Silent Hill: Origins

Year: 2008
Alternate Title: Silent Hill Zero (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2, PSP
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Climax
Genre: Horror
Review Date: 6/1/08
Rating: ***

After the thematic detour of "Silent Hill 4," the series returns to its roots, exploring the events that occurred right before the original game. Travis Grady is a trucker with a troubled past who just happens to be passing through Silent Hill when a child appears on the road before him. He stops his truck and follows the girl into town to make sure she's not hurt, only to find her trapped in a burning house. Rescuing her maimed body from the inferno, he passes out and later finds himself wandering the deserted streets of the messed up little town that we know and love. His primary concern is finding out if the young girl is okay, but no one seems to know anything about it. His journey through town stirs up repressed childhood memories which start to manifest themselves as horrific creatures, and he soon finds that he can move between the Mist World and the Other World through the aid of mirrors.

Since the game was originally developed for the PSP, the presentation doesn't quite live up to the standards of the previous PS2 games. It still looks pretty good, though, and after playing through the game once you can disable the annoying noise filter. The music is fantastic, and quite possibly the best in the series. However, the cues are kind of strange and rely on the player moving at a certain pace in order to have full impact. The tracks don't dynamically loop, which is unusual these days, so the music either cuts to silence or restarts from the beginning. "Origins" is the first game in the series to be developed by an American team, and it suffers most notably from the lack of Japanese weirdness that pervades the previous titles. One of the more charming aspects of Silent Hill has been the skewed Japanese perspective and presentation of an American locale. Travis is also not your typical Silent Hill visitor - he's just an innocent (or possibly not) bystander passing through town who unfortunately gets caught up in the Cult's doings. He's also the only protagonist who has the ability to shift between worlds of his own will, rather than having the darkness have control over him. The level design is very good for the most part, and seems especially rigid in keeping Travis on the right path. There aren't a lot of detours or dead-ends to explore, and the clues and key items are straight forward and easy to find.

Another downside to having an American developer is that the combat is a lot harder than previous games and there's no "easy" option. The outside monsters re-spawn infinitely, so there's no chance to explore the streets of Silent Hill as much as you'd like. The preferred method of dealing with monsters has always been avoidance, but that becomes overly difficult in "Origins" because many of the monsters move faster than you do. This is compounded by the fact that Travis runs out of breath quickly, making him slow down and become easy prey. The infinite inventory is appreciated, and one must marvel at Travis's ability to carry a TV, filing cabinet, typewriter, sledgehammer, and various firearms all at the same time. Unfortunately, each weapon has a limited lifetime and you're pretty much better off just using your fists. By the time I'd finished the first level, all of my weapons and health items were gone, and the increased difficulty forced me to resort to cheating for the rest of the game. This is rather disappointing and unfortunate, but it allowed me to fully immerse myself into the story rather than constantly fret over the combat. And it's the story where the "Silent Hill" games really shine.

The story in "Origins" is pretty straight forward and relies on pre-established history quite a bit, which is ironic since it's a prequel. There's lot of stuff for "Silent Hill" junkies to chew on, and it seems to even weave some elements of the movie into its presentation. Dahlia Gillespie and Doctor Kaufman make guest appearances, along with SH1's Lisa Gardner. Unfortunately, she's not the cute and bubbly nurse from the first game, but rather a trashy coke-head with a forced sexuality to her. She's a lot like "Silent Hill 2's" Maria in that she's awkwardly presented as an object of desire for Travis, which may represent his difficulties and issues with women. Is she really human, or just another psychological construct of the town?

*** WARNING! Spoilers ahead! ***

We eventually learn that Travis's mother thought he was a "devil child" and attempted to kill him at a young age. She too could see the other world through mirrors, and was locked away at the Silent Hill sanitarium. Grief stricken and broken hearted, his father committed suicide shortly thereafter, leaving Travis all alone. Much like SH2's terrifying Pyramid Head, a nasty character known as The Butcher shows up as a representation of Travis's dark and violent side. Like the other SH games, the connection is ambiguous and forces the player to draw their own conclusions. Did Travis's childhood trauma create a split personality, and did that darker self become a vicious serial killer? Or does The Butcher merely represent Travis's feelings of guilt and hatred towards his parents? He ultimately overcomes his demon (perhaps) and rescues Alessa from the hands of the Cult of Samael. Or does he? Having come to grips with his past, Travis manages to leave Silent Hill (which is unusual), while Alessa's split soul is discovered and adopted by the series' original protagonist, Harry Mason.

Apart from the unfortunate difficulty, "Silent Hill: Origins" is an interesting and enjoyable game. It lacks the punch, weirdness, and disturbing violence of the previous titles, but manages to stand fairly well on its own. It offers some replay value in the form of accolades, extra costumes and weapons, and multiple endings, but that's not enough motivation for me to go through the game again. It's definitely a return to form, but it suffers from being too familiar. The series really needs some re-thinking to keep it fresh and relevant, and it will be interesting to see how "Silent Hill 5: Homecoming" fares.