Silent Hill: A Retrospective

I've been a fan of Silent Hill since playing the first game on PS1 back in 1999, and it is – the first three entries at least – one of my favourite series. Indeed it was a big influence on my novel She Waits By The Water. Unfortunately I've found much of what has been released since those initial three games somewhat patchy. In light of the recent renewed interest in all things Silent Hill, with Silent Hill Ascension releasing at the end of this month and the remake of Silent Hill 2 on the way, I thought I'd take a retrospective look at the series. I've not included the first three here since they're difficult to play on current consoles (The Silent Hill HD Collection aside; see more below) but all are five star games for me and highly recommended.


Am I excited about the future of the series? I'm more curious than anything. The forthcoming Ascension barely even counts as a game in my estimation, being more an interactive show, and that Bloober Games – whose previous titles haven't much-impressed me – are remaking one of my favourite games ever fills me with trepidation. 'It'll be 100% longer than the original!' they proudly boast. This is not necessarily a good thing. Silent Hill 2 is loved by fans for a reason. We don't need Bloober second-guessing what we might want to see and making a hash of things. Just stick to the source material please.


Silent Hill 4 The Room (2004) ****

The Silent Hill series can be divided into two distinct phases; those games developed in-house by Konami in Japan (the first four) and those farmed out to American or European studios (the rest). The former are uniformly superior to their western brethren. Of those four however, Silent Hill 4 The Room is undeniably the weakest. The game casts the player in the role of protagonist Henry Townshend, who finds himself trapped in his apartment. The only way out is through a mysterious hole which appears in his bathroom and leads to surreal and horrific other worlds. These vary from an abandoned subway to a forest to a prison to an apartment building to a hospital, all of which are a spooky delight to venture into and feature the series' bespoke mix of puzzling and exploration and monster encounters. Unfortunately the second half of the game dashes most of what the first half works hard to set up. The exact same area maps are traversed again albeit with slightly different objectives, with the player frequently pursued by unkillable enemies and saddled with an AI companion one must keep alive, often resulting in frustration rather than enjoyment. Even The Room's monsters are less freaky compared to previous games, ranging from dogs to burping nurses (really?) to fungi (again... really?) to annoying flying buzzers. Only the twin monster, double-faced and running on its hands, has the power to unnerve the player. Still, The Room is better than the Silent Hill games that would follow. The Akira Yamaoka soundtrack is as usual fantastic, the graphics look great for PlayStation 2/XBox, and the creepy and oppressive atmosphere the game musters when at its best is almost unbeaten elsewhere in the series. I just wish Silent Hill 4 had been given more development time by Konami (it was produced in just a year, as opposed to two years each for Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3) to fully flesh out its possibilities and its potential.


Silent Hill Origins (2007) ****

The first and probably the best of the western-developed Silent Hill games, Origins evokes the brooding survival horror atmosphere of early entries in the series well but the story is lacking, and makes little sense when set against the first game, the events of which it allegedly precedes. Despite this, as a dedicated Silent Hill fan I had a lot of fun with it, and it ticks all the right gameplay boxes in terms of tension and combat and puzzle-solving and monsters and exploration. Graphically the game is no slouch by PlayStation 2/PSP standards, and the soundtrack, by series regular Akira Yamaoka, is a thing of beauty and deserving of listening to in its own right. Not as good as Silent Hill 1-4 then, but decent enough. It's also perhaps worth noting that the PlayStation 2 port is generally considered superior to the PSP original, which was far too dark in places to the extent that it was difficult to see what was going on on-screen sometimes without cranking up the contrast. Either version though is more worthy of your attention than pretty much everything else that would follow Silent Hill-wise over the next half-decade. If you're a fan dispirited by the direction the series took in these later years, I'd recommend that you revisit this one if you can.


Silent Hill Homecoming (2008) **

Homecoming, the second western-developed Silent Hill game, begins (or continues, depending on how you felt about Silent Hill Origins) the series' downward spiral. First off, Silent Hill Homecoming is a much more action-heavy affair than previous games (and we all know how well the shift towards action worked in fellow survival horror series Resident Evil, don't we? Answer; it didn't). I remember reading an interview with Homecoming's developers in which they stated that the combat systems in the early games ‘sucked’ and that they wanted to improve on them. No, the combat in Silent Hill 1-4 - which could often be entirely avoided if you wished - did not suck. Those games' protagonists were ordinary citizens without weapons training, and their lacking fighting skills were intentional. So what have the developers replaced the allegedly poor combat with? A combo-based system. That's right, this is an action-oriented Silent Hill game with combo-based combat. It doesn't fit at all in my view, and the parade of enemies to kill destroys any atmosphere of foreboding and isolation that the game tries to conjure. You can't even evade them as in earlier games; if you don't kill them there and then they just follow you, and after a while you can even have a conga line of monsters pursuing you through the area you're trying to explore. Said monsters range from the blatant (nurses and dogs, because it's a Silent Hill game so it's got to have nurses and dogs in it) to the ridiculous-looking (most of the rest), and Red Pyramid Thing (often called Pyramid Head) puts in an appearance purely for fan service despite its presence making no sense outside of the events of Silent Hill 2. It's also worth mentioning that Homecoming - particularly in its look and in some of the enemies - draws more on the first Silent Hill film than it does previous games. The narrative, centred around a man looking for his missing brother, is serviceable enough I guess, but humdrum in comparison to earlier entries, though I won't spoil it for those who have yet to play. On the plus side Homecoming looks lovely by XBox 360/PS3 standards, and the music by series mainstay Akira Yamaoka is beautiful and evocative. I'd even go as far as to say the soundtrack is superior to the game itself and that you'd be better off buying that instead, whacking the volume up on headphones, and reminiscing on Silent Hill games of yore. It's such a shame that Homecoming, along with the middling Downpour and the shoddy HD Collection is amongst the few Silent Hill games available to the current console generation via backwards compatibility, as it's far from representative of the series at its best. Silent Hill's legacy really deserves better from Konami.


