In late March, Konami released its much-anticipated Silent Hill HD Collection for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, including high-definition remasters of both Silent Hill 2, and Silent Hill 3. Both feature updated graphics and entirely new vocal casts.
It’s been over ten years since Silent Hill 2 made its chilling debut on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, quickly becoming one of the most beloved installments in the series. Combining tense and disturbing settings with a tight, emotion-driven plot, Silent Hill 2 set a new standard for the franchise; cementing the series as a survival-horror staple. The game received significant praise for its overwhelmingly unsettling atmosphere, backed by a genuinely heartfelt story.
Protagonist James Sunderland has received a letter from his wife, asking that they meet in their “special place”; a lakeside park visited together years ago in the quaint resort town of Silent Hill. Mary tells James she’s waiting for him there, after reminding him of an unmet promise that they would return together one day.
Seems like an innocuous enough premise, except for the one major catch…
Mary is dead.
Baffled, skeptical, and desperate, James has chosen to obey this inexplicable request, returning to the tourist retreat in the hopes that his wife may miraculously be there. He immediately discovers how drastically things have changed; the once-blissful vacation getaway is now abandoned; bleak and uninviting, with tumultuous fog permeating every street. Unfortunately that’s only the beginning of the horrors lurking in every corner of Silent Hill, which James must face as he struggles to make sense of the events surrounding this unconventional homecoming.
Even during the game’s opening sequence, it becomes quickly apparent that it hasn’t aged well visually. While boasting above-average graphics in its heyday, Silent Hill 2 looks understandably dated nowadays, with occasionally awkward character movements and blocky textures. Though the high-definition makeover is quite noticeable and brings previously-blurry details into sharp resolution, the new polish still can’t entirely disguise the sub-par graphics overall; particularly when compared to the likes of current-generation games. As Silent Hill 2 is over a decade old, however, this is hardly a surprise, and nostalgic fans will be hard-pressed to consider it a fault.
Strangely, there was a massive adjustment made to the fog levels saturating the city; namely that there is much less than before. In many areas it’s actually been reduced so significantly that previously-concealed imperfections in the environments are now left exposed. Occasionally you’ll witness street signs hovering in sheer nothingness, or telephone wires that begin retreating off into the distance, only to end abruptly in mid-air. These flaws are distracting, and a little baffling; the trademark fog was one of Silent Hill 2’s most prevalent features. It was ever-present, suffocating; almost as much of a character as those with spoken dialogue. With that said, it’s surprising to see it toned down so much, particularly when these technical hiccups are left visible as a result.
Luckily the game runs smoothly, only suffering from the occasional stuttering frame rate; nothing that detracts from the experience overall. The controls also haven’t changed, which is both good and bad. Old-school fans eager to step back into James’ shoes will feel right at home, but unfortunately the Silent Hill series has never been lauded for its control scheme, and this installment is no exception. Character movement is clunky and sluggish; which can be particularly frustrating when navigating tight hallways fraught with various monsters.
Combat is equally monotonous; enemy encounters often boil down to either a tedious volley of slow, labored swings using whichever blunt object strikes your fancy, or shoddy and uncooperative gunplay. In some ways, the disorganized combat does heighten the feeling of urgency and tension whenever encountering an unsavory creature, increasing the overall sense of dread whenever you hear James’ radio begin its telltale ominous crackling. However, this is more of an unintentional result of the poor mechanics, and a better-realized control scheme certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Even the in-game menus are a convoluted mess, with key items being jumbled together alongside weapons, ammo, and health. In a game where every single article must be accessed via the main menu, even during puzzles that require individual pieces, having everything fall into one massive bundle is vaguely tiresome. A little more emphasis on organization would have benefited menu navigation greatly.
As always, the game is filled with various puzzles, most of which are fairly ambiguous, if a little cumbersome. There’s a lot of backtracking involved in solving them; a lot of locked doors, a lot of rooms revisited, and a lot of seemingly unconnected items that mysteriously collaborate to solve a given objective. While never particularly difficult, some puzzles can become rather tedious, and usually devolve into simple process of elimination. The game typically provides very little in the way of direction, which is great for promoting a feeling of hopelessness and self-reliance, but this mentality occasionally overstays its welcome as a result of the constant backpedaling.
Thankfully, the sound quality doesn’t disappoint. Silent Hill 2 retains its same chilling audio effects, with each monster featuring a vast assortment of disquieting noises, alongside whatever eerie ambiance graces a particular locale. This is a game that truly relies on the player’s ears as a primary method of eliciting fear, and it never falls short of that mark. Even the instrumental soundtrack, while somewhat sparse, is beautiful, and truly sets the mood during particularly emotional scenes.
Additionally, the new voice talent is a significant step up from the previous ensemble. While rather fitting for the unnatural feel of the game, Silent Hill 2’s original actors always felt stiff and amateurish, borderline forgettable. For its high-definition makeover, however, the new voices are exceptional, breathing new life into its eccentric array of characters. James himself is particularly fresh; appropriately gruff and taciturn, formidable in his resolve, yet with enough humanity that he’s easy to empathize with. Though Silent Hill 2 does feature the option to play with the old voice work, the updated version is definitely worth a listen.
More than anything else, the one component that remains entirely timeless is the game’s overall feel. It absolutely capitalizes on isolation and loneliness, using these simple tools to elicit a sense of growing fear and unease, rather than constantly startling and shocking for a quick thrill. Wandering the empty streets of Silent Hill 2; passing decrepit buildings and abandoned vehicles that emerge momentarily from the rolling fog before sinking back out of sight, is a truly unsettling experience. It plays out like a sort of tragic nightmare; terrifying, impactful, yet strangely beautiful; relying on subtlety and sheer aesthetics rather than outrageous gore or explosive action. This is Silent Hill’s most noteworthy triumph; a series that hones in with precision on every irrational phobia the average person can harbor; darkness, closed spaces, isolation… And it exploits these fears with ease.
James’ journey through Silent Hill is both terrifying and heartbreaking. Whether witnessing the various trials he encounters, his interactions with other tormented individuals, or whichever ending (of six possible outcomes) is earned, it’s an emotionally rewarding experience that thoroughly fascinates. While not for the faint of heart, Silent Hill 2 will more than captivate players who have a penchant for the survival-horror genre; whether they’re returning fans or new prospects. It’s not a perfect game; its flaws are readily apparent, especially considering the leaps and bounds made in game design over the years since its initial release. However, the sheer atmosphere and presentation is remarkable; thoroughly outweighing any weak points, and making Silent Hill 2 a truly worthwhile experience.