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Review by tankMage (November 2018)
Score: A (9.5/10)
The Silentest of Hills
Survival Horror is one of my favorite genres, so it’s natural that Silent Hill would be high on my list. While its inception and evolution may not be as clear cut as that of other genres, it is safe to say that survival horror truly began to come into its own during the latter half of the 1990s. This is where Silent Hill which comes in. The PS1 had more than its fair share of survival horror games, some of which were quite bad. Even the better titles in the genre were quite flawed, but Silent Hill did just about everything right. The story is genuinely creepy, the atmosphere is superb, and the monsters that infest the derelict tourist town are original. Better yet, players are given plenty of reason to replay this title in order to unlock new endings and weapons, which helps pad this game’s relatively short length.
Before I continue, the “A” I gave this game doesn’t mean it’s perfect and not everyone is going to appreciate its virtues. Don’t expect some sort of life changing experience, if you’ve never played Silent Hill, it’s just a really well executed game that’ll likely click with anyone looking for some quality old school survival horror. In fact, tank controls, which were a perennial (albeit unpopular) feature of the genre, are something players are going to have to deal with in this title. I hate giving these speeches, but I do not like to over hype anything in my reviews, because hype often leads to disappointment and a game like this should be enjoyed for what it is.
The days of the PS1 were an awkward growing phase for consoles. Not only were 3D graphics possible at the time, but they were in demand. Unfortunately, the technology was still primitive and 3D character models were often pretty terrible. A few games managed to pull off decent representations of the human form at this time and Silent Hill is one of them. That’s not to say that the cast isn’t boxy and stiffly animated, they just look better than what one would normally encounter on the PS1. Of course, this is a survival horror game and the real stars are the monsters and the town itself, which were actually enhanced by the PS1’s limitations.
Team Silent did everything right when they designed the sleepy resort town of Silent Hill. The player is greeted with a brooding, ghostly atmosphere the moment the action begins and the overall feel of the town becomes more unsettling as the game progresses. The devs even managed to use the PlayStation’s rather limited draw distance to their advantage by cloaking the entire town in dense fog or pitch black night. It’s hard to explain, but the fog that consumes the resort town is almost tangible and you never know what horror will come lurching out of it.
The town itself even looks like a real place one would have encountered in America during the late 20th century. The streets are lined with shops, there’s a residential district, auto repair shop, police station, and just about everything else that can be found in a small resort town. Otherworld, which is an extra spooky version of the town, is in stark contrast to the already eerie real world. While I do not want to go into detail about Other World for the sake of those who have yet to play Silent Hill, I will say that it is gritty, rundown, and full of surprises, most of which are unpleasant.
A horror game is nothing without something to be afraid of and Silent Hill will assault the player with a small, but well designed cast of beasties. Rather than rely on horror cliches like zombies and vampires, the Silent Hill team created its own monsters by taking recognizable creatures and twisting them into hideous monstrosities. Harry will have to fend off vicious knife wielding creatures that look like children, humanoid pterodactyls, and vicious diseased dogs to name a few of this game’s beasts. The PSX’s low poly graphics were often a detriment, but the devs managed to use the jagged edges and low resolution textures to create deformed monstrosities that hold up to this day.
Finally there’s the cutscenes, which were typical PS1 CG clips as far as quality goes. Most of them are only a few seconds long and the cast is rather gangly and awkward looking, particularly Harry. On the plus side, there was some effort on the part of the devs to make the characters visually expressive. They smile and frown among other things, which is nice change from the wooden and somewhat distorted faces used in the main game. Team Silent must have been proud of their emotive character models, because there’s a short movie at end that shows off what the CG models could do in terms of motion and facial expressions. It was also good for a chuckle, which was very welcome at the end of such a dark game.
Harry Mason and his seven year old daughter, Cheryl are on their way to the resort town of Silent Hill, when something pushes their car off the road. After waking up in his wrecked car, Harry notices that Cheryl is missing and sets out to find her. Harry quickly learns that something is horribly wrong in the abandoned, fog laden town as he searches for Cheryl. Over the course of his journey Harry meets a cop named Cybil, a doctor named Kaufmann, and a few more people who contribute to the story. Much of the story revolves around the mystery behind what happened to the town and its dark past, so there’s not a ton of character development.
While the cast may not have a lot of depth to their personalities, the mystery of Cheryl’s whereabouts and the demise of the town are enough to carry the show. In fact, the devs seemed to want the town itself to be the star of the game (hey it’s even named after it) and the cast are more or less ordinary people trying to survive in an extraordinary situation. The result is a compelling story and a cast that is almost believable. Harry does what any parent would do in the same situation: search frantically for his kid. Cybil is a police officer trying to perform her duty… and the other characters have their own motivations. It makes sense that the cast doesn’t stand around talking for twenty minutes about their lives in a town full of monsters, though some of the character’s motivations are a bit unclear unless the player pays close attention to clues found in the game.