Silent Hill Shattered Memories (2009) **

When Shattered Memories was first released it was presented as something of a remake of the first game (which still desperately needs a remake), but in reality it's nothing of the sort. Though the plot bears a superficial similarity, being centred around a man named Harry looking for his missing daughter Cheryl in the deserted town of Silent Hill, all of the characters and settings have been entirely reimagined. Scares, or even the ever-present sense of dark foreboding for which the series is famed, are pretty much absent. Enemies are only a threat when the game shifts - as it periodically does - to the ice world, and when they do appear all you can do is run, you can't fight back; other than that you're free to explore with no risk or tension at all. Even the Akira Yamaoka soundtrack - with the exception of the brilliant new song When You're Gone - is phoned in in comparison to Yamaoka at his peak. I know some Silent Hill fans swear by this game, but I just don't get it. In atmosphere and gameplay it's about as far removed from the superb and iconic survival horror of the best of the series (which would be the first three games, and to a lesser extent the fourth) as you can get.


Silent Hill HD Collection (2012) ****

Silent Hill 2 and 3 (along with the first, which isn't included here) are easily the best entries in the series. I'd even go as far as to call Silent Hill 2 one of the greatest games ever made. It pains me therefore to say that the HD Collection is a substandard affair. First off, the word 'collection' implies more than just two games to me, so where is Silent Hill 4 The Room? I can understand why the first game was left off, being a relic of the PlayStation 1 era, but the absence of Silent Hill 4 here is inexplicable and inexcusable. So what's wrong with these alleged 'HD remasters' exactly? They were crafted using incomplete code (the final code for both games having been lost by Konami) and so have been patched. Perhaps as a result of this both games are buggy, with numerous visual and audio glitches. The graphics have apparently been given a polish, but if anything the PlayStation 2 versions looked better. The voice acting for all characters has been entirely re-recorded, and despite the new cast doing an okay enough job it's just not the same (though in the case of Silent Hill 2 at least one does have the option of selecting the original voice tracks). Very little effort seems to have gone into making these the definitive editions of these games, and it's difficult not to come away thinking the whole thing is just a lazy cash-in on the series' popularity. That these are the only available versions of these two fantastic games playable to the current console generation via backwards compatibility is a depressing thought. Does Konami care nothing for their legacy?


Silent Hill Downpour (2012) ***

If Downpour was released under a different title and franchise, it would perhaps have been better received. As it is, it had a mixed reception from critics and fans, sold very poorly, and was pretty much the decade-long death knell for the series until its 2022 revival announcement. As a third person horror game Downpour is competent enough, but as a Silent Hill game it has big shoes to fill. Gameplay-wise everything is very much efficiently done if by the numbers, with the signature blend of exploration and puzzling and monster-encounters, though the ominous sense of terror for which the series is famed is largely absent. It's a long way from scary. The town of Silent Hill feels a lot more open (if a little empty) this time round, and there are even optional side-quests to take on as you pursue your main objectives. You can fight or evade the enemies (there's an achievement for completing the game without killing anything), and weapons break now, forcing you to constantly pick up new ones, which is fine if you're whacking monsters with bits of wood but less realistic if you're using a crowbar or the like. Said enemies are mostly humanoid, and generic, and not at all menacing. The story - centred on a prisoner protagonist who killed the man who murdered his child - is good enough for the game's purposes, if uninspiring. Graphics are decent by XBox 360/PS3 standards. The soundtrack by Daniel Licht does the job but is a far cry from the iconic sound of series regular Akira Yamaoka. Play Downpour for what it is though, ignore the Silent Hill moniker and attendant baggage, and you may even find yourself having some fun with it.


The completionist Silent Hill fan will note that I've missed out Book of Memories, for the simple reason that I haven't played it (I never owned the sole console it came out on). Likewise the mobile games and Arcade, omitted for the same reason. From a glance none of them seem to comprehend the essence of what made Silent Hill such a good series in the first place and I can't say I feel as if I've missed out on anything notable.