Woo hoo! Time to re-play “Silent Hill” (1999) 🙂 Seriously, I’ve been meaning to take another look at this game for ages after a failed attempt at re-playing it in about 2013. I still have vague memories of playing it for the very first time during the early-mid 2000s and being utterly terrified by it – and it was probably the first genuinely scary horror game I ever played. Ditto for the first two sequels that followed too.
At the time of preparing this review, my Playstation 2 didn’t work [Edit: It’s running again 🙂 Expect at least a couple of PS2 game reviews to start appearing occasionally from about a week and a half onwards] and I doubt that my old PSone is in a usable state these days either. So, I was forced to use my original PS1 game disc with an emulation program – although one annoying side-effect of this is that the program seems to have “helpfully” smoothed out the wonderfully grainy dithering effect that you’ll get if you play it on original hardware. So, the screenshots in this review may not reflect what the game looks like if played in the intended way.
Although second-hand physical copies of this game are a bit on the pricier side of things (since, if you got one back in the day, you probably won’t want to sell something THIS awesome), I think that digital copies of it it can possibly still be found on very slightly more modern Playstation consoles… well, for as long as the Playstation 3 online store remains a thing.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Silent Hill”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
Set in rural America, you play as a widower called Harry Mason who is driving along a mountain road with his daughter Cheryl, when a young girl in a blue dress suddenly appears in the middle of the road.
Harry swerves to avoid her and ends up being knocked unconscious in the resulting crash. When he awakens, he finds himself on the fog-shrouded streets of Silent Hill and Cheryl is nowhere to be seen.
Harry begins to search the ominously deserted streets and briefly glimpses Cheryl. But, when he tries to follow her, he ends up in a blood-spattered alleyway where he is attacked and killed by strange monsters.. Only to suddenly awaken on a sofa in the town’s diner.
A local police officer, Cybil Bennet is there too – also stranded in the mysterious town of Silent Hill. She hasn’t seen Cheryl, but tells Harry that she’ll look for her before warning him about the town, giving him a gun and leaving. The town is dangerous….
One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it’s a classic for a reason 🙂 Even though the second game in the series is arguably scarier, don’t let the old-fashioned graphics and cumbersome camera fool you, this is still one hell of a horror game!
So, I should probably start by talking about this game’s horror elements – which consist of a mixture of psychological horror, paranormal horror, bleak horror, character-based horror, creepy places, monster horror, a small number of jump scares, eerie noises, gory horror and cosmic horror.
Although this is a game that won’t immediately frighten you very often, it instead gradually builds up a genuinely chilling and disturbing atmosphere that can really catch you off-guard.
The game’s story and characters are surprisingly creepy too. Taking influence from “Twin Peaks”, H. P. Lovecraft and “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) – this is a game filled with quirky, strange and/or unsettling characters, and a plot that tells you just enough so that you vaguely know what is going on, but keeps enough mysterious to really use your imagination against you. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the mystery is kind of the point. It is designed to make you feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of something much older, deeper and even more terrifying.
One famous feature of this game is it’s “otherworld”. At various points in the game, reality itself will transform into a nightmarish rust-covered version of itself. Although the monsters don’t really change much when this happens, it just looks creepy as hell – and, for significant parts of the story, the characters can’t be sure whether it is real or just a terrifying hallucination.
Likewise, on an artistic level, it is brilliant how these segments of the game use a “reassuring” warm colour palette in a counter-intuitively creepy way in order to mess with the player.
As for the monster designs in this game, they are… ok… when seen on their own merits. However, not only do the monster designs in this game include less of the complex psychological symbolism found in later games in the franchise – instead opting for what appear to be relatively generic monsters (eg: Giant bat-creatures! Undead dogs! Possessed doctors and nurses! A giant moth! A devil! etc..) – but the European release of this game also has censored monsters too!
Seriously, the hilariously silly mole-like creatures you encounter in the school are apparently scary knife-wielding zombie children in the US version of the game. Apparently, the game may have suffered similar censorship in Japan too. Still, without comparing the monsters to later games in the series, they are… ok… on their own merits.
Even so, this game handles its monster encounters in a really clever way. Before you even see a monster, the game will “helpfully” warn you that a monster is nearby with crackling radio static and the drilling of a bell.
This builds suspense before the monster even appears. Yes, the monsters can often easily be avoided by running or awkwardly fought – but the anticipation and the fact that it can be impossible to immediately tell how much damage they’ve done if you get attacked by them really adds a lot of extra horror to these situations. Likewise, the monsters you’ll encounter when exploring the streets of “Silent Hill” aren’t even meant to be fought – it’s a really stupid way to waste health and ammo – but are merely there to keep you nervous and keep you running frantically to your next destination.
Like in any classic survival horror game, carefully exploring and conserving resources are important. The game plays a very clever trick on you here, since you’ll find a lot of ammunition early in the game and, if you’re sensible about conserving it, you’ll think that everything will be easy.
