Genre : Action
Release Date: August 5, 2003
Buy 'SILENT HILL 3': PlayStation 2
Stephen King once famously said, "I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
In survival-horror games, or really any kind of moderately violent video game, the gross-out is easy to come by. We've all seen a lot of titles where you can walk through a puddle of fresh blood and track it everywhere, or vaporize a zombie's entire head in a gory explosion of brains and bone.
Horror's a little rarer. Genuinely startling moments in video games tend to be of the Resident Evil, monster-coming-through-the-window-aiiiieeee type, and that kind of scare has a real problem with diminishing returns. You grow to expect it. Your gamer senses start tingling when you see an unattended window, or a gleaming quest item out in the middle of nowhere. So horror's hard to maintain.
Terror, on the other hand, is the rarest thing of all. Ever since Alone in the Dark started, and Resident Evil revitalized, the horror adventure genre, there have arguably only been three games to manage to generate and sustain a genuinely terrifying atmosphere. One is Tecmo's Fatal Frame, a ghost story and multigenerational murder mystery which also offers you the opportunity to watch ghosts try to jump down the lens of a camera at you. Another is Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness, which among other scares, has a brilliant moment where you realize that the giant dying mass of eyes and mouths you've encountered deep below a Cambodian temple is also the closest thing to an ally you have.
The last and greatest, of course, is Silent Hill.
Konami has this weird habit, I've noticed, of occasionally putting out a kind of game that they've never touched before, and their title will, of course, be one of the best of its kind. They'd never released a console RPG before Suikoden, and that series is among the best CRPGs out there. Silent Hill is the same way; they jimmied the lock on the door and ran screaming into Resident Evil's turf, making the latter game look like a pallid and unexciting imitation.
Silent Hill took an ordinary man, who was in way over his head about thirty seconds into the game, and pitched him headlong into a small American town that occasionally turned out to be something very like hell. It hit every single nerve an average person has—an elementary school that becomes a place where children are tortured, a hospital where the nurses are mad and there's something terrible waiting in the basement, someone's daughter alone and frightened somewhere in the distance—and played them like a violin. I challenge anyone to get through that game without so much as a shudder.
The sequel was a bit of a letdown, when all's said and done. It made a few missteps, such as the infamous ten-minute walking sequence that serves as its prologue, or its slightly more mundane feel, but worse, it didn't build on its predecessor. Silent Hill left quite a few questions unanswered, and a couple of plotlines dangling; Silent Hill 2 dealt with the bulk of them by ignoring them, and focusing instead on the story of James Sunderland, with occasional deviations into the history of the town itself. While it was a fine game, and has plenty of its own merits, it wasn't really a sequel so much as a sidestory.
Silent Hill 3, on the other hand, is a true sequel to the original. To say a lot about it would be a fairly massive spoiler; more to the point, anyone who's played the original to completion could probably get a fairly good idea as to how.
The important thing is that Silent Hill 3 is an improvement for the series in almost every way. We all already knew it was going to be graphically impressive, but it takes that to a new level. The in-game engine is powerful enough to handle cutscenes without the need or use of rendered movies; characters move, smile, frown, shout, and gesture realistically. While the graphics do still have a little ways to go—Heather's hair makes her look grubby, and a couple of the NPCs aren't as well-animated as they could be—they're still spectacular by any stretch of the imagination. The sound's just as good as it's ever been, forming a natural counterpoint to the surreal and frightening backgrounds you'll find yourself in.
For my money, though, the storyline and dialogue are where this installment truly shines. Heather, unlike James and Harry before her, is a lively character, who communicates her personality and history through her reactions to the phenomena around her. Harry and James were almost blank slates, who would regard a bloody corpse on a gurney with a dispassionate glance; Heather will freak out or demand to know what it's doing there.
Silent Hill 3's story begins, unusually, well outside of Silent Hill, in a shopping mall near Heather's house. During a shopping trip, she dozes off, and has a nightmare of fighting monsters in the ruins of an amusement park. Waking up suddenly, she calls home, right before a detective named Douglas Cartland finds her. He's been hired to find her, and ask her a few questions, but Heather wants nothing to do with him. She ditches him by crawling out a restroom window.
When Heather goes back inside via an employee entrance, though, things have changed. The mall has abruptly emptied, and most of the stores have closed for the night. Trying to find a way to the front of the mall, Heather ducks under the shutter of a clothing store… and inside, finds a monster like the ones she fought in her nightmare. The mall is suddenly full of them, and the only other living human Heather can find, Claudia, tells her that this was all done by the hand of God.
To go much further into the story would ruin it. It's very much a love letter—albeit a bloody love letter tattooed on the freshly-flayed skin of a screaming human being—to the fans of the first game, and to some small extent, the second. Cameos, references, and explanations abound, particularly as you get further into the game and Heather learns more about why all of this is happening to her. Anyone who's been looking forward to SH3 would do well to play through the original game again and go for one of the Good endings (find Kaufman in the motel near the waterfront), so you know exactly what's going on near the endgame.
The only real complaint that I have about Silent Hill 3 is that its gameplay is very much the same thing again. Heather's weaponry is, for the most part, functionally identical to the arsenal from previous games, although with a couple of tweaks; she can find a silencer for her handgun, for example, or distract some monsters with a bit of beef jerky.
More importantly, the game is just as linear as its predecessors, and this seems utterly ridiculous in a series that tends to give you an entire town to run around in. While I can appreciate that programming an entire area would be hard work, and would result in us getting a new Silent Hill game even less frequently than we already do, it does disappoint me, to some extent, to run past entire hallways of doors I can't open and entire streets full of shops I can't enter.
Past that, Silent Hill 3 is a worthy sequel to the single most frightening video game of all time, and has its own visceral impact. The people who made this game know exactly how to frighten you, by trapping you in what may be another world entirely, with only a flashlight and what seems like a wholly insufficent weapon to protect yourself. Further, they've finally figured out that a horror movie, or a horror video game, is much, much more effective when you care about the people that horrible things are happening to. A likeable heroine, a truly frightening video game, devious puzzles, and enough gore to scare your little brother out of the room: what else do you want?
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