Review by mrgnash
Reviewed: 06/29/03 | Updated: 06/29/03
The Apogee of the Silent Hill Series
Survival horror as typified by the Resident Evil series was becoming stale in terms of innovation as far back as the PSX; sequel after uninspired sequel assailed the shelves at an incredible rate, with little thought given by the developers to the actual content – preferring to cash in on lucrative trademarks instead. One game though, released with little fanfare, demonstrated the abundant yet previously unexploited potential of the genre. That game was Silent Hill, a game remarkable for pushing the artistic envelope of not just the survival horror genre, but of console games in general. Not being content to rest on their proverbial laurels however, the Konami Silent Hill development team has released two sequels to date; the latest, Silent Hill 3, may just represent their most artistically fecund title yet.
For the first time in the Silent Hill series, you play a female lead; for the third time in the series you embark on a descent from relative normality into a horrific nightmare of Lynchian proportions. Your journey begins in your typical suburban shopping mall, but any sense of familiarity is soon lost as the very architecture begins to contort and shift, transforming it into a monstrous parody of its former self. It doesn’t get any better from there either, as you follow the lead Heather as she attempts to make her way back home and rediscover some form of sane existence. Along the way she will encounter the sort of nameless abominations that would be well at home in Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Silent Hill is also inhabited by monstrosities of a more human variety, who may either help or hinder Heather, and act according to their own sinister motivations. It suffices to say that Silent Hill seems to be a beacon to those who harbor a disturbing past…
With the possible exception of Fatal Frame/Project Zero, Silent Hill as a game series ironically defies comparison to other games – even those belonging to the same genre. A more helpful comparison, and one acknowledged by the game’s creators, is to the cinematic masterpieces of auteurs such as Roman Polanski with his seminal horror-film Rosemary’s Baby, David Lynch with the disjointed cacophony of Eraserhead and Adrian Lyne with the bizarre imagery of Jacob’s Ladder. But the creators of Silent Hill are no less adept than their filmic counterparts when it comes to creating a milieu of brooding menace and ineffable supernatural phenomena; in fact it could be said that Silent Hill 3 provides an even more immersive - and by extension, frightening - experience by virtue of its interactivity.
The gameplay of Silent Hill 3 has undergone the least change of the game’s composite elements. Control while tweaked in terms of ease of use, is essentially setup according to the same scheme as the first Silent Hill. That being said, newcomers to the series should be aware of one immutable fact – the character you control is clumsy; and will likely prove somewhat confronting to players used to controlling agile and acrobatic characters like Devil May Cry’s Dante who deftly wield all manner of weapons to dispatch their foes. Silent Hill 3 on the other hand, just like its predecessors, puts you in control of an ‘everyman’ – or in this case ‘everywoman’ – who do not possess any sort of supernatural agility or strength and will struggle and fumble with their weapons, as would anyone who has not received some form of combat training.
In case I’ve totally put you off by what I’ve said so far, let me just make a few points about the gameplay. Firstly, the critique above is not meant to be interpreted in any negative sense, the limitations of the control system are wholly deliberate on the part of the development team and adequately serve their intentions; in other words, the control scheme heightens the fear factor by making you feel more hopeless in the face of danger. Secondly, the Silent Hill series isn’t really about gameplay, – though this element is not without its charm, especially if you’re fond of such activities as bashing in the skulls of various monstrosities with a lead pipe – rather, the gameplay is merely a vehicle which propels the player through the world the developers have crafted.
The progression of the gameplay, while allowing plenty of room for exploration of Heather’s environment, is fundamentally linear and adheres to the strict narrative of the game. Shying away from the scattershot approach that most games seem to be employing in an effort to attract the greatest playing audience, Silent Hill 3’s gameplay is restricted to the traditional adventure staples of exploration/puzzle solving and combat. Thanks to the extreme scarcity of ammunition in the game, you won’t be doing much of the later until successive completions unlock weapons with unlimited rounds; instead you’ll mostly be running away from the enemies you encounter, which provides a more authentic horror experience rather than diminishing it with the sort of ‘shoot everything’ with impunity approach that came to dominate Resident Evil. For those who want to indulge either their twitch or cerebral capacity – or challenge both in equal measure – Silent Hill 3 features independently adjustable difficulty settings for both, with the hard puzzle setting posing several brainteasers of high order.
