Silent Hill 2

By Cerebus
July 2002

When I was about ten years old, I had recently moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where, as many kids do when they want to make a little bit of money on top of their paltry allowance, I had a newspaper route. Every day of the week, regardless of the weather (okay, occasionally my mom would drive me when it was truly yucky outside, but I digress) I'd leave the house at about 4:15 a.m. to go pick up my papers a few blocks from my house, and spend a good hour and a half delivering them—twenty-three papers on weekdays, and about eighty on Sundays. On this particular weekday morning, as it often was in Iowa early in the morning, it was foggy—very foggy, in fact. I followed my normal route through the neighborhood, and halfway through my route, as usual, I cut through the empty lot next to my house to save some time. Since it was foggy, I wasn't wearing my glasses—they would have hurt my clarity of vision (I'm nearsighted) more than they would have helped. As I strolled across the lot, it was absolutely quiet, with only the rumble of trucks on the highway about ten miles away echoing across the rolling hills.

It was at this moment that I stumbled across something that looked like a human skull.

Granted, with my bad eyesight, it was probably a rock, but as any ten-year-old would, I got close enough to get myself utterly terrified, and then took off running, heading directly for the nearest streetlight, and didn't stop until I had reached the apartment building at the bottom of the hill, which was completely out of my normal route. It took a good ten minutes before I could venture outside again.

Why am I relating this story? Well, it's simple—since that morning, I've been fairly difficult to scare. Perhaps it's the dulling effect that television has on a person after years of exposure, or maybe the simple inevitable act of growing up nearly removes that emotion from the human suite of emotions. Regardless, the simple fact is that playing Silent Hill 2 came closer to scaring me than anything in the intervening twenty years. The combination of eerie ambient sound effects with the most maddeningly realistic fog I've seen in a video game brought me all the way back to that morning in Iowa—that's not to say that Silent Hill 2 is a perfect game, because it's not. It does, however, get under your skin, and truly brings into question the sanity of the game designers.

"Hello, My Name Is James, and I'll Be Your Protagonist this Evening."

You begin the game as James Sunderland, a sad fellow whose wife passed away three years before from a long illness. He's wandered aimlessly since her passing, until a letter—from his dead wife—arrives in the mail, beckoning him to Silent Hill, where she's apparently waiting for him. James hardly believes that it's possible that his wife sent him the letter, but he's curious enough to jump in the car and head for the small lakefront town. Once he arrives at the outskirts of Silent Hill, he finds the road blocked off, and he must venture into the area on foot—which is where you begin. You goal is to attempt to find the person who wrote you the letter, and determine if your beloved was responsible for it.

I wasn't as captivated by the plot as I expected to be—it seemed to be secondary to the gameplay, or more likely, secondary to the technical presentation of the game. I didn't care that he'd lost his wife—all I knew was that he had to go through a ghostly town, solve puzzles, kill bad guys, and progress from one point to another. I still don't know why there were all sorts of creepy creatures lurking around the streets, but perhaps I just didn't understand the conclusion of the game. The plot in the original Silent Hill was far more engrossing than that of this game—I'm pulling for a return to a better story in the recently announced Silent Hill 3.

"Let's See What's Behind Door Number Two ..."

As far as gameplay goes, SH2 is pretty much right on. Your controls are simple—move with the left analog stick, use the right stick as a camera in first-person mode, and your essential maneuvers are assigned buttons. There are two character motion options a la Grim Fandango; one mode is based on screen directions (up = forward, left = left, etc.), and the other is based on what direction your character is facing (left = turn left, forward = move character in direction he's facing, etc.). I can't stand the second option (the default) so I switched it right away. This only causes a few problems when the camera angle changes dramatically in between rooms, so I recommend using whatever option you find most intuitive.

Silent Hill 2, like Silent Hill, is not a game of killing everything that moves—it's a game of running away from things that might likely kill you. The reason I didn't like the original game was because I couldn't get into that mentality. Now that I'm older and wiser, running seems a more likely option, especially for the main character—James is an amateur fighter. He's not a very good shot, so close range is about all he can handle. He's also a bit slow—he's no Jesse Owens, that's for sure. Still, the fact that he is such a ... well ... wuss, makes the game that much more frightening to play. You have to run away from some enemies.

There aren't very many inventory puzzles in SH2, so I won't reveal any of them in detail. I will say that simply navigating through a building with locked doors and stairwells, trying to reach that floor that you know exists but you can't find your way—I enjoy that sort of spatial exploration puzzle. There are some maze-like areas that make very little sense, but they are short-lived, and your character draws a map as he's exploring. (In fact, the auto-mapping that was introduced in the original SH returns in this game, as one of the star attractions.) Other than exploration, there's on the order of five run-of-the-mill adventure game puzzles (no Zork Nemesis severed heads, sorry), none of which were very difficult to solve.

