Log in

No account? Create an account
29 October 2015 @ 09:46 pm
Game Review: Silent Hill II  
Silent Hill II is one of those games I've always heard good things spoken of as one of the pillars of survival horror, but I've never played it. And I figured I would never play it just because I have so many other games to play, so I listened to the Watch Out for Fireballs episode about it, thought it sounded pretty neat, and let it lie. Then a friend told me that she had copies of Silent Hill II and IV and that she couldn't bring herself to play them and did I want them? I told her that yes, that would be lovely, and when October rolled around I put Mass Effect II down and picked up this appropriately-spooky replacement.

Note that this review will be chock-full of spoilers with no rhyme or reason as to their placement. Like James, you have been warned.

You should have listened to her, James.

After a confusing intro video that won't make sense for another five hours, you start off. You're James Sunderland, your wife has been dead for years, and you got a letter from her recently saying she would meet at your "special place" in Silent Hill. And there's not that much more than that, because most of the story is implied or open to interpretation.

Like, take James himself. You know basically nothing about him before he came to Silent Hill, and while later you learn that he murdered his wife by smothering her with a pillow and seems to be in complete denial about it, you don't know why he did it. The first time you run into a monster standing over a corpse, James's response isn't to panic or run--he pulls a board with a nail in it off a nearby construction framework and beats it to death. And yet when he's talking to the other humans he meets in Silent Hill, he often stumbles over his words or looks away, and his attempts to connect with Angela and Eddy are pretty perfunctory. Does James has trouble relating to people because of his guilt over his wife? Are his actions with the first monster meant to demonstrate how easily he can kill if he puts his mind to it? I mean, I think so, but there's thousands of words out there on the internet analyzing this game and I'm not going to try to summarize it all. Shamus Young has a pretty good one here.

Here, less is more. Horror generally relies on the person experiencing it to fill in the gaps, because there is nothing so terrible to you as the depths of your own mind, and that works well here. I've read a description of the plot of the original Silent Hill, and all those J-horror girls and ancient cults and horrific gods don't sound nearly as interesting to me as one man having to face what he's done.

"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away."
-Isaiah 64:6

Though I have to admit, my experience of the story wasn't as enjoyable as it could be because I hated the voice acting. Maria was pretty good (and Mary's letter was excellent), but Angela sounded like she was drunk, and both Laura and Eddie were grating. I mean, Eddie is supposed to be whiny and Laura is supposed to be a bratty nine-year-old, so they're true to character and not actually bad. But it's a lot like how in Catcher in the Rye the point is that Holden Caulfield is a hypocritical douchbag but that that level of awareness doesn't make him more enjoyable to read about. Laura was a good character that was well-realized and I still cringed when she came on screen.

James's voice acting was...hmm. At the time I was slightly annoyed by it, but in retrospect I think it was perfect. He has a kind of flatness and hesitation a lot of the time that, while it never approaches JC Denton levels of detachment, does a pretty good job of demonstrating his mental state. He hesitates a lot and stumbles over his words when talking to people, and sometimes he lashes out for no obvious reason, like when he walks into the room where Eddie is standing around the corpses and demands to know if Eddie has "gone nuts." You can get a pretty good sense of his personality from his voice acting, and while I generally prefer just reading text I admit that kind of emotional tone is an advantage.

I didn't do it.

The story isn't really the reason to play Silent Hill II, though it isn't bad. The real reason is the atmosphere.

The town is shrouded in mist and James can see maybe 10 meters, sometimes less. He carries a radio with him that allows him to detect the presence of monsters by the static that erupts from it, but still has to find them as they lurch at him out of the fog. Inside, the buildings are mostly decayed and water-damaged. Most doors are locked. Bodies occasional lay on the street where they fell, and odd holes and fissures rend the earth, cutting off James's passage and forcing him to seek alternate routes.

