Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams

Silent Hill is a franchise that I'd always managed to somehow avoid, though never deliberately so. Despite my curiosity about the cult following the series had developed and my lifelong affinity for similarly-themed games, films and stories, the town of Silent Hill and I just kept narrowly missing one another. We were like two ships passing in the dark, not altogether unaware of the other's presence, but never really reaching out and making contact. Ideally, I'd have begun playing through the series with the first chapter, released on the PSone way back in 1999, and perhaps my hope of finding an affordable copy of that game are responsible for my hesitation to begin the second. After a lengthy hunt, however, and the understanding that the two have very little to do with one another aside from the setting and the mood, I decided to finally give my aged copy of Silent Hill 2 a whirl in the Xbox machine.

My initial fears that this was just an overhyped Resident Evil clone were quickly put to rest - although the two games share a genre and pieces of a control scheme, their personalities couldn't be further apart. Where the first three Resident Evils focused on the cheesier, blood-n-guts style with a hint of puzzle solving in the name of variety, Silent Hill 2 concentrates much more on the unknown, the unexplained and the psychologically disturbing. Where Resident Evil 2 is horror in the vein of Dawn of the Dead, Silent Hill 2 is more along the lines of The Ring or The Shining. There's a lot of grey space, a lot of quiet minutes, followed by staggeringly loud moments of hectic chaos, followed by more silence and more tension. No matter where you are in the city of Silent Hill, there's always that awkward, distressing weight on your shoulders, that sense of impending doom just around the corner.

It's that establishment of potential horror, not the actual moments of battle where the monster lies revealed, that are most successful in Silent Hill and, honestly, in most of the better films within the genre. To say that this game is lacking in real scary moments would be both unfair and untrue... I jumped more times than I'm comfortable to admit while playing through this one in the dark... but it properly uses such moments as an accent, rather than a crutch. It's been said that the most horrific monster in the world can never be captured on film, because it resides within the collective imaginations of the audience. Hollywood can never frighten you as badly as you can frighten yourself. It's this kind of mentality that I see reflected in Silent Hill 2 from the very get-go. Sure, they do eventually show you the monsters, and they're significantly horrific on their own, but they're all little more than pawns in this scheme, even the bosses. They're just around to nudge your mind in the right direction, so that the little shadows you'll catch darting around at the edge of your field of vision can be more effective and more relative to the story.

In terms of atmosphere, there's very little that this game does wrong. It's learned all the right lessons from the progression and evolution of cinematic horror and applied them to the incomparably personal experience of a quality video game. It's established a unique style, a great cluster of settings, and a wonderful premise (the lead character, James, receives a letter from his wife three years after her death, pleading with him to visit the town of Silent Hill) but the actual follow-through of the story and the accompanying character interactions are lacking. This reminds me of Eternal Darkness in a way, in that a lot of the strange occurrences and developments seem completely random and are never connected to the story itself. Almost universally, the cast is detached from reality, lacking in personality and in emotion, which works within the confines of the plot but results in the player never being fully drawn into the game's world. The one exception to that rule is James himself, who does react somewhat believably when he witnesses something completely horrific, but those reactions are so over the top and overdramatic that I couldn't really tell you which I prefer.

I came away from this game feeling as though I'd read a short story that had been padded out and enlongated thanks to the inclusion of a dozen different unrelated asides. It's a fifty page story stretched over the course of a three hundred page novel. You'll meet five non-playable centric characters around the city, but only two of them have a real bearing on the plot, which is itself little more than a series of vague insinuations. It's a real shame, too, because all of the pieces have been set in the right place to accommodate for a much more striking, intriguing tale. There's a solid premise, but very little follow-up. The proverbial pins had been set up, but the bowling ball was MIA... and that carries over to the ending, as well. A variety of potential endings is something the Silent Hill series has been known for from its inception. I suppose it adds some replay value to what would otherwise be a very short gameplay experience. Regardless, that tradition is carried on here as half a dozen potential conclusions are available, depending on how you play the game and your tendencies in battle. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I've seen them all and have my favorites, (the "Dog" ending is worth a look, if just for the sheer inanity of it) but none of them offer the kind of closure and satisfaction I'm looking for after eight or nine hours' worth of play.

