A Town Worth Revisiting
Nine years and five titles later, the Silent Hill franchise is still alive and kicking. Any series on that long a run encounters an odd dichotomy: past success means you’ve got brand power and don’t want to mess too much with a good thing; however, after that much time a satiation of wants inevitably kicks in – after a while even the hardcore fans want significant change or they may start to jump ship. Silent Hill: Origins, a PSP-to-PS2 port, is the first game not developed by Team Silent but rather English developer Climax Studios. Fans of the series need not be worried: from a core gameplay standpoint Climax plays it safe, while still telling an exceptional story.
Every Silent Hill throws you into the role of a new lead character, and for a good reason: each character introduced in the series has their own personal demons and a historical tie to the foggy town. This time around the protagonist’s shoes are filled by trucker Travis Grady, who is drawn to Silent Hill when he nearly misses hitting a girl running across the road. Since Origins is a prequel to the original game released on the PlayStation, you’ll encounter a lot of familiar characters. Instead of these characters coming off as recycled, they’re actually refreshing to see again. All the way from beginning to short end (the game can be completed in a little over five hours) Travis’ tale feels like it perfectly fits into the Silent Hill mythos and does not come off as forced. It’s complimentary to the other entries in the series, but like all the rest, it will probably leave you with more questions about the town than answers.
A staple of the series has always been the two different dimensions – one being an abandoned version of the town, the other a more decayed and demonic world. In previous games, you were thrown between the two on a constant basis, and this led to a sense of unease – you never knew when you might be transported to the more demonic dimension and whether you’d ever get back. Climax, in a turnaround, has changed this dynamic. Mirrors are placed in strategic locations, and whenever Travis touches them he can teleport between the two versions of the world. It puts the player in more control, cutting down on the unpredictable (and scary) nature of the way the mechanic was handled in the past. It can seem gimmicky when you’re basically teleporting between worlds to fetch items and get around locked doors. However, it does come into its own during the theater portion of the game. By setting different props in front of a giant mirror on a stage, Travis can control the form of the demonic dimension. Placing a few tree props in front of the mirror results in a creepy, blood-soaked forest.
Aside from exploring the town, the other portion of your time is spent in combat. This is the element of the series that seems the most stale. You still hold down one button to enter an attack stance and mash another to attack. It feels clunky and not nearly as responsive as one would want it to be. Climax, however, deserves credit for adding two changes: you can now grapple with enemies and use a larger assortment of melee weapons. Grappling is a sporadic affair – occasionally when enemies attack, the camera will zoom in and you’ll be prompted with some button presses. Hit the right one and you evade; press the wrong one and you receive damage. Sure, it’s essentially a quick-time-event, but it’s pulled off well. The melee component is less of a success. The environment provides a lot of impromptu weapon selection – you’ll find jagged pieces of wood, toasters, television sets, file cabinets, and typewriters, to name a few among many. All these can be used to deal out damage. There’s a disadvantage though: each melee weapon is assigned a health value and either wears or breaks rather quickly. It’s an interesting idea, but it seems out of place. And one has to wonder: how the heck does Travis fit all this stuff in his pants?
Since it started out its life on the PSP, Origins won’t win any polygon count awards, but it gains ground in the presentation department. Static filters tear up the screen, reacting dynamically to enemy positions. The closer you get to an enemy the more granular the screen becomes, adding a visual cue to the familiar crackling of the radio you carry at all times. It’s a shame Climax didn’t take the time to implement a fully 3D camera system. The camera angles, while cinematic, can be problematic during enemy encounters and hitting the button to re-center your view isn’t always a success – sometimes it refuses to pull behind Travis. The game has an option to switch the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9 – a nice bonus should you have a widescreen display. Presentation is just as much about sound as it is about graphics, and series composer Akira Yamaoka may be in his finest form. From chilling themes to hypnotic beats and even a few mesmerizing vocal numbers, Yamaoka has done another remarkable job.
Pacing is extremely important in any story driven game – spending too long in one location without any exposition or confusing players about where they need to go next can be death knells for a game. Climax successfully dodges those bullets and provides just the right amount of momentum. Sure, the game is short (and it was meant to be since it started out as a portable affair), but everything seems to unravel at just the right tempo, revealing enough info to turn you in the appropriate direction and enticing you to discover more of Travis’ past. Even the game’s puzzle segments have a story to tell. While the puzzles themselves are clichés of PC adventure games – you’ll be flipping levers, discovering combinations, and doing a lot of point-and-click-esque work – they are all interesting. One puzzle involves a series of sadistic miniature dolls. Discovering memos and investigating areas of a sanatorium reveals that each doll corresponds to a mentally deranged person and their affliction.
Don’t let the game’s length throw you off. After each playthrough you’re awarded “accolades” based on your performance that reveal new costumes. You can also unlock new weapons and extra game options. For the story hungry, there are two more endings that can be earned after your initial playthrough.
Origins is a solid entry in a popular horror franchise, but some mechanics (such as the combat and camera) show that the series is in need of a reboot. However, it’s hard to beat the psychological sense of the fear that Silent Hill creates, and it’s easy to see why the games have a loyal following of fans.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.6 Graphics
Impressive lighting, reflections, and grainy filters lend to the immersion. 3.5 Control
The combat could be better, but otherwise a solid experience. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is still the series’ strong suit, providing some truly chilling moments. 3.7 Play Value
The game is shorter than previous entries in the series, but the bonus content will encourage die-hard fans to revisit Silent Hill. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.