Thursday, July 8, 2010

Game Review: Silent Hill 4

Silent Hill 4: The Room and I first met on a cold winter evening in late 2009. Shortly thereafter, a period of having-absolutely-no-free-time hit my life, and I was forced to abandon my nervous wanderings around Silent Hill for the even harsher realities of fluid mechanics and advanced circuit design. When my much-needed summer break finally hit in May, I breathed a sigh of relief before allowing Silent Hill 4 to scare my breath away once more. I'm happy to report that, months after beginning my journey, I finally completed the game a few weeks ago. The only thing left is to convince you to do the same. :)

For those who might be unfamiliar with the Silent Hill franchise, here's a quick bit of background. Konami debuted the series in 1999 on the PlayStation, and so far, six subsequent games have so far been released. The Silent Hill series focuses around the titular small town of Silent Hill, a place where psychological forces often take physical shape. Perception of Silent Hill is distorted according to the psychological state of the viewer, typically manifesting itself in either a fairly normal, populated town, an abandoned, foggy town, or a hellish, decaying town known as the Otherworld. Silent Hill games typically take place in this town, with altered characteristics depending on the character behind the screen.

Silent Hill 4, however, deviates from the previous three entries in that it is the first not to take place in the town of Silent Hill. The story begins in an unassuming apartment building in South Ashfield, a town adjacent to Silent Hill. The protagonist of the story, Henry Townshend, wakes up one day to find that he cannot leave his room. His door has been secured with numerous chains and locks, his electronics are dead, his windows can't be opened, and the outside world is completely obvious of his existence. After exploring around and realizing that nothing he tries will allow him to escape the room, Henry discovers a small hole that has opened up in his bathroom wall. And of course, like all good horror stories, Henry decides to climb through the hole in hopes of escaping his apartment, Room 302.

Trust me on this suggestion: grab a close buddy or two, wait until after 9 PM or so, and then cut out all the lights in the room before you play. I've played every Silent Hill I've gotten the opportunity to pick up in this manner, and let me tell ya, nothing beats the camaraderie that comes from being scared shitless together. The atmosphere of Silent Hill 4: The Room is spectacular. Rather than relying on cheap, sudden frights like some horror games, Silent Hill 4 manages to evoke a constant feeling of dread. The ominous background noises and omnipresent shadows make the player apprehensive of each approaching corner might be hiding, and the grainy filter only enhances the effect. Surprisingly, Room 302 itself is one of the creepiest parts of the game; although it's well-lit and resembles a typical apartment, there is unease to be found from its suffocating silence and occasional slight modifications. As pieces of the puzzle begin to reveal themselves and the sinister truth is slowly pieced together, the feeling of mystery and dawning realization rivals that of good suspense films.

As good as the atmosphere is, though, I can't help comparing it to Silent Hill 2, said by many to be the pinnacle of the series (and I wouldn't disagree). On the whole, Silent Hill 4 is much more predictable than its ancestor. The plot and level structure are rather linear; the game is split into a series of different worlds, most of which begin and end in the same fashion and many of which even repeat a second time. The monsters you'll encounter are noticeably less interesting than the Silent Hill 2 guys, with more obvious symbolism and only one or two inspiring genuine awe. Nonetheless, Silent Hill 4's environment is still fantastic, and makes the game worth playing in its own right.

The gameplay of Silent Hill 4 manifests itself in two different "modes" of sorts: a first-person perspective used to control Henry when he is exploring his apartment room, and a third-person perspective during Henry's visits to the plethora of alternate worlds into which his bathroom hole delivers him. While in Henry's room, the player typically walks around to examine objects, deposit and retrieve items from his inventory, utilize the game's sole save point, and (as the game progresses), interact with the changing state of the room. While in the other worlds, the player will continue to engage in exploration and item-finding, but with an added combat element for the occasional enemies that Henry will encounter and need to dispose of. The two areas are linked by a system of portals that resemble the hole in Henry's bathroom; unfortunately, this further adds to the predictability of the game by creating a methodical "okay, let's go back to the room and save" system that (in my opinion) compares unfavorably to the tension of Silent Hill 2's "omfg where's the next save point gonna be?" feel.

Discussion of the gameplay necessarily leads us to most of the game's biggest problems. Simply put, the gameplay, particularly the combat elements, leaves much to be desired. The control scheme works well enough for the exploring and item-finding, but is exceptionally awkward for the combat sequences, making combat much more frustrating than it needs to be. For example, Henry must stomp on a fallen enemy in order to properly "finish" it and prevent it from getting back up. However, that button combination is mapped to the same buttons as a normal attack, and the combat system forces Henry to lock onto any nearby enemies as a first priority. Consequently, many a monster will get back up not because the player forgets to finish it, but because the engine forces Henry to continue attacking nearby enemies rather than finishing downed ones. Even apart from that, the combat system isn't particularly exciting in itself, usually boiling down to whacking an enemy with a melee weapon before it has time to respond (firearms are all but useless in this game). The combat system is clearly the weakest element of Silent Hill 4, and a cleaner system would have aided its enjoyability considerably.

Silent Hill words of wisdom: No matter how dead enemies look, always stomp them to be sure.

A few other weaknesses merit some discussion; although these didn't bother me quite so much, I can imagine them being real thorns in other players' sides. The inventory system can feel unnecessarily restricting at times. Henry can only hold a limited number of items at any given time; if he runs out of slots, the player must either consume items (the ones that can be consumed, at least), or run back to Henry's room through a portal and deposit items into a chest. This system does add an extra layer of strategy to the game, as the player must choose the items he carries very carefully, but admittedly does result in multiple trips back to the apartment for no reason but to switch out items. This system contributes to the near-uselessness of firearms as well, since each round of bullets takes up a valuable slot in the inventory, and the weapons aren't powerful enough to make the lost space worthwhile. Another possible source of frustration exists in the character who joins Henry in his travels around halfway through the game; it is Henry's job to escort her around and keep her in good health. Unfortunately, she moves painfully slowly, often senselessly attacks large groups of enemies, and has a tendency to take damage if Henry moves too quickly or suddenly while in her proximity. My frustration was partially mitigated by the fact that, with the right upgrades, she can be made into a veritable killing machine, and that I actually felt some attachment to her character. Nonetheless, she will undoubtedly still be irritating at times.

Despite the mentioned faults, I still believe that Silent Hill 4: The Room is an experience not to be missed. I admit I might be rating it on the high side; it takes a certain kind of person to play horror games in the first place, and many will undoubtedly be turned off by the gameplay issues. In the end, however, the games are few and far between that make you look upon a ticking clock with fear and dread. Perhaps it would be wise to first begin with Silent Hill 2, but if you enjoy that game (and you should, it's one of my favorites ever), chances are high that you will enjoy braving the perils of The Room as well.

Final Score: 4/5


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