Silent Hill 2 is generally accepted as the real watershed moment for the series. While the original was more about the town and Harry’s adopted daughter’s connection to it, the sequel was where the town itself became a mirror for the protagonist’s sins. James Sunderland’s spiraling journey through his own trauma and guilt, likely inspired by cult classic Jacob’s Ladder, would become the template that all future games in the series would follow. Well, almost all. Silent Hill 4 was given some guff on release for having little to do with the town or what became the series’ established themes, but it ends up being an interesting change of pace and a unique direction for this one game.
You play as everyday twenty-something Henry Townshend. Henry doesn’t even live in Silent Hill, instead bunking down in a one bedroom apartment in neighboring Ashville. For no apparent reason at all, Henry wakes up one day to find himself trapped in his own apartment by heavy chains blocking the door from the inside. The windows won’t open. Electronics like the TV and phone seem to work only when they want to. No one can hear him scream, pound, or try to get anyone’s attention. When he sleeps, he has nightmares. You begin the game within one, watching as the apartment morphs into something unfamiliar and sinister. When you wake, you learn it’s been like this for three days with no end in sight.
After some initial exploration of your two room apartment, you find a hole has appeared in the bathroom wall. Having nothing else to lose, you crawl through and are introduced to the game proper. The hole transports you to linear locations in what seem like nearby parts of town. You meet people, but also fight deformed monsters. Areas that seem real enough soon have rusted, exposed metal, architecturally impossible hallways or staircases, or inexplicable cages and corpses strewn about or just out of sight. And when you return to your apartment, the ability to look outside your windows or listen to the radio suggest that at least some part of what you experienced actually did happen.
This notion of two worlds holds through the rest of the game. Instead of save rooms, you’ll find tunnels back to your apartment. Your life refills back at base, and it’s the only place where you can use a notebook to save your game. The apartment also changes as the game progresses, uncovering notes behind the furniture, items that weren’t there before, and later sinister visual shifts. You never control where the hole will take you, you’re just along for the ride. However, it will reliably return you from the apartment to the place you entered, which becomes the basis of a few puzzles.
Outside your apartment, you’re controlling Henry in traditional third person. Control over the camera is limited to nudges in particular directions, but in general, it does what it wants. This leads to a few intentionally disorienting angles, erratic placement, and shots that defy the expected over the shoulder default. You know, Silent Hill. Within the apartment, you’re restricted to a first person view. There are various psychological reasons suggested for why this is – the closeness making the apartment feel more intimate, for one – but in practical terms, it allows for the fine examination the apartment sections call for. Much of your time here is spent checking out hidden pages, walls or objects, or things inside that have changed.
Plenty of virtual ink has already been spent on dissecting Silent Hill 4’s relation to the series as a whole, and if it even deserves to be considered part of that series (it does), so I won’t dive into much here. It is worth noting that this is the last game under Japanese Team Silent, before the series would be handed to various Western developers all generally looking to recreate the success and themes of Silent Hill 2. For me, this game represents what could have been – a vision of Silent Hill as an anthology series not anchored to one town and its Lovecraftian cult. In a way, seeing the effect that the town has on the world at large is kind of fascinating, as is the idea of watching the (figurative) monsters it creates go out and sow chaos beyond its borders.
In terms of practical gameplay, however, Henry’s mostly caught up in the tide of someone else’s story. You’ll learn about a supernatural serial killer with ties to the area. You’ll peek briefly into the dysfunctional lives of other tenants in the building, as well as uncover clues that what’s happening to you has happened before. You’ll find more about Silent Hill’s kooky cult and some extremely uncool activities of theirs. Just don’t expect much out of Henry as a character. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that no dark past is waiting to be uncovered, no sins get turned on the sinner, and much like Harry before him, he really is just a guy who’s been leased the most wrong apartment.
Apparently lack of series connections weren’t the only complaint, though. The game, rather infamously, turns the rules it establishes in the first half on its head in the second. Your apartment no longer recharges your health, while spirits trying to break in from the outside begin to make areas of the apartment lethal. Travelling through the holes, well, now you’ve got a friend on the other side in what becomes an extended escort mission with direct consequences on the ending. Let your vulnerable charge take too much damage, and you’re served up the poopy ending.
