Despite its roots in the clunky play mechanics of Resident Evil (and its many imitators), Silent Hill 2 is a remarkably engaging journey through the macabre, through the most twisted depths of human nature. Though videogame graphics are incessantly and shamelessly trumpeted by game manufactures, it is rare that a game is driven primarily by its art direction. While Silent Hill 2 revolves around a mysteriously interesting (if not occasionally lugubrious) plot and features all the zombie bashing and puzzle solving that survival-horror fans have come to love, the ultimate appeal of the game is its ability, through its visual and aural presentation, to draw the players imagination into the game. The most frightening aspect of the game is not the repeated set-up and execution of edge-of-your-seat frights, but the unceasing anxious expectation that somehow, almost certainly, something terrifying lurks just beyond sight. The implementation of horror is masterfully subtle: thick fog that seems to breath like a living thing; a random thud or inhuman groan penetrating an eerie silence that, most often, is broken only by the quiet tapping of the protagonists footsteps. The greatest terror is not seen, but lies in the imagination of the player.
The gameplay itself will be relatively intuitive for anyone familiar with the genre. James controls decently, though like Matt I found the combat and item searching to be occasionally cumbersome. Combat is a mixture of melee and gunplay that, though reasonably well executed, adds little to the genre. What does deserve mention is the games simple, intuitive mapping system that, by simply adding color labels to doors and puzzles, has virtually done away with the exasperating back-tracking that plagues most survival-horror games. Doors are labeled as either opened, locked, or broken (meaning entry will not be possible). Often, I found that searching for an overlooked item was as easy as pulling up the map and finding which doors I had not tried to open. The puzzles are logical and reasonably challenging without being overbearing. Their themes are a bit odd at times—one puzzles features a heavily secured lock box holdinga human hair—but they do a great job of adding to the mood with pseudo-religious undertones and disturbing whispers of torture and suffering.
The monsters and the world they inhabit are some of the most compelling images ever realized in a game. Silent Hill is a sickening, dilapidated town filled with decrepit old buildings, blood stained corridors, and haunting architectural beauty. The monsters are difficult to describe; they seem like bloodied, walking corpses. They move awkwardly and die stubbornly (though a close-range shotgun blast will usually remedy that), and are made frightening by their unexplained existence and grotesque appearance. It seems as though the designers were attempting to convey a sense of suffering and death in every aspect of the games visual design. The monsters seem to dwell in a place of constant suffering, and they are trying to bring James to the same fate.
The convoluted story in Silent Hill 2, revolving around enigmatic characters and unexplained happenings in the town, is strangely engaging despite its apparent lack of coherency. None of the characters are very friendly or likeable, and all of them, even James, seem to posses a thinly veiled evil. Depending on how much exploring one is willing to do, the secrets of Silent Hill slowly come to light as the player reads newspapers, inscriptions on paintings and statues, and historical records of medical practices or imprisonment. Disturbing tales of mysterious illness, unexplained disappearances, black magic, and brutal executions serve as the backdrop for James irresolute adventure. The story seems to make little sense much of the time, but it resolves with disturbing, yet inexplicably satisfying finality.
As Matt described, Silent Hill 2s imagery is not arbitrary, but is designed to be dissected and interpreted by the player. Perhaps that is what makes the game so compelling and so successful in its endeavor—as the player tries to make sense of disgusting images and unspeakable evils, the game takes on its own unique shape, contoured by the players unique imagination. Just as Silent Hill 2 is frightening, it challenges players to search themselves and discover why its formula is so effective. That the adventure is crafted as much by the mind of the player as by the developers of the game elevates Silent Hill 2 past its outdated mechanics and earns it a place as the most fitting representative of the survival-horror genre. And yes, this game is scary.