And the sound design. The music is rightly lauded, but it's mostly used pretty sparingly. Far more common is the ambient noise, and that is top-notch. Sometimes there's the sound of odd machinery or creaking steel groans. Sometimes there are footsteps or the sound of doors opening and closing. Sometimes there are distant screams. Sometimes, there's just silence other than the sound of James's footsteps and his panting when he stops to catch his breath after running. The ambient noise was probably my favorite part of the whole game, honestly. I mean, I have whole volumes of that kind of music through Cryochamber. It's amazing.

There's one specific moment I remember when I was in the prisonyard and I kept hearing footsteps off in the darkness. I kept spinning the camera around, assuming that there was something there. I mean, I knew enemies could spawn in at that point, and I thought there might be something out there. There wasn't, and I think that actually made it better. When the monster shows up, it releases the tension and turns it into a bug hunt (about which more below).

This is not up to code.

There were a couple moments that punctured the atmosphere for me, though. The first was when I had the camera in just the right place to catch a monster spawning in behind me. It turns out that the way they spawn is they fall from the sky into place, so it looked like some kind of orbital insertion. Clearly the UFO ending is canon.

The second is the way the flashlight interacts with the darkness. With the flashlight on, the area in front of you is brightly lit and everything outside of it is in darkness. But with the flashlight off, or before you find it, the game doesn't want you to stumble around in complete darkness without being able to find anything, so it...makes everything lighter. I mean, it's possible to explain it as James's night vision and adjusting to the darkness, but it was still jarring.


Unfortunately, I don't have as many good things about the actual experience of playing the game.

So, I've played a lot of survival horror over the years. Sometimes when it doesn't exist, I make it myself--my suite of Fallout 3 mods basically made the first two dozen hours a survival horror game, with the Lone Wanderer going out and scavenging ammo and food by day, avoiding psychotic raiders and mutated animals, and having to get back to her filthy tenement in Megaton before the sun set and the night ghouls and worse monsters came out to roam the wasteland. I even downloaded the Obscurum mod and tried it for a while.

What I'm saying is that I have a lot of habits I've developed over the years that I fall into. Ammo is scarce? Get really good with melee weapons. I spent the entire first half of the game with the board with a nail equipped and only switched to the handgun once to try it out. Enemies usually only approach singly or in pairs--if singly, you can easily beat them to death as long as you can get the timing right, and if in pairs you can either just run (if outside) or block one with the other's body (if inside). By the time I got to the second half, I had hundreds of bullets, switched to the shotgun, and just murdered everything with no risk.

Now, some of this is my fault. I set combat difficult to Easy because my experience with survival horror is that you're not fighting the monsters, you're fighting the terrible control schemes and camera angles. I didn't find much on what the combat difficulty controlled other than chance of respawn after a quick internet search, and I sure as hell didn't want to spend big parts of the game locked in survival horror combat with respawning enemies. So I went easy, and yep, I got what I wanted. Combat was usually over with the first blow--I charged in, got hit or didn't, and then struck out with my trusty board with a nail. After that, the enemy got stuck in its recovery animation which took longer than it did for James to charge up another hit, so the first hit ended the combat and then it was just a few seconds of James beating the shit out of a fallen monster as it screamed.

Okay, that's admittedly pretty apropos.

This reached its ridiculous zenith in the fight against Eddie, which was two people standing in the open five paces from each other and alternately shooting each other until one of them fell down. It was completely ludicrous and reminded me a lot of the old hex-based Fallout games, in a not-good way.

Atmospheric, but not that playable.

I've heard a good argument that tank controls and bad camera angles--meaning here, camera angles that are deliberately obfuscating or which mean that monsters that should be in James's line of sight aren't in the player's--are an important part of survival horror, because the main characteristic of horror is powerlessness. And I do think that Resident Evil IV is a good argument for that, since it's way more of an action game and all it took was a fixed over-the-shoulder camera. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean I like playing under those restrictions.

Fortunately, it turns out that I was confused and tank controls are an option, not a requirement. Yet as soon as I switched away from them, the game lost some of that horror aspect as it became incredibly easy for me to run rings around the monsters before darting in to strike. If tank controls are too restrictive and move-by-wire is too lenient, what kind of controls should a horror game have to make it horror? I don't know.

