I hope, for your sake, that you’re not like me. I live in never ending fear of horror movies and video games, because I, yes, am a scardy cat. My friends constantly ask me how it is that I become so scared. Whenever we go to a movie, they groan about who is going to have to sit next to me and bear the grip of my clenched hands, accompanied by my pathetic whimpering. Nonetheless, the day has come that I can feel justified in my fear of horror movies and video games. My excuse: Silent Hill 2. Games like this are rare - and ought to be. Watching a horrific movie scares me at one level, but being able to interact with images and sounds brings my fear to an all new level. Early survival-horror games have startled me, like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark, but didn’t truly evoke a sense of fear and horror. Silent Hill 2 is a game that pushes the limits of the survival-horror genre while truly grasping at the roots of human fear - the unknown.
In Silent Hill 2 you take on the role of James Sunderland, a man who has received a letter from his wife Mary. The letter informs James that she is waiting in their favorite place, a vacation spot called Silent Hill. James is naturally conflicted about the letter since his wife has been dead for three years. From the moment you begin the game, you know that you have entered a world where everything is not right and you are not safe. Each new plot element brings new light to the story of James and the people of Silent Hill, but also throws a sinister wrench into the game.
Silent Hill 2 is the sequel to the critically hailed, but commercially mediocre Playstation title of the same name. Silent Hill introduced to the survival-horror genre the concept of using modern sounds and tones to invoke a sense of fear and unknowing in the player. Furthermore, the game purposely took advantage of the Playstation’s lack of processing power to create a filthy looking game. As to be expected, Silent Hill 2 takes from its predecessor a dark, gritty visual presentation and atmospheric sound. Unlike the first in the series, however, the developers of Silent Hill 2 had enough processing power in the Playstation 2 to be able to render smooth, detailed graphics yet opted for the dirty look the game currently has. Ironically, the game features a grainy filter over the screen that makes the environments looks dirty (the filter can be removed once you’ve played the game once through). The choice was wise as the game conveys an intense visual atmosphere that draws you into believing that the game’s environments are real. Volumetric fog covers most of the game’s outdoor environment while darkness covers most of the indoor environments. Aiding you is James’ flashlight that brings light into the darkness, but it only seems to attract enemies rather than light your path. The lighting effects are plentiful and well-done, heightening the visual atmosphere. Unlike most developers whose goal is to visually astound, Silent Hill 2 is meant to disgust and it succeeds.
If the game doesn’t make you cover your eyes, then you’d better cover your ears. Silent Hill 2 takes advantage of a new sound library that emulates three-dimensional sound using stereo. Utilizing this sound technology, the developers have made one messed up audio experience. Often in the game you’ll enter empty rooms and you can hear people screaming or windows breaking. One particularly memorable point in the game for me occurs in the very beginning: you must walk to Silent Hill through a thick forest encased in beautiful volumetric fog. Although nothing happens, you are constantly bombarded with sounds of rough animals and following footsteps. After having played the game late one night, I awoke and walk to the store terrified at the sound of footsteps behind me. For all the strength that the sound library has brought Silent Hill 2, the voice acting leaves something to be desired. Characters often sound rehearsed and/or choppy, and at best unnatural. The voices match the character designs, but the acting needs serious work.
Controlling James using the developer’s interface is not easy. Taking the scheme from other survival-horror games like Resident Evil, the default controls are based on a 2D scheme: pressing up or down on the directional pad moves James forward and backward, while pressing left or right turns him in the corresponding direction. Fortunately, the options menu enables you to change the controls to a 3D scheme very much akin to platforming games. With the 3D scheme you can move where you want without having to first turn James. This may not seem like a big advantage at first, but it helps when faced with multiple enemies and only one way out. Fighting with a weapon requires you to press down the R2 button and then the X button, again like Resident Evil. Fighting is difficult and takes some practice. Unfortunately, since the enemies in the game are very strong, practice often results in dying.
As for the menu system, Silent Hill 2 fails to evolve from the original. Changing weapons and using items requires you exit the gameplay screen and select the weapon/item you want and then use it in the gameplay screen. Even worse—in order to check your health status, you have to exit to the menu screen. There is not and on screen display for your health. This creates a problem in knowing whether you are about to die or not.
Even with the issues concerning the interface, Silent Hill 2 plays well. So well it’s frightening. The game environments are filled with enemies to avoid or fight at your discretion and puzzles abound. It’s refreshing to see a game allow you the option of avoiding combat rather than being forced into dangerous situations, especially since fighting many of the enemies is very difficult. The puzzles in the game are exceedingly cerebral and take a lot of concentration to solve. Unlike many other titles in which the puzzles are merely there as “bookends” between the action sequences, Silent Hill 2’s puzzles are a core game element.
Silent Hill 2 is an example of the type of game that supports claiming video games as art. The high production values in regards to the graphics and sound alone place this as a premier Playstation 2 title; yet, the instilled emotional value placed in the game makes you consider the characters and their situations. Journeying with James’ through Silent Hill creates an emotional connection with him that brings about unusual emotions as elements of the story are revealed and the James you thought you knew really isn’t. It is rare that a game can conjure emotions beyond “coolness,” but Silent Hill 2 succeeds in bringing more than just fear to the plate by harnessing the power of the “Emotion Engine” and weaving a compelling story with a scary game. This is a new standard in survival-horror that will be spoken of for time to come and that should be familiar to every fan of the genre. Just don’t forget - keep your lights on.
Not the best graphics for the Playstation 2, but that’s the point. Silent Hill 2’s graphics serve their purpose in creating an atmosphere of insecurity and dirt.
Wonderfully scary and beautifully scored, a master work in gaming audio.
Although the controls can be changed from the old 2D scheme to a 3D scheme, the game still requires you to exit the gameplay screen to switch weapons, check health, and use items.
Bosses tend to be more thought out that ordinary enemies, yet even the bosses seem to get caught up in the clichÃ© AI faults like sticking into objects.
Wonderfully messed up and convoluted, Silent Hill 2 is a testament to instilling artistic value in game design. The puzzles are hard and provoke careful thought while the action is tense and sordid.
How much fun you get out of Silent Hill on depends on whether you like being scared. I somewhat like it and I have a blast fighting not only the enemies in the game, but my own fear as well.
The game offers four different endings and two hidden weapons for use in continued games. Although the story remains unchanged, it is neat to see different endings.
Silent Hill 2 is a unique game that is has positively evolved from is predecessor. A very frightening game that deals with mature issues that every serious fan of survival-horror should be familiar with.