We’re back on the PS1 this week for a landmark achievement in gaming. Not only are we celebrating the revered first installment of the Silent Hill series, but we are also celebrating my first ever playthrough of the game! ‘First ever?’ I hear you longtime readers of my pen say. ‘But you are the king of survival horrors on the Play Station One!’ I hear you also say. Well, before I jump into any kind of review, it’s important to mention just how rare this game actually is and how hard it was to get my hands on it finally. This game easily goes for at least $80 AUD ($55 USD) secondhand and on retro gaming stores. The sheer scarcity of this game is a testament to its place in horror gaming. Not only is it a strong influence on future horror titles to come, but it is regarded by some as the penultimate culmination of all the survival horror titles before it during the genre’s boom on the PS1. Konami set out to create a Resident Evil of their own in 1999, and what they delivered was a completely unique and unforgetably terrifying experience that would birth a devoted cult following and some of gaming’s most memorable moments.
What the fog is going on in this town?
The player inhabits the character of widower Harry Mason who has come to the town of Silent Hill on a vacation with his daughter, Cheryl. But when the game starts, Harry crashes his car and when he wakes up he finds that Cheryl is missing. Thus begins Harry’s adventure (ordeal?) in the abandoned and ever-foggy town of Silent Hill… that is also overrun with monsters for no actual reason (they might be a manifestation of a nightmare, but who’s to say?).
The plot is simple, and thank Samael, because the lore and backstory that encompasses the town and explains why it is the way it is is thorough, deep, and multi-faceted. This is where the game shines in that aspect. Diary entries are far and few between to fill in story gaps, and it isn’t until the final third of the game that the player is clued into what is happening, other than the obvious fact that there is some kind of demon rite, culty aspect to the story. The fact that the game leaves the whereabouts of the people, the reason why the town is half-foggy half-iron-hellscape, and if any of the strange and abstract horrors are actually real, enhances the experience by prompting the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination and interpretation. As for the actual narrative, it serves more the purpose to take Harry to spooky locations like a demon-amusement park, an abandoned school, and a disgusting hospital.
Non-descript monsters galore!
As is the way with survival horror, much of the game is built on exploration, puzzle solving and combat. Interestingly, Silent Hill does not challenge the player to manage inventory, likely due to Konami’s interest in distancing themselves from Capcom. And they do! While the game does feature puzzles and key item collection, it isn’t set up so much in the escape room way that Resident Evil is thanks to Silent Hill‘s semi-open world experience. Instead of a mansion to explore, the entire town of Silent Hill is your mansion, and within that is the aforementioned mini-mansions like the school and hospital. Since Harry has an entire town to be able to traverse, he is generally very fast moving, and so are his enemies.
The game is not a zombie game, it’s a supernatural horror, and as such the enemies are very not of this world. Harry comes armed with a variety of useless melee weapons and some uninspired and difficult to fire guns to fight against cockroaches, dogs, big-clawed moles, grasshopper lizards, and I think gorillas, that all keep him on his toes. Aside from the end boss and the possessed nurses, many of the game’s enemies and bosses are quite lazy in design and don’t really fit in with the world, which I felt detracted from the experience instead of enhancing it in the abstract horror way you’d expect of the psychological horror Silent Hill is founded on.
Drag me to hell and back, and then to hell again, and back one more time
The strongest aspect to the Silent Hill experience is the atmosphere and the various horror elements it is built on. Due to the limit of the PlayStation One’s processing power, and due to the exciting fact that this game is rendered entirely in-game (not a pre-rendered 2D background or asset in sight!), means that the player can only ever see a few metres ahead of them at any given time. This limitation is the explanation for the game’s ever-present fog and darkness and serves as such an unsettling source of atmosphere for the game that the town is synonymous with its fog now. In conjunction, Harry carries a radio with him that has the benefit of crackling softly when an enemy is nearby heightening the eeriness of the fog evermore.
Conversely, the hellscape that Harry is brought to again and again warps the town into a strange and bloody iron fortress that is so grotesque and filled with such disturbing imagery that it is hard to ever wipe the mind of the impacting PS1 graphics. But none of this would work so well if it weren’t for the soundtrack that is most times atmospheric and at the same time avant-garde in its atonality and use of unconventional instrumentation, leaving the player deeply rattled the whole way through. And the times that the game isn’t trying to drive the player insane with its mind-melting dimension swaps and spooky atmospheres, the title is home to some of the most beautiful and melancholic arrangements I’ve ever heard from a video game (Lisa Garland, I’m looking at you).
Good + ending
This game is good. It’s good plus. It’s great. It’s a classic. It has everything going for it, especially its unique use of supernatural and psychological horror that was relatively unseen until its debut in gaming and its visionary new game plus system combined with multiple endings leading to plenty of replayability. But it’s a very serious game. It is dark and grim and rooted in tragedy. Fans of the series know that the game does have a few hidden silly moments, but that was probably my least favourite aspect of the game. It is unrelenting in its depressive tone and the game feels hopeless, and for me at times it lead the game to feel unfun. Overall it was enjoyable and was a fantastic horror experience, and the fact that the game actually made me feel hopeless should be a massive plus but it did make the drive to finish the game difficult. Outside of this and my opinion on the uninspired enemies, this game is perfect and is a must-play for all horror officianados. Four Cthulhus out of five. More to be read here.(4 / 5)