Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams (Xbox)

Silent Hill 2’s reputation for having one of the best video game narratives ever got me intrigued to play it, but for whatever reason I could never find an original PS2 copy. I did, however, happen upon an enhanced Xbox copy of the game and went for it, but still didn’t get around to it. With P.T. as my only frame of reference for Silent Hill, however, I felt more curious about Team Silent’s original take on the series and finally gave it a try. As it turns out, its narrative truly is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in a video game, but it feels strange saying that the actual gameplay didn’t age very well.

James Sunderland has arrived in the town of Silent Hill, Maine after receiving a letter from his wife, Mary, who had died of an illness three years prior. In the letter, Mary tells James that she’s waiting in their “special place”. James is unsure exactly what this means, but is determined to search for her when he’s reminded that he promised to return to the town with her one day, but never did. As James explores Silent Hill, however, he quicky finds that the town isn’t quite how he remembered it, especially once twisted horrors appear in the fog.

The opening shot of the game.

It takes a couple hours for Silent Hill 2’s story to really kick in, but the effort put into the setup is still interesting on its own. During the first part of the game, James runs into three people who have also found their way into Silent Hill: Angela Orosco, a nervous young woman searching for her mother; Eddie Dombrowski, a man who has run away for some mysterious reason; and Laura, an eight-year-old who has somehow ended up in the town while looking for Mary. You’re also given time to acclimate to the atmosphere of the town and its monsters before the game really starts showing off the power of its own brand of psychological horror.

Though the amount of story scenes felt somewhat minimalist, they had pretty good pacing. Every time James encounters one of the other characters again, something had clearly changed about them and their past and motivations are gradually revealed. Eddie gradually descends into madness over his deep insecurities while Angela continually contemplates suicide over her own tortured past. Then there’s Maria, a woman who looks and sounds exactly like Mary, whose true nature remains ambiguous by the end of the game, yet she has a big impact on James’ journey of confronting his own personal demons.

While the game does a good job depicting its central cast and handling mature themes, including some taboo subject matter, the ever-present symbolism helps tie everything together into a narrative that’s fascinating to unravel and enhanced on subsequent playthroughs. Every monster design carries some meaning regarding James’ psyche, especially the iconic Pyramid Head, whose actions and behaviors take on a new meaning towards the end of the game. Even the environments serve a symbolic purpose, like fighting a certain boss in a room filled with holes and pistons or James continually jumping down seemingly bottomless holes that he would have otherwise no logical reason to jump down.

The earliest appearance of Pyramid Head, a creature that
carries a lot of symbolic weight for James.

Silent Hill 2 also features multiple endings, though unlike other games where these are determined by specific choices made at certain points, the player’s general behavior determines the ending they receive. Factors can include, but aren’t limited to, the amount of time you spend with Maria, how often you heal, interacting with specific items and listening to a certain conversation all the way through. Viewing the different endings provides some good replay value, since it encourages the player to try new approaches to the game and the endings each contain some new story info for James, revealing more about his backstory. For instance, the easiest ending to obtain, “Leave”, reveals the full contents of Mary’s letter. Since the game opens itself to continuous speculation and discussion over the characters and symbolism, it’s helpful that none of the endings are strictly canon and, instead, the player can decide for themselves which one they believe best suits the story.

Silent Hill 2’s story truly stands the test of time and resonates to this day, but I can’t say the same for the actual gameplay. Before I explain why some of it didn’t age particularly well, however, let’s look at what did.

As I played through Silent Hill 2, I appreciated how the game handled exploration by exploiting natural player curiosity. There’s some railroading, but it’s rather subtle (at least until the final stretch, when the game is more blatantly linear). For instance, the opening hours place James in one part of the town and he wats to reach a certain road. As the player tries these roads, however, they’ll find them blocked and will think to try one final road. Though this road is also blocked, there’s a conspicuously placed mobile home with an open door, so the player will naturally enter and discover a note pointing them to the next location. This approach allows the developers to guide players while also giving room for players to independently put two and two together.

The map system is very helpful.

Though you’ll find may doors within the town and individual buildings, you can only enter certain ones, which usually contain items or additional story content. However, it’s also a little easy to get lost, which is where the maps come in. If you collect the maps in each major building, you’ll have a floor plan that you can consult to find your way, especially since they’ll automatically update with every open or locked door you’ve found and show the locations of important puzzles and story markers. Despite this, however, it can be easy to miss certain items, since their size is scaled realistically to the rest of the environment.

I also liked the highly responsive menus. The inventory especially moved very smoothly and read pretty clearly. Although guns will reload automatically when you aim them, you can also reload manually from the inventory with either the gun itself or the ammo. Ammo itself is also finite, though depending on how you play, you may end up with a massive surplus by the end (more on that in a bit).

The inventory screen is highly responsive.

Of course, some aspects of the gameplay didn’t age quite as well.

First off, the combat isn’t really that great. Melee and ranged combat are both a little clunky, though auto-aim can mitigate this a little, and enemies move very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that you can simply run past them for most of the game and skip virtually all combat. Even when you do engage an enemy, however, they go down pretty easily and the encounters don’t have much variety. Bosses aren’t immune to this either, with their simple patterns and lack of required strategy on part of the player. Since I knew going in that the game operates like this for most difficulties, I set the Action level to Beginner since it wouldn’t really matter anyway. I’ve heard that Hard difficulty, the highest setting, does actually have a surprising amount of challenge, but I’m not sure how well that would’ve improved the experience anyway.

