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

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