Let me take you back in time, to a time before Konami were complete shitlords.
I first played Silent Hill 2 about a year after its release, I didn’t complete it until about 2005 because it used to scare the everloving piss out of me. It was a game I enjoyed at the time but never really appreciated until I saw a series on Youtube called The Real Silent Hill Experience that delved into some of the major themes of the entire franchise. After watching the whole thing, I knew I had to go and replay the series again, or at least just the first three.
Silent Hill 2 is a classic, old-school survival horror, complete with tank controls, puzzles and fixed camera angles, though its much less reliant on them than the early Resident Evil games, the camera tends to hover a distance away from the player, only changing to a fixed angle to enhance the mood and atmosphere of specific scenarios. You’ll collect keys, health items and ammo. You’ll batter monsters to death and solve arcane puzzles, all this however masks the true genius of the game.
You play as James Sunderland, a man who’s come to Silent Hill in search of his wife after receiving a letter from her despite her having passed away from an unspecified terminal illness three years prior to the start of the game. The premise is remarkably simple compared to Silent Hill 1’s story, which involved an abused young girl using her psychic powers to tear her own soul in half to thwart the world ending machinations of an evil cult.
The first thing you’ll notice about Silent Hill 2 is an incredible level of detail, the environments drip with atmosphere so thick you could chew it. The truck stop bathroom James starts the game in (pictured above) is littered with debris, the walls covered with unidentifiable stains. This theme continues through much of the game, with the series trademark transitions to the ‘Otherworld’ this time opting more for decay and disgust over the blood and barbwire of the first game. James character model is pretty detailed too, especially for an early Playstation 2 title, his movements are fluid thanks to the decision to use motion capture for the majority of his animations and his face is incredibly expressive thanks to Takayoshi Sato’s choice to animate all the character facial movements by hand rather than rely upon facial capture. In looks, this game still holds up really well despite fifteen years of graphical advancements.
The sound design too deserves special mention, Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is superb and the sound effects for the towns twisted inhabitants and decaying interiors help draw you into the world and ramp up the tension and atmosphere. The voice acting in my opinion is superb, though when I initially heard it some 14 years ago I didn’t think much of it. I understand now that the slightly strange and off-kilter way the characters talk adds more to the feeling of unease and dread that Team Silent intended with this game. Its a shame that Konami attempted to change this with the HD collection version and recast the whole voice team. While Troy Baker does a decent job as James, he just doesn’t compare to the charm of Guy Cihi’s original. The true standout voice in the game however has to be Monica Taylor Horgan, who truly brings the characters of Mary and her doppelganger Maria, who James encounters a short time into the game, to life. I dare anyone to listen to her monologue begging James to return near the end of the game and not feel it pull at your heartstrings even a little bit.
Topping this off are the fantastic creature designs of Masahiro Ito, his work on this game gave us the now iconic, if somewhat overused, Nurses and Pyramid Head. Mixing the themes of sex, sickness and death in varying degrees for all of the creature designs helped to create some of the most unique and recognisable creatures in all of gaming. These range from the Lying Figure, a piteous looking creature that twitches like someone trying to escape a straightjacket while spitting acid at the player, to the afore mentioned nurses to the Mannequin, a creature made up of shapely female legs.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m now going to pretty much spoil the themes and plot of Silent Hill 2, if you’re fine with that then go on ahead.
On his journey James meets only four other characters. Angela, a strange young woman who claims to be searching Silent Hill for her mother, Eddie, an overweight young who you meet under suspicious circumstances, Laura, an eight year old orphan wandering Silent Hill who claims to have known James’ late wife Mary and Maria, a seductive woman who bears an incredible resemblance to Mary.
On his journey, James passes through the Blue Creek Apartments, Brookhaven Hospital, The Silent Hill Historical Society, where James ends up being forced to kill Eddie as the former believes the latter to be mocking him, before reaching the place he was told to reach in Mary’s letter, the Lakeview Hotel. This is where everything is revealed, Mary hasn’t been dead for three years, in fact its hinted that she died just before James set out to Silent Hill, and it was James who killed her because he couldn’t stand to see her suffer through her terminal illness, fleeing to Silent Hill in his grief at what he’d just done while blocking out the memory.
This is where you realise that the themes and symbolism in the game have been telling you this throughout the whole game. The lying figures acid breath, perhaps the symbolising the harsh words that Mary would at times spit at James, its twitching when you knock it to the floor, possibly the struggling of somebody being suffocated. The Bubblehead Nurses with their smooth featureless heads, representing the countless faceless medical staff that James would pass by day in and day out. The Mannequin with its form made of shapely female legs, possibly James’ frustration at being unable to sleep with his wife.
Some of the themes covered are truly dark and disturbing when it comes to Angela, the young woman James meets right near the beginning of the game. After a second meeting in the Blue Creek Apartments in which she appears to be contemplating suicide, James meets her for a final time in the Lakeview Hotel where she is being cornered by a monster called the Abstract Daddy, which appears almost like two people engaged in sex on top of a bed. This is a moment that could have been embarrassing if it hadn’t been pulled off so masterfully. Everything from the monsters design, to the room in which you fight it point to the fact that Angela has been a victim of sexual abuse from a young age at the hands of her father, who is implied to have been killed by Angela before she fled to Silent Hill. If this moment had been handled with less subtlety and respect for how upsetting the subject matter could be to some people, Silent Hill 2 could have easily ended up swept under the rug as something gamers would be ashamed of admitting they’d played.
In summary, Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece of survival horror and is definitely a high water mark for the genre. I’ve been playing the Director’s Cut edition for Playstation 2, though you could also get it for Xbox and PC. There is the HD Collection for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 but I wouldn’t recommend it even if you’re desparate to play it, the fact that they had to release a day one patch for a game that’s over 10 years old should tell you all you need to know about that version.
Some people may find the tank controls and intentionally clunky combat a bit of a turn off, but if you’re a fan of old school survival horror then I urge you to get hold of it, even if you have to use a PS2 emulator because this game is one of those rare games that’s perfect the way it is.
Its just a shame we’ll likely never see another truly great Silent Hill title.