The dark realism and murky atmosphere make this a great game.
During the Playstation era of video games, Konami created an array of classic titles for just about every gamer. For the person who loved complex plots and Hollywood production values, there was Metal Gear Solid; for the RPG gamer, there was Suikoden; for the gamer who wanted a good story and fun non-linear gameplay, there was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Silent Hill is no exception; by improving the foundation set by Resident Evil, it became one of the most memorable survival horror games in the Playstation library.
The most noticeable difference between Silent Hill and Resident Evil is how each one is scary. While Resident Evil prefers to use more immediate scares, Silent Hill favors much more psychological horrors. For example, you rarely see other characters, and there are few to see. Not counting the protagonist, you can count the entire cast on a single hand. It works really well to make the player feel lonely and not trust anybody but themselves, a feeling that is strengthened by the fact that almost anything you see wants you dead. Furthermore, almost every little detail about the characters is done perfectly. For example, while most video game characters’ motives are somewhat illogical or put to little use, Silent Hill protagonist Harry Mason has a legitimate reason for staying in the eerie town: his daughter is missing. Other characters thrust other motivations on him, but Harry’s top priority is rescuing his daughter and escaping Silent Hill. In addition, Harry’s feelings perfectly match the player’s: confusion and fear of what is lurking around the corner. The other characters are just as believable as Harry is, even if they do not show up often. While most of them know the town well, none of them knows anything about the town’s transformation, again making the game scarier.
Another aspect of the game that works well is the atmosphere, the graphics playing a major role in why it is so great. Unlike Resident Evil, which used pre-rendered environments, Silent Hill’s environments are completely 3D; very rarely is the camera fixed at a single angle. There are times when it is at a fixed angle, but these moments are rare. However, they work well, since the camera shakes around in a manner reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. In addition, fog covers every single outdoor area, and darkness serves almost the same purpose in buildings. This not only limits how far you can see and makes it hard to predict where enemies are, it also helps reinforce the feeling of loneliness and isolation that the story establishes. The only major flaw with the graphics is the CGI: although used sparingly, it looks creepy (in a bad way), simplistic and mediocre. While not as campy as Resident Evil’s real life footage, it certainly does not compare to better CGI of the time (Final Fantasy games, for example).
Yet where the graphics falter, the gameplay compensates for it greatly. Like Resident Evil, you run from building to building, solving puzzles in order to figure out what is going on and how to escape the deadly town. Unlike Resident Evil, however, the puzzles in Silent Hill often make much more sense. Instead of switching out a wooden shield for a golden one, for example, you turn off a generator in order to obtain a key that was previously near an electrified wire. Other improvements over Resident Evil include unlimited inventory space (which works well with ammo counting as one item, rather than several boxes), unlimited saves, and improved controls. Again, the environments are rendered in complete 3D, meaning Harry Mason is far easier to control than Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine.
Another major improvement over Resident Evil is the combat system, which, like just about everything else in Silent Hill, is easier to control. Throughout the game, you collect several weapons, including a handgun, shotgun, axe, steel pipe, and many others. Like Resident Evil, you have to ready your weapon before you can use it, but the 3D environments make aiming far easier than pre-rendered ones did. In addition, while the combat is efficient enough to kill enemies, it brings up feelings of dread rather than frustration; one of the most frightful experiences in this game is hearing the hammer on your gun click, signifying that you have run out of ammo. Melee combat works very well to create an atmosphere of desperation and fear of a more powerful enemy; they make you want to avoid enemies at all costs, not face them head-on. Bosses must be faced head on, and this knowledge, along with the fact that the game uses them sparingly, increases their importance and stature greatly. The only flaw with this fighting system is the almost-never-used side/back step move, but this does not limit the game in any way.
However, there are two major flaws with Silent Hill that limit its quality: game structure/level design and length. Around the time you reach the school, a pattern starts developing: solve puzzles, trigger some sort of event that causes the environment to become dark and scary, solve more puzzles, make the level return to normal, find out where to go next, repeat at the next destination. Spontaneity is a major factor in scaring somebody, and being able to predict what happens next tends to ruin it. The other flaw, criminal shortness, also hurts the game, but not as badly as the level design. Silent Hill only clocks in at about 4 hours and the five unlockable endings bring that up to 20 hours. The endings themselves are decent, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, but the fact that you have to play through the game five times to earn them all again limits how scary this game can be. After all, how much fear can that lizard boss inflict when you have fought three times before? Other than these two flaws, nothing holds back Silent Hill’s fantastic gameplay.
The only part of Silent Hill that does not even come close to perfection is the sound design. While it is good, it could definitely use some improvements. For example, every enemy in the game emits this antiquated telephone ring when you approach them. This is not a glitch, but an intended feature: the ringing supposedly comes from the radio Harry Mason carries throughout the game, and only goes off in the presence of minor enemies. It was supposed to increase tension when enemies approach from the distance, but it comes off as somewhat comical, dulling the scare factor. In addition, the voice acting (used quite often) is second-rate, which is sad because the voice acting in Metal Gear Solid (released the previous year) was so good. Every character pauses between their on-screen lines, making the player quite aware that they are playing a video game. Like spontaneity, immersion is an important factor in scaring somebody, and the voice acting prevents the game from being truly immersive. Nonetheless, it is not as laughable as Resident Evil, which had both dialogue and voice acting that was laughably bad.
Avid readers may have noticed that comparisons to Resident Evil abounded in this review. While some may deem this an unfair assessment, the fact that Resident Evil essentially created the modern survival horror makes it fair. Compared to Resident Evil, Silent Hill is better in just about every way. The story is deeper and somewhat more original; the graphics are fully utilized and in full 3D; and the gameplay has polished the foundation that Resident Evil built. Overall, Silent Hill is a game that every PlayStation owner should consider buying at some point.