Friday, October 14, 2022

Silent Hill 4: The Room (Xbox)

During development on Silent Hill 3 (SH3), Team Silent also worked its successor, Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4), with the philosophy of change and shaking up the established formula. While the general reception from critics to the new direction was by no means negative, SH4 was and still is a divisive entry, especially since development of the series was handed off to western developers afterwards. Looking online, you’ll find just as many people, from 2004 to now, who enjoyed the game in spite of its faults as you will those who don’t think very highly of it, both for justifiable reasons. As such, I knew what I was getting myself into when I got to this point in my deep dive of the series, but otherwise went in without any knowledge of the major twists and turns.

Of course, price is also a factor and, interestingly, SH4 is one of the more accessible and affordable Team Silent games, with a digital PS2 copy available on the Japanese PSN store on PS3 and a modern rerelease of the original PC port on GOG that’s Windows 10 compatible. Not wanting to go through the hassle of having a Japanese PSN account for the former or downloading patches to restore content apparently cut from the latter, however, I still ended up paying about $70 for a complete physical Xbox copy, if only because it was easier to find and cheaper than a complete original PS2 copy. With all of this in mind, I still found myself landing somewhere in the middle in terms of how I felt. While I found the game an interesting and often engaging change of pace, some development decisions do add some unnecessary tedium and I’m not sure that buying a physical copy of the game would be worth the cost for most people nowadays.

Two years ago, Henry Townshend moved into Room 302 in South Ashfield Heights, an apartment building in the town of Ashfield. Over the past five days, however, Henry has had a series of nightmares and finds himself locked in his room, with no way out through the doors and windows and no way to let anyone know of his plight. Shortly afterward, a hole mysteriously appears in his bathroom wall and, with no other choice before him, he enters it. As he travels through different worlds in search of a way out of his apartment, Henry also unintentionally gets involved in a murder mystery surrounding the deceased serial killer Walter Sullivan.

Henry is trapped in his apartment.

Henry’s journey may not have the same psychological complexity as the previous games, nor does he have the same level of character development, but his rather simple goal of leaving his apartment sets him apart and is in some ways relatable. It’s also interesting how the story not only references the previous entries in subtle ways, but also takes a character, Walter Sullivan, who was previously only mentioned off-handedly and fleshes him out enough to make him a credible threat. Even from the start, the game knows how to build up its central mystery and keep the player engaged with well-placed reveals that recontextualize different clues players sees throughout the game, including the significance of the numbers Walter carves into his victims. The other main character, Eileen, takes on a secondary role, but her state at the time she gets more involved can earn her some sympathy and her reactions to the nightmarish world around her feel genuine.

Depending on how the player behaves throughout the game, particularly in regard to two specific factors, they may receive one of four endings. These endings all feel different enough from each other that they’re worth the effort to watch and players who don’t want to invest too much time can, fortunately, view them all in as few as two playthroughs (for this review, my second playthrough was a speedrun).

While there’s plenty to enjoy about the story, however, the gameplay is where SH4 really tests its philosophy of change and it doesn’t always turn out well.

Before getting into what didn’t work, it’s worth looking at what did. Henry’s locomotion may feel off at first, but he doesn’t clumsily bump into walls. While players could unlock a Life Gauge in SH3 after completing the Hard Action setting, Henry has one right from the start that’s always present in the upper left corner of the screen (players can toggle whether or not it’s always visible). Players also don’t have to worry about whether enemies are attracted to light or sound, as there’s no flashlight, and Henry always has a map of the area that fills in as players explore, removing the need to pick one up. There’s also no option for tank controls, which fit my personal preference not to use them, and enemies that die in any room stay dead throughout that portion of the game. Plus, your inventory is always available without going to a separate screen.

The visible Life Gauge is a useful addition.

When I started, I quickly noticed the lack of a separate Riddle action setting. This threw me off at first, though I understood when I noticed that SH4 downplayed the puzzle aspect of the series. This change can understandably upset some fans, but after seeing how the increasing complexity of the puzzles made the series into an odd mixture of survival horror and point-and-click adventure game, I felt relieved to have one less thing to worry about. Plus, the puzzles aren’t too difficult to figure out and don’t overstay their welcome, save for one that’s essentially a lengthy side quest in the back half of the game.

On the other hand, while combat feels a little streamlined compared with its predecessors, it’s still clunky. There’s a new gauge that lets Henry charge melee attacks for more powerful swings, though this doesn’t really affect combat too much on Easy outside of the final boss, where knowing how it works is a necessity. For whatever reason, enemies operate on a worse version of SH3 logic, where instead of enemies randomly choosing that they won’t die, no enemy is truly dead in SH4 unless you stomp them while they’re on the ground. If you don’t, they’ll get right back up and you’ll have to defeat them all over again. The only real saving grace of the stomp mechanic is that you can actually finish off multiple enemies at once this way.

Unfortunately, there are other downsides to SH4’s approach to combat. While the absence of a radio can make sense due to its redundancy, since rooms are typically small enough that you can clearly see every enemy, there are moments where an enemy can surprise an unprepared player from off-camera for an unintentional jump scare. One technical issue that really stands out, however, involves unpolished hitboxes. It’s one thing that enemies generally move faster compared to those from previous games, but sometimes it seems that their attacks connect with Henry and deal damage when they really shouldn’t and I had one instance where Henry actually teleported to where an enemy had supposedly struck him. While players can simply run past most encounters, this issue with hitboxes shouldn’t even have made it in the final build at all.

