Developer: Konami, Creature Labs (PC), Hijinx Studios (HD)
Release Date: September 24, 2001
Platforms: Playstation 2, PC, Xbox, Xbox 360 and PS3
Reviewed On: Playstation 2
A word to the wise. There will be spoilers in talking about Silent Hill 2 (a game that was released more than a decade ago now).
The town of Silent Hill, nestled in close to Toluca Lake, has always had something not quite right about it. The permanent presence of fog gives the area a dreamlike surreal nature to it that residents and travelers alike find pervasive and even oppressive. There are “things” within the fog, too, that shouldn’t rightly walk the streets of Silent Hill yet they do.
Then the sirens wail and everything bleeds into some sort of sanguine nightmare meets Purgatory? Or perhaps it is Hell that one finds themselves in once Silent Hill shows its true face.
The town that has become so famous in the annals of gaming history was born of a simple Japanese lens applied to a sleepy American town in New England. Sprinkle in a dash of psychological terror and occasional otherworldly madness and you’ve got a franchise that has certainly seen better days but few were as memorable as the second entry, Silent Hill 2.
The initial title focused on the story of a doomsday cult named the Order, the town of Silent Hill and a man, Harry Mason, wandering through it in search of his lost adopted daughter. It was, at the time of release on the original Playstation in 1999, a revelation in comparison to what “horror games” were at the time. Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil most certainly helped invent survival horror but for every jump scare, set of shotgun shells or health spray one found there was nothing but abject fear and terror of the mind within Keichiro Toyama’s Silent Hill. The dense fog, also a means to make up for the lacking hardware of the time, created an atmosphere that was both limiting and limitless. Enemies were out there awaiting Harry and all the while there was a villainous coven of crazies wanting to summon their God with the help of Harry’s daughter.
The second game picks up with a fellow named James Sunderland receiving a missive from his wife, Mary. She has been dead for three years now yet this letter implores James to make his way to Silent Hill to find her. The remainder of the game is, without a doubt, one of the more oppressive and delightfully psychotic journeys taken in any video game. Silent Hill isn’t just some sleepy town with some weird monsters but, rather, a trip into James Sunderland’s own personal nightmare. It is both limbo and a constant reconfiguring of his own reality and manifestation of his tortured psyche.
The Order, a fixture in the remainder of the games (especially those made by Team Silent) doesn’t really have much of an impact and, instead Silent Hill 2 becomes a truly personal and wrenching tale of dealing with loss, the guilt that comes with remaining among the living and all the unintended consequences of being forced to watch as a loved one deteriorates before your eyes. The enemies that populate the dreamscape of the town are all, in some way, tied to Sunderland and his own inner demons. It is this aberrant psychology present throughout the proceedings that elevates Silent Hill 2 from merely a better sequel to horror classic status.
It has always been interesting, though, that a game that essentially just tosses in all the survival horror tropes, doesn’t innovate much at all and, honestly, is a bit clunky (especially by modern standards) can be such a master class in what a truly effective horror game can be. Mikami’s Resident Evil series, no doubt, paved the way (along with Alone in the Dark) for future survival horror series to come but it is Silent Hill 2 (far better than any other entry in the series) that delivered on the promise of telling a truly compelling and horrifying tale of macabre and psychological terror.
There are scenes within Silent Hill 2 that have stuck with me more than a decade past my initial play through. The first encounter with the hulking brute meets Jungian symbol, Pyramid Head, is unsettling and downright scary. Safely behind the slats of a closet door our hero watches as the behemoth savages a set of off-kilter mannequin creatures then leaves them to die. The scene, as it plays out, is so strange and so out there in terms of everything else the player has encountered thus far that it is hard not to be tense about what will come next as Pyramid Head looms ever closer to the door.
The revelations that come as the game unfurls about James, his former wife and the possibility of his role in her death? The picture painted is one in which there is a constant shade of doubt cast upon the role you’re undertaking and that is fascinating to see. It not only allows for further exploration of the guilt, frustration (sexual and otherwise) and how Silent Hill brings all those aspects of Sunderland to breathing and screaming life that wants to kill you.
There are lessons to be learned by developers of future games in the same genre. Harder isn’t necessarily the best route. This game, while challenging at times, is never hard enough to serve as an impediment to progress. The puzzles can be adjusted in difficulty and while the threat of death is real it never serves as too tremendous a roadblock for James and the player to overcome. Combat is stilted and even wooden which could be a potential complaint but, then again, James Sunderland isn’t exactly spending his time outside of Silent Hill swinging crowbars around and knocking our otherworldly ghouls and demons.
Another fantastic element of this incarnation of Silent Hill comes in the form of the other people still hanging around the town. Subsequent titles all had something off-kilter about the remaining residents of the town but, in this first follow-up, it always feels as though those you encounter are seeing something different from you. They’re speaking in ways that don’t quite make sense and it all contributes to the overwhelming dread that builds and builds throughout the game. It is this atmosphere of burgeoning terror at what is and isn’t present that makes for a truly scary experience.
Akira Yamaoka’s score for the majority of the series has been stellar but he hits a sort of rarified air. “Theme of Laura” might well be one of the best compositions Yamaoka ever put together while other tremendous tracks such as “Heaven’s Night” and “Angel’s Thanatos” serve to ratchet up tension and emotion throughout.
The emphasis of Silent Hill has, and always will be, the story. This focus on telling the player a tale of woe and an “Every Man’s” struggle against his own inner monsters made manifest has, and always will be, a compelling reason to return to the PS2 incarnation of Silent Hill 2. Don’t bother with the “HD” collection unless you just have no other way to play it. The poor upscaling and attempt at making the original PS2 textures look better on newer generation systems was such an abject failure that it simply isn’t worth the time or money to play it unless you’re willing to check it out via PS2 or possibly PC.
It has been more than a decade (close to 13 years now?) since Silent Hill 2 waltzed in and changed the entire survival horror landscape with an emphasis on nuanced storytelling, exploration of very dark and necessary themes while improving upon the mechanics and gameplay of the original. It is a truly timeless psychological/survival horror classic that is worth revisiting again and again.