With that said, Silent Hill is at odds with itself as far as plot development goes. The devs seemed to be trying to replicate the style and tone of some of the more serious horror movies from the 1970’s. There’s a trippy, dreamlike quality to the game that tries to tell the story through events, flashbacks, and the actions of the cast as well has scraps of text found in-game. The tone of the narrative is sometimes shattered by monologues that explain certain elements of the story. This is in such contrast to the finely crafted storytelling we see in other parts of the game that it is likely these monologues were included at the behest of one of Konami’s higher ups who wanted to make the story easier to understand, though this is speculation on my part. Unfortunately, it would have been better to simply let the development team and writers do their thing, because they knew what they were doing when they created an original concept in a genre that was often based on cliches.
Music and Sound
The use of music to create atmosphere and convey emotion is masterful. The same goes for the sound effects, which are well done and often serve to punctuate creepy events. Dark, clattering industrial music often plays in the bowels of the places Harry explores, but the game also knows when to be silent… no pun intended. Then there are eerie ambient sounds that resemble humming machines or breathing that often made my hair raise while playing late at night. Certain cutscenes are accompanied by melancholy guitar music that has a haunting quality, which is an excellent contrast to the industrial music and eerie ambiance used in other places.
Then there are the sound effects, which are some of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. Squeaky doors, the sound of metal connecting with flesh as Harry beats monsters with a pipe, the grunts and howls of the creatures that infest the town… all of this stuff sounds great and brings the blocky, primitive 3D graphics to life. Then there’s the radio, which is one of the most clever uses of sound I’ve ever seen in a game. The radio (usually quiet due to a lack of reception) generates static when the player is close to a monster; the volume and intensity of the static increases with the number of monsters. Needless to say, this feature adds a lot of tension to the experience, since the player knows something is nearby, but can’t be sure where the creature is hiding.
By today’s standards the voice acting is stiff and amateurish, but it’s head and shoulders above its peers. While the acting often sounded forced, the actors seemed to get better as the game progressed, although this may be a result of it not being that bad to begin with or me getting used to it as time went on. Believable dialogue also helped make the acting feel more natural. There are no goofy lines like “You could’ve been a Jill sandwich!” in this game, though Harry does have a habit of asking everyone and everything he meets about the whereabouts of his daughter, which is almost meme worthy in its own right.
Silent Hill has very few shortcomings, one of them being its controls. Like any survival horror console title from this era, this game uses the dreaded tank controls. Players have to turn Harry on an axis using left and right on the D-pad and run forward by pressing up. After playing a number of games like this, I can safely say that the tank controls are not the real problem with these games, though they are cumbersome. It’s actually the tank controls in conjunction with strange camera angles and dynamics that making controlling characters in titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil such a chore. Tank controls actually work fairly well in situations where the camera is lined up with the four cardinal directions on the D-pad, but they become unstable as the camera pans around or in rooms with an offset perspective. There were many situations where I had Harry running in one direction, then the camera panned to the left or right, and Harry was suddenly going in another direction.
The analogue sticks on the dualshock controller work with this game, but I found it to be less precise than the D-pad, which may be a result of the feature still being fairly new at the time. It was nice that Team Silent actually attempted to improve upon the interface by allowing the use of the analogue stick, but they ultimately failed. My final complaint about the UI is Harry’s inability to pivot, which is a fairly basic feature in survival horror. Harry can strafe (which is great), backpedal, and even hop backwards, but he cannot perform an about face. This makes controlling him very burdensome in situations where players have to move quickly in order to outflank monsters.
As for the camera, it’s actually fairly good aside from the fact that it works against the player at times. The devs experimented with different angles to set the tone of each area, while also allowing the player to control the camera using the L2 and directional buttons. Being able to look around is a life saver in a game like this and it made up for the tank controls to some degree. L2 also snaps the camera behind Harry, which helps a lot, but it doesn’t work in tight areas, so don’t count on it.
The inventory system in Silent Hill is great. Harry doesn’t have a grid based inventory that forces the player to shuffle keys and ammo boxes around so they can pick up a new item. Nor is there a storage chest that players have to fiddle with. Instead, everything goes in a simple inventory that can be navigated by pressing left or right. There’s no limit to the amount of items he can carry and the player can get to whatever object he wants with just a few button presses. This alone put Silent Hill’s UI ahead of many other games as far as user interface goes.
Silent Hill is actually a very conventional survival horror title when you strip away its fancy trappings. Harry finds healing items, weapons, and ammo, which are all in limited supply. Players will have to search for these items as well as solve simple puzzles, so there’s also an emphasis on exploration, which is another major aspect of the genre. And then there’s the monsters that Harry has to flee from or fight. Everything about the gameplay is done very well, but it doesn’t explore new territory… which is fine by me. Silent Hill was a latecomer to the survival horror scene and Team Silent had the luxury of learning from the mistakes as well as successes of others. As a result, this game is a finely tuned machine that doesn’t do too much or too little of anything.
