Silent Hill 4: The Room
Short games aren’t inherently bad, and neither are retreads. But I think it’s safe to say that when a game is both a retread and short, there’s definitely something wrong with it. Silent Hill 4 is such a game. It banks so confidently on the player getting sucked into its story that it permits it to preclude even the most base of game design laws, which state simply that repetition hampers one’s enjoyment of a game. It inundates the player with piddling gameplay devices incomprehensible to even the most seasoned door-checking, elevator-riding Silent Hill stiffs. And worst of all, it’s only as original as the sum of its parts — a collection of fleeting bites off of past horror and suspense flicks, which under no circumstances should ever, ever come before wholesome, enjoyable gameplay.
For starters, if you’ve ever seen Rear Window, you have an idea of how things will go. Just replace a broken leg with a chained-up door, voyeurism with reliving the past, one murder with twenty-one murders and there you have the predicament Henry Townsend is in. He’s been having nightmares for days now, and no matter what he does, he can’t seem to leave his apartment (it certainly doesn’t help that there are about twenty chains on his front door). Another thing that troubles him is that even when he seems to be awake, he later finds out he’s dreaming. And then later finds out that he was dreaming that he was dreaming, dreaming that he was dreaming that he was dreaming, etc. The whole thing is only slightly more convoluted than Nightmare on Elm Street.
His daily activities typically involve looking at his female neighbor through a hole in the wall, peeking out his windows, looking through the peep-hole in his door, and invariably crawling through an enormous hole in the wall. Time and time again this leads to the area most Silent Hill followers will call Otherworld. It’s a twisted place that has made its appearance in every SH game up to this point, that tempers reality into a surreal, gory and hellacious distortion. That it shoots for some Greater Significance here may just be one of SH4’s major falling points, though. It’s difficult to explain alternate dimensions, especially when, chronologically, events appear to be skewered in favor of mind-screwing implausibilities.
Worse yet, the game’s second half disappointingly lapses into some corny Friday the 13th antics, with a murderer running around with a chainsaw trying to kill people that should, theoretically, already be dead, and it hurts my head just to think about what the implications of this on the story could be. There’s also a brief tribute to what seems like Se7en early on, except it ties in with the occult instead of traditional scripture. But elaborating more on this story becomes senseless, as while it’s enjoyable if you don’t think too hard, straining yourself to figure it out will make you like it less and less. I don’t think it was ever intended to be solved.
Oh, there’s also some form of game wrapped into this eight to ten hour mind-screw. The major addition to the Silent Hill formula is a sort-of RPG-esque set-up where you travel to and from your apartment by holes in walls. Once there, you temporarily assume a first-person perspective. You can — and will have to — deposit items in the stash to allow room to carry more later on. You can also save your game at the only existing save point here, which I’m surprised doesn’t link in with some ancient cult or have ties to a string of abstract serial murders. But I guess the fact that it exists at all is enigmatic enough without necessitating further distortion. Or maybe I’m just missing the hints behind the frightening chord struck every time it opens. Or maybe it’s really just a dream. Or maybe… [etc.]
Exploring your apartment can be interesting at first, and seeing what there is to see is nice. There will even be a few occasions where you’ll be privy to radio announcements or catch glimpses of interesting goings-on outside your third-story window. Memos also mysteriously appear at your door, which provide interesting reading material but admittedly don’t quite make sense (i.e. even if they’re written by who they say they are, why is he slipping them under the door when he doesn’t have to?) But the load-times going to-and-fro, the constant stashing of items and the need to stand around idly to regain health early on is annoying. Thankfully this is nipped in the bud at the half-way point, when the atmosphere around your apartment gets too oppressive to tolerate — well, without the use of Holy Candles. And even then, it’s an in-and-out thing. No obligatory requirements need to be fulfilled to wait for a phone to ring or to work your way up to the best ending. Just save and get back to fighting.
There’s a lot of it to be done, too, although the enemies aren’t always the most varied. Combat is styled in the same way it’s always been, which is to say marginally awkward but still playable. Camera angles don’t always cooperate, and you’ll often find that your nerves get shot far before the specific enemy you want to hit does. But appreciatively SH4 picks up where SH3 left off by placing an even larger emphasis on melee weapons over gunpowder-based ones. In fact, bullets are extraordinarily scarce here — guns even scarcer (amusingly, just when you think you’re going to get a shotgun, you find out it’s a toy model.) This makes it a good bit easier to manage battles since melee weapons can strike several foes at a time if you line them up right.