Much of your time playing this game will be wandering the streets and buildings, looking for things. You will run into creatures, many of them quite disgusting (although there are only about six types—a bit of a disappointment there). You will have to either run away or beat them/shoot them/slice them into submission. Although it makes little mention of this in the game's manual, apparently the "attack" action button makes use of the analog PS2 button feature—I never noticed. If you have an option to hit something scary hard, harder, or hardest, which will you choose? Hardest every time! (An undocumented "feature" when fighting—oftentimes, your opponent will be knocked unconscious on the ground. You must finish him off, but your stick with nails, for some reason, can't hit the ground. Hit the attack button without readying your weapon with the shoulder button to stomp its head and kill the beast. Nice image, eh?) I should mention here that upon starting the game, you have three choices for puzzle difficulty and three choices for enemy difficulty. Adventure purists can actually turn off the combat, leaving James to simply wander the streets, looking for things to do—but that gets very boring very fast.

I'll say one fairly negative thing about the gameplay. It just doesn't make sense much of the time. There's a series of holes later in the game that you have to jump into, even though you can't see the bottom. Could anyone really do this? Four times in a row? Without breaking his legs? And while I'm asking questions, who left all of this ammo and health scattered about town? You don't have to ask these questions, but again, the story seems secondary to the technical experience of playing it.

"Look at this Beauty, Folks—Can You See Yourselves in It?"

Silent Hill 2 may not have the most compelling gameplay among PS2 games, but I can easily say that the presentation of the game is absolutely superb. This was my first PS2 game, so I wasn't sure what to expect from the platform at all—based on my experiences with PC games and older consoles, I knew that many of these adventures started with a somewhat long rendered movie, detailing the backgrounds of the characters and their predicaments. I expected the same from SH2, and so I sat, watching as James walked into a roadside rest stop, looking into a mirror and rubbing his eyes and face, asking himself what he was doing here in Silent Hill. Then, nothing. Just James looking into a mirror. I started to panic—what if the system was broken already? I hadn't even had it a day, and it wasn't working right. I picked up the controller to try to reset the game, and James moved away from the sink as I moved the analog stick. The realization that "this was the game" took a few minutes to sink in, and I've been impressed ever since.

There's a lot of fog in SH2. A lot. But this fog is so real, swirling into eddies of mysterious shadows, filling nooks and crannies—it's a pleasure to "walk" through. Of course, it does serve the purpose of preventing any sort of distance clipping when exploring the environment, but that aside, it's a great way to build suspense. When you hear something that has got to be dangerous, just outside of your fog-inhibited vision, it gets very creepy very fast. I played this game with headphones on, and the sound effects were tremendous. Wandering through an abandoned hospital with creepy things following you, listening for their footsteps, the only light coming from your flashlight—classic horror gaming. The entire town was meticulously designed, with signs, construction sites, abandoned vehicles, houses, apartment complexes—everything you'd expect to find in a town like this but wouldn't expect to be rendered in a game, regardless of platform. In fact, the experience of playing this game was extraordinary, with the following exceptions.

Exception A: Voice acting. These folks can act, and they perform well—but every time you hear them speak, it's as if they're in exactly the same room. No echo, no nothing. If I talk to you in a carpeted room, and then talk to you later in a jail cell, I'll sound quite different. It's as if they recorded all of the dialogue in a single session, in one studio, and decided not to enhance it with effects depending on the characters' location. I'm nitpicking here, but it did seem inconsistent.

Exception B: Prerendered movies. The movements of the characters in the real-time rendered scenes was quite good—so good that I don't know why they bothered prerendering movies with higher resolution and better anti-aliasing. The characters in those cutscenes don't move quite right, and it interrupts the experience to switch to a different mode. Sometimes it was only for a second or two, and then back to real-time rendering. Again, nitpicking, but it bugged me.

"Here's My Business Card—Call Me If You're in the Market in the Future."

Overall, the Silent Hill 2 experience is worth having, if just for the freak-out value. It's not that compelling a story, and the puzzles aren't too difficult, but it's gorgeous to look at and listen to. I finished SH2 in a depressing ten hours, and got a rating of 9/10 upon completion (I was quite the swordsman with my nail-ridden plank!), but there were at least two additional endings that I could play through again to see, if this was the only game on my list to play—but it's not, and until companies realize that very few games are worth replaying, console adventure games will remain somewhat short and uninspired. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: September 2001

Available for: PlayStation 2 Xbox

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