Monday, October 17, 2022

Silent Hill: Origins

After Team Silent disbanded following the release of Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4) in 2004, Konami shifted development of further Silent Hill entries to American studios. The first of these games, Silent Hill: Origins (Origins), started development under the Los Angeles branch of Climax Action as a PSP-exclusive prequel to the original Silent Hill (SH1). However, development didn’t go that smoothly. When the game was originally announced at E3 2006, it featured a radical departure from the conventional formula and not only more resembled Resident Evil 4 in its design, but was apparently intended as a dark comedy inspired by the TV series Scrubs. Following issues with the game engine and a confused vision, Climax closed their LA branch and transferred development to their UK branch, where Origins was essentially remade from scratch by Sam Barlow, who rewrote the script and altered the level and monster designs within a week. This version of the game intentionally followed SH1 more closely in its design, with the idea of giving fans a more genuine Silent Hill experience, and released in 2007.

A glimpse at the original vision of the game.

Today, Origins is also one of the more affordable Silent Hill games one can buy, much like the other American-developed entries, and I picked up a $10 digital PSP copy during the period where Sony said they would shut down some digital storefronts. Once I finally got around to playing it, I noticed on startup that the game recommended playing it in the dark with headphones on. For the sake of this review, I decided I would follow this recommendation as much as possible, at least during the first playthrough. After three full playthroughs, in which I viewed all three endings, I could see Climax’s intent in closely following SH1’s design and how they managed to make the series’ formula work well on a portable platform. However, I also realized that Team Silent had a point in their approach to SH4.

Travis Grady, a trucker, is late for a delivery and decides to take a shortcut through the town of Silent Hill. On the outskirts of the town, however, a cloaked figure appears on the road and he swerves to avoid them. Travis exits the truck to check on their condition and ends up following them to a burning house, where he rescues a severely burned girl, intending to take her to the hospital. Once outside the house, he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he finds himself in Silent Hill and resolves to find out what happened to the girl. Along the way, however, he ends up confronting the ghosts of his past.

Travis rescues a certain girl from a house fire.

Right off the bat, series veterans will notice that Origins closely follows the general idea of SH1’s opening, as Harry Mason also swerved to avoid hitting someone in traffic and searched the town for his daughter. Without spoiling anything, their journeys also end similarly, including fights against similar bosses.

Although the similarities end there, Origins’ prequel status leaves something to be desired. Travis encounters pretty much every character from the original game and while we do get to see younger versions of them, those who had played SH1 beforehand won’t learn much of anything new, including the town’s drug ring or how the main cult, the Order, attempted to summon forth their god. If anything, the additional background of the town actually muddies things a bit, including a document proposing the idea that Silent Hill was built on “Indian Sacred Ground” (a small detail that personally annoyed me after Silent Hill: Revelation went all-in on the “Indian Burial Ground” cliché). One character in particular, Lisa Garland, came off out-of-character compared to her kind, but tragic portrayal in SH1. One could argue that this difference in Origins fits in with what we learn of her in SH1, but it feels more than a little jarring here.

Interestingly, Origins also tackles the “personal demons” angle of the series through Travis’ past. In each major location, more details about his past and repressed memories of the town come to light, including how his birth more or less tore his family apart. While Travis comes off as a tragic character, certain details felt a bit vague, like exactly why his birth caused so much strife between his parents. Depending on whether or not the player fulfills certain criteria, Travis’ story can end in three different ways. The Good ending, which you get no matter what you do the first time, leads directly into SH1 and narratively feels the most fulfilling, while the UFO ending, unlocked by unlocking a certain motel room with a key from the beginning of the game, feels like the classic joke ending the series is known for, complete with minimal 2D animation. As for the Bad ending, which requires killing over 100 enemies, its significance only makes sense if you happen to read a specific document only accessible through a specific combination of actions in the theater section.

Outside of the story, Climax did a pretty good job at designing Origins and its gameplay systems around the portable nature of the PSP. In case you don’t have a paper manual on hand, the main menu includes a Tips option where players can quickly learn the basic mechanics of movement and combat. When starting a new game, there are no difficulty options, though players can toggle the brightness and subtitles. Though the lack of a difficulty select may disappoint veteran fans, it does make the game easier to pick up and play.

No difficulty select, but a Tips option is welcome.

Compared to a standard controller, the PSP has a limited button layout, but the controls still feel pretty natural. When the game doesn’t employ the series’ famous use of cinematic camera angles, the camera always follows Travis’ movements, making up for the lack of a second analog stick. Travis can run with Square, although there is a slight delay before it kicks in (after completing the game once, there’s an option where you can have him run by default). Where SH4 attempted a different style of item management, Origins returns to the dedicated menu of the older titles, accessible with Select, where Travis can view his health, use healing items and equip weapons or unlocked costumes.