For better or worse, it is Silent Hill 3’s graphics that are the most immediately impressive element. It is not an exaggeration to state that they exceed the benchmark set by Final Fantasy X or, that they make pre-rendered FMV cutscenes utterly obsolescent. From the awe inspiring facial detail of the characters, to the flawless attention to detail in the settings, the graphical supremacy of Silent Hill 3 brings games even closer to achieving a parallel with cinema grade visuals than did Metal Gear Solid. If any of your friends still doubt the graphical capabilities of the Playstation 2 then this is the game to show them; its realistic lighting, convincing environments and an engine capable of producing textures which are capable of pulsating, coalescing and mimicking the behaviour of liquids all combine to make Silent Hill 3 an impressive title from a technical standpoint.
Akira Yamaoka has created the aural environments for all three Silent Hill games so far, and his acoustic genius has lost none of its edge in Silent Hill 3. Yamaoka uses music sparingly, preferring to use unsettling ambient sounds to set the mood; even so, there are a number of memorable tracks and all the music has a haunting quality that will no doubt compel fans of the series to purchase the soundtrack. How Yamaoka managed to create the sort of unearthly sounds featured in Silent Hill 3 is hard to fathom, but they are used to great effect. Often the player will progress through the stage in relative silence only to be shocked out of complacency as inhuman wailing punctures shatters the fugitive serenity; at other times the environment will be filled with the inexplicable din of industrial machinery, heightening the tension considerably. In short, the aural aspect of Silent Hill 3 is equally as marvelous as the visuals.
Silent Hill 3 unlike so many other games that are technically impressive is so much more than eye and/or ear candy. It is also a far more intelligent production than much of what passes for horror in contemporary Hollywood, in that it is not contrived solely for the purpose of frightening the viewer; and when it does succeed in scaring the player it does so through clever and nuanced means that rely more upon exploiting deep-seated fears than shocking with gratuitous violence and gore. Whereas the plot of Silent Hill 2 was damaged by its deviation into pseudo-psychological territory, Silent Hill 3 is a essentially a continuation of the first game both in terms of narrative and theme; and is all the richer for this fact, as this means that it deals with metaphysical profundities rather than psychological trivialities. The game’s central preoccupation is with a cult that was implicated in the first game as being responsible for the town’s anomalies; and by fleshing out this game in Silent Hill 3 the plot explores the relationship between self-deception and cult phenomena. The way in which this touchy subject is dealt with thankfully eschews some of the clichés we might expect and demonstrates a sensitivity that may come as quite a surprise to some; none of the cult members are presented two dimensionally and the origins of their misdeeds are explored sincerely and thoughtfully.
The most intriguing part of the story though are the subplots which seem to rise like bubbles out of Silent Hill’s murky depths at random intervals during the development of the main narrative arc. Each of the minor subplots in the game serve to elucidate some aspect of the town itself, – whether it be its troubling history, its defiance of natural laws or strange manipulations of time and space – and hinting at its intricate mythopoeia, that has done, and will continue to perplex many players. In other words, Silent Hill 3 is a game that’s as thought provoking as it is petrifying.
The first time through, it takes about eight hours to complete Silent Hill 3 and it will be quite a traumatic experience for most gamers. This being the case, most players will probably not be inclined to repeat the experience again; at least without taking an extended break. For those made of stern enough stuff to venture into Silent Hill for a second round though, there are plenty of unlockable extras providing an incentive to do so – including weapons, costumes and endings. Even so, the Silent Hill 3 experience is a short one by its very nature – the linearity of the game progression being a prime factor – and those looking for replay value should look elsewhere, or perhaps consider renting the game. For those who like to exhaustively analyze and contemplate their games though, Silent Hill 3 is a worthy purchase and will provide plenty of mental roughage to chew on for a good deal of time.
Silent Hill 3 cannot be recommended highly enough and has no doubt earned its place as a ‘must play’ title for the Playstation 2.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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