Silent Hill 2

Year: 2001
Platform: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Developer: Konami
Genre: Horror
Rating: ****

James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife saying to meet her in the cozy little town of Silent Hill. Except that his wife died from a horrible disease three years ago... He decides to follow up on the lead to see if it's a hoax, and to pursue the dim hope that she may actually be alive. But Silent Hill isn't such a cozy little resort spot anymore - the town is in ruins, the people have left, and bizarre hellish creatures roam the streets. James eventually meets up with a trashy and well-worn woman named Maria, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. From here on out, the exploration of Silent Hill becomes an increasingly bizarre journey of a man whose connection to reality is slipping through his fingers.

First of all, this game just gave me the creeps. The atmosphere is frightfully creepy and the sound effects are bone-chilling. The entire town of Silent Hill is engulfed in a thick shroud of fog, limiting your field of view to about ten feet. The screen also has a grainy video noise filter applied to it to make things grittier and even harder to make out. Fortunately, after finishing the game once, you can turn the grainy filter off and see things much clearer. Unfortunately, you can't reduce the amount of fog, and it's a constant distraction and irritation. It also unfortunately hides the majority of the beautifully rendered town of Silent Hill, so you can never fully appreciate its splendor. The pre-rendered cut scenes are quite nice, but quickly give way to less attractive engine-driven animations which is a bit of a shame. The English voice talent is adequate, but the characterization seems to be a bit weak. I typically don't enjoy playing games with male protagonists, but James is so pathetic that it's fairly easy to sympathize with him. He's kind of like a character out of a Stephen King novel (and he even sort of looks like him...). Unfortunately, the weakest link seems to be Maria - she's just too creepy to take seriously. She's unattractive and presents herself with an awkward and forceful sense of sinister sexuality - she's obviously just walked off the set of some cheezy B-movie. You immediately don't trust her and just feel uncomfortable around her. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, because it seems like the game wants her to be tempting and desirable. Regardless, she just gave me the creeps.

The story line and plot development is very Japanese in its structure and presentation, even though Silent Hill is an American town populated with English speaking Americans. The town's location remains a mystery, and it could easily be in either the Pacific Northwest or New England. The major theme of the game revolves around guilt and despair, and the town of Silent Hill perfectly reflects that in look and feel. The entire second half of the game is vague and obscure, making you wonder if James is crazy, or just slowly going insane as the game progresses. Things become more confusing, and towards the end of the game reality seems to be completely shattered, along with any attempts to understand what's going on (the climax of "2001: A Space Odyssey" immediately springs to mind - actually, James sort of reminds me of Keir Dullea now that I think about it). The game has five possible endings, depending on what actions you've taken throughout your journey. However, I'm guessing they're all similarly strange and equally depressing. Despite being a mind-blowing head trip, the game is quite enjoyable, although it can be tedious investigating every room of every house on every street in town. A great game for fans of intelligent psychological horror.

Notes On The Xbox Version:
The Xbox version of "Silent Hill 2" is titled "Restless Dreams" and features an extra side story called "Born From A Wish." In this game, Maria is a playable character who starts out with a gun in her hand at the Heaven's Night strip club. She's contemplating what to do with her life, now that the town of Silent Hill is overrun with monsters. She finally takes to the streets and stumbles across a grumpy old man named Ernest who has locked himself inside his house. He speaks in vague sentences that shed some light on the creepy town and the nature of Maria's existence, which makes her comment in the main game of "I'm here for you, James" take on a whole new meaning. While it doesn't come out and say it, the game implies that Maria herself is a monster, born from the abyss of James' dark desires and made real by the supernatural forces at work in the cursed town. She even begins to recall memories of James and Laura, even though she's never met either of them. Maria's adventure is extremely short and can be easily finished in a half hour if you run straight through it. Ammo is plentiful and monsters are scarce, so you'll never have to worry about combat. It's a fun little outing that adds even more depth to an already deep story. The Xbox version also features enhanced graphics, a Japanese language track, an upgraded control scheme, and some alleged "extra secrets." It's a nice upgrade to have if you're looking for the ultimate SH2 experience.