Replay Value: 8.2
I've always enjoyed Capcom's Resident Evil games. The experience of playing them is very similar to watching an over-the-top horror movie - potentially some great fun, but it won't leave a lasting impression on you. However, back in 1999, Konami released a game for those of us who prefer the kind of grueling psychological horror found in classic movies such as The Shining. This game, Silent Hill, quickly managed to build up a moderately sized fan base even though it somewhat had the feeling of an unfinished product in certain areas. Two years later, Konami followed it up with the exceptional Silent Hill 2. It was different in style from the first one, in that it aspired for an even more subtle approach to horror, creating environments filled with gloom and melancholy rather than the crimson visions found in the original. Some fans were a bit put off by this, as well as the plot, which was more of a side story than an expansion of the first Silent Hill. It seems Konami has made Silent Hill 3 for that group, because it now makes a return to the roots of the series in more than one way. With a louder, more blaring horror, Konami throws everything they've got at us, and has opened up the gates of hell while they were at it.
The game opens up rather abruptly. Heather, our heroine arrives at the Lakeside Amusement Park. Already, diehard fans of the first SH will probably be frothing at their mouths for obvious reasons. Heather slowly makes her way through the rusty hell, fighting off some decidedly scary monsters with her pocketknife. She stumbles onto a rollercoaster track, only to get hit by a speeding ' coaster car emerging of the darkness. Heather falls to what seems to be a certain death, but within a blink of an eye, we suddenly find ourselves in a café somewhere. Apparently, the events in the amusement park were simply a Bobby Ewing-esque moment of gigantic proportions. Heather walks out of the café, into the hallways of the mall she's at, makes a short telephone call for her dad. Out of the shadows, a suspicious-looking man introduces himself as Douglas Cartland, explaining that he needs to talk to Heather about something concerning her birth. Heather, being a bit creeped out by him, decides to make a quick sortie via the women’s toilets. In there, she comes upon a mysterious symbol (which also doubles as a save spot) that makes her head hurt. She has a vague memory of seeing it before. During the game, Heather encounters more of these symbols, and more clues to her mysterious past. After escaping through a toilet window, she meets a yet another mysterious individual in the now empty mall - a woman named Claudia, who also seems to know some things about Heather that she herself has no idea of. After regaining her composure from the chat with Claudia, Heather discovers that in typical Silent Hill fashion, the entire mall is now overrun with monsters.
Disposing of these freakish apparitions has always been somewhat of a chore, because of the sluggish controls found in the series. According to the developers, Team Silent, the controls are meant to be a little unresponsive in order to instill a sense of helplessness into the player. I'll be the first to admit that it works - it's really an unnerving experience to be assaulted by hideous creatures while you struggle to come to grips with the shaky controls and the floaty camera. However, that doesn't mean that it's necessary a good approach to clever game design. Of course, I can live with some touch of realism to the controls, like that Heather isn't an expert shooter and therefore won't simply hit with all the bullets when she fires a gun. Nevertheless, the gameplay still needs some fine-tuning, and Team Silent could really benefit from bringing something new into the overall game concept as well. As it is, the series hasn't really evolved at all in that aspect. The entire game still consists of the same room-based gameplay as found in the Resident Evil series; in typical survival horror fashion the game is all about eliminating or avoiding the enemies, running around searching for keys and other objects that'll unlock doors, or solving illogical puzzles hindering your progress. Even though the latter aren't still very complicated on Easy or Normal difficulties, the often-disturbing way in which they're implemented into the game makes them an actual contribution to the atmosphere, rather than being mere obstruction puzzles. I still don't see any excuse to why the camera is as dodgy as it is though, and if Team Silent could only dedicate a fraction of the talent they use to compose beautiful cinematic angles to making a more intelligent camera, I'd be immensely happy.
The audiovisual side is thankfully infinitely more refined than the gameplay. Right back during the opening scene in the café, Team Silent establishes the mood of the game. The image is soaked in a red tint, hinting at the bloody things to come. The ingenious grain filter that made its debut in Silent Hill 2 is less noticeable now, and you can also forget about the blue/green color tones of misery being present in SH3. Instead, the design is all about the industrial, nightmarish visions of part 1. That means you can expect a lot of rusty fences and bodies hanging on the walls. The overall quality of the graphics have been bumped up a notch, especially in the cutscenes, which are now more involving than ever thanks to the extremely well done and believable character models. The facial close-ups are downright amazing; with rich textural detail that you never thought would be possible on the PS2. To top it all off, there is the atmospheric effect that Team Silent has dubbed "Evil Effects". I won't spoil anything about these, but trust me when I say you'll be both disturbed and amazed at the same time.
Akira Yamaoka, the man behind the previous titles' soundtracks, has once again displayed his talents in masterful composing. In a daring manner, he mixes bizarre industrial clanks and noises with traditional rock tunes. It's not exactly your conventional game soundtrack, but it's brilliant and damn near perfect. The huge number of sound effects is especially worthy of mention, thanks to their ability to constantly keep you on your toes.
Being a huge fan of SH2 myself, I was always a bit worried about the approach Team Silent seemed to take Silent Hill 3 in. After playing through the full game, I can only certify to some of my concerns, as well as breath a sign of relief that the game has still got a lot of depth to it. After SH2, the story in this doesn't feel nearly as crafty and bold. By going back to the roots of SH1, Team Silent also managed to alienate those who aren't nearly as excited by plots dealing with religious cults and mysterious identities. The pacing of the game is also done in a strangely haphazard manner. After making it through the mall, you're basically on a strictly linear route with absolutely no story events for a good while. Despite all of this, Silent Hill 3 remains a fantastic experience for both newcomers to the series as well as longtime fans. And while the game still struggles with the archaic Resident Evil-styled gameplay, in the end it doesn't really matter. To be honest, even though it may sound strange, the main reason you play games like SH isn't for the gameplay itself. In actuality, it's to gawk at the gorgeous enemy and environmental designs and to be scared witless.