Very rarely does a game come along whose enjoyment can be solely determined by the way in which you play it. Let me explain. Think of almost any other game you have ever played. Now ask yourself “Did I enjoy that more while playing during the day or at night” or “Was it more fun or less to play the single player while others were around and finally “Does the room need to be absolutely silent for me to fully enjoy this game”? Most likely you have never asked these questions while playing a game because they don’t matter in practically every other situation, but in Silent Hill 4 they will determine how much you enjoy the experience. So clear the room, turn off the lights, crank up your home theater and grab an extra pair of boxers, this is Silent Hill 4.
In this latest installment of Silent Hill you play as Henry Townshend, a quiet individual who leads a simple life in South Ashfield Heights. His peaceful world gets turned upside down though when he wakes one morning to discover his phone, T.V., and radio don’t work, his windows wont open, and, oh yeah, there are a series of chains wrapped around his front door that prevent him from leaving. When the game begins, it is the fifth day Henry has been trapped in his apartment and he is starting to get desperate. You go to the front door to see if there are any changes in the situation. There is a cryptic note on the floor. After reading the message there is a loud crash from the bathroom. What could it be? There is a giant hole in the wall and what would any sane person do in this situation? Crawl through it of course! And so begins your quest to find out what the hell is going on with your apartment.
If you have ever played a Silent Hill game before you are already familiar with the gameplay. If this is your first time stepping into the universe no worries, SH is a very easy game to pick up. Movement and Look are tied to the left and right thumbsticks just like in every other game, L will center your view, X cycles the menu, Y brings up the map and journal, B allows you to run and exit menu screens, and A will examine objects or when combined with R attacks. As you can see there aren’t a lot of controls that you need to learn. Essentially you will only need attack and run as the rest are menu navigation. The simplicity can be a nice thing, but it also has a price. The combat is not very involved and is pretty bland. You hold R to ready your weapon and then press A to attack. With a ranged weapon it will fire at the rate appropriate to the weapon, but the longer you hold it with a melee weapon the more powerful the attack. For the most part every melee weapon behaves the same. You will perform 2 standard attacks and a heavy attack if you perform a combo. The speed and damage of the attacks are dependent on the weapon. You are also able to dodge by pressing B and a direction, but this isn’t usually necessary. If you time your attacks well the enemies will never be able to attack. It is also very slow and doesn’t even get you out of range on many occasions. The much more pressing matter is the ability to simply run by practically every enemy in the game. Honestly other than a few boss battles there is no situation in which you can’t just run by the enemies. This is my biggest gripe with the game. They did such an incredible job with the graphics, audio, and camera work to create tension it’s a shame you can just run by all the monsters.
This does improve later in the game when Eileen joins you in the nightmare world. She is very slow in comparison to you so you will do a lot of waiting and this forces you to fight more enemies. You can let the monsters attack her, but this will have some repercussions later. That’s all I’m going to say on that subject. Having Eileen along is a new twist in the gameplay that is both a nice addition and a drawback. You can equip her with a weapon and she will fight along side you. At first she is very weak, but as you find more weapons she becomes valuable. There are also situations where she provides you with interesting story tidbits as well as bailing you out of some hair raising situations. The bad part about having her along is her speed. Man is she slow. She moves as fast as a person can in her situation, but it can get annoying. This can be remedied though. If you get too far ahead of her and head into a new area she will be left behind. There are “safe” places in every level where you can “drop her off” so you are free to explore without her annoying ass slowing you down. This totally defeats the purpose of having her along, but it can make for a more enjoyable experience at times. Other than the addition of Eileen the gameplay is pretty standard Survival Horror. This is doesn’t make for a bad play experience, but its time to take the genre to the next level.
The visuals in Silent Hill 4 are by far the best the series have seen and really help to sell the experience. The environments are the creepiest places you have ever seen. Modern horror movies could take a cue from the SH level design team. Very few games can make you feel uneasy just by walking into a room and I don’t think anyone knows how to use blood and rust textures as well as these guys. The monsters are all unique and extremely disturbing. The first time I entered a dingy hallway and saw a two headed baby with a gigantic upper body and no legs pointing at me wherever I moved I had to reach for my spare pair of boxers. Each new creature you meet is more terrifying than the last. The place the graphics shine the most though are in the human characters. It is really incredible the amount of detail they put into each character. I know in my mind that the facial hair on Henry is just a texture map, put it looks tangible. They also used specular highlights flawlessly to give a great deal of depth to the cheek areas. The hair is also some of the most lifelike I have ever seen in a game. In most games it looks sculpted to the head, but it looks convincingly like it is a separate entity which is a nice touch. They use a lot of animated textures on the walls to make them feel alive. The whole world captures the essence of a nightmare to a T. they also use a variety of filters over the camera to give the world a grainy fill. This is especially prevalent in the cutscenes adds just a pinch of additional terror. My only complaint at all with the visuals is the running animation for Henry. He looks like he may be carrying a load in his pants, which wouldn’t be all that surprising considering where he is. This is just a great looking game.
Even more impressive than the visuals though is the audio. In no other game has the audio ever been more important to the whole experience. You can get away with standard music and effects in many games as long as the gameplay is good, but no in SH. Without the most horrific audio you have ever heard the whole experience would be ruined. Luckily they nailed it to deliver the final ingredient to give you nightmare for weeks. The music in the game is used sparingly, but at just the right times to heighten the tension. The creature effects fit perfectly with their looks and make you wonder if these guys have actually heard these creatures in real life. The ambient effects are what make the game though. There are countless times where you will look over your shoulder or jump in your seat without having anything happening on the screen. You get so into the atmosphere and then you will hear a sound that quickens your heart rate and triggers your fight of flight responses. This is one of those times where a surround sound system can improve a game ten fold. The voice acting is pretty good overall and is definitely a high point for the series. Henry is the only character that had some questionable dialogue. No matter what the situation is, he always sound confused or in disbelief. This is usually an appropriate emotion, but other times he appears rather calm when he should be having a heart attack. I think if he sounded scared in these situations it would have better conveyed the tension to the player. This is only a very minor complaint and in no way detracts from the fantastic audio engineering seen throughout Silent Hill 4.
All in all this is one of the most enjoyable Survival Horror game to date. The pedestrian gameplay is overcome by the incredible visuals and audio. The story is also the best of all the SH games to date. It’s hard to turn it off because you want to know what’s going on and what will happen next. Some gamers will have gripes with the length of the game (under 8 hours for most), but there are four endings so there is the opportunity for replay. There are also some things that can only be unlocked after beating the game 3 times. For the hardcore out there you also get some special gameplay modes if you can beat it on hard mode in under 2 hours. This is not an easy task I assure you. As I mentioned before your enjoyment of the game will depend on how you play. Make sure that you never play during the day or with the lights on. This can ruin the experience more than anything. It is also crucial that there is a lot of background noise going on or you may miss out on some of the subtle audio moments that build the mood. If you can play this on a surround sound system to truly appreciate the experience. Finally don’t play with other people in the room, especially non gamers. Inevitably they will talk or distract you and ruin the game. If you follow these simple rules you should be suitably frightened for days.
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