Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: November 6, 2007
The Silent Hill series has always presented itself as one of the paragons of survival horror gaming. It is renowned for Japanese-style horror concepts which seem so marvelously twisted to the Western gamer that the series has flourished since its first release in 1999. Origins continues this tradition of mind-melting horror with gripping gameplay and an intelligent, genuinely terrifying story.
You play as Travis Grady, assumptively named from the dictionary of generic American names Climax has stashed in its offices. You guide him through the nightmarish worlds of Silent Hill, solving cryptic riddles and slaying various demonic monsters along the way. To those of you unfamiliar with the Silent Hill series, and you know who you are, the games are basically set in a town that suffers from a bad case of schizophrenia. In the "normal" world, Silent Hill resembles an average town, aside from the overabundance of fog, and it's completely abandoned aside from a few rundown scary buildings. The town also has a dark alternate side that twists and distorts reality, turning it into a rust-encrusted nightmare signaled by an ominous-sounding air raid siren piercing the quiet.
In Origins, you can reach this world by using mirrors to transport yourself from one world to the other, as certain parts of the town or levels can only be reached in the alternate Silent Hill. Whilst a number of other games on the market juxtapose ordinary or traditionally safe settings with darker, more sinister worlds (see Twilight Princess), Silent Hill takes a dark creepy setting and turns it into an inky black fiery hell world that will send you running and screaming back the relative normalcy of the eerie abandoned town.
Origins, as the title suggests, is supposed to be a prequel to all other Silent Hill games, but unfortunately, this seems to mean that the story only connects to the others in the series in the fantastic ending sequence. This is fair enough, as there is not much consistency throughout the Silent Hill series, but this seems to be used as an excuse by the developers to eliminate any motivation that Travis might have to journey through this godforsaken place. For instance, in the other games, the protagonist has been searching for loved ones or escape; Travis, on the other hand, seems to just be moving through for the hell of it because his truck broke down and he got bored waiting for AAA or something. There may be some temptation for him to progress in order to find out the truth about his troubling past, which is somehow connected to this town, but other than that, the game gives you little motivation behind his actions. Given the sheer brilliance of the previous titles in the story, this seems like the designers are getting lazy. On top of the rather thin story, the narrative is assisted by a meager list of extra characters who appear at such intermittent intervals and for such short spans of time that it hardly seems worth them being there at all.
The only reason I may be sounding overly harsh to Origins is because I expect so much more of a Silent Hill game, they have always stood out for me as more intelligent versions of the mindless zombie-ridden, though immensely fun, Resident Evil series, and to be let down in the story is to rob Silent Hill of its greatest charm. Having said this, it still stands out as an exceptional piece of storytelling, which the PSP has lacked in other titles.
The gameplay has remained much the same in that Origins keeps up Silent Hill's high standard of puzzle-solving while still keeping with the survival horror theme. The controls fit the PSP well and essentially mirror the console versions, with the shoulder buttons being used to look around and enter the combat stance, and the face buttons being used to control running and observe your surroundings. The combat takes after Silent Hill 4 in the sense that melee weapons break with repeated use, which is great in theory, but you tend to stumble upon these weapons every two seconds, and as soon as you get to the point where you acquire guns, you gain an almost Rambo-like amount of ammunition.
Despite the balance issues with weapons, however, Origins never stops being scary or difficult, and later enemies prove challenging even with the ludicrous amounts of ammunition you've acquire. The usual Silent Hill monstrosities lurch back into this title, too, with fleshy-looking straitjacket wearers, an ominous-looking butcher who resembles the pyramid head of previous titles and, of course, the nurses, which raises the question of whether there was anyone in this town who didn't work in medicine. On top of this, there are new, more horrifying creations, like floating shadow monsters and large, inside-out bovine creatures, all of which are guaranteed to make you want to run screaming to Beautiful Katamari.
The standard gameplay features return; you'll find journal entries, keys to ubiquitous locked doors and an irritating, if greatly reduced, loading time between set pieces. Even though Origins seems to not bring many new features to the table, the way it presents itself on such a small screen recreates and even exceeds the atmosphere of its console siblings.
Graphically, Origins is as close as you're ever going to get to carrying a PS2 version of the game in your palm. Everything is fine-tuned to look and feel as if you are actually in the town of Silent Hill. The enemies are well modeled with superb detail, even capturing the sheen on the skin of some of the hideous creations roaming the streets. The fog makes its comeback in great form and makes me remember the days I played the first Silent Hill game from behind the couch. Even the town itself is well designed and looks abandoned, dilapidated and, most importantly, genuine. If you take the game's advice at the outset and play it in a darkened room with the headphones on, you're in for one of the most absorbing gaming experiences you can get on a handheld. Doing this makes you entirely forget that you're playing on a small screen and allows you to appreciate the true scope of the horror.
It's hard to fault Origins on its appearance, but if I had to be petty and find fault, then I could point out that the camera angles still haven't been fixed. There are fixed cameras in some areas and a constantly shifting focus in others, so you have a difficult time in controlling Travis, which is irritating when you have zombies gnawing on your kneecaps.
The audio aspect of the Silent Hill series has always been the key to creating tension and horror within the game. The use of random sounds with a driving bass line and noises of the alternate Silent Hill are a dramatic contrast to the sedate sleepy nature of the normal town; in some cases, the contrast can be so sudden and absolute that it makes more of an impact than the settings changing. The crackle of the radio before an enemy attacks and the moments of ominous silence are staples of the series, and their depiction on the PSP is flawless. Unfortunately, the voices of the characters are typical B-movie style actors, and once they start talking in the cut scenes, a lot of the tension and horror is quickly deflated.
The way Silent Hill Origins is presented is revolutionary for a handheld, but unfortunately, fans of the series may find that it doesn't bring much innovation to the table. If you have never played a Silent Hill title before, then this is an excellent introduction since the story is only tentatively linked to the rest of the series. If you're in the mood for another slice of Silent Hill or simply want something to scare you senseless while playing games on the bus, then you could do a lot worse than Origins. There are minor flaws, but many of the problems are easily overlooked and can be fixed in upcoming iterations.
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