“Silent Hill” (video game) review

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Silent Hill is a survival horror game released for the Playstation in 1999. This is the first instalment in the series of the same name.  Inspired by horror culture, the premise of most “survival horror” games are that the players have to survive various dangers. While this may sound like any other action game, most survival horrors make the player feel less powerful because of their limitations, such as limited ammo, health and abilities. Silent Hill makes the most of this concept with its protagonists. Unlike other survival horror games such as the Resident Evil series, which featured protagonists with combat training, the protagonist of Silent Hill is an “everyman”, like you and me. The main character in the first game is Harry Mason. In the beginning, Harry is driving with his daughter to Silent Hill for a holiday. He crashes the car and later wakes up to discover that his daughter is missing. He immediately notices that something is not right in Silent Hill, but is determined to find his daughter.

Silent Hill is played in a third-person view. The gameplay involves combat, puzzle-solving and exploring the eerie town filled with monsters. Silent Hill’s covered in fog, making it hard to see long distances. Other times the area may be enveloped in darkness, meaning Harry has to utilise a relatively weak flashlight to find his way. This light however makes him a lot more visible to monsters. Harry has a portable radio that produces a static when monsters are nearby and he has access to melee weapons and guns to defeat them. As said before, Harry is an everyman, meaning he doesn’t have much experience with weapons. This makes it hard for him to physically attack enemies, and his aim with guns is rather flimsy. At times, the best option for the player is to run away from enemies, and the player can take advantage of the darkness and fog to escape.

This is not a game you play for tight, intuitive gameplay. Controlling Harry is like controlling a tank. Pressing Up on the D-Pad will move Harry forward no matter where he is facing, likewise for backwards. Left and Right change the way he’s facing. This is the way most survival horrors were controlled back then. Nowadays they employ the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective started by Resident Evil 4, which is great because the tank controls adding to the cumbersome camera really annoyed me in this game. A lot of the puzzle-solving simply involves pressing X to pick up something to be used as key and then using that key which leads to more of this. The combat is also frustrating, but it gets a free pass because your character is supposed to be an inexperienced fighter, which encourages you to runaway, which is what survival horror should be. As Silent Hill is a horror game, the monsters wouldn’t be as scary if they were a walk in the park. So that kind of frustration is part of the experience in a game like this. It also means that every time you hear that static radio alerting you to the fact that an enemy is nearby, you may experience that mini-heart attack – the same one you feel when you can’t feel your phone in your pocket. Yes gameplay and controls are frustrating, but this game is a classic for the story and the psychological experience.

This game is the first in the series I’ve played as well as my first survival horror game (Resident Evil 4 doesn’t count, as that is an action game), and I found that it worked very well in freaking me out. Silent Hill creates a scary atmosphere as it’s like a ghost town – Harry only encounters 4 other humans (normal humans that is) throughout the course of his quest, making the player feel well alone during the game. What Silent Hill does best compared to horror movies (especially slasher films) is that most of the scares aren’t just sudden violent occurrences that come out of nowhere. The horror present in this game is psychological, by attempting to mess with your head. A lot of it is rather subtle, such as the music suddenly changing randomly when you enter certain rooms. Most of the time nothing actually happens in these instances, but the idea that something will occur is scary enough. Even worse is walking into a room and hearing the cries of a child or leaving a room to hear the seemingly broken telephone suddenly ring. There are points in the game where Harry travels through dimensions. In one instance he finds a hidden passageway seemingly leading back to the ordinary abandoned school he was before, until he realised the town had transformed an ordinary abandoned school into a school…that resembles a torture chamber. The “normal” abandoned school was already creepy enough! To fully the experience the horror of this game, I challenge players to play it alone at night. Unless you lack a soul, you will feel a bigger sense of unease while playing.

The story is well told. I like the way it forces you to question what the other characters motives are. At various points in the game, your actions will determine what ending you will get, with 5 available. Since Silent Hill is story-driven, I’m not going to talk about its narrative anymore and I recommend you read as little about the story as possible (watch out for the Wikipedia article). Oh, but I will briefly talk about the voice acting, because it’s hilariously bad. A couple of the characters don’t sound so bad, but just because Harry Mason’s supposed to represent the everymen, doesn’t mean you should hire some random off the street to voice his character. Cut scenes are awkward with long pauses between dialogue, which obviously hinders some of these scenes.

You don’t realise how outdated games from the original Playstation look until you play them. Thankfully the game is still capable of scaring the hell out of you, with help from the sound design. The music works very well when it is utilised. Sometimes there will be no music at all, and other times it will be intense, which enhance the experience. The game is short, but I didn’t feel after I completed the story once that I should’ve been longer. This is a game I wanted to play again to get a different ending (you also acquire new items), but I quit not long after I started a second playthrough due to the frustration of Hard mode. The normal mode presents a very reasonable difficulty level. Not too hard, and definitely not easy, though at first I bet a lot of your deaths will stem from you learning to deal with the frustrating controls. Also make sure you conserve your ammo and health pickups the best you can as they are very limited.

Silent Hill is average in a lot of ways; the controls, the camera, the simplistic puzzle-solving and the combat are guaranteed to annoy you, even once you have gotten used to them. Even by the first Playstation’s standards, the graphics weren’t very good. The important thing is that the game does a number of things very well; the fog, the dim lighting, the atmosphere, the music, the story and the scary elements all fit together to create a psychological horror experience. Soon I hope to pick up the Silent Hill HD Collection, which has Silent Hill 2 & 3, supposably the best games in this series. Until then, I can still recommend Silent Hill 1, but it’s certainly not for everyone. If you are a fan of horror, Silent Hill will provide a great psychological experience that only video games are capable of creating, but only if you can put aside all the little frustrations.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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4 comments

  1. Warning: If possible try and get the original 2nd and 3rd for PS 2, the HD versions are TERRIBLE and if all else fails, try to find a cheap used HD. I made that mistake and I wish I hadn’t. Aside from that I’d say the 2nd installment pretty much perfected what was lacking in the first. I’ve played all but the 3 newest installments. Great review!

    1. Hey there! Yes, I heard about the problems with the HD versions. Unfortunately I don’t have a PS2 and my PS3 isn’t backwards compatible, but thankfully I have access to the slightly less terrible PS3 version. It’s quite cheap though and I suppose it’s better than nothing. Also, I won’t notice the problems as much as I haven’t played the original games. Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

      1. The games are still rather enjoyable but the problem I had was that they killed the fog in 2 and 3 looks way too shiny and not the black and red nightmare it used to be. Also try and find the fabled “First Person Mode” in Silent Hill… I was able to get it with game shark back in 01 and no one believes me.

  2. I don’t know what the first person mode is. Can you describe it to me? And I don’t think I’ll have time to replay it, though as I said I had a crack in hard mode. It didn’t take long at all to get to the school, but those demon babies were just too much haha 🙂

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