There is a quote by Stephen King in reference to Stanley Kubrick's adaption of his horror novel, The Shining. When asked what he thought of Kubrick's approach to the genre he said "I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people." I cant imagine a more relevant and concise statement to sum up the approach of Silent Hill 2, Konami's most recent take on the "survival horror" sub-genre made immortal (for better or worse) by Capcoms infamous Resident Evil series. While I wouldnt consider the designers of Silent Hill 2 to be as skilled at their craft as Kubrick was at his, they do share one thing in common: they are serious; unflinching, and reptilian in their desire to play for keeps in a genre that is normally associated with exploitation. Silent Hill 2 is not supposed to be "fun". It is not supposed to be "entertaining" in any conventional sense. Its supposed to be one thing to the exclusion of all else: horrifying. And that, it certainly is.
Silent Hill 2 is a sequel to Konamis 1999 PS1 release of the same title, in which the player controlled an average guy looking for his daughter in a weird and nightmarish American small town. The sequel continues this basic concept, but this time with different characters. You now control James Sunderland, a foppish everyman whos received a mysterious letter from his wife who supposedly died three years prior. The letter urges him to come to Silent Hill and meet her. The game begins, almost jarringly so, in a rest stop outside the city limits where James narrates his reasons for coming to the town. Like the original Silent Hill the goal is subtly twofold: find the truth behind the letter and Marys death while simultaneously unearthing the reasons behind the towns hideous transformation.
Silent Hill 2 begins with the same basic control scheme as the original (up is forward, left and right change directions, etc.), which can be changed to a "camera-relative" scheme that, while a little clumsy, feels more intuitive and is a welcome change for the series. Another nice addition is the ability to look in different directions while moving, courtesy of the right analog stick. Interacting with objects and picking up items is still the same, achieved by a simple button-push. Combat, though, is a little different from the original. Silent Hill 2 takes advantage of the Dual Shock 2s pressure-sensitive feature, requiring more pressure for a strong attack and less for weak a one. This doesnt work as well as it could have, making James many melee battles against the perverse hoards of Silent Hill a little more awkward and frustrating than they were intended to be. Firearms fare better, but still retain some of the intentional awkwardness that is part of the series. Over all, I felt the first games control was tighter in its forced imprecision. In Silent Hill 2 it certainly feels intentional, but more so at some times than in others.
Graphics, on the other hand, are far more uniform in their success at setting an oppressive and sickening tone. Visually Silent Hill 2 is ugly, but quite beautifully so. There is an eerie precision with which the artists were able to express the wickedness of the town through drab colors, harsh lighting, and endless, ethereal fog. Unlike the original Silent Hill where these conventions were clever foils against hardware limitations, in Silent Hill 2, they take on a life of their own. Theres nothing quite like shining your flashlight down a liquidly black hallway only to see an unspeakable horror lurch into view casting a series of disturbing real-time shadows on the walls, or feeling yourself almost become lost in the fog as it curls around you like a hand. Character models and animations are also quite good, emphasizing a clear aesthetic of realism. James bad posture and blood-shot eyes, and the way he slowly accelerates into a run, sprints, and finally slows to a jog is just an example of the kind of unglamorous details that uniformly add to the experience.
As in the original Silent Hill, sound is used to great effect. The portable radio that inexplicably emits static when enemies are near is still an effective gimmick, although I oddly didnt find it as useful as I did in the first game. More effective is the use of "music". Like the original, Silent Hill 2 pushes the boundaries of what exactly music is and can be in a videogame. Although Silent Hill 2 actually has more conventional music pieces than the original, its designers rely mainly on bizarre arrangements of rhythmic sounds and instruments to set and maintain a mood. This is marvelously effective, allowing them to manipulate senses of apprehension and dread with flair and originality.
Silent Hill 1 was much maligned for its story. Many felt it was confusing and cryptic, and those people probably wont feel any differently about Silent Hill 2, which, arguably, makes even less immediate sense than its predecessor. This is a difficult thing to gauge, however, since much of how one would make sense of this game depends on how he or she interpreted the plot of the original. I myself am a staunch defender of the original games story. I think the way it told you everything but the truth, which could only be pieced together after multiple play-throughs, was a breath of fresh air in a market saturated with intellectually lazy narratives. I feel the story is much better crafted than people generally gave it credit for. Silent Hill 2 upholds this tradition handsomely, although it doesnt feel quite as tightly plotted as the original at times. Part of the confusion comes from how it may or may not connect with the original games story. In Silent Hill 1 the primary focus was on how the town acquired its nightmarish qualities and the logic of how they operate, a general understanding of which is required to even begin formulating an interpretation of the second game. As a result, Silent Hill 2 feels more like a side story at times, but one that offers more than its share of interesting backstory. Many of the details it reveals about the dark history of the town are truly chilling and serve to expand on the implications of the original game is a constructive fashion but only if youre really keyed into the weird logic of the designers.
Yeah yeah, you say, but is this game scary? Hell yes. In my opinion, Silent Hill 2 is a real horror game. It is not concerned with petty notions of what horror should be or whether it should even be entertaining. Like my favorite horror stories in film and literature, it approaches the genre with a point-blank literalness, pulling out all stops in its attempt to disturb, offend, and sicken you. Its a grotesque carnival through images of sex, death, mass murder, and faceless perversions of flesh that writhe and twitch senselessly. Unlike Resident Evil and its spin-offs which, are largely based on popular anxieties of technology gone awry, Silent Hill 2 taps into the primal imagery of nightmares, things that frighten you for reasons that you yourself dont even understand. What makes this really work is that it is all crafted with a narrative purpose. The imagery is not arbitrary, but designed to be decoded by the player as if analyzing a dream, or, in this case, a nightmare. Another thing that should be mentioned is the unusually frightening use of journals and other written documents in this game. Unlike the vast quantity of horror games where this once-effective device has been degraded to new levels of mood-shattering hokiness, Silent Hill 2 sports some excellently translated and creepy writing that never fails to augment the already potent experience.
So, whats the final verdict? Well, thats tricky. I feel divided on how to rate this game. In terms of pure gameplay, it has room for improvement. The pacing can be a little languid at times, and the combat and movement controls could use some tweaking. Also, this game feels a little linear and lacking in extras when compared to the original. As a pure game, Silent Hill 2 probably deserves a 7, but Im giving it an 8 because I think what it represents in terms of a thoughtful horror experience is too precious not to recommend wholeheartedly. I support this game and I support this series even in its experimental fumblings because I think it is exactly what this industry needs. Its ballsy, creative, and not afraid to be different. Not everyone may like it, but make no mistake: as far as horror goes, this is as real as it gets.