Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Genre: Survival Horror
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 7 = Good
As Resident Evil continues its shift to a more action-oriented style, Konami’s Silent Hill has become the standard-bearer for the survival horror genre. With the recent Downpour reminding everyone why they do—and don’t—want to visit Silent Hill, it’s become important to step back and look at the series’ roots with two of the best entries that it has to offer. Not only does this give newcomers a chance to see what all the fuss is about, but it also gives longtime fans a chance to relive some of the more memorable encounters from the franchise, including the battle with the iconic Pyramid Head.
Unsurprisingly, the collection goes straight for the juggler with Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3. What’s surprising is what hasn’t been included. The second is a no-brainer, as it’s not only the best of the series but a benchmark for the genre. But the inclusion of the third release makes the absence of the very first game all the more puzzling because it’s a direct sequel to the original, following the exploits of the young girl saved from the town seventeen years earlier; having never made its way to the Xbox, this provided the perfect opportunity. If it’s supposed to be a collection of only PlayStation 2 releases, then the collection is still lacking due to the absence of Silent Hill 4, the last title from Team Silent, Konami’s now-defunct internal studio that created and maintained the series up to that point, and Silent Hill: Origins. I can only surmise that the absence of the first is due to a lack of enthusiasm in the face of having to update a PlayStation One title to a console generation a decade removed, while the other no-shows could be down to as simple a reason as a lack of concern. Given some of the glaring problems with the collection, the latter wouldn’t shock me.
Before all the bad technical stuff, let’s cover the good. First up is the release that redefined and expanded the possibilities of the genre, and one that continues to captivate to this day, Silent Hill 2. Released in 2001, the unrelated follow-up to the 1999 original centers around the mystery of James Sunderland and his deceased wife, Mary. After receiving a letter from her instructing him to go to their special place, James sets off for the unexpected reunion, only to stumble across an eerily similar-looking woman named Maria in the haunted town of Silent Hill. Depending on how the player interacts with Maria and various objects throughout the town, one of six endings will detail James’ fate. Four of the six deal directly with the storyline while the other two, only available after completing the game, are joke endings that are especially surprising given the grimy, guilt-ridden journey that preceded them.
Getting those endings involves going through a journey that is as creepy and unsettling as it was the first time, with the random growls from unseen enemies and armless, featureless creatures scurrying about causing more than a few palpitations. The various difficulty levels for combat and puzzles allows for a fairly tailored experience, with the game vacillating between pure survival horror (ammo conservation, a lot of running) to a more investigative approach that retains its otherworldly mystery (easier puzzles, faster combat). The options, of which there are several for each, allow for so many combinations that it remains one of the most accessible entries in the series.
Things look good after booting up Silent Hill 2, with the collection including the post-release scenario Born from a Wish and a choice between old or new voiceover tracks. Born from a Wish was added after the initial PlayStation 2 release and allows players to control Maria in a prelude to the main story, and is considered essential for any definitive release of Silent Hill 2. The voiceover track option is actually the end result of a very interesting few months of heated deliberation between several actors and producers. While the acrimony between the parties spilled over into the public forum, the upside is that we have the option to choose between the original voiceover track and an entirely new one. The quality of the two is a bit of a toss-up. The original voiceover is often stilted and slightly uneven, though, and whether this is nostalgia talking or not I can’t say for sure, those very elements add an air of strangeness to the game that complement rather than detract from the off-kilter tone. The new voiceovers are much more theatrical, taking some scenes over the top while hitting just the right notes in others. In the end, while I prefer the original, the new track does give a bit of new life to the old tale.
Silent Hill 3 was released several years later, in 2003. In an interesting twist, Team Silent decided to go back and advance the storyline of the original Silent Hill by calling the young girl whom Harry Mason had saved back to the town. It’s frustrating that many of the design quirks from the original titles persist, some of which unfortunately remain to this day, with sluggish controls (now often referred to as ‘tank controls’) and awkward cinematic camera angles that are more eye-catching than functional. The third was also more in line with the original’s traditional approach, with many of the ethereally creepy elements of the second replaced with more monster-driven approach scares—less psychological, more physiological. That isn’t to say that the game isn’t without its fair share of creeps or surprises because there are many, and Team Silent still had plenty of tricks up their sleeves. The music continues to shine with the twang-heavy melancholic soundtrack that has become synonymous with a visit to the town. It was also nice to see what happened with Harry, and the three endings offered some interesting twists. At the time of its release the game was criticized for being more of the same, and while that critique still stands in a broader sense, it’s lost much of its weight in the face of a shrinking genre and an audience eager to feel the tension of whether they’ll turn the next corner and jump in freight or bludgeon a demon to death in rage. And, it’s got one of the best openings in any game to date: a dilapidated amusement park littered with piles of rubbish and blood-splattered mascots—perfect.
Unlike Silent Hill 2, there is no option to choose between voiceover tracks at the start of the game. Due to some problems with locating some of the former voice actors, the game includes only a newly recorded track. As with the second game, longtime fans will chafe at the differences while new players will chalk up the so-so dialog and at-times hammy delivery to a product of the times.
The graphic overhaul for both requires a special note, however, given that it is one of the most disappointing elements about the collection. While the game will look about right for decade-old games to newcomers, fans of the originals will be left feeling as though some of the charm and mystery has been lost in the purifying fires of progress. The town itself is as much of a character as the protagonists and the estranged souls they run across. As the characters’ mysteries become revealed, so too do the town’s. Or did. By cleaning up the visuals the games have gone through a sterilization process that wiped away as much of the mystery as it did the ubiquitous fog. Team Silent designed around the PlayStation 2’s limitations by taking the very tricks required to get the games to run smoothly and masterfully repurposed them as atmospheric effects that have symbolized hidden horrors, a feat few other developers were able to pull off so well. What Hijinx has done is take carefully crafted games and seemingly applied changes without any serious concern as to the impact of their changes. Many of the mistakes seem to be the as much as the result of carelessness as of thoughtlessness.
Silent Hill HD Collection succeeds in spite of and not because of the attempt to update two of the series’ best (Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3) to something approaching modern standards. But the Silent Hill games exist in a world apart from our own, and much of the supernatural quality has been lost in a world of clean-cut angles and increased visibility. What was once a decent attempt at fog now looks like sand, and what were once objects fading into a primordial mist are now objects severed with surgical precision at end points that direct the eye towards unfinished areas that had been obscured; the designs of the games still hold, but the graphical overhaul has done them few favors. New players will chalk much of this up to the age of the games, while fans will chafe at having their favorites handled with all the care of a pyramid-headed brute.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)