Silent Hill 4: The Room
The saddest thing in video games occurs when a game seems to set out to interest only a small, specific niche of gamers–and then proceeds to fail even those people. Silent Hill 4: The Room is that game, and I am one of those people.
Indeed, I considered myself a devout SH follower, hoping against all hope that the brilliance found in the first game (the only one to be released on the now outdated PSX) would return full force to manifest in this newest incarnation. I wished for the sort of resurrection we often witnessed in the 8-bit days of old, when third and fourth games in franchises managed to set sinking ships right (Castlevania III!), and recapture old glory proper.
Not only is SH4 unable to appease the faithful, it does much to disgust us completely. To casual gamers, and even survival horror fans, I offer this early advice: don’t even think about it. If you’ve always wanted to know what the fuss was about concerning this sleepy resort town of Silent Hill, with its decaying, blood-stained populace of hurtful wraiths and broken people–it’s not this. Pick up the original game (unless you’re a graphics whore) and experience the dreadful haunting that no title–including its own sequels–has been unable to match to this point.
And to the hardcore. I have only sympathy to offer you, because as a gaming experience, SH4 is utterly repulsive.
To be fair, the expected staples are here to assure us that this is Silent Hill we’re playing, and not Resident Evil. KCET’s offerings have never been about zombies crashing through windows to startle the player. They’ve never been about cool cops assembling a powerful collection of firearms to unleash leaden fury on those same walking (and oddly groaning) undead. Rather, Konami’s series has always been about a wishy-washy protagonist (outside of Heather from SH3, who was excellent) plopped down in an inexplicable predicament from which rattling door knobs on broken doors and entering numbers on locked ones was the only path to solace, if not resolution.
Silent Hill has been deserted for as long as we can remember, save for the melancholy dreamworld fulfillments of what could have been, and unspeakable blood-red distortions of what was instead. Disconcerting camera angles, vague hints at Satanism, old orange blood on school walls, and nightmarish otherworlds where unspeakable demons roam–the SH blueprint rarely startles. Instead, it makes us feel both sick and exhilarated at witnessing our paper-thin character’s descent into the excitement of untold shadows. In SH4, the blueprint is intact. Though as the saying goes, the notes are all there, but someone has misplaced the score.
In this installment we find Henry Townshend, a deadpan young man (that’s us, hurray), rendered in incredible detail that he most assuredly does not deserve, locked inside his apartment. Despite his maddening lot, we find ourselves ‘outside’ for the majority of the time, via portals (read: holes in Henry’s walls). In fact, for all intents and purposes, the apartment only serves to function as a home base we must check in at, to save our progress and dump unwanted items and pick up essentials before moving on again to whatever variation of the Silent Hill otherworld the portal will take us to next.
When I learned of the “first person perspective” addition to the game engine, an SH first, I did not know that it would be limited to Henry walking about his the apartment using an eye cursor to effect point-and-click observations. It’s novel at first to be playing voyeur, staring beyond his dirty bedroom windows out at the street where school buses pass and joggers turn the corner; peeking through a hole in the wall at his sexy (of course) female neighbour; into his front door peephole at the goings-on in the corridor.
And then it gets old very quickly.
Soon, the loading time during all your apartment-to-portal-and-back-again travelling–which is thankfully faster in the Xbox version than it is for the PS2–will nearly destroy the game experience in and of itself. The simplest tasks–often involving finding items, packing them away, then realizing where they may be applied outside and equipping them again–seem to take ages to complete. But if the loading doesn’t kill SH4 for us, we needn’t worry: there are plenty more crippling flaws to choose from.
The aforementioned item-juggling, as well as the expected door code fussing, account for most of the game’s cerebral stimulation. Yup, that’s pretty much it for puzzles. I recall with some fondness even the first puzzle from the first game, involving cryptic clues leading you into the devil’s maw for an appointment with evil. There’s nothing compelling and thought-provoking like that here. Instead we are treated to preposterous sequences that ask us to spin rooms with steering wheels to align bloody beds–and most ridiculous of all, is the fact that cack-handed attempts to explain the whys of all this are made. Ridiculous is the only word for it: never before has the series been so demystified as here, and the results are predictably lame.
It didn’t start here: the plot in SH3 was similarly clunky, removing much of the critical blurriness around what was happening. If SH1 was nebulous, cryptic–SH 3 was blatant, insulting. And The Room picks up right where its forerunner left off, furnishing the cardboard Henry character with a glut of notes and diary entries that try to make all the connections for us if we bother to wrap our heads around them–and even then, it seems as though the connections are either implausible or don’t connect at all. I’ll take nebulous any day–sketching unimaginable evil into the darkness is how the ‘weird horror’ sub-genre works. Trying to make sense of it all in the mundane light of day is how things start to fall apart, and how gamers start to laugh, embarrassed at their own involvement in the proceedings.
Continuing to take pages from the SH3 book of ‘what didn’t work’, The Room’s experience is simply too relentlessly oppressive and bloody and dark. To properly engage us, things should go from good to bad, or at least from bad to worse. But SH4 is bloody from beginning to end and as such, real scares are far and few between. The horrific parts have none of the fury of less horrific parts in previous games, because we play through them numb; disturbed only that we are indifferent when we should be appalled.
With the horror premise stripped away and rendered ineffective–as it is here–any SH game would feel lacking, because as pure action games they are an awkward bunch. SH4 exacerbates this fact not only with the new tedium of check-ins for items and saving, but with the introduction of a new kind of enemy: the ghosts. Imagine zombies crouched over, floating in the air, and you get the idea. But what you wouldn’t have guessed, is that the ghosts cannot be killed by your weapons! Put one down, only to have him get back up time and time again. A special item is needed to keep one down once he’s been dropped, and the item is not found in abundance. When the horror isn’t horrible, and the gameplay is, you’ll ask yourself what reason there is to keep playing.
It’s unfortunate really. Because Silent Hill 4 is nothing if not atmospheric. The subway is grimy and sick with infestation, the dying forest is darkly alive, the dank prison walls hold monsters as well as unspeakable secrets, the apartments are unclean with skeletons rattling perversely in each and every closet. Once again, the score offers unsettling ambient noise, and some decent tunes (though nothing to match those found in SH3). There’s a new, clean heads-up display of your inventory that doesn’t obscure the action at all, and it doesn’t hold much–which adds to the realism. Further, the graphics are more photo-realistic than ever, providing us with some truly scary monsters, such as the twin baby heads (shudder). Even the always-awkward melee battling is easier to get into due to better camera control and an added ‘charge’ attack.
But the polished presentation and cool new ingredients are all for nought in a game that’s oppressively un-fun to play. Indeed, I had to force myself through it, and when I replaced it with a game I had lying around (anything would have done, really), I remembered that games could also be fresh, light, and enjoyable.
So maybe the failed ‘niche game’ effort isn’t quite the saddest thing in gaming–worse still, is the game that threatens to sour the taste of the entire franchise for the people who have loved it. And Silent Hill 4: The Room is that game. And I am of one of those people.