Then you’ll enter Alchemilla Hospital and waste most of your ammo fighting off the bullet-spongey possessed staff… before you find the hammer and eventually realise that – yes- it’s worth saving ammo by using melee weapons whenever possible. And, talking of weapons, you can easily miss some of the most powerful ones in the game (I totally missed the hunting rifle the very first time I ever played the game) if you don’t observe and/or explore thoroughly. Seriously, this game does not hold your hand in this regard! And this adds to the harshness of the game’s atmosphere a lot, even if it does sometimes sneakily help you out with things like hidden checkpoints, unlimited saves etc….
And even the game’s combat plays into the horror too. In classic survival horror fashion, it is made deliberately awkward – with aiming often being more a matter of luck too. Likewise, you can move whilst aiming some weapons, but not others… so good luck working out which ones in the middle of a battle.
All of this is meant to hammer home the point that Harry is just an ordinary person, rather than a trained soldier. Monster encounters are almost always close-up brutal things, with Harry also often having to stomp on or kick downed enemies to stop them rising again. Add to this the fact that many monsters in the game can be easily avoided without fighting, and the game’s combat becomes a grisly, ugly and morally-ambiguous thing that just adds to the disturbing atmosphere.
In fact, the game itself is designed to disorientate you. Not only does it use old-school tank controls, but the camera will sometimes swing around wildly and leave Harry off-screen… not to mention that, whilst exploring the town, there will be times when you feel that you are running into an endless void too. Even with a map screen that you can consult, you’ll still have to rely on luck, dead reckoning and careful observation to get around.
Although modern gamers may find all of this to be “awkward” or “cumbersome”, it is there for a good reason! It feeds into the disturbing atmosphere of psychological, narrative and spatial disorientation that makes the game just that little bit extra-creepy.
Being a classic survival horror game, there are *groan* puzzles. In keeping with the more subjective and paranormal theme of the game, these puzzles are just as likely to require cultural knowledge (eg: reading comprehension, a knowledge of the zodiac etc..) as they are to require logical deduction. And, yes, I had to use a walkthrough several times (especially on the piano puzzle), but a good number of the puzzles can actually be solved relatively easily if you pay attention to the clues and think a bit.
Still, there is the occasional moment of “moon logic” here – such as one action you have to do to get a “good” ending – but even this plays into the ominously mysterious otherworldly element of the game. For the most part, the puzzles are spaced out reasonably well too… but expect the game to throw a large series of them at you just before the final boss battle.
Unlike many of the classic “Resident Evil” games, “Silent Hill” went for a fully 3D environment rather than using pre-rendered backgrounds. Although this makes everything in the game look low-poly and low-resolution, it not only allows for more visual consistency but also allows the camera to occasionally swing and swoop around in all sorts of eerily disorientating ways too. It also allows for some surprisingly good – for 1999 – dynamic lighting too.
Likewise, despite its graphical limitations, this game still manages to cram in a lot of detail to its unsettling environments (eg: signs that people used to live there, ominous dangling corpses etc…..). The focus on bleak utilitarian locations, the consistent visual style/aesthetic and the clever use of darkness and/ dense fog to disguise the original Playstation’s short draw distance all help to distract the player from the primitive graphics whilst also adding a really bleak and creepy atmosphere to the game too 🙂
The sound design is brilliant creepy too 🙂 I’ve already mentioned the way the game “helpfully” warns you that monsters are nearby, but there are also moments where the game will use sound alone to scare you – either via audio-based jump scares (hinting at unseen ghosts) or via lots of discordant unsettling ambient noises. This game also contains some brilliant music from Akira Yamaoka who – in classic “Silent Hill” fashion – contrasts relatively “reassuring” or “relaxed” music with creepy situations in order to mess with the player and unsettle them further. Seriously, the counter-intuitive “relaxing” music really adds a wonderfully melancholy mood to this game.
As for voice-acting, whilst it doesn’t reach the “unintentionally hilarious” level of the voice-acting found in the original “Resident Evil” (1996), the voice-acting in this game is still slightly on the corny side of things – although reasonably decent by 1990s horror videogame standards. Even so, the slightly corny quality of the voice-acting just adds to the eerie Twin Peaks-inspired weirdness of the game.
Although this game only took me 4-6 hours to complete, with the help of a walkthrough, it’s relatively short length works in its favour – because there is little in the way of filler here. The game contains non-linear “levels” with an open-world town you can explore in between them. However, whilst the game does encourage a small amount of exploration, it is subtly set up in a way that guides you (sometimes by chasing you with monsters or blocking off roads) to where you need to be relatively quickly. This game is very much a “quality over quantity” thing, even if it is also technically a very large game by the standards of the late 1990s.
I could go on about the minutae of this game’s horror elements all day – but the creepiest element of this game is just its overall atmosphere. It has a wonderfully bleak and desolate mood, with just a tiny hint of reassurance to it (eg: the occasional “friendly” character, some relaxing music etc…) that somehow makes it even creepier. Again, this game won’t immediately frighten you very often – it does something much better, it gradually builds atmosphere and immerses you into its twisted and mysterious world. Like the three sequels that followed it, this is a game that can linger after you’ve finished playing it.
And, oh look, I’ve talked about everything in this game. Yes, it is well-designed enough that literally everything in it can fall into the category of “horror elements”. Yes, modern gamers may find the camera/controls to be awkward and the graphics to be antiquated, but don’t let this put you off. It’s a classic for a very good reason!
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.