Note: This review is one of two reviews for Silent Hill 2. To see the other Pixel Hype review of the PS3 HD Remake click here.
When starting Silent Hill 2, the first thing that truly gripped me was the intro on the menu screen. It started this scene with the main character, James Sunderland, in a jail cell. On the other side, a woman who was talking to him. Then came the title music which showed a montage of characters from the game in a style that is very reminiscent of a tv show opening. I was hooked. I wanted to know the main character and what was going on. I wanted to explore this character. That opening was a really good hook into the game, something that I miss in more recent games.
When I actually started up the game though, I noticed the first major flaw of the game, an issue that has in the past kept me from enjoying survival horror. The controls and the camera suffer and the whole experience felt dated. I know some people in the past have told me that survival horror games have bad controls on purpose to make the experience better. But for that, I call foul. Games like Resident Evil 4 and P.T. have shown that survival horror can have good experiences without suffering from poor controls. I don’t want to fault the game too badly for the controls though, because this game is a product of a different time and in all honesty, the actual gameplay is not what makes the game great.
Immediately after I got used to the dated controls, I took James down a foggy path. Walking down this path in the original Xbox version, then watching the same thing being done in the HD remake makes me glad I picked up the more dated version of the game. The fog makes that beginning walk a test of anxiety. Though no jump scares really happen in this game, I was expecting something to jump out at me the entire trek into the actual town of Silent Hill. That path is an illustration of what this game does right and why this is a story that highlights why interactive medium is the best way to really understand the story. Walking through the fog with nothing happening, no enemies, set a tone for the game. Something was off and unsettling, I as the player knew not what was going on. When going into Silent Hill, I felt that I was lost, which normally is not a good feeling in games, but here it worked to the advantage of story. James is a character who is summoned by his wife ot SIlent Hill, he does not know why his wife is calling for him, and neither does the player. You have to piece together where to go. It’s the lack of handholding that gives the game a certain power over you, which leads to what I consider the greatest storytelling strength.
In survival horror, the monsters involved are usually what creates that innate terror in the player. While the visible monsters in the town have some scare factor, they are not incredibly scary. After a while, some of them become funny in an unsettling way. In my opinion, the monsters in town is not the true enemy. The true enemy is the town itself. I am not very knowledgable about the mythos of the first game in the series, but from what I can tell, the town has it’s own personality and way of messing with characters. Here it messes with not only the main character, but various NPCs and the player itself. Like I said, it is maddening to get lost in a game, but here it is even worse when you are lost, trying to find the next path to go through while managing health and ammo. It added to my often accelerated heart rate to have to run towards a door while enemies were chasing me only to find out that it was locked, along with every other door in the hall. In any other game, that would be poor design, but here I think it added to the psychological horror part. It was as if this was made to get into the mind of obsessive gamers like me.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but I left this game feeling like I got a complete experience. While there might have been a few threads left with one of the NPC’s you meet in the game, I felt like overall James’s story got resolved. In one of the more innovative choices I have seen in a game, the ending is determined by small actions you take in a game. It was a design element that made it feel like you were in control of James’s mental state. To give an example without spoiling, Vance and I did almost everything the same in the game except for one small gameplay choice, which lead to two different endings that made sense with the way we played and experienced James.
I feel if I were to rate this game on atmosphere and story alone, I would almost be tempted to give it a perfect score, but unfortunately that is not the case. The enemy design in this game got very repetitive very fast, which was made worse by there only being a handful of non boss enemies, and that one of the seven bosses in the game reuses assets from a previous boss. Combat is even more boring. I felt like I would rate the game higher if they removed 4 out of 6 boss fights in the game. The boss fights of the game, except for one, boil down to the same routine, move to one side of the screen, fire your gun, move to the other side to avoid being attacked, rinse repeat until the boss is dead. If anything killed immersion in this game, it was the bosses.
I also felt like the camera was very dated. While I applauded the game for messing with the heads of players with a lot of design choices that would be bad in other games, the camera to me was unnecessarily confusing. At the beginning of the game, it took me about five minutes to get out of the first room because the camera kept changing on me, causing me to run around in a circle. While I know of some reviews that praised the disorienting camera, I felt it was a very dated experience. Bringing it to the present, I felt like we have evolved past poor camera to make horror, with P.T. being a good example of how to have a game give you that non intuitive experience while still having solid controls.
Issues of controls and enemy design behind, I feel like this game has earned it’s place when it is included on lists of the greatest games of the 6th generation or even greatest games of all time. While the controls are dated, it show the potential games have to tell an immersive experience. In a time where the jump scare filled games like Five Nights at Freddy’s are made just to elicit jump scares, Silent Hill 2 was made to get into the mind of the players. By the end of the game, you are trying to figure out what is real and how to feel about everything. When it comes to James, his story gets resolved, but it is hard to know how to feel about the character because so much of the story is wrapped up in purposeful moral ambiguity, a trait that is shared by not only James, but every NPC and even the enemies. While I know that Pyramid Head was a monster who wanted to kill me, by the end of the game when I found out his true nature, I almost felt like the character serves an important, and almost necessary purpose. Everything in story and atmosphere works great despite controls. If this game was made now on a different engine I would probably rate the game higher, but for now I will give Silent Hill 2 on the Xbox an 8.8 out of 10.