Monday, October 3, 2022

Silent Hill (Game)

After I had played Silent Hill 2, I found myself interested in playing the other Silent Hill games, starting with the original Team Silent entries. For the original Silent Hill, often considered one of the greatest PS1 games ever made, I considered buying a digital copy off the PlayStation Store during the time Sony had announced legacy store closures. However, I came across a complete physical PlayStation copy for only $50, which put me in the unique position to experience it as someone who would have bought it at launch in 1999. While many aspects of the game have aged surprisingly well, I can confidently say it’s nowhere near worth the inflated aftermarket values.

Harry Mason drives to the resort town of Silent Hill with his daughter Cheryl for a vacation. Due to car trouble, however, they arrive at the outskirts of the town late at night. While driving the winding mountain road, however, Harry sees a girl standing in the road and swerves to avoid her, causing an accident that leaves him unconscious. He later wakes up and finds that Cheryl has disappeared and snow is falling out of season. Panicked, Harry walks to the fog-covered town of Silent Hill in the distance in search of his daughter.

Unlike a lot of other horror games, Silent Hill doesn’t go out of its way to tell players exactly what’s going on during cutscenes, instead focusing on the strength of its psychological elements. To some extent, it works, since within the vacuum of itself, Harry, and by extension the player, isn’t entirely sure if the events are a dream, a hallucination or actually happening. Should the player read the memos scattered throughout the town and its important locations, more of the town’s history comes to light and players are given more information to piece the story together, including the involvement of an unnamed religious cult and a scheme involving combining drugs with a hallucinogen. While simplistic by the standards of its successors, the main story still feels unique and has its fair share of highly memorable scenes and characters, as well as interesting symbolism.

Cybil Bennett is a standout character.

Unfortunately, the purposefully vague narrative can work against itself. Without digging deeper into the game world and putting the pieces together yourself, the plot doesn’t make much sense and is left more up to the player’s interpretation. While the potentially conflicting explanations can aid the atmosphere, it can also just make what would otherwise be a more straightforward storyline unnecessarily confusing for some players. It also doesn’t help that one highly important memo is inaccessible in the North American version, though PAL and Japanese copies don’t have this issue, and another that helps piece together a connection with the cult and a drug trafficking operation only activates for the player when it feels like it.

Two of the player’s actions during the narrative also result in one of four endings, though these actions are completely skippable unless the player is either very thorough or has knowledge of their existence. One of these, the Good+ Ending, is also very unintuitive and difficult to obtain without a guide. Within the context of itself, Silent Hill’s multiple endings provide a debatable sense of closure, though I’m aware from my own research that within the context of Silent Hill 3, the Bad and Bad+ Endings are certainly non-canon.

Much like the story, Silent Hill’s gameplay is fairly simple. As Harry explores Silent Hill, he comes across various monsters that he can fight with melee weapons or guns with limited ammo, though running away is also a viable option. Combat isn’t too difficult, but enemies can take a few hits to kill, even on Easy mode, and sufficiently large groups can still corner you. Harry also has a flashlight that players can toggle on and off, which can come in handy when dealing with monsters that are attracted by light instead of sound, at the cost of not seeing anything in front of you or reading the map. While there are puzzles, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on them and the solutions are the same across all difficulty levels and aren’t too difficult. That said, some of them stand out as true brainteasers, especially one involving a piano and another involving astrological signs, which felt satisfying to figure out.

The piano puzzle is your first taste of Silent Hill puzzle logic.

I also appreciate how thorough the options can get, including a fully re-mappable control scheme. There’s also a secret Extra Options menu, accessed by pressing a shoulder button in the Options menu, that lets you alter even more aspects, including blood color and whether or not you have to hold down a button to run.

While these aspects of gameplay generally work well together, there are some issues. Though you can get used to it, the non-optional tank controls didn’t age well and Harry’s momentum-based movement can lead to more than a few awkward moments. It doesn’t help either that the game doesn’t explain some of the controls, relying on reading the manual or looking at the control configuration before playing. Harry’s interactions with certain objects can also feel like a point-and-click adventure game, requiring some pixel-perfect precision to pick up certain items or use others from the menu in just the right spot. Difficulty also feels uneven, since Easy difficulty is, indeed, pretty easy, though a couple bosses still feel pretty tricky and surviving the final boss requires a method that isn’t too intuitive. It’s also worth noting that starting a Next Fear campaign automatically ups the difficulty by one level, eventually trapping you in Hard difficulty unless you start a fresh save.

The game’s graphics also didn’t age well, though, oddly enough, that doesn’t actually take away from the game’s horror. In fact, despite the technical limitations of rendering real-time 3D environments, and the obvious attempts to hide them, the game absolutely nails the atmosphere. Silent Hills’ constant fog and the infinite darkness of the Otherworld, which aren’t as noticeable indoors, effectively tap into the player’s fear of the unknown and add a level of tension even on Easy. Although the monsters have a blocky appearance, they look no less horrifying and are all easily distinguishable. In fact, the very first shift to the Otherworld within the first five minutes still stands out as a highlight, showcasing the striking and jarring shift to a cold, industrial and hostile environment when the town falls into darkness. The fixed camera angles can also make certain situations awkward, though Search View mode (default mapped to L2) can alleviate this.

As seen in this concept art, the Otherworld has an industrial feel.

Notably, all of the CG cutscenes were animated by one person, Takayoshi Sato, who also designed the game’s characters. Though primitive by today’s standards, the cutscenes still impress today and include some memorable moments that will surely stick with the player even after they complete the game.

Akira Yamaoka’s incredible score also really helps tie everything together. Not only is the main theme, “Silent Hill”, still great as a theme for the rest of the series, his individual pieces know exactly when to heighten the tension or highlight a particularly emotional moment. At certain points in the game, the player may also hear noises that are perfectly timed to keep them on their toes.

That said, the voice acting is only average at best and awkward at worst. Sometimes, I even found myself chuckling at the bad line delivery, which diffused the tension, if only for a moment. There’s also an inconsistent framerate throughout the whole game, which can’t maintain a high of 30 FPS unless there’s barely anything in front of or around Harry. In certain environments, the game noticeably chugs, which doesn’t help when you find yourself in a sticky situation. It never becomes unplayable, but it’s no less frustrating.

Despite its vague storytelling and noticeably aged qualities, and now existing four console generations behind, the original Silent Hill is still a classic horror game that worth experiencing for those getting into the series or those looking for a solid PS1 title. However, it’s definitely not worth the current aftermarket prices and, as such, you’re better off buying the digital version while you still can.

No comments:

Post a Comment