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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Things I Think About Things: The Fall of Silent Hill

Was just puttering around the internet when I noticed that the latest Silent Hill game Downpour might be released in the next couple of months. This will be the first Silent Hill game that I don't plan on ordering. Silent Hill has been (and I suppose still is) my favorite video game franchise. It provided me with some of the best electronic entertainment I've ever had which has made it extremely painful to see how far the franchise keeps falling. After the first few games each one has been progressively worse and it finally reached its nadir with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories which ended up nearly driving me to physical violence against my playstation. Sadly I don't expect the latest version, Downpour, to be an improvement. Lets look over Silent Hill and mourn a series that has died but lives on as a twisted horror. An appropriate, if tragic, fate. 

The Good Ones: I think pretty much any Silent Hill fan will agree that the first three Silent Hill titles were by far the best of the lot. Silent Hill 2 is generally held to be the top dog in the pack and it's hard to disagree with that. It was an incredibly well-told and intriguing horror story that quite literally had me sleeping with the lights on the first time I played it. However, I actually believe the first Silent Hill was the best of the group. True it's not nearly as inspired in terms of story, dialogue or design but it was scary. And when you consider that it was a PS1 game with incredibly poor controls and chunky graphics, managing to actually create horror is pretty impressive. It's easy to be frightening when you have Pyramid Head. What's truly impressive is creating horror when your graphics look like this: 

Silent Hill: The Room: The Room is when the series first left the town of Silent Hill and when it's decline truly started. There was actually a lot that I enjoyed about the Room. It had some really interesting ideas and some beautifully surreal and creepy scenes. It had monsters like this: 

What's not to love? Well there were some dumb ideas (like a limited inventory, getting rid of the radio), but the biggest problem was on the technical end. Everything they managed to do right in terms of atmosphere and design they managed to screw up somehow. Like those horrifying twins above? They should have been one of the scariest things in the game. You know what they did? They would charge straight towards you, stop short, then turn around and attack the empty space behind them. Not only does this make them incredibly easy to take down it makes it impossible to take them seriously. Many of the monsters (namely the snake-dogs and the evil monkeys) were so passive that they would almost never attack at all and just wait for you to cave their heads in. Another truly terrible decision was with some of the monster's audio. The dogs had this horribly generic "big cat snarl" that seems completely out of place. And here's a note to anyone thinking of trying to create horror...monkeys can create some scary, horrifying noises. But their standard "oook-eek-oook" is not one of them. Of course, the very worst sound choice was the Burping Nurses.

All in all, The Room had a lot of potential and should be applauded for trying to do something fresh with the series but some truly baffling design flaws killed any chance of it being one of the "good ones". 

Silent Hill: Origins This is where the series really starts to take a nosedive (unsurprising considering this is when Team Silent stops working on the games). It's a game that adds literally nothing to the series and the main character, Travis, is hardly interesting enough for us to care about his (extremely minimal) role in the story of the town. It's basically Silent Hill "by-the-numbers". Evil Cult? Check. Searching through town for lost girl/woman? Check. Large, masked monster-man with a giant knife? Check. Origins is almost the reverse of The Room. The Room made every attempt to try something new and break some new ground in the Silent Hill franchise but fell on its face when it came to actually implementing these new ideas. Origins took a look at all of the great things that the first two games did, filed the serial numbers off and tried to make lightning strike twice by creating a game with basically zero originality. Origins had exactly two original ideas both of which were horrible. The first was allowing the player to switch between the Dark and Extra Dark flavors of Silent Hill through mirrors. The moments of change from the "regularly horrific" Silent Hill and the "Otherworld" Silent Hill were always some of the most memorable and interesting scenes in the games and Origins clearly couldn't be bothered to produce anything like that. The second was the inclusion of destructible but powerful melee weapons which meant the most effective combat strategy involved carrying around dozens of toasters and portable TV sets. 

Silent Hill: Homecoming Homecoming was when Silent Hill first hit the next generation consoles and I had a lot of hope for it. Horrific monsters and terrifying environments combined with high-resolution graphics? Sounds awesome to me! And admittedly out of all the later games this one is closest to the original "Good Ones". I had an honestly good time playing it but in the end it just couldn't measure up. Probably the biggest problem that Homecoming had would be that it seemed almost too enthusiastic. I felt like I was playing through some dedicated Silent Hill fan's personal fanfiction with a budget. The developers of this game must have liked the Silent Hill series a lot and it shows. However, this also led to them going too far with certain elements rather than easing into them. The town of Shepard's Glen is horrifically ruined but no one seems to take too much notice of the massive gaping sinkholes that infest the town's streets and despite the fact that monsters out of a nightmare regularly stalk the streets the town seems oddly full of people. It's also worth pointing out that sexual symbolism is great if there's a reason behind it...but when you have a boss that's basically a "nudity monster" you may have gone too far. 

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories The Room was interesting but flawed. Origins was flawed but not interesting but at least playable. Homecoming was pretty and entertaining enough but still too shallow compared to the first games. Shattered Memories was like a dagger in my eye. The mere memory of that game makes me want to punch something. If I were to start listing all of the things I hate about the game then it would just devolve into a huge scrolling list of swear-words in progressively larger fonts. So I'll keep it short. First the game was not, at all, frightening. It became painfully obvious early in the game that during the "normal" part of the game there were no enemies and no dangers. There's not even any weirdness or actual horror elements. For the most part you're just wandering around in a normal (but mostly empty) series of buildings. During the "otherworld" section when enemies do show up and things do get weird it's all far too fast paced to actually take in any of the detail and it simply becomes an annoying challenge that you have to overcome. 

What made the whole thing even worse was that I came into it with such high hopes. Like I mentioned before I consider the first Silent Hill game to be, perhaps, the best. Now, I was extremely excited to find out that Shattered Memories would be based on the first game but with modern graphics and superior controls. That sounds like a recipe for success to me! When I first got the game I was thrilled to see how good it looked. I was amazed the first time I opened a door and found I could open it slowly to peek into a room. "Wow" I thought "Think how neat this function will be when the monsters start to show up." Little did I know that there never would be any monsters (which makes me wonder...why not just open the door?). After a few hours of play I began to realize just how disappointing this was going to be. The game's claim that it was going to "get into your head" also quickly proved to be BS. I still struggled through because I wanted to figure out what was going on in the game's bizarre story. I even started to get hopeful after a particularly weird sequence involving you falling through the air as strange, frozen scenes passed you...only to spend 10 minutes wandering around in an unnecessarily huge room with only a single "active" feature but tons of empty blank space to get lost in. Then...the ending came and I nearly destroyed my controller I was so pissed off. I won't "spoil" it for anyone who might still want to play the game but I will say that I was...unsatisfied. 

So, with all that in mind I don't have high hopes for Downpour and I'm going to do my best to simply ignore any future installments of Silent Hill to avoid souring me on the whole thing.

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