Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Silent Hill Origins

I come from the backwards world. I thought that Silent Hill 2 was easily the worst of the franchise, while Silent Hill 4: The Room was the series' creative peak. I realise I'm alone in this, but to be perfectly honest, I'm right and you're wrong, so you can all go to hell.

Which brings me to Silent Hill: Origins, which I'm going to have to describe as "the worst Silent Hill since the second one". It originally came out for the PSP, and then, because the PSP is crap, got ported to a real system, in this case the PlayStation 2.

The Silent Hill franchise is about ordinary people who, upon visiting (or living near) the titular town find themselves inexplicably transported to a hell dimension where everything is similar and yet horribly different. That, in fact, is exactly how I felt upon firing up Silent Hill Origins. This is definitely Silent Hill, but it's Silent Hill as performed by a really dodgy cover band.

It's developed by Climax, a western company whose previous track record consists almost entirely of bad ports. All the previous games had been by Konami's Nippon-based Team Silent. It's pretty clear that the distinctive Japanese sensibility for horror has gotten lost somewhere along the way, because Origins is less creepy than it is shocktackular. A rising sense of terror is replaced with the "suddenly, zombies" syndrome, where opening any given door leads to nasties immediately in your face, without explanation.

Origins is a direct prequel to the first Silent Hill. You play as Travis, a truck driver who has an encounter with series poster-girl Alessa and then decides to play explorer in the nearby abandoned town.

The "prequel" angle leads to a lot of opportunities for fan nostalgia. You'll encounter plenty of characters from previous games, often in a fairly forced fashion, and revisit key locations from the franchise including Alchemilla General Hospital. There are some great moments, like seeing the iconic "Welcome to Silent Hill" sign come looming out of the fog, but there are a fair helping of points that are just silly, too.

The silliest aspect of the game comes from the re-tooled weapon system. In previous games, firearms had limited ammunition, while melee weapons lasted forever, meaning that melee was often the best choice for most fights. Origins addresses this by making melee weapons incredibly plentiful, but having them break after a couple of hits. It's a system much like that employed in Dead Rising, where any number of regular objects can be picked up and used as weapons, including wooden planks, IV stands and toasters. Unfortunately, it looks stupid. Wandering around a creepy hospital carrying a toaster just makes Travis look like a particularly incompetent burglar.

Also, the combat is clunky and unresponsive, even by the standards of Silent Hill. To make matters worse, to see the game's "good ending" you'll need to down less than 70 foes over the course of the game, so in the end you'll almost entirely bypass the combat portion of the game and just run past most foes.

The developers apparently playtested this "running past things" strategy and found it too easy, so they've compensated by giving practically every enemy the ability to grab you from about half a screen away. There's no defence against these grabs, and escaping them involves an irritating button-mashing minigame. On the whole, the game's monsters seem not spooky but just annoyingly cheap.

The one redeeming feature to the game is the soundtrack, which is by franchise composer Akira Yamaoka and is some of his best work. The music is absolutely gorgeous and you'll sometimes want to stop playing just to make sure you've heard the entire music track before moving forwards.

Music can't save a tragically poor game, though. If you're a Silent Hill fan you might want to get this just for the sake of completeness, but if you've got a limited budget for survival horror then this is not the game you've been waiting for.


Grant said...

I honestly think the well on Silent Hill has run more than a bit dry. It's less of a series now and more a checklist of aesthetics.

GregT said...

I'm perfectly happy with a checklist of aesthetics provided there's a reasonable framework to compel and allow me to navigate through them.

I'm quite surprised to see the forthcoming Silent Hill Homecoming (another western-developed iteration) is getting some rather positive previews. Reviewers have a kind of stunned "actually, it's not bad" tone in some of the things I've read.

What the series desperately needs is for someone to merge the Team Silent vision for the games with some genuine gameplay innovation. The reason I love The Room is that it made the horror genuinely interactive, and about more than just combat. It also had some genuinely excellent plot twists. Something like that where the fighting doesn't suck would rock my world.

mwc said...

I couldn't stand this one. The breaking of melee weapons made it feel like a perpetual bar fight, which could be fun if it were fluid, violent, and spontaneous. Instead, it was twitchy, plodding, and predictable (now with respawning enemies!). I suffered through the hospital, determined to give this game a chance, but I shut it off when I saw the Pyramid Head clone.

Now, unlike you I really like Silent Hill 2. That does not mean, however, that I am excited to experience the retread, with even worse combat than the original.

Chris said...

My wife and I disliked The Room - it's the only Silent Hill game we've given up on. We just got too bored with the repetitiveness of it all.

It's a weird franchise, because it swings from strong game design (1) to strong narrative design but weak game design (2) to hardcore game design (3) to experimental narrative design (4)... then, oddly, they hand the franchise to Climax, a British company I know all too well, and (frankly) wouldn't trust on a title of this kind.

From what I know about your gaming habits, I can understand why you hate Silent Hill 2. This is a game which is weak on gameplay but strong on design-integrated narrative. For me, I was disappointed with this because I wanted more of the tight game design I'd seen in the first (which is still my favourite in the sequence). But my wife, and one of the writers I work with, rate Silent Hill 2 very highly - because of the story content, and playing future iterations has given me an increasing appreciation for 2.

But the series has been going downhill for me since the first instalment, and honestly, I don't know what could save it now.

I'm having the same problem with Project Zero/Fatal Frame, which I thoroughly enjoyed the first two times out the gate, but the third one fell grossly flat.

The thing you don't mention in your capsule review here is which world structure the game has:

(1) has an semi-open overworld with an embedded linear sequence of "dungeon" locations (Zelda-style)
(2) has a linear sequence of locations, alternating between channeled overworld segments and "dungeon" segments
(3) repeats (2) but has more dungeon and less overworld.
(4) has a hub (the room) and linear mission "dungeons"

So which does Origins do? Because if its (1) then I'm interested even if it poor quality. But if its (2-4) I'll pass.

Best wishes!

mwc said...

Chris, as far as I played (admittedly not very far) it was definitely closer to 2 than to 1. Maybe it shifts later on, but I had to go around a bunch of closed-off streets and mysterious sinkholes.

Greg Tannahill said...

I found the overworld more or less similar to the first game (which, gameplay-wise, is my favourite in the set), except it was a little more channelled with less emphasis on exploration. The streets are simply too dangerous to spend any time enjoying them.

Chris said...

Thanks for the info! It's the exploration I enjoy, so from your description this doesn't sound like the game for me.

Best wishes!