Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece of gaming horror… which is something anyone who’s been within 20ft of a games console at any point over the past fifteen years will know already. James’ intimate journey of damnation/redemption is a masterpiece of the genre and high praise has been rightly heaped upon the plot for its mature and surprisingly sensitive treatment of dark and difficult subject matter; never making the mistake of condemning or excusing the characters, or encouraging the player to do so in its place.
So I’m not going to bother – I don’t think the internet really needs yet another article analysing how the monsters reflect different aspects of James’ subconscious thoughts or which of the four potentially canonical scenarios he ‘deserved’ at the end of ordeal. What I’ve noticed is that while everyone and their dog’s happy to talk about Silent Hill 2’s story there’s not an awful lot of discussion these days that looks at it as a game, so I thought I’d try and approach Konami’s sacred cow from that angle instead. I suppose this’ll mean the text below ends up reading like every other blimmin’ blog post I write but there’s something to be said for banal consistency, isn’t there?
Let’s start with something obvious – the graphics. Technically speaking the game is virtually peerless when compared to other titles of the era, and even when looking across the entirety of the PlayStation 2’s library only its own sequels or titles of Final Fantasy XII’s visual calibre (a game that came out almost five years later) that come close to pushing the hardware the way this game does. The character models look fantastic and the animations hold up exceptionally well even today – even the real-time cutscenes are beautifully shot; often enhancing the mood of a scene but sometimes stunning just for stunning’s sake.
It’s not just within purpose-built stages that the game excels either – even in normal circumstances enemies glisten in the light cast by James’ torch while he pushes through fog that has real volume and substance to it; it’s enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine, and players brave enough to stop and stare will find a world filled with high-resolution textures and incidental details that most will miss as they run in a panic through the gloom.
Unfortunately these details do come at a cost, and it’s not just Silent Hill’s signature fog either. Areas of all shapes, sizes, and states of reality are almost exclusively bowling-green flat and enemies only seem to come three at a time at the very most – even the streets of Silent Hill has its horror deliberately sprinkled far and wide to prevent any potential framerate drops: completely understandable from Team Silent’s perspective, but as a player it diminishes these shattered fragments of James’ fears and suppressed desires to little more than a mild annoyance that can be easily sprinted past before he’s even noticed what ever the heck it even was.
Indoor locations generally don’t fare much better either, all narrow corridors connected to small and sparsely decorated box rooms. What’s there is always incredibly detailed and the layout is infinitely more sensible than Resident Evil’s ridiculous police stations and spooky mansions could ever be, but ultimately this strict adherence to realism, even when deep in the bowls of a prison in the ‘other’ Silent Hill, means that locations often lack the visual impact of Midwich Elementary School’s decorative cadavers or the sight of a blood-smeared rabbit slumped on a bench in Lakeside Amusement Park: far too often Silent Hill 2 leaves players in yet another long hallway rattling anything up to twenty-one doorknobs (Brookhaven Hospital 3F, if you were wondering) with only three or four of these actually leading anywhere.
The good news is that Silent Hill’s map system is more than up to the task of keeping track of not only the vast array of permanently locked doors and blocked-off areas but also puzzle locations, save points, and just about anything else you really need to find or get to. More games of any genre could use an active annotation system just like this one, with James’ note-taking always nudging the player in the right direction without ever breaking the fourth wall. This in-character help can also seen in James himself – whenever he’s near an item or within range of an enemy he’ll look in that direction, ensuring that even when the camera’s pointing in the opposite direction to an incoming monster or a health drink’s hiding in the corner of another pokey apartment kitchen you still have a fair chance of spotting it.
Sadly you won’t need James’ help to spot any of Silent Hill 2’s bosses, as all the deep symbolism and care that went into their visual design didn’t extend to their attack patterns or battle mechanics which all come down to whatever it is moving in a straight line towards you at a fixed pace and then using one of two possible attacks when it gets in range. It doesn’t help either that even on the normal difficulty level they’re all total bullet-sponges; the overly-long rinse/repeat ‘strategy’ of jogging a safe distance away before firing a few shots only giving you even more time to notice how unengaging the whole experience is. For a game that prides itself so highly on its atmosphere it’s sad to see what could have been highlights of the game reduced to encounters so bland the adversaries and their arenas could have easily been swapped between themselves with little to no impact on the player’s tactics or experience.
While fending off the physical manifestations of James’ need for punishment may feel sorely lacking, the gameplay shines in a magnificent way as far as the possible conclusions to his journey are concerned. There are three standard endings available by default, and the one you get isn’t determined by any single event or key item but is based entirely on the player’s behaviour throughout the game. So if you spend a lot of time not keeping James healed up properly and dwelling on certain macabre details the game will assume you don’t care whether he lives or dies, and the ending ‘In Water’ reflects those choices. Take care of Maria and check in on her as much as possible and James will give up on finding his dead love, accepting instead the willing replacement before him. The final normal ending is called ‘Leave’, and as the main requirements for this ending are pretty much ‘Don’t overdo anything that might land you with one of the other two’ this is more than likely the one you’ll end up with first time through, and technically the ‘happy’ ending.
As a story Silent Hill 2 is almost beyond reproach, and when the gameplay manages to reach the same dizzying heights the transcends into a magical experience where the lines between plot and gameplay are seamlessly blurred; the player themselves having more input into James’ final outcome than any key or magical trinket they come across along the way. But when it gets it wrong – and it does do just a little too often - players are left brushing up against rows of painted-on doors or wandering into the right place at the wrong time, the game refusing to unlock a door until an unrelated event or scene has been triggered elsewhere first. But when the illusion works – and on your first time, or on a nostalgia-fuelled Hallowe’en run years later it certainly will – Silent Hill 2’s a genuinely shocking experience that will stay lurking in the dark crevices of your mind long after the console’s been turned off. However it’s not a game that benefits from the repeated play that’s awkwardly encouraged by the post-credits ranking system or unlockable novelty endings as it ultimately lacks the underlying ‘gaminess’ of Resident Evil’s sublime time attack design, Fatal Frame’s ghost-baiting Camera Obscura, or even the more immediate horror of other mainline Silent Hill games. Silent Hill 2’s at its best when it’s treated as a one-off event in your gaming calendar – something to be savoured and appreciated, then left alone to haunt your dreams.