Review by Bloomer
Reviewed: 09/03/08 | Updated: 09/04/08
Some elements are weakening, but the third trip to Hill remains surprisingly good.
The astonishing quality of the original Silent Hill was of a nature so weird that it seemed unlikely to be replicable in sequel form. Silent Hill's logic was that of an abstract nightmare, its methods of sensory, emotional and intellectual disorientation most damaging when you had no clue that they were coming. This kind of lightning tends not to strike twice in the same place, but Konami have resolutely continued to fling bolts towards the same patch of ground with surprising results. It's a testament to human creativity that the first two sequels to Silent Hill are as good as they are, and that they remain in keeping as well as they do with the original game. Graphically they are able to reach some attractive new territory on the PS2, and they continue to produce frightening set pieces and ideas of a kind that are unique to this series. What does not return in them is the effortlessness of the original game's abstractions. To make an effort to be effortless is impossible, at least semantically, and therein lies the paradox involved in developing sequels to Silent Hill. As rational as I am, I do believe that the original was divined with something like a ouija board of the kind the game would approve of. The more you grasp for concrete replication of such elements, the less unaffected they necessarily become.
Silent Hill 3 (SH3)'s key feature is its complete revamp of the hero(ine). Harry and James, from the first two games respectively, were similar adult males doing similar things, and felt similar to play. SH3 places you in the shoes of Heather, a seventeen year old girl with the acerbic tongue and fierce self-assuredness typical of many teens. This puts an entirely new filter on the horror proceedings. While we also usually attribute more physical vulnerability to female characters, Heather is pretty robust. The overall change of effect is more to do with the youth, naivety and outlook she brings to the table. Sometimes her teen wit is in danger of undercutting the gravity of proceedings. You get a lot of choice quotes out of her when you click on bits of the scenery, such as 'I don't really feel like eating and drinking stuff from an alternate reality, OK?'
After a double-take opening featuring a novel twist players of the previous titles will appreciate, the game's events are set in motion when Heather is pestered at a shopping mall by a man claiming to be a private detective. He says he has important information for her concerning the circumstances of her birth. She figures he might just be a pervert, and loses him by escaping out a toilet window. It's closing time at the mall, and as Heather tries to get out of the place she slips into an inexplicable world filled with monsters and bizarre violence. Some direct plot connections to the first game eventually surface, as do locations we now know from both previous games. I felt nostalgic and safe when I ducked into Heaven's Night bar again, but on the other hand, maybe it's time for a Silent Hill game which doesn't feature an extended trip to the hospital.
The game mechanics here are almost identical to SH2's. The play style, in which your civilian ability with weapons is poor, and the fact that it's usually smarter to run around or away from the grotesque and frightening monsters, is also unchanged. The monster audio cues are guaranteed to make your skin crawl, morphing together drones, fingers on blackboards and decontextualised animal noises which blare indiscriminately down any corridor in which the creatures prowl. This maximises scariness, but the player still receives proximity information about the bad guys because that function remains cleverly split off to the radio. Not that this helps tremendously in SH3, since the monsters are thick on the ground. The game's favourite method of assault is to have you open a door from a brightly lit safe room, pause to load, then drop you in a pitch black racket-filled corridor crawling with horrible shuddering stuff. Some tricks never get old.
The one combat addition is the ability to parry a melee blow with a well timed button press. This can be satisfying, but is mitigated by the conspicuously more annoying nature of the bad guys in this episode. I stress annoying as opposed to dangerous. There are scuttling, snorting floor creatures which constantly knock you on your back but inflict little damage. The weird stilt-walking flies are creepy, but plodding and picky to fight with, hovering mostly above the range of melee attacks and instantly kicking you if you fire a gun. The fat hunks of inflatable flesh block your passage with their fatness. Killer dogs can be distracted by leaving beef jerky on the ground, but this turns out to be such a fiddly procedure (carefully place jerky while not being attacked - find dog - lure dog to jerky using self as bait) that fight or flight remain the preferable options.
