Silent Hill 4 Retro Review: Dying from success?
I find it fair to say that Silent Hill 2 is in many a gamer’s heart, the best horror title ever. The dreadful atmosphere, the iconic enemies, drenched in symbolism (And icky, sticky liquids) and the genius in depth analysis of James’ character.
Way I see it, Silent Hill at it’s core was the deep analysis of a broken man. This is why every game after it took a swing at picking apart it’s main character’s psyche and tailoring the town and it’s threats to them, specifically. Every enemy is in some way tied to their past, to what they did, what they’ve been through.
The problem is that horror and formula go together like peanut butter and nails. You might not notice them at first, but when you do, that experience is ruined. Other giants of the industry have survived on strictly formulaic new installments. Every few years, a group of teenagers dressed like they had to raid the salvation army’s pantry with the lights off will fight or help God to save the world in Final Fantasy. Every year, around Christmas time, like clockwork, a new CoD will show up to vacuum children’s wallets wide and far.
Silent Hill 2 already parted from a troublesome position, being mostly a retread of Silent Hill 1 minus Keiichiro Toyama. Main character with a leather jacket arrives at ghost town looking for lost loved one, fog everywhere, enemies are symbollic to the situation at hand, and we unravel a mistery. Team Silent’s choice to do the same but better changed the game industry forever. Silent Hill 3 opted to pick up from the end of Harry’s story, and while it did away with the fog, it incorporated darkness, monsters were still relevant to the situation at hand, and we were still unravelling a mistery.
So the high ups at Konami obviously expected Silent Hill to continue evolving in the same formulaic horror way. However, Team Silent, being mostly a bunch of idealistic artsy types, realized that “formula” and “horror” are two key words mostly found in Scooby Doo. This was, most likely, not the direction they wanted to take their work in.
Here’s where the situation gets complicated: Team Silent never intended The Room to be a mainline title. It was supposed to be a spinoff set in the universe of Silent Hill. But Konami, showing early symptoms of being Konami, decided they’d make more money if it was advertised as a new installment of the main series.
Silent Hill 2 conveyed the feeling of being trapped in a place that wants you to atone for your horrible sins. The third part instead threw you in a madhouse you wanted no part in. The Room’s feeling is different. In many ways, Henry’s by far the most relatable character in the whole saga. He’s just some dude. He has a terrible case of bedhead. He’s averse to shaving. He dresses in a plain shirt and blue jeans. This was a bad thing.
Supporting character reporting for duty! … What do you mean I’m the protagonist of this one? I’m even the least important part of my introduction, dammit!
You see, Silent Hill up to this point had stuck to the winning formula: Protagonist arrives at haunted place, protagonist explores haunted place, gradually discovers his or her relation with it and merrily sorts stuff out in a handful of ways. Henry doesn’t even go to Silent Hill. He’s trapped in his own room and doesn’t even know if he’s dreaming when he leaves.
The game world proper seems to hold him in contempt, with a lot of monsters outright ignoring him as long as he steers clear. He starts being by far the weakest in combat in the whole saga and has to take trips back to his place to have a snack and a little cry until he can get back to braving the otherworld. He even lacks the iconic outfits of everybody else. James had a field jacket, Heather had a puffy vest and a sleeveless sweater. Henry has a shirt and jeans. If you tried to cosplay him, you’d get a 0 for effort across the board. And his secret is about as iconic as his outfit.
There be spoilers ahead, so you’ve been warned: Henry does unravel a mistery, but it becomes increasingly obvious that he really IS just some dude who was at the wrong place and time and is now paying for it. There’s no deeper meaning to any of what he does. The game is a pure battle for survival. The paralells with the player ring stronger with Henry than any other Silent Hill protagonist. Even in gameplay, Henry’s just completely average.
Average height, average speed, his animations are very dry, with little idling animations and a completely boilerplate walk and run as opposed to James’ determined stride or Heather’s cautious and panicky movement. Henry’s just walking around. If you leave him to idle, he won’t even take a look at his surroundings, he’ll just rest a bit.
