Silent Hill (1999) Review

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Silent Hill is one of those landmark horror games, both part of early 3D graphics for video game consoles and one of the two pillars of the survival horror genre. I recently played this (through emulation at a resolution much much higher than the game was ever intended to play at). So, 17 years on, how does it hold up?

In my view, Silent Hill holds up very well. Of course, the visuals are very dated and suffering from that typical jittery polygon look, low render distance which in some sections isn’t covered by the fog and a 30FPS cap which is unchangeable even through emulation. Well, you can, but it just makes everything go twice as fast. But these things are excusable given it’s age. But even though it looks dated, it doesn’t look bad. It’s caught between everything being clear, from the details of the foggy down, to the childrens drawings in Midwich Elementary, to the grimy industrial nightmare of the otherworld. Playing this now, especially with the creatures being caught between clarity and abstraction, along with the technical limitations, gives the game an alien and unsettling feeling that uses your imagination to fill in the gaps on some of the more bizzare creatures such as Split Head. I also managed to get the FMVs to look something approaching decent considering their age so they didn’t look like a completely unintelligible and pixelated mess through emulation magic.

The plot starts off simple enough. You play as Harry Mason, who is driving with his daughter and then there is a car crash. You wake up and she is gone and the plot is driven by trying to find her. Then you encounter the bizzare nature of the town and otherworld and uncover it’s mysteries. The plot is pretty decent and while it doesn’t reach the emotional heights of it’s sequel, it works in it’s own more or less simplicity and ramping up of reality distortion. There are also multiple endings that depend on whether the player has completed a sidequest (or not) and does a late game boss fight in a particular way, which I had no idea about whilst playing.

The game, like it’s cousin Resident Evil, uses a fixed camera in the sense that it’s not player controlled. But unlike Resident Evil, the camera isn’t static and is more cinematic, using occasionally static angles and a camera that follows the player from various different angles to great effect. The game is also a masterwork of level design, especially the final level, which is to put it briefly, a mindfuck.

This game also has tank controls, but are totally manageable and very easy to get used to so they were very rarely an issue for me. However, they still have the desired effect in combat, especially when you’re faced with two or more enemies at a time, or a boss fight. I played on Normal difficulty and ammo conservation is very important and most of the time, I either ran away from enemies or used melee weapons to defeat them, especially since most enemies take at least a third of a mag to take down.That said, I finished the game with a shitload of handgun ammo so unless you try and kill absolutely everything you see, the game is fairly generous with hand gun ammo. But you don’t want to be too liberal with using your health items in the early and mid game because towards the final act, you’re going to need them. Mechanically, the game is similar to classic Resident Evil but with the important difference of there being no inventory management mechanics, which is fortunate considering the pacing and narrative structure that would make an inventory management system a nightmare, but in a frustrating way rather than one that adds to the experience. There are also no ink ribbons and save points are just regular save points, which are spread far enough to threaten progress if you fail but not so far as to be annoying. Between navigating the town and the various levels, such as the school or hospital and smacking or shooting weird zombie nurses and being chased around town by things that look like pterodactyls, there is a strong puzzle solving element that is really great. Puzzles here are usually paired with a riddle, so if you solve the riddle, you can solve the puzzle, as well as good old item hunting, backtracking and doing things in a particular order. The puzzles are logical and thus minimally frustrating but maximally satisfying, unlike the sheer ridiculous abstraction found in something like Grim Fandango.  The boss fights here are ok, with Split Head being the best since it requires it’s own specific strategy whereas most of the other bosses in the game require the Doom style strategy of shoot at it until it dies with the rifle.

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Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is an eerie industrial ambience that plays at the right moments to ramp up tension and the sense of dread. The sound design as a whole also holds up. However, the voice acting isn’t very good. Everyone sounds off. The script is fine and it never quite reaches Jill Sandwich levels of camp, but it works in a so bad it’s good way that makes everything more alien. It’s not great but it works well enough. The game is pretty scary and tense, relying primarily on the atmosphere created by the audiovisual design, camera angles and tank controls promoting flight or flight responses and a few well placed sudden loud noises, jump scares and fake outs.

What I’m trying to say is, Silent Hill holds up really well and if you haven’t played it yet, you should. It’s not too long either and took me less than 6 hours to complete.