Controlling James as he explores the city is fairly easy, if not entirely ideal. As I mentioned in the introduction, several elements of the Resident Evil control scheme have surfaced with Silent Hill 2's configuration, most notably the "boat steering" movement controls. If you didn't like standing in one place, pivoting and then running directly forward or backward in Capcom's zombie-fest, you aren't going to like it here. Personally, I've grown used to it and the steering doesn't seem to get in my way any more, but I can certainly see why some players would have developed a bitter hatred for it. One thing that differs from Resident Evil's traditional setup, however, is a fully polygonal environment and a free-roaming camera. What that means is less cheap scares and monsters hiding in plain sight, and a much more interactive experience. I didn't feel like I was guiding a little man around a series of paintings, as was often the case with Claire and Leon in RE, but along with that freedom comes a whole new set of hurdles.

Fortunately the integration of camerawork is solid, not to mention completely original, stamped with the Silent Hill brand of creativity. Rather than opting for the standard, "float six feet behind the player's head" approach, the developers introduced a much more interesting series of angles that carries over the stylization and ingenuity of the series. This camera has personality. It moves quickly, almost shockingly so, and is strongly reminiscent of the speedy, chaotic movements of a modern feature-length horror film. Even walking through an empty room in broad daylight is a chilling experience when the camera pans wildly behind you... it reinforces the sense of urgency and tension that runs throughout every aspect of the title, and really helps to further establish the game's visual identity. My sole complaint lies with this camera's occasional hesitance to stay behind the player in a crucial moment, choosing instead to go off and shoot the action from somewhere across the room. But that's such an infrequent occurrence that I can let it slide for the time being. It's so unlike anything else out on the market, and works with the graphics to establish such a cool mood, that I can't even imagine how different the experience would have been without it.

I'll come right out and admit to savoring every last bit of the visual direction and graphical representations of Silent Hill 2. If there's one area that this game absolutely nails, it's this: everything from the character designs to the environments to the simple, yet undeniably successful, film grain texture that overlays every moment of gameplay... it's all an unbridled success. This is among the most thought-out, fully realized visual productions I've ever seen in a game, and even the hardware limitations of the original Xbox are addressed in a concise, effective manner that works within the confines of the big picture. The dreamlike state of your visit to the town explains away the boundaries around the playable area... you don't run into an invisible wall, there are just mysterious tarps or bottomless pits sealing off certain parts of town. You'll accept it at face value because, hey, you just fired three rounds into a set of animated mannequin legs. It's a perfect example of form over function - you distract the player with a hazy, ethereal environment, beautiful graphics and all sorts of indications that the normal rules don't apply here, tell them they can't do something, and watch as they accept your statement as law without a fight. Draw distance isn't an issue for the hardware to tackle, thanks to the series' trademarked thick fog, which not only masks the weaknesses of the system, but adds a dense atmosphere and allows for a much more detail-rich environment without long load times between city blocks. The attention to detail on building facades, street corners and decrepit alleyways is truly breathtaking, not to mention widely varied. It would be a straight-up lie to say I never saw any sort of repetition from one storefront to another, but that's to be expected of games on the original Xbox and the PS2. Among those peers, especially considering its age, Silent Hill 2 annihilates everything else I've seen.

Another noteworthy visual innovation is the complete lack of any kind of heads-up display or on-screen indicator. With the multitude of potential actions and inventory items that seem to have completely overtaken the industry, it's a nice change of pace to see a game with just a character and an environment on the screen at any given time. It not only keeps the playing field open for some of the more subtle effects, but also makes the experience even more akin to that of watching a movie.