Henry will also have to contend with invincible ghosts that can follow him throughout the area they spawn in and inflict damage just by floating near Henry. They do have weaknesses, but they involve limited resources. Holy Candles can slow down ghosts, but are oft held back in favor of the Saint Medallion, which can ward off damage from ghosts, but will break once their energy is spent. Silver Bullets can instantly take down any ghost, but won’t permanently stop them and players can only find two such bullets in the entire game. The only thing that will permanently stop a ghost is a Sword of Obedience, which can pin them to the ground until Henry removes the sword, but players can only find five of these in the entire game and there are more ghosts than there are swords. As such, you’re better off only using the Silver Bullets and Swords of Obedience against four specific ghosts that can potentially follow Henry until the end of the game, otherwise just equip a Saint Medallion when you can and just run away from every other ghost you see.

Don't bother fighting most of the ghosts.

Considering how integral it is to the game’s design, it’s best to now address Room 302 itself, as well as its influence on other mechanics.

For the most part, Room 302 helps give SH4 its own identity and can feel like a breath of fresh air after playing the previous three games (especially if you played them back-to-back like I did), at least at first. While inside Room 302, the game shifts to a first-person perspective that allows for more direct interaction with the world, though admittedly the movement and camera controls in this view have a small learning curve.

In certain rooms within each world, Henry can interact with a portal that can take him back to his apartment, which heavily influences the core gameplay loop. While Henry can heal himself with the classic Nutrition Drinks, Ampoules and Portable Medical Kit, he can also return to his apartment to heal himself. Room 302 also has a chest where Henry can dump and retrieve items, which the inventory system molds itself around and not really for the better. Henry’s inventory doesn’t require a separate screen to access, which I liked, but he can only carry ten items at a time and multiples of the same item, as well as story-critical items, each take up their own slot. Also, Room 302 contains the only save point in the game, a red book that sits in a corner. All of this means that players will have to constantly break up the action and return to Room 302, especially during a first playthrough, when you’ll more likely play the game normally.

About halfway through the game, however, SH4 shakes up the gameplay again once Eileen joins Henry. At that point, Room 302 will no longer heal Henry and each return trip increases the chance of dealing with Hauntings, which will inflict damage to Henry when he’s nearby. This is when Holy Candles are the most useful, since they can stop most Hauntings when placed in the right spot, though only Saint Medallions can clear some of them away. Add in the first-person perspective while inside Room 302 and the possibility of a Haunting quickly instills dread in the player. Since Henry can only find so many Holy Candles, limiting the number of visits is crucial at this stage (as a general tip, you can make the second half slightly easier by never grabbing the Shabby Doll item, which serves no purpose other than generating a Haunting). While the player can also ignore the Hauntings and focus solely on the other benefits of Room 302, this can influence which ending they receive.

The other factor is how the player treats Eileen. Once she joins Henry, the entire second half of the game turns into an escort mission that sees the player going back through the same five levels they’ve already completed, but with some differences. Although Eileen can’t die, the damage she takes will gradually worsen her injuries and her speech pattern eventually sounds more childlike before it gets simply unintelligible. As this can influence a certain factor in the endgame, the player should ensure her safety however they can, even if it means occasionally ditching her in a safe spot (she’ll otherwise follow Henry through all doors if she’s close enough to him). I will note, however, that much like other Silent Hill games, there’s conflicting information out there on whether or not merely leaving Eileen alone will cause damage, even in a safe space, so it’s best to quickly get your business over with if you do so.

Your ending partially depends on how you treat Eileen.

Should you want more out of Eileen, Henry can give her one of a handful of weapons made specifically to let her fight by his side. Each weapon has their own strengths and weaknesses, balancing damage and reach (I personally preferred the chain weapon), though equipping one will also take up one of Henry’s precious inventory slots. Her AI also isn’t the most consistent, so she may suddenly attack aggressively while equipped with a weapon until Henry walks far enough away from her, which can increase the risk for damage.

While managing Eileen can feel difficult, there is thankfully one glitch players can exploit that can make escorting her much easier. During the second trip to the Building World, the player can ditch Eileen in a small lot just outside of an elevator. Once Henry is alone, playing the game normally will take the player to an alleyway, where Eileen will approach Henry from behind and rejoin him. Successfully pulling this off lets the player skip an entire side quest where Henry must place four specific objects in four specific locations throughout the level before retrieving Eileen and finally exiting the level, instead letting players go straight to the exit with little risk to Eileen’s safety.

Even other areas of the game’s design can feel uneven. The graphics hold up pretty well and do a good job of helping build up the right atmosphere in both third- and first-person views. While not quite as unnerving as SH3 could get, there are some impressive moments, like a complete environmental change involving a pet shop when playing through the second Building World visit normally. On the other hand, the monster designs can feel uninspired at times, like literally a wheelchair, and I noticed that the view of the real world outside of Room 302 is exactly the same whether you look out the bedroom or living room windows (though there are some random events to look out for either way).

Yes, there are wheelchairs as enemies.

As for the audio, I actually liked how some conversations can occur outside of cutscenes, which reduces the game’s reliance on them for propelling the story and integrates information better into the gameplay. Akira Yamaoka also still kills it with the score, though I didn’t find it as hard-hitting as his previous efforts. Like the other Team Silent games, the voice acting goes between awkward and passable, though Henry doesn’t really emote all that much despite what goes on around him. Much like the monster designs, the sound design for the monsters can feel uninspired. Two that stand out are how Sniffer Dogs and Gum Heads use stock animal noises and how Patients belch when struck, which removes any and all tension from every encounter.

Though Silent Hill 4 may stumble in places, Team Silent still made a commendable effort at trying something new and mixing up their own formula. Despite some pretty annoying and tedious gameplay, the strong writing and certain quality-of-life changes help balance it out. While perhaps not Team Silent’s best effort, it’s divisive enough that I’d recommend giving Silent Hill 4 a try anyway, if only to better form your own opinion.

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