“The lock is broken. I can’t open the door.”
No focus group about Japanese horror would be complete if it didn’t have this game skulking in late through the back door with glossed over eyes, sporting a cigarette, messed up hair style, and carrying an advanced text book on applied mathematics under its right arm.
I’m assuming of course that in human form Silent Hill 2 would be an amalgamation of all its main cast members, which wouldn’t fill you with much confidence for its chances of survival in mainstream society. Playing as downtrodden everyman James Sunderland, you’ll come across an eclectic group of people not seen since your student days or, alternatively, your last visit to a mental asylum. Everyone you meet appears to be either psychopathic or schizophrenic, and you spend the best part of the game trying to work out which one of the categories your gloomy protagonist falls into.
James has every right to be a depressing portrait of the man we come to know him as over an atmospheric six hours of gameplay. Three years ago, his wife Mary died of a mysterious illness, and Silent Hill 2 begins with him receiving a letter requesting his presence at their ‘special’ place in the haunted town of Silent Hill, a request that James unquestionably obeys because the envelope happens to bear her signature. Hence, one bad decision leads to a string of other bad decisions throughout the game.
Previously in the Silent Hill series, part of the road leading out of town would be blown up, trapping you inside and forcing you to look for your missing daughter rather than run away scared, which is what any sane person would realistically do. On the contrary, the only thing keeping James in Silent Hill, even after we’ve discovered that everything in it wants to kill him, is his insistence that he can’t leave until he’s found some kind of explanation. You get this feeling with the other characters as well; that everyone is there of their own accord, and before long you even start wondering if it might be the monsters that are the real visitors around here.
Gameplay-wise, Silent Hill 2 is nothing to rave about. Hitting monsters with steel pipes and wooden planks is hard work; you’re likely to receive a beating for every monster you stop to fight. In the context of the game world, however, it brilliantly maintains an illusion of reality that constantly threatens to start drifting away as you progress further.
The grittiness you come to associate with the game is done intentionally, enhancing Silent Hill’s infamous fog and giving it a rough beauty unrivalled by any horror game since.
With sight partially inhibited, you find yourself relying more on sounds than anything else to keep you aware of your surroundings. Upon entering the apartment block in the game’s first act, the sound you were familiar with outside suddenly cuts…
…leaving you momentarily disorientated and wondering what’s about to jump out of the shadows. Later on, in the same building, you’re on your way up a flight of stairs when you hear something metallic being slowly dragged along the floor somewhere nearby. On the floor above or coming from behind? You have no way of knowing, and I challenge anyone not to pause in hesitation at that moment.
It’s the very definition of psychological terror, where the things happening off screen are just as important as what you see on it. Play it alone in a dark room if you feel brave enough. In fact, this is a game probably best experienced in solitary confinement. An escape route won’t be necessary because by the time you’ve finished, you’ll have realised it’s where you belong.
10 / 10.