Even while the game closely follows the formula of SH1, it still throws in its own twists, for better or worse. Like his predecessors, Travis can use both guns and melee weapons against monsters, but this time he can also pick up large throwable objects, such as the infamous Portable TVs, that can stun monsters in one hit. If no weapon is equipped, Travis can also fight with his bare hands, a first for the series. Enemies also don’t respawn once they’re killed, at least when not roaming the streets, but like SH4, they can require a stomp or other finishing move before they’re down for good. Although the combat felt fine for the PSP, the breakable melee weapons and throwable objects can encourage a more conservative playstyle, so swapping weapons with the D-pad can feel more time-consuming than using the Select menu. There are also times where an enemy might grab you, initiating a QTE sequence unseen from previous games (perhaps a lingering element of the RE4-inspired version of the game?).

For the first time, you can fight with your bare hands.

Unlike SH4, which had one boss fight (technically two) and downplayed the puzzles, Origins has the most boss fights in a Silent Hill game up to that point. Unfortunately, like many bosses in the Team Silent games, the strategy mostly boils down to just shooting them with the best weapon you have and only healing when absolutely necessary. Puzzles also have a great emphasis while exploring the town, but they’re fortunately on the easier side, as in SH1, with clear hints within documents in the environment.

The other main gameplay twist in Origins is how Travis enters the Otherworld. Rather than a scripted event in the game, each building Travis passes through has mirrors that have two-way access between both versions of the area. Traveling between mirrors at the right time is helpful for exploring otherwise inaccessible areas and obtaining certain items to access new rooms or solve puzzles. Although Travis must pick up maps again, unlike how Henry in SH4 already had the right map on him, the game thankfully lets you view both versions of the map at once, which helps for planning routes.

For a PSP game from 2007, Origins looks pretty good and maintains a stable framerate with no noticeable performance drops (interestingly, if you turn the brightness all the way up, you won't need the flashlight on). Since it takes place in the same section of Silent Hill as SH1, it’s also impressive how accurately they recreated and updated the assets, although the layout of Alchemilla Hospital is notably a little different on the first floor. The monsters also look like they fit in with Silent Hill’s aesthetic, even if one of them very closely resembles another from Silent Hill 2 and a new enemy, The Butcher, feels like an obvious stand-in for Pyramid Head, complete with a strikingly similar introduction, with different lore that only barely justifies its existence. Akira Yamaoka’s score and sound design also sound just as great as ever, even better with headphones on as the game recommends, though it’s not as memorable outside of the track “O.R.T.” The voice acting also sounds more professional, which I would consider a plus over the original game’s comparatively stilted and awkward performances.

Origins does a good job capturing the atmosphere.

Of course, I didn’t have a completely trouble-free experience with Origins. Some mistimed subtitles were one thing, but other technical issues affected my enjoyment of the game and exposed a significant limitation of adhering so closely to SH1’s formula. I’m not sure if this was a software or hardware issue, but I had it a couple times where my PSP refused to load the game (trying again fixed this). I also ran into a graphical issue on my third playthrough when setting up backgrounds and props in the Artaud Theater where the models for each combination weren’t rendered during the cutscene. The objects loaded in properly afterwards, but the fact that this happened at all made me worry that something bad happened to my digital copy of the game.

What felt like a limitation of the typical formula, however, came from how Origins handled the cinematic camera angles and transitions. While the older games had interesting angles at times, Origins places these transitions in odd spots at times, enough to throw off the player’s sense of direction. As much as I loved that Origins didn’t have tank controls, I’ll admit that one of these transitions occurred at the Cedar Grove Sanitarium gates and for whatever reason, Travis automatically adjusted his walking angle, so I found myself constantly walking in and out of the area while trying to leave. Not even changing the camera angle with the left shoulder button worked here, so I had to deliberately stop and reorient my position. I ran into similar, though smaller, issues when navigating certain smaller buildings, though certain boss fights, like the one against The Butcher, also had an issue where poorly-placed camera transitions placed them outside of Travis’ view.

Another limitation comes from the combat. Enemies are more aggressive as in SH1, but in this game, it can get frustrating rather than simply annoying. There are plenty of spots where you'll encounter hard-hitting enemies in narrow spaces or you'll accidentally get too close to one of them, which means either wasting weapons to get past them or taking a lot of damage as you try to escape. When this happened enough times, I realized that sticking very closely to earlier installments, warts and all, isn't necessarily the best approach.

While the developers did an admirable job creating a game with clear passion towards the Silent Hill IP, their strict adherence to the original formula still led to some missteps that show its limitations, especially the odd camera transitions, just okay combat and a story that’s not that much more enlightening than SH1. It’s still a great PSP horror game and I’d recommend it even to people who haven’t played a Silent Hill game before, but it’s clear that Team Silent had a point about their own formula, which can start feeling too much the same if you’ve played all of them in a row up to this point.

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