Essentially, the enemies do more to impede your movement in SH3 than in any other episode, and it does get a bit wearying, as does the presence of the scores of permanently locked or broken doors you have to keep trying to find the way forward. The camera is also less helpful than in the past, persistently leaping in front of Heather and pointing back at her when what you'd prefer is for it to stay hovering behind her shoulder, where it would be useful in showing what's coming. I felt I was forced to hold down too many buttons at once during combat (three shoulder buttons - combat stance, strafe and 'put the camera behind me, please') for it to ever feel intuitive. Fortunately these sticky points are somewhat balanced out by the good and generous distribution of save points. If you die in SH3, you can be pretty confident that it will be easy to try a different tactic or explore elsewhere without having to replay too great a chunk of the game.
In spite of SH3's gameplay and technical delivery varying only slightly from those of SH2, it distinguishes itself through the specifics of its new heroine, story and imaginative content. The main problem is that by the time of this third episode, the slides between the various states of reality have become faster and less obviously motivated. This is an inevitable minus with a lesser plus dangling off it; the power of each transformation is diminished, but less time has to be spent executing it or explaining how it happened. The difference between the normal and nightmare states has grown decidedly blurry, with too many monsters assaulting you during the non 'alternate' levels for there to be much power of contrast.
Nevertheless, when the game shows restraint, it is the old sense of overlapping realities which continues to generate the greatest fascination and discomfort in the Silent Hill world. My favourite phase in SH3 comes after Heather escapes the horror version of the mall and makes for the subway to catch a train home. The station is deserted. A series of locked gates herd her deeper underground. Dispassionate tracking shots follow her as you guide her down one repeating tiled tunnel after another, the metronomic clatter of her boots taking over the soundtrack. Your sense of passing time begins to dissolve. It's hard to tell if the emptiness is due to it being late at night or if something supernatural is taking place. The artful design of such stretches of SH3 stretches which do not necessarily affect the outcome or involve fighting, but which manipulate your apprehension of a world is what continues to most strongly voice the series' unique identity and attraction in horror gaming.
I also enjoyed the boss fights in SH3. They offer enough thrill and challenge to satisfy without inducing rage or blocking up the game. The encounter with the sewer monster, which zips around obscured beneath the water's surface in the manner of a shark, manages to elicit the same panicky whirling about and scanning of the water that any shark encounter would. The stand out battle is with the demonic version of Heather's self on the merry-go-round. This is something of a re-run of the fight with a zombified Cybil in the first game, except that Evil Heather comes at you with each of your weapons in turn. Having to destroy your own twin is always a bit disturbing in any game, and this particular fight is also preceded by a grizzly ritual in which you must 'execute' all of the horses on the merry-go-round. They whinny, bleed and snort acid as you bludgeon them to some kind of death.
Overall, the mobility oppressing enemies and slightly irky camera and battle controls drag SH3 down at times, but mostly it's a quality new rendition of past themes. Some of the most inspirational elements from the first Silent Hill are starting to get stuck in developmental ruts, and the core material is so elusive that I think these ruts are going to be difficult to get out of; SH3 definitely has the least well-judged 'reality-swapping' to date. Yet the game continues to come through with horror set pieces that work, guaranteed creep-outs, imaginative nightmare environments such as the the demonic carnival, or the alternate shopping mall whose broken escalators lead to infinite plummets into an abyss (a good joke about consumerism, you might say), and with iterations of the stalwart survival horror keys and puzzles formula. It's hard to be outrageously excited by this episode, but it's still Silent Hill, and still working pretty well, continuing to defy my expectations to the contrary. Introducing Heather as a central character is also a welcome change. If Konami had gone with the same model of protagonist three times in a row, I'm sure I wouldn't have responded as well to this game.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Silent Hill 3 (EU, 05/23/03)
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