Game review: Silent Hill 2 is still a classic horror game

Konami may have cancelled Silent Hills but GameCentral takes a look back at one of the best survival horrors of all time.

When starting our new series of retro reviews we picked on Gradius V for our first example, since it happened to be being re-released on PSN at the time. But by coincidence it also happened to be a Konami game, and it’s now obvious that Gradius is far from the only franchise at risk of obsolescence from the once beloved publisher…

The sad, strange saga behind Silent Hills’ cancellation comes only weeks after the equally bizarre treatment of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, who was working on the Silent Hill reboot with movie maker Guillermo del Toro. With the P.T. demo now removed from PSN it seems as if every trace of Silent Hills has been purposefully removed, and so now we have only the older Silent Hill games to remember it by. So it’s a good job the first three are amongst the best survival horrors ever made.

Although we still have a fondness for the PS one original, Silent Hill 2 in particular is one of the best video games of the entire PlayStation 2 era, and a game well ahead of its time in terms of its presentation and storytelling. The difficult question for this re-review though is how to actually play it.

There is the Silent Hill HD Collection, which contains Silent Hill 2 and 3, but it is without exaggeration one of the worst HD remakes of all time. So much so that rather than even try to fix all the problems Konami ended up giving refunds to Xbox 360 owners, after it was revealed they’d lost the source code to the original games and had just bodged together the remasters from what was left. So this review is based on the original PlayStation 2 version.

Even 14 years after its release we’re still reticent to talk about Silent Hill 2’s plot in detail, lest we spoil anyone’s chances of properly enjoying the game for the first time. Its set-up is very simple though, as you take the role of one James Sunderland – who has come to the fog-enshrouded town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife Mary. Which he’s understandably puzzled about because Mary died of an illness three years before.

Hints as to the backstories and motivations of all of Silent Hill 2’s characters can be pieced together from the clues available, but the game leaves the pursuit of these entirely up to you. On the first playthrough most people will take the scenario at face value, that Silent Hill is some kind of gateway to a hellish otherworld. But not just in the sense that it’s full of monsters, but that everyone present is there because of some act from their past that has damned them to what may or may not be eternal torment.

Although it is most definitely a survival horror game there’s a world of different between Silent Hill 2 and a shlock adventure like Resident Evil. Although there’s a few jump scares there’s very little real gore (the game is only rated 16) and combat is clumsy and of very little interest in its own right. Which is not to disparage Resident Evil in anyway, but Silent Hill is a very different kind of game.

Exploring Silent Hill is disturbing enough at the best of times but whenever it switches to the ‘other world’ the atmosphere becomes almost a physical presence, as if the real world of your living room has changed along with it. Like the best horror movies it’s not what you see that scares you but what you think you saw, and what you fear might be coming next. The sense of claustrophobia, loneliness, and a terrible, inescapable, doom is palpable, and made even more real because you know that this is not some random torture but a personalised version of hell designed specifically for the game’s hapless protagonist.

The true nature of iconic villain Pyramid Head is as complex as all the other characters’ backstories, but what makes him so terrifying is simply how bizarre and unknowable he is. In his opening appearance he seems to sexually assault one of the other monsters – two pairs of mannequin legs on top of each other – but like everything else in the game this has a symbolism and meaning that traces back to very human origins.

Although not always visible from the surface Silent Hill 2 is fearless in some of the issues it tackles, including suicide and sexual abuse. Even today there are very few games that would ever touch such subjects, especially not a major retail release from an established publisher. But Silent Hill 2 doesn’t include these elements for the sake of controversy or titillation, they’re simply organic parts of a very adult and, from a psychological point of view, believable storyline.

In terms of gameplay and basic structure Silent Hill 2 can be viewed as little more than a remake of the first game, and indeed that was the primary reason why at the time we were initially a little disappointed in it. It completely does away with the weird logic puzzles at the end of the first game (which surprisingly did make a reappearance in P.T.) but in terms of setting and gameplay all three of the first games are very similar.

But it’s the added depth of Silent Hill 2’s backstory that make it the jewel in the series’ crown. Rather than a mumbo-jumbo explanation of the town itself the slow realisation of why James is so unreconcilable over his wife’s death is amazingly well handled in terms of its subtlety, and how in hindsight it explains much of what he has seen and heard during the game.

Using the same logic you’re able to infer the stories of the other characters, although understating the complexities of Maria – who looks exactly like Mary but, at first at least, claims no knowledge of her – depends on also playing the Born From A Wish side story, which was added to the Director’s Cuts of the game released a year later.

Silent Hill 2 isn’t perfect, with its greatest moments so well hidden many will have never guessed they even exist – and even then most of them occur right at the end of the game. But any complaint that the controls and combat are clumsy and awkward are missing the point. James is just an ordinary guy with no combat training, and he’s not meant to be roll dodging all of the place. Even the amateurish voiceovers have a charm and honesty that works perfectly well in context.

A good video game can be scarier than any movie, but that’s often simply because the sense of immersion is greater. But although Silent Hill 2’s visuals still stand up remarkably well today it’s the psychological depth of the game that makes it a true classic. The oppressive, dream-like nature of the game doesn’t make you worry simply for your virtual life, but for your soul and your sanity. And with the cancellation of Silent Hills there’s sadly every reason to assume there’ll never be anything like it again.

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