As I said earlier, the monsters are scary and original. Players will come face to face with horribly mutated children who wield knives, skinless dogs, and things that look like apes in gimp suits… it doesn’t get much more original than that. Harry is rarely safe from these creatures aside from the occasional quiet room with a save point, because they often respawn or new things spawn in their place when the player revisits an area. Team Silent made the monsters a bit slow to react to make up for the fact that they respawn and while this made the game feel more fair, it was also easy to simply run past them. Of course, I played this game quite a few times when it was released, so maybe someone playing it for the first time may find combat more challenging.
There’s also a smattering of bosses to fight, but they seem like afterthoughts. Though, the first boss is actually somewhat challenging if you are not totally comfortable with the controls and do not know what to do to kill it. I remember running out of ammo and getting eaten by it when I tried beating it with the pipe the first time I played, but he’s easy if you know the trick to beating him. The only other true boss in this game aside from the final boss, is little more than an ammo sponge that sometimes attacks, it’s also not as imaginative as many of the other creatures in the game, which is why I think the bosses were thrown in just to have bosses. Now the final boss…. well that’s a different story. There are two different bosses you can fight depending on your choices in the game and one was a pushover while the other one stomped me a few times before I figured out how to deal with it, so the game at least goes out with a bang.
Puzzles are another significant element of classic survival horror that Silent Hill managed to integrate into the game in a way that meshes well with its overall theme and other gameplay elements. Many of the puzzles are pretty easy to figure out, but I remember being stumped by a few that had rather cryptic clues. In fact, I wondered how I figured some of them out when I played this game back in 1999, but it’s likely I took the time to walk away from the TV and look them up on my PC with its 56k modem (yes, it’s as slow as it sounds) rather than spend hours stumbling around, testing everything in sight. Either way, the puzzles are common and well designed enough to provide players with a challenge, but the player isn’t constantly presented with them until they become annoying.
There’s quite a bit of stuff to explore and players will visit mundane locations, like schools, but the presence of monsters makes everything feel alien. If that’s not enough, players will explore an extra spooky place called Other World that makes an already unsettling experience even scarier. Other World also presents a twist in the gameplay, because it’s an altered version of the normal world that is both familiar and foreign. Of course there’s plenty of risk as well as reward that goes with exploring the town of Silent Hill, because there’s life saving items and enemies all over the place.
Players get to use a surprising array of weapons that range from sledge hammers to hunting rifles. I really enjoyed clobbering the things that attack Harry with a steel pipe, since close quarters combat is usually a last resort in survival horror and using melee combat felt novel as a result. It was also very helpful to have strong melee weapons to use on the respawning enemies, though it often took a bit of skill and strategy to deal with monsters in melee combat. Of course, guns are the real stars of this game’s arsenal, but I found the selection to be a bit bland aside from a secret gun. Harry gets a handgun, shotgun, and rifle, which are all very basic in an era where Resident Evil was allowing players to use stuff like burst fire pistols. Silent Hill’s interesting melee weapons make up for this and Harry isn’t exactly G.I. Joe, so it makes sense that he didn’t come to town with an M16 in his trunk, though it would have been cool to see a little more variety in the ranged weapon category.
Team Silent wanted players to go through this game more than once and it shows. There are five possible endings, four unlockable weapons, and the story is structured in such a way that it makes more sense with subsequent playthroughs. While I think it is worthwhile to go through this game a second time just to see another ending, I wasn’t impressed by the unlockable weapons aside from one exception. Two of them are only available near the second (and oddly enough easier) half of the game and they are a bit frustrating to use. Out of the better weapons, one can be gotten early on, but it takes a lot of skill to use, while the other requires the player to unlock a secret ending that was probably really hard to figure out without the help of magazines or the internet back in 1999. Still, most people that enjoy this game can get at least two or three good playthroughs out of it.
I was in high school when Silent Hill was released and it seemed like anyone who was even vaguely into gaming was talking about it, rightfully so. Silent Hill didn’t use jump scares as a crutch to be scary (though there are a few), instead it relied on a haunting atmosphere and genuinely disturbing imagery to be frightening, which sets it apart in today’s world where horror has been reduced to a scary face popping on the screen and going “Boo!”. Those who have played this game a bit and considered its story will also probably find that it has something to say about the human condition, though what that may be is best left for you to interpret. Regardless, it was good to see that this game has withstood the test of time and the accolades it was given upon release were more than hype.
Silent Hill was one of the later games to hit the PS1’s library, but it’s also one of the best and anyone who enjoys survival horror should try it.