Spoiler Warning: Contains Unmarked Spoilers about Silent Hill 4
Chalk up another one for ‘games that have an interesting concept, but flawed execution’. And, despite regular readers knowing that this type of thing is firmly situated on, or near, my avenue, even I found this one a struggle by the time the credits rolled.
I’ve got history with Silent Hill 4: The Room. First picking it up for PS2 around the time it was current; I’m going to say I found it in the 2nd hand basket of an Electronic’s Boutique. This time however, I had to pay a fairly premium 2nd hand eBay price for a PS2 copy to add to my collection having had my eyes open for a while and being repeatedly beaten to the auction finish line. Even then, I ended up with a copy missing its manual and suffering from a few (luckily non-showstopping) disk read errors around the mid-game point. Much to my current-self’s regret, I’d traded my original copy in years ago, having never made it to the end of the game. With my recent-ish exploration of the Silent Hill offerings, finally seeing the resolution of the 4th, and final (at time of writing), numbered entry into the mainline series was the next logical step.
To even get to ‘4’, a game has to be fairly successful, but whereas Silent Hill 3 could fairly safely sit in the realm of giving fans more of what they liked from the first 2 games. I think the designers knew that 4 needed to mix it up a little to stop everyone’s favourite dimensional shifting town from becoming stale. The thing they didn’t mix up was ‘slightly vague white guy in their 30’s wearing muted casual-wear”. Even keeping track of their names is kind of tricky; Harry Mason, James Sunderland, and SH4’s Henry Townshend all jumble around in my head, and I’d really like to be able to say that it matters which is which. Even if you weren’t a fan of the early 00’s edgy persona, Heather Mason did set 3 apart in having a memorable protagonist…. but then, maybe that’s the point? To put the player in a blank canvas, allowing them to experience the game uniquely without having the character’s emotions thrown in your face whilst you’re unravelling the story yourself.
SH4 does seem to lean this way, opening by literally putting the player in the shoes of Henry via a 1st person perspective as he wakes up in his one bedroom apartment. It transpires that he’s been having a bit of trouble with the ol’ front door, on account of it being chained and locked shut…. from the inside… by forces unknown. His domestic problems don’t end there as a worrying hole seems to have opened up in one of the walls and, without any other options to escape or communicate with the outside world, Henry decides to slip into the hole and discovers a kind of nightmare realm. ‘The Room’ acts as a base that the player can return to by slipping through other holes in the ‘world’s’ they explore, and whilst it might seem like a safe-haven, that ever-present chained door and claustrophobic 1st person view manages to cement this unassuming setting as being somehow oppressive. For me, ‘The Room’ is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. Henry’s ability to view the outside world and even bang pointlessly against the glass of the windows cements the idea that he’s somehow trapped in a bubble outside of the normal world. It also serves as necessary to solve some of the game’s puzzles, forcing the player to return every once in a while.
Travelling through the ‘hole’ an out into one of the several ‘world’s’ within the game also transitions the player out of 1st person and into a traditional 3rd person Silent-Hill-type experience. Each world kind of acts like an individual Silent Hill location to be explored and unpicked. To me they feel like little mini-episodes of Silent Hill, which is not a bad thing, and whilst they feel disjointed at first, the various clues and events start to bring the plot and their significance together. Unlike the earlier games however, there isn’t a transition between the foggy and rusty versions of the world. Instead each world is very clearly a warped version of a location with a gentle sprinkling (or huge dose) or that rusty and bleeding Silent Hill. Henry knows the ‘real world’ versions of many of the locations, for example the subway station that he can see from his apartment, although they’re clearly ‘wrong’.
This all starts to make sense in the context of the unfolding plot… or at least as much sense as a Silent Hill game usually makes. Without wanting to spoil too much, the worlds are all part of a constructed realm tied to the strange religion that runs as a theme through the series. Kind of a ‘Silent Hill Lite’: all the spookiness, but fewer streets to navigate. And yeah, the plot is in-keeping with the series and at least engaging enough that I wanted to see it through to the end. How much you enjoy the plot is probably going to depend on how much you enjoy trying to piece things together from notes and random bits of paper that are a survival horror staple. If I ever start to find myself in a strange reality bending scenario then the first thing I’m gonna do is get down to the ol’ haunted stationary shop, buy a paper diary, and start documenting everything that happens, only to tear each page out and distributing them at strategic locations. Someone has to have gone through that thought process… right?
Luckily for SH4, all this managed to keep me engaged, because things start to get a little sketchier from the gameplay point of view; not that it’s all terrible. There are some classic Silent Hill style enemies here, the ‘twins’ stand out as particularly grizzly examples. Combat is actually better than I remember with a much needed melee lock-on that thankfully reduces the amount of air that Henry mercilessly pummels. I didn’t even mind the new carry limit too much. No, the big problem for me is are the ‘ghosts’. These floating limp bodies materialise through the walls and just kind of hover towards you, not really paying attention to stairs or walkways. They remind me of the trilobites in Ecco the Dolphin; just locking on and mercilessly bumping in to you. To make things worse, Henry takes damage just by being near them, and they can deal significant damage if they start to land some hits. The player can temporarily knock them down, and late in game there is a way to ‘deal’ with them, but generally they will sap health, ammo, and just leave you exhausted by their continuous pursuit. I’ve said it before, but there is a really fine line in horror games between pursuit enemies that genuinely add tension, and ones that are annoying… and these aren’t even close to that line.
Adding to the game’s problems is the final half that is almost entirely an escort mission. Technically your charge can’t be killed but their ‘condition’ will determine which ending you get, and allowing them to take too much damage will cause additional issues as they themselves start to become possessed and dangerous. Oh, and they’re injured, so limp around at about half your running pace. I picked up the super-bad ending, which I’m guessing most people will on their first run through, and just watched the other three to satisfy my curiosity. Unlike the other games in the series, the endings don’t really change the game’s outcome, and the conditions to get the better endings would be pretty difficult to meet. For me, the final game gripe is that this second half also sees the player retreading all the previous game locations. Sure, there are different puzzles to solve, but being slowed by your companion, and with essentially no new locations being unlocked, the game descends into a trudge between plot points.
I met the end credits with a sense of relief, mostly pushed on by a need to check off this Silent Hill offering rather than a genuine game enjoyment. It’s a shame, because the concept is pretty cool, but it’s not enough to carry the game for the next nine hours. The problems that I have with it now are definitely the things that made me put it down in the first place and although retro-vision can often gloss over some of the bumpier aspects of going back to a game, I was amazed how fresh all my frustration felt once I had jumped back though that mysterious hole in the wall.
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