You can independently choose the Action and Riddle levels.

Then there are the puzzles. Depending on the Riddle level you set, I chose Normal, the puzzle hints can get pretty confusing and require good reading comprehension or some rather big brain logic not unlike old-school adventure games. Fortunately, the solutions, barring a few random passcodes, are always the same across multiple playthroughs, but that doesn’t make the initial process any less frustrating. For instance, the Brookhaven Hospital elevator is initially broken and requires an Elevator Key, which somehow got into a drain. To get the key, you need to find a hook, then obtain four keys/passcodes in several rooms to open a box in a completely different room, which gives you some hair, then go back to the drain and combine the hook with the hair to fish the key out of the drain. After all that, you can finally use the elevator.

One of the easier puzzles, placing three coins in slots.

Combining and using items also isn’t the most intuitive and also seems inspired by old-school adventure games. You have to stand in the right spot, then open the inventory screen and select the item and the Use command. Though you can combine items in the inventory, it’s not the most intuitive system, as you must select each individual item and use the Combine command, then select the Use command to use them all at once in the correct spot. Doors, however, are exempt from these systems, as unlocking a locked door only requires having the right key in your inventory when you interact with the door, no inventory selection necessary.

Another observation I made was that the game wants you to do certain actions in a specific order before it will properly advance. In one particularly noticeable instance, I found a clearly visible handgun in a shopping cart while exploring the Wood Side apartments. However, the game wouldn’t let me actually pick it up until I grabbed a flashlight on another floor, which let James actually see the handgun and pick it up.

You have to get the flashlight before picking up the Handgun
(the location is also a satire of how easily you can purchase guns in America).

Lastly, the fixed camera angles. I actually have nothing against this style of gameplay, since the developers could more easily control how the player experiences the horror element. However, it still impacts movement and can make it more difficult to reorient yourself at times, especially since there’s no opportunity to freely manipulate the camera like in more modern games. This can also impact which control type you select, either 3D Movement, aka tank controls, or 2D Movement, which allows more fluid movement. I personally preferred 2D, since I felt more in control of James’ movements and tank controls feel too clunky to me, but it does mean that you have to reorient yourself at every camera angle shift. It’s actually easy to get used to, especially when you consider that you can keep holding the same direction and keep moving forward the intended way, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

On another note, Silent Hill 2 is more on the short side, as I beat it in under six hours. I’m aware that the final time may depend more on the chosen difficulty levels, but I didn’t really mind the short length. In that time, the game accomplished what it wanted without overstaying its welcome or extending itself with pointless filler. Besides, the alternate endings are a good enough reason to extend your playtime anyway.

Much like the story, the graphics, in contrast to the actual gameplay, held up remarkably well for a game from 2001. Characters and environments still have a commendable level of detail, feeling realistic while also stylized enough to give it its own identity. A persistent fog over the town also helps maintain the horror atmosphere, creating a sense of constant dread over what will appear next. The distorted creatures are easy to tell apart by their silhouette, so you know what you’re up against even in the dark. If I had one complaint, however, it’s that the lip-synching in the pre-rendered cutscenes is slightly off, likely due to dubbing over CG that’s more difficult to manipulate than ones rendered in-engine.

The graphics hold up surprisingly well.

One last aspect of Silent Hill 2 that holds it all together is Akira Yamaoka’s incredible score. Most of the time, the game uses ambient audio, including static from the radio, to create a sense of unease to where even if you’ve already killed every nearby enemy, some truly random noise will keep you on your toes. When this isn’t the case, the soundtrack kicks in and heightens the tension or emotional moments really well. Each ending also has its own associated music, like “Overdose Delusion” for the “Leave” ending, that feels appropriate for the tone. One observation I made, however, is that some tracks are associated with major events in specific locations, yet will continue playing even long after the event occurred when you return (ex. Music from a specific Pyramid Head encounter will replay when you return to the room of the encounter).

Notably, the voice acting is pretty awkward, with a somewhat stiff delivery and odd emphasis on some lines. While it admittedly sounds off-putting when compared to games with more seasoned voice actors, the awkward delivery actually grew on me. It gives the game a certain charm and helps the characters sound like normal, everyday people. By the end, I couldn’t imagine any other voices in those roles.

Restless Dreams includes a bonus scenario.

Since I played the Xbox version of Silent Hill 2, I also had access to a bonus scenario, Born from a Wish, a prequel to the main scenario, Letter from Silent Heaven, where the player controls Maria instead of James. The gameplay of this campaign is very similar to the original, including the same enemy types, but Maria gets to explore a new building, the Baldwin Mansion, and has new puzzles to solve. Her story is also unique, dealing with her suicidal thoughts and new supernatural elements, though we don’t really learn that much more about her than we did in the main story. Since this campaign is roughly an hour long, it’s worth playing through at least once if only to play as a new character and take the opportunity to explore just a little more of the mysterious town. Plus, completing both scenarios opens up an opportunity for a new ending in Letter From Silent Heaven.

Nearly 20 years after its original release, Silent Hill 2 holds up as one of better examples of video game narrative and storytelling, telling James’ story and exploring his psychological state through both cutscenes and gameplay. Though the combat isn’t challenging and the puzzles have an uneven difficulty, there’s still a lot to love about the game and I highly recommend it. However, I’d advise playing it on the original hardware, since apparently the HD Collection is riddled with bugs.

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