The game also introduces ghosts as enemies that can only be put down if you find extremely limited items. Otherwise, they’ll get back up and continue floating around, damaging you by grabbing your heart (ouch!) or slowly draining your health through some kind of close range psychic danger aura. (Close Range Psychic Danger Aura is Henry’s emo Brit-pop band). True to the series, killing enemies gets you absolutely nothing. There’s no loot, no XP, it’s just a drain on your resources and you’re best served by running away. That is, until you get your wounded buddy. Now you’re probably better off clearing the way for them to limp after you in relative safety. You can reasonably lure creatures into one on one battles, at least in normal difficulty, but you can never stop those damned ghosts. At best, you can take hits as a poor distraction and receive some solace that they didn’t land on your (nearly) un-healable partner.
It’s a tonal shift that’s right for the story, but admittedly not much fun. This is hard to rag on, because it’s pretty much the point. The game is out to feel depressing and draining, while juggling a limited inventory of precious health kits and anti-spirit items is meant to feel overwhelming and hopeless. The bleed into making you, the player, also feel drained and hopeless is absolutely what you’re signing on for. Your partner is a burden, and that’s exactly what their character is trying hard not to be. Henry’s apartment is meant to be the only place you feel safe, and having that violated is meant to be distressing. You can even argue that the frequent runs back to your room mirror the stress of an anti-social person venturing outside, but zipping back to the room as soon as they can so that they can (them figuratively, you literally) recharge.
I will say that it’s easy to get caught up in trying to game the system and understand the gameplay ramifications of its various unexplained systems. I would encourage a first time player to leave all that for later replays. It’s okay to not understand what’s going on, or what an item does, and there’s value to letting your first time through play out however it does. Take the ending you get, and decide after if you want to try again for something better.
In terms of design and atmosphere, Silent Hill 4 is top class, as is expected for the series. I don’t think there’s a team that does “dream-like” quite as well as this one, and the transition out of reality through the slow drip of misplaced objects continues to be brilliantly effective. Monsters are misshapen and confusing. Somewhat low resolution textures combined with disconnected animal sounds – dog creatures yell like cheetahs when they die, birds sound like insects – mean you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing. Meanwhile, the environment feels disconnected and further unreal. Rusty cages have hooks and chains that pull the metal floors they’re attached to like tented skin. Apartments have the walls stripped away, revealing that each room within is separate cage suspended by chains over a bottomless, foggy pit. It’s still thematic in its own way, and highly effective at being creepy.
Maybe the only missed point in is the characters. Henry is perhaps a bit too blank. There’s suggestions of sexual attraction towards his neighbor Eileen, but at best, that’s politely left “up to interpretation.” At worst, Henry’s a dolt who barely reacts to the horrors around him and doesn’t pick up on obvious clues. Part of this could be through the stilted dialogue that’s practically a series staple. I’m not sure if there’s nuance that’s being lost in the translation from Japanese, but none of these characters feel particularly warm or real. I think it’s telling that a lot of the really deep-dive analyses of the themes and subtext tend to fill in characterization based on the situation, rather than anything directly said or presented.
The PC release benefits from a sharper resolution over its console contemporaries. I think the film grain effect works better here, thanks in part to that resolution boost. Animations are still a bit stiff and character faces seem off (especially with self-shadowing), but it’s the best the game has looked overall. Lighting and shadow seem to be particularly effective. Controls are limited without a gamepad, but you’re mostly losing out on right stick camera control that is highly restricted anyway. Switching between first and third person control schemes is seamless, and the entire game is easily played with a keyboard and mouse. About the only annoying bit is remembering what all the extra keys and shortcuts are, but everything can be remapped to your liking.
I like Silent Hill 4. Arguing favorites seems a bit pointless when, at this point in the series at least, every one of them is at least 4-star material. It’s a fantastic series with a well of underlying messages you can swim through if you’re into that sort of thing, and an unsettling, claustrophobic, spooky good time if you just want to stick to the surface level. Combat is ropey, but you’re not supposed to be relying on it. Limited health kits and a long escort quest with a somewhat unhealable partner really only get annoying on higher difficulties and tries for particular endings. Definitely worth checking out if you’re trapped in your home and want to see how the situation could actually get any worse.
Another true Silent Hill game, even if it doesn’t take place there. Flipping between worlds and perspectives is a neat idea and handled well. Top marks as always for mood, atmosphere, and doing psychological horror without cheap jump scares. Really made to feel as if you are trapped in the apartment, confused, and would do anything for help.
The game has four major areas and has you travel through them twice – a weak way to pad out the length. The explained plot is a bit out there, and I definitely had more fun with the speculation leading up than the actual reveal. Escort mission makes up the last half of the game, but is generally forgiving at Normal difficulty.
It’s been a while since I’ve been here to Silent Hill. Maybe I’ll meet the Devil this time. — Walter’s note