The character designs, few and far between as they may be, are just outstanding and really say everything you need to know about the character before they've opened their mouths and spoken word one. Remember the first time you saw the vehicles and surroundings in Star Wars? How they stood out from the objects in every other science fiction film out there at the time, because they actually showed various signs of wear, use and dilapidation? It's the same kind of effect with James, Maria, Laura and the rest of Silent Hill 2's cast. These guys look like they've been fighting unimaginably horrific creatures on a dirty, abandoned city street for the last two days.

The appearance of the monsters, likewise, remains among the most successfully frightful I've ever seen. It's easy to throw sharp teeth, bumpy skin and red eyes onto something, call it an enemy and commence with the cheap scares. What's not so easy is introducing a baddie that's horrifying if just because you have no idea what in the living hell it really is. The bad guys of SH2 are, obviously, the latter. They don't always look so much like they're attacking you out of anger, so much as they're lashing out because they're constantly in pain and see anything that moves as a possible cause. I almost felt pity for these things, their existence is so pitiful, so filled with tragedy. Then they spit some kind of sickening green mist at me, and all that went out the window. I guess there's only so many ways I can say it: these character designs are top notch, and looking back it's easy to see when, where and why they were imitated but never duplicated. There's a reason Pyramid Head is among the most respected and revered bosses in all of video games.

I can't rightfully discuss the visuals of this game without giving some love to the incredible lighting effects, either. I'd truthfully rank this game ahead of the original Splinter Cell in that category, and Sam Fisher's first romp was released almost specifically to show off everything the Xbox could do in that respect. In Silent Hill 2, you travel the entire city with just a flashlight, which (needless to say) is handled magnificently. Everywhere you go, that single light source is playing with your surroundings to cast all sorts of bizarre, frightening, downright malicious shadows throughout the room. In a way, that lonesome illumination, combined with the environments you're asked to explore, become characters completely unto themselves.

For the most part, the audio continues in the footsteps of the visuals. The original soundtrack is everything the scenario could ask for and more. It shows restraint, which is important in a lengthy game, and accompanies the moody grey scenery perfectly. These tunes are so hopeless, so utterly, depressingly simple, that they paint a picture almost entirely their own. Accompanied by the stray ambient noises and whispers that occasionally surround you, they're almost enough to drive you completely into madness yourself. Playing this game alone, in the dark, with a set of surround sound speakers is an absolute blast. You'll swear that the voices aren't coming from the speakers themselves, but are actually inside your own head.

The one area in which the game's audio does fail, however, is in its voice acting. The delivery is universally terrible, completely lacking in emotion and personality... a stark contrast to the rest of the package. Everyone speaks in a long, hopeless monotone, and while that would work once in a while, given the surroundings, it gets to be a bit much. It's hard to make an emotional investment into a story without an identifiable personality, and when everyone is speaking as though they've been soullessly roaming the streets for their entire life, there's something of a disconnect. I didn't identify with any of the characters, and as a result I wasn't as interested in what ultimately happened to them as I should have been.

But despite its few stumblings, I adored the majority of my experience with Silent Hill 2. The story, while thin at times, is generally workable and never really insultingly self-indulgent, and voice acting is still little more than a perk in the video game industry. I'd be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen games with truly outstanding voice work, so I won't rail on SH2 too hard for being a little light in that department, either. The length of the game bothered me a bit, as the main game map is quite elaborate and seemed to have a lot of unrealized potential, but that goes back to the weakness of the basic plot and the lack of any major side stories of consequence. If you've got a weekend to kill and want to be emotionally shaken, this is exactly the game for you. It features one of the best all-around identities in the history of the industry, takes dozens of hints from the lessons learned by its predecessors in film, and is truly horrifying on several levels. If the story had been a little thicker and the cast had been fleshed out a little further, this would've been close to perfect. As it is, I'd say its recognition and following are well deserved. This is a tight little package, well worth further investigation if you remain uninitiated, as I once was.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.9

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