Recently I finished Silent Hill 2, and as a newcomer to the series I thought Iíd leave some quick impressions of what many consider to be the seriesí peak. I played the Greatest Hits Edition of the game on a PS2 with an old (but big) TV and in the dark at night. Also, I started and finished during the week of Halloween; I thought it was the perfect time to get into it. I didnít play the original Silent Hill because it was basically spoiled for me during a lecture in my universityís Video Game culture class. I wonít give away any major spoilers in this, so fellow newcomers interested in Silent Hill can safely read on.
The game follows James Sunderland (the protagonist) as he drives to the titular town in search of his wife Mary. Mary apparently died 3 years prior to the gameís setting, but James recently received a letter implying that she was waiting for him at Silent Hill. Puzzled by this, James parks near a grimy bathroom and is forced to walk to different areas of the town (overlooking a large lake). For the most part, James is alone in this adventure, but he encounters a few other characters that periodically show up from hour to hour and may even accompany him for a time.
Silent Hill 2ís plot is the main reason to play the game, and I suppose it is why the game has received so much praise and hype from survival-horror fans throughout the years. The objective is simple, intriguing, and uninterrupted, yet none of the supporting characters with different agendas are wasted for a second. Throughout his journey, James encounters several monsters that plague the town of Silent Hill, but each type of creature is brimming with symbolism and imagery that give the game depth beyond ďinfected undeadĒ. In fact, the entire game is loaded with embedded narrative that lessens the boring burden of having to explore every nook & cranny for items. Books, logs, and wall-writings are all simultaneously eerie and relevant if not to the town, then to James himself. By the 2nd half of the gameís 3rd ďdungeonĒ, I couldnít stop playing and simply wanted all questions to be answered. The writers definitely knew not just how to create an intriguing premise, but how to pull players further down the rabbit hole with every new cutscene and persona introduced. The game has several different endings (all of which Iíve looked up on Youtube), but Iím going to go with my gut and say that the ending I received is the most fulfilling of them all. These different resolutions are achieved through different playstyles and replays, so players shouldnít feel disappointed for obtaining one or the other.
In terms of horror, Iíd say Silent Hill 2 is most effective upon introducing new places or enemies. There are a few jump scares, but theyíre more due to enemy placement than scripted sequences found in other games. However, when walking into a new location, the darkness and unfamiliar layouts can build a slight anxiety for the player, especially if a map has not been obtained (or is under-detailed). I thought the game couldíve used a few more enemy designs, if only because the ones present are quite excellent. Still, for a survival-horror game I never found myself in danger of dying except at one boss encounter. Maybe itís because of my urge to dig deep for items and ammo, but I honestly think once James gets a gun the game becomes much easier.
Speaking of digging, thatís essentially the gist of Silent Hill 2ís gameplay. James explores the town in search of a hint or key to a spot on the map (which he superbly marks as he explores) and then comes across an item which he must insert or combine to further progress. While these treasure hunts occasionally lead into traditional ďadventure gameĒ puzzles or riddles, I found them few and far between. The thematic implications of the puzzles were interesting, but overall Iíve certainly seen better in tangential genres.
The combat in Silent Hill 2 is extremely unwieldy at first, with melee weapons either slow to start up or being swung with uncertain range. This may be a trope common to old survival-horror that Iím simply unconnected to, but Iím not quite ready to say the gameís melee combat holds up in 2013. Thankfully, James can at least aim guns at a foe from a few feet away, so thereís no real reason to not use a gun for the majority of the game. Since I had to search all over drawers and corners for necessary items, I found myself picking up sufficient ammo and never ran out throughout the whole game (at least on medium difficulty).
Graphically, the game definitely holds up and never looks outright laughable. I think itís because the developers restrained themselves quite a bit in the early days of the PS2, so the visible aspects of the environment donít carry much in the way of flaws. There are occasional CG sequences, but they never lend a sense of inconsistency to the package. Even though the fog from the Silent Hill series was originally born out of technical limitations of the original Playstation, I think the decision to keep it around for the sequel worked for the most part. The only real issue with the massive level of fog in the outdoors is that it forced me to constantly switch to the map in order to see the exact door/entrance I chose to make my destination. When that theoretical destination of mine was sometimes not exactly correct, it would lead to a bit of frustration. Indoors, the game succeeds with extremely dark corridors and rooms, usually only lit by Jamesís pocket light that he receives early on. Since thereís no massive draw distance inherent to indoor buildings, the game creeps out players via pure darkness.
The camera is both a blessing and a curse for the old survival-horror genre. Iím familiar with the old Resident Evil games (but never finished them) and their combination of pre-rendered backgrounds with tank controls, yet I never thought that this was an appreciable way to scare players. As someone who loves Resident Evil 4 to no end, I think that ridding of the variable camera angles remedied any problems with tank controls. Silent Hill 2 does not feature pre-rendered backgrounds, yet still doesnít place its camera in relatable spots like other 3rd-person games. Some interior areas can yield frustrating enemy encounters that have James blindly shooting offscreen just because his portable radio made static noise (indicating enemies). There are a few workarounds to these issues, but none can detain the initial effects. Players can press L2 to orient the camera behind James, but this seems to only respond in certain places where thereís enough room (outdoors, halls). Thereís also an alternate control-stick option that orients Jamesís walking from the cameraís POV, but the shift in camera angles (especially within the same room) breaks this convenience during dungeons. In the end, players can still manage to muscle their way through Silent Hill 2ís almost-archaic maneuverability and explore the true haunting beauty of the town. Iím just glad that recent horror games have found more natural ways to disempower players beyond unwieldiness.
Aurally, the game stays true to its name and keeps quiet for the most part. Sound effects are spot-on and ambient in all the right places. The music never gets intrusive or overstated during gameplay, yet at a few points there are some very memorable piano/guitar themes that definitely stick. I have to mention the voice acting most of all, because I think that most people would write it off as imperfect, 2001, flat performances. While at first the dialogue hit me as oddly-exchanged, I started to feel an obvious unease and uncertainty within the characters through their awkward lines. If this were executed intentionally, I wouldnít be surprised considering how smart the storyline is. Between unorthodox writing and half-emoted acting, Silent Hill 2 lends a special sort of artifice to its atmosphere, which (for a psychological horror title) works well in my book.
In addition to the main scenario, thereís also a sub-scenario in the Greatest Hits version. Born From a Wish is essentially a short chapter on the side where players control the character Maria for about an hour. It includes a dungeon and a bit of walking around the streets, but the payoff is certainly worth an extra night of trekking through Silent Hill. It doesnít take away anything from the main story and gives some nice supplementary insight into Mariaís character. I recommend it to players who have finished the main quest.
Silent Hill 2 left a positive impression on me, and in short Iíd recommend it to anyone with a thirst for psychological twists and turns. As a horror game, it managed to spook me despite my recent completion of the original Amnesia. Best of all, I found myself coming back to its many narrative metaphors despite the uninviting grime of its world. It also contained an amazing atmosphere that reminded me of the mystique of Termina mixed with the melancholy of Midgar. Being my first Silent Hill game, this particular entry worked as a standalone tale and I can absolutely see why it is seen as a true classic in many eyes today.