Really, most of my problems with the gameplay came down to the combat. I'm starting to think that Amnesia had the right of it and the real way for horror is to just prevent the player from fighting back. It's hard to get more powerless than that, after all. But on the other hand, showing that James has the capability to be a merciless killer is an important part of the experience and forcing you to run from everything wouldn't provide that, so I don't know. I can't think of of a choice the designers could have picked that would have really satisfied me. Horror is really as fragile as a soap bubble.

I do have one bit of praise--the way James turns his head to look at any nearby enemy, item, or interactive object. That's amazing and it made playing a third-person game so much better than it could have been. Any game since Silent Hill II that doesn't do that (which is most of them) is now lessened in my eyes because of it.

The most mysterious part of the game.

My problems with the game almost all come down to gameplay, other than a few issues with the voice acting, and I think the end result is that given the choice I would have rather watched a longplay of it. Since there's no actual choices to be made that affect the story, and since the gameplay often annoyed me or actively detracted from the atmosphere as I slipped into optimal actions mode, maybe being entirely passive would have let me get more absorbed into the mood. Then again, maybe I would have just half paid attention and not cared.

Still, I went through the game and I got what's widely considered to be the "good" ending (the one where James leaves with Laura) and I'm not sad that I did. Like I said above, I'm not sure what different choices the designers could have made without compromising some other aspect. I can see why Silent Hill II is considered a classic, and I agree with that assessment. Real horror isn't buckets of blood or monsters coming out of the walls. Real horror is what's inside your head. After all, you can't fight it. You can't defend against it. You can't run from it. What can you do?

If you figure that out, write a book. You'll make a mint.
Current Mood: discontentdiscontent
Current Music: Silent Hill II - There Was a Hole Here (The Wingless OC ReMix)
fristle on October 30th, 2015 04:29 am (UTC)
It seems your early decision to go with Easy is what most affected your investment in the combat (or lack thereof). That's not a judgement, just an observation. I might've done the same thing, if I didn't know how committed I was going to be, and just wanted to experience the entire content.

For what it's worth, the version of Silent Hill 2 in the Silent Hill HD Collection offered the choice of redone voice acting.

The plot was a hot mess, but I really enjoyed Silent Hill 1. It hasn't aged well visually (it looked like ass even when it came out) and unfortunately it hasn't been remade, but I remember distinctly the emotional / visceral experience of it and not a single game compared – up until Amneisa the Dark Descent, which exceeds it in some ways but the aesthetic is definitely different.

Also, it ought to be said that Silent Hill 1 plagiarized so heavily from the US movie Jacob's Ladder that it probably ought to have its place on a gaming pedestal revoked.

As far as the rest of the games, the soundtrack of 3 is the pinnacle of the series but otherwise it exists in the shadow of 2. With 4, it is apparent their ideas well was running dry. After that, the series ends up being a franchise that is whored around various Western contract studios, with occasional retreats into its Japanese shell (like the visual novel spin off or the damned arcade game).
dorchadasdorchadas on October 30th, 2015 02:02 pm (UTC)
It seems your early decision to go with Easy is what most affected your investment in the combat (or lack thereof).

I think you're right, and furthermore I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I thought, "Well, combat in survival horror games is mostly just annoying, so I'll set it on Easy" and the result was that...the combat was mostly just annoying.

Though what bothered me more was that I set the puzzle difficulty to Hard, since Silent Hill's psychogeography actually gives it an excuse for the kind of stupid Sierra adventure game puzzles these games are infamous for, and then there were only a handful of puzzles the difficulty setting affected.

With 4, it is apparent their ideas well was running dry.

Huh. That's the other game my friend gave me, but I've heard much the same thing, as well as that it wasn't even a Silent Hill game originally and they roped it into the franchise.

the damned arcade game

softlykarou and I played that at the Taito on 本通 in Hiroshima before we went to a party! It was fun, but it certainly didn't have much to do with Silent Hill.