To emphasize he’s not very good in a fight, he can’t even switch targets, but he can tank hits while he’s using a power attack. Combat is once again intentionally bad, an inherent problem with most horror games, but it does feel scary and hectic, specially with all the groups of enemies you’ll be facing in tight quarters. If we had to briefly describe how the town deals with each visitor, James is slowly tortured, with the town hoping he’ll finish himself off, Heather is swiftly and brutally killed, unless she proves she’s even tougher herself, and Henry’s gradually smothered by things out of his control.
Henry’s inability to switch targets efficiently means he’ll frequently be swarmed by very numerous groups. Bosses are insane sponges, being able to take a solid 6 minutes of shovel strikes before finally dropping. Even then, unless you pin them with a special item, they’ll just get back up. Simbolysm is not related to Henry in the slightest, with enemies instead relating to how Walter killed them or felt about them. It all gets the point across that Henry is just one small part of a ritual much bigger than himself, and at the same time, he’s the only one who can stop it.
Storywise, Henry spends the first half of the game meeting people and watching them die. Sadly, this not being a soap opera, they don’t have any time to tell us their life story before meeting their doom, and really, it matters not. Supplemental material covered this later on. They all had names, lives, and a relation with Walter Sullivan, which granted them a golden ticket to representing something or other in a nutty ritual. Henry doesn’t care, he’s just here to try to escape with his own hide, still attached to his body if possible. The use of a supporting cast is another Silent Hill staple, but there being 21 sacraments (Serial killers can be fans of blackjack too) there’s not a lot of time for fleshing out on screen. Just for flaying out.
The game instead becomes about main antagonist Walter’s rampage and backstory. The victims eventually become nothing more than an afterthought and a quirky miniboss squad. Only one of them still speaks after death, and it’s mostly blubbering.
One very noticeable thing is the game’s heavy reliance on memos.
Par for the course for horror games in the early 2000s, sure, but the second half of the game smacks of running out of budget. Backtracking was even then a dirty word, but The Room took it to a new level: You’d have to escort Eileen through EVERY SINGLE LEVEL up to that point, in the same order, too. There were some new missions in each map, and some obstacles that were somewhat hard solo became true tests of patience with Eileen ball and chained to Henry’s ankle. This was a thoroughly miserable experience, and knowing how to keep Eileen alive essentially required a guide or an older brother who was familiar with the game.
Eileen in particular was a big sticking point. While her presence makes combat even scarier, and she can down right become a threat to the player depending on their playstyle, she adds nothing. She doesn’t help you solve puzzles, she has no observations, (No helpful ones, anyway. This is a forest!) and she frequently will tank Henry’s strikes with her face, because pathfinding AIs weren’t great back in 2004. She’s slightly slower than everyone else, making Henry wait around, and can’t use ladders. And if she dies, you get a bad ending. And she can not be healed from her wounds on hard difficulty. Doesn’t it all sound amazing?
A departure from traditional Silent Hill formula in story and gameplay made everyone say this was by far the weakest Silent Hill game. I don’t disagree, but I do believe the game is masterfully crafted regardless. During the whole second half of the game, Henry and Eileen won’t even speak a word to one another. There are no cutscenes. Cutscenes are the basic reason why most players would even bother to finish a horror title. Specially one like this. You can ask any of the players who went through this (If you can find them) and most will say that Henry’s very likable and they connected with him, but they didn’t finish the game.
And that’s why Silent Hill 4 did what it had to do too well. A relentless horror experience, from start to finish, with built in downtime in the form of limited inventory and forced trips back to the one saving point where you could kick your feet up and watch some events happen in the first half and avoid poltergeists trying to kill you in the second. The combination of Eileen, clunky combat, and a lack of personality in the main characters made it fail only because it had to live up to Silent Hill’s previous reputation. If you’re at all interested in an incredibly functional, truly horrible horror experience, you should definitely look into this title at some point. Just try not to microwave the disk when Eileen gets you killed for the twentieth time.