This can be kind of annoying, especially given the difficulty one may have in spotting these items amongst the largely samey environments (I even managed to miss an important, though thankfully not vital, weapon along the way), but once you get used to searching everywhere, it's not much of an issue. What remains a source of irritation are the often downright strange puzzle solutions.
For instance, in an early building there is a bundle of trash stuck in a garbage chute. You know it's important because the game pointed it out (I have no idea why James would take notice of this), but you need to get it out somehow. Among other things in this building, you find a pack of canned fruit. It seems useless, but the game expects you to logically deduce that you can drop this heavy item down the chute, therefore pushing the stuck garbage bag down as well. It does make logical sense, and perhaps that reasoning would work in a game that gives you many different ways to go about things, but in a game that only ever gives you items if there's a practical use for them, this kind of puzzle can be rather frustrating.
|In this one, the player must combine a random string of |
hair and a bent needle to pull the object out.
In regards to atmosphere, the game simply does a good job of setting up a general aura of dread and fear. The fog outside keeps you constantly guessing as to what's ahead of you. The cramped spaces promise little ability to maneuver or escape. You have a radio that emits static when an enemy is nearby (but not necessarily visible), and this never fails to make a stressful situation far more tense. And each appearance of Pyramid Head reminds you that you're not on the offensive in the slightest; you're being hunted, and surviving is all you can really hope to do.
Ultimately, the game fails to scare on the same level as some other horror games due to its relative lack of singular events and terrifying set pieces. One of the most unsettling moments in the first Silent Hill for me was when a room had an empty bird cage, and yet one could hear frantic fluttering, as though a bird were trapped inside and desperately trying to escape. Most great horror games have things like this; not necessarily jump scares, but singular events or set pieces that increase the tension within a particular location or situation. However, this is far from a condemnation for the game's value as a horror piece, it's just that most of it is more psychologically disturbing than outwardly scary.
The story is the main aspect of Silent Hill 2 that makes the whole experience worthwhile. The summary given at the beginning of this review is certainly not a full representation of what this story has to offer (as is common for video games with good stories), but I will try to say what is so special about it without giving any real spoilers away.
It's no secret that Silent Hill 2 has multiple endings. What's a slightly lesser-known fact (though still hardly a secret) is that these endings are not based on specific, blatant actions or choices as they are in most games. Rather, this game has a way of judging you on a deeper level based on actions you may not even realize you're making. For instance, the bad ending bases itself partially on whether you run around at low health instead of healing immediately; caring so little for your survival can lead to a bad ending. Similarly, the role Maria plays in the story will depend on how well you protect her in gameplay, whether you accidentally hit her, and whether you regularly visit her while she's resting in a particular room. There are no gameplay prompts, no indication that any of these things matter or can even be done; how the story turns out is entirely up to your play style and the nature of your connection to the characters and events.
This gets far more interesting when you begin to fully understand the nature of James' interaction with the other characters in the story. Though an "all in his head" theory for the story is very debatable, it is very clear that the other people in the town of Silent Hill represent a specific part of James' psychology in light of the backstory revealed near the end of the game. Things such as self-hatred, the ability to love, violence toward others, and denial are all represented in the story, and the way James interacts with these characters is part of what determines the ending.
The cool thing about this is that Silent Hill 2 has no canonical ending. Even in future entries in the series, which attempt to bind the series together into a more cohesive story, James' fate is left ambiguous. In a way, Silent Hill 2 is less of a narrative and more of a story-driven psychological exploration; a parable with a moral that changes depending on how you play the game. Your experience with Silent Hill 2 could make it a cautionary tale for a number of reasons or a story of triumph over inner demons, all depending not on forced moral choices or a blatant good/evil paradigm, but on many different little details about how you played and what you valued in-game.
This is why Silent Hill 2 is such a great experience. The game is functional on all basic levels, far from perfect on most of them, but so enthralling from a narrative perspective that it absolutely deserves to be played.