Often when you hit them, too, they’ll recoil in a shockingly realistic fashion, possibly plummeting off the edge of a platform if one is nearby. They can also be knocked down flights of stairs with a well-placed blow or bullet, although the proceedings might not be much more flashier than Hitchcock’s Psycho depending on creature type. There’s even a revolver which can knock a creature back six feet in one shot — Silent Hill 4 has definitely one-upped its predecessor in the physics department. This is evident as early as the first time you approach a downed creature and tap (X) to stomp the remaining life out of him. The blow is felt not only by the suffering, breathless monster, but also by the player who can’t help but get a sense of power out of the whole deal (of course, the fact that every monster requires this tactic does lead up to diminishing returns eventually).
They certainly make convincing sounds when they bite the dust, too. Some monsters make a painful heaving sound as, possibly, one of their lungs has just been crushed. Others seem to be gargling a mixture of blood and bile as, potentially, their digestive system has been raised higher than it should be thanks to a steel pipe to the mid-section. Still more make noises, when living, that are of greater disconcert than their dead brethren. If only the whole cast had been casted as well as these monsters, huh! Sadly, Henry has all the emotion of a log, and even if you take his alibi into account — shy, introspective teenager — you’d think seeing rotting corpses and horrors beyond his wildest imagination would elicit more than quiet, deadpan “what the hells?”. I’m not sure what’s worse: that the main character has the worst voice acting in the game, or that the supporting characters who always die have the best. I guess it’s all a big mess. It kind of makes me long for the Japanese subtitles.
Thankfully, music isn’t so overlooked. The female singer from Silent Hill 3 is back and does both the title track, ‘Room of Angel’ and some emotional in-game tracks. The main menu theme, ‘The Last Mariachi’, is also an interesting piece of music, as it mimics traditional Mexican music of the same type, but with a syncopated, atonal acoustic guitar line playing over a dark, underlying synth chord, instead of the conventional standard. It fits perfectly when played in view of that horrifying, chained-up door. Plus it’s structured a lot like the original Silent Hill‘s theme song, which provides a continuing motif for the game’s many horrors. Actually, most of the tracks supersede the composer’s earlier works, and there’s plenty of good music to accentuate the cutscenes with, and not just the usual batch of weird noises and never-ending ambient pads. You could say music is one of Silent Hill 4‘s crowning achievements.
Conversely, you could say gameplay isn’t. One of Konami’s greatest follies is incorporating ghosts into the game. Ghosts which, for the most part, can’t be killed. Obstacles that you merely have to run around, but that have the potential to trap you in corners and suck your health away in sizable chunks, with little to no room for recourse (“you can knock ’em down, but they jus’ get back up!”) Later on you can get amulets that allow you temporary invulnerability, but the question still remains: why? In the scheme of things, ghosts don’t even make sense (i.e. why are we seeing multiple ghosts of one person, and why ghosts of people who, from a chronological standpoint, shouldn’t even be dead yet?) . And they’re certainly not fun. The series made a big mistake by going this route.
Another little nuisance is how, although the game is now less door-and-elevator-oriented, there’s an extreme emphasis on sight puzzles in the game. You don’t have to be smart to solve things; you have to be able to pick out tiny little dots in the background which turn out to be keys. What cleverness was once integral to Silent Hill‘s puzzles — think the painting of fire in SH3, or the many final puzzles of SH2 — is now all but gone. This doesn’t even make sense to me, except on the grounds that, since the second half of the game is glorified repetition, there was little room to slip non-item-based puzzles in. But of course there are still the keypad puzzles which force you to backtrack in order to scribble down some arbitrary numbers. It wouldn’t be Silent Hill without those.
Admittedly, SH4 does have its moments, but they’re few and far between. One of the biggest surprises for me was how much more graphic it is. As usual there’s still the unexplained blood stains on nearly every wall in the game, but some of the death scenes, especially, show an inordinate amount of gore. Now, it might not be a prudent comparison, but this really does hark back to the evolution of horror movies. How they went from pictures that would use freaky plot devices and suspense to scare you, to the boom in the 80’s of your Friday the 13ths, Nightmare on Elm Streets and Halloweens. A transition many say was entirely downhill — not so much an evolution but a devolution.
There are times when it comes in handy, though. Especially when Henry acquires a female companion later on. If he accidentally leaves her behind, he’ll return to find her mangled and bloodied, to an extent that depends on how long he was gone — and eventually she’ll die. This has much more of an emotional impact than, say, hearing some chick from an earlier game tell you how scared she is, when you know good and well that she’s invulnerable. But, to me, the addition of unscrupulous gore is less a detractor from the game than it is a sign of what’s become of the series. An accurate analogy would be comparing Silent Hill 2’s adjustable difficulty to this game’s:
In the former, adjusting the difficulty meant either easier or harder puzzles. It meant more or less clues.
In this game – in Silent Hill 4 – the difficulty meter affects one thing, and one thing only.
How many hits a monster can take.