8/10

Blood and Wine Expansion Review

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The sun drenched and untouched by war duchy of Toussaint, a place straight out of a fairy tale with a Franco-Italian feel to the countryside is the setting for this second and final expansion for The Witcher 3. It is a truly beautiful virtual world to explore and is vastly different from the often stormy and windy forests of Velen and the shores of Skellige that you spend much of your time in during the base game. The overrarching theme in this expansion is one of retirement and of rest, for Geralt, for developer CD Projekt and for the player who, ideally if you’re like me, has been with the series since at least the original game.

The expansion is both substantial and one of reunion. Not only is the landmass of Toussaint quite large, there’s a bevy of side quests and witcher contracts, most of which follow the usual formula established in the main game, but they are still fun none the less. There are also new monsters, some of which, like Barghests and Archespores making a return appearance as they were in the first game but not the rest, up until now. Some characters from the book series, such as the Duchess Anna Henrietta return, being the one who requested Geralt come to Toussaint to help investigate the murders of knights and others who I won’t spoil. Geralt is also given his own home, which can be upgraded, some of which provide benefits, such as a stable which gives Roach higher stamina or even just extra armour racks which allow you to display your favourite looking, but not currently in use armours. There is also a new Gwent deck, fist fighting quest chain, treasures, a new set of scavenger hunt quests that allow one to upgrade their witcher armour sets to grandmaster. It’s a fully fledged expansion and not light on content.

In terms of narrative and voice performance, the quality is high as one would expect from this series. Here, the bread and butter of the Witcher saga, which is the re framing and sometimes parody of classic European fables, folklore and fairytales is on full display throughout the main quest, both in dialogues and visuals, as well as many of the side quests. There is still also a suitable amount of choice and consequence, particularly towards the end, which alters the outcome of the narrative, perhaps quite drastically ( I will have to play the expansion again at some point to verify this).

Mechanically, the addition added in this expansion are an extra mutation which can be fitted in it’s own tree with one sign, alchemic or combat ability at a time, which then opens up the ability to unlock four extra slots which can be used for the normal abilities from the base game that match up with the mutations.

Interestingly, the performance in the Blood and Wine expansion is greatly improved from the base game. This is particularly noticeable in cities, where in Novigrad and Oxenfurt, the framerate can drop quite noticeably, whereas in the sunny streets of Beauclair, there is hardly ever any drops quite as drastic, even with a comparable amount of NPCs and other performance chewing things occurring in a given scene.

It’s a great expansion, go get it. And if you haven’t played the Witcher 3 yet, buy it with all the expansions included. As of this publication, it’s about $68 AUD on GOG so it’s excellent value for money.

Hearts of Stone Expansion Review

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The first expansion for The Witcher 3 is a fantastic ride. It starts out much like any other quest: you have a contract you must fulfil, a monster to kill. But that goes sideways when Geralt is captured, then freed and has to satisfy the three impossible wishes of the immortal nobleman Olgierd von Everec that takes you to participating in a bank heist to being possessed by a ghost, to jumping into the memories of a dead woman.

Hearts of Stone in a nutshell and without spoiling the storyline too much , is simply more Witcher 3. While it has a sidequest or two, the Olgierd questline, which is quite meaty in itself, should take you up to 10 hours. The writing is excellent and melds most of the strengths of the game, although the moral dilemmas that the series is known for is more or less downplayed here. The narrative weaves the seriousness and humourous aspects of the main game deftly, with the bank heist being set up much like heist films or the hilarity that comes with being possessed by a rowdy ghost. The narrative is a joy that like the main game, pulls from folklore, genre fiction and cinema to provide an excellent adventure.

In terms of new mechanics, the game doesn’t overhaul itself although it adds one feature where your runes can be crafted together to create new abilities onto the sword. Additionally, there is no new landmass of the game, but it does take place primarily in the north-east corner of the Velen/Novigrad map, which before this expansion one was unlikely to have explored all too much, so in part the area should feel pretty fresh, especially if one hadn’t played the game since they  completed it before the expansions were released like myself.

As far as DLC goes, this is one of the better ones; the closest thing I could compare it to it the Knights of the Nine expansion for Oblivion and in terms of scale, it’s about the same more or less. It’s also only about $12 AUD so it’s not too badly priced. So if you have The Witcher 3 and liked it, then this should be a no brainer as it is consistent with the quality of the base game. Definitely worth picking up.

8/10