If you ask fans of survival horror what their favorite franchise is, you’re likely to get one of two responses: Resident Evil or Silent Hill. This feud has been raging since both titles launched in the mid-to-late 90’s, and with both receiving critical acclaim, multiple sequels, and film adaptations, it’s a war that’s not likely to let up. I’ve personally been in the Resident Evil camp for as long as I can remember, but after years of hearing about the haunting story and setting of Silent Hill, I decided to make it the first game that I played in 2021. Now, after immersing myself in the foggy city streets of Silent Hill, I’m starting to realize how much of a weird and fascinating world I’ve been missing out on.
The story of Silent Hill is centered around a single father named Harry Mason and his young daughter, Cheryl. While heading on a vacation to the town of Silent Hill, an apparition of a young girl appears on the highway and causes Harry to swerve, crash the car, and lose consciousness. Upon waking up, he discovers that Cheryl has gone missing, an out of season snowfall has begun to descend, and a thick and foreboding fog has covered everything in sight. As he leaves the scene of the wreck and begins to head into Silent Hill on foot, a strange siren blares as the secrets of the town begin to stir.
As you step into Harry’s shoes and begin to search the town for his daughter, it quickly becomes apparent that something wrong has happened to this town. Shortly after arriving, Harry is assaulted by a group of terrifying monsters that resemble deformed children wielding knives. After losing consciousness in the attack, Harry awakens in a diner and discovers he’s been saved by a police officer named Cybil Bennett. Cybil works in a neighboring city, although strange circumstances have led her to investigate Silent Hill. After explaining that the city is unsafe and full of deadly creatures, Cybil lends Harry a spare pistol for his own protection before heading back out on her own. Armed with a new weapon and a warning, you set out to brave the streets of Silent Hill, find Cheryl, and uncover what sinister plot has led to the town’s demise.
Although much of your journey in Silent Hill is spent exploring on your own, there’s a small cast of characters to encounter along the way. Cybil makes a few more appearances as you dig deeper into the heart of the town, but your reunion with her is always short-lived. In fact, that’s the way most characters are handled in Silent Hill. You never gain an ally to accompany you, so most characters are there to either move the plot along with some exposition or give Harry an item to proceed further into the town. Despite the cast being small, everyone is memorable in their own way. Dr. Kaufmann is a gruff older gentleman who reeks of conspiracy, whereas Dahlia Gillespie is a demented religious fanatic with strong ties to the occult. Then there’s Lisa Garland, a young amnesiac nurse riddled with fear and bursting with curiosity that steals every scene she’s featured in.
The story does an effective job of choosing when to reveal more information about each character, often leading to carefully crafted moments where things fall into place and either surprise you, mortify you, or break your heart. One revelation in particular is so unsettling, tragic, and thought provoking that I had to put the controller down and take a moment to recover. It’s the type of story that has multiple layers to it and can lead you down a deep rabbit hole of internet speculation and analysis videos upon completion. The actual plot is easy enough to grasp, but there’s a lot of subtlety that can slip past you that enrichens even the smallest of interactions, lines of dialogue, and even the visual design. For a video game of this era to still be this emotionally engaging and thoughtful in its writing is an impressive accomplishment.
As great as the characters and story may be, the most notable aspect of the game is Silent Hill itself. As a huge fan of horror games, I think Silent Hill may have one of the most unrivaled settings in the genre. While not a full-on open world, Silent Hill offers a surprisingly large 3D environment to explore, full of dilapidated buildings and terrifying creatures. However, it’s the way Konami’s “Team Silent” was able to make it feel so claustrophobic that’s truly impressive. Due to the graphical limitations of the PlayStation, Team Silent couldn’t make the game as big as it is without minimizing the draw distance and encountering noticeable pop-in issues. So, to counteract this, they covered the entire town in a thick fog to obscure these limitations and add to the atmosphere of this terrifying location.
The fog makes your time exploring Silent Hill tense and unnerving by removing your awareness of what’s around you. While you can see more clearly down alleyways and inside buildings, trips across the town’s streets induce dread as you hear the sounds of enemies prowling about, but can’t actually see them. Surprisingly enough, the game never feels unfair with how this is utilized. You gain a radio very early on that reacts to the presence of Silent Hill’s creatures by emitting a shrill static noise. It doesn’t have an indicator to point in a specific direction, but the volume of the static grows louder based on your proximity to an enemy. This makes for tense situations where the static will alert you of nearby danger, but not explicitly tell you which direction it’s coming from.
Likewise, the interior sections of Silent Hill can also be explored. While most homes and businesses are either locked or boarded up, there are still a handful of locations that offer respite from the fog, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe. For example, one of the first large indoor areas you encounter is an old abandoned elementary school that does a terrific job of introducing you to the darker elements of Silent Hill. Ghostly apparitions, clawed monstrosities, and bone-chilling sound effects fill the halls and make this location a terrifying and dreadful place to inhabit. Indoor areas like these are also where you begin to pick up the first clues (notes, dialogue heavy cutscenes, etc.) that start to fill in the story of what happened in this town, how you and your daughter are connected to it, and why it’s being plagued by ferocious monsters.
That being said, these areas are also dark in a literal manner. I honestly can’t recall the last time I played a game that actually made darkness this pervasive. Similar to the implementation of fog, you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you, and the moments where a tiny clawed creature stumbles from around a corner can easily catch you off guard. Although you do have a trusty flashlight at your disposal, it can potentially work against you. While it does light up more of the surrounding area, it also attracts the attention of nearby enemies, so it’s sometimes best to turn it off and try to sneak past an encounter.
In fact, avoiding confrontation whenever possible is a viable strategy. Harry isn’t a trained soldier or a natural badass, so your combat options are limited. Although you do receive a pistol early on, Harry is untrained in firearms, making his shots highly inaccurate unless at point-blank range. Thankfully, there’s a more reliable option in the form of melee weapons. There’s a swift knife, a rusty pipe, a trusty hatchet and a few other surprises hidden throughout the town, all of which have their own weight, range, and damage. The problem here is that finding one that actually feels good to swing is a challenge. Most of the weapons feel sluggish, but the inclusion of a massive hammer that kills most enemies in a hit or two is a godsend when low on ammunition.
Speaking of which, if I have any one major criticism about Silent Hill, it’s that it can’t decide how much of the “survival” part of survival horror it wants to play into. A huge part of this particular sub-genre is focused on managing health items and ammunition, but the way it’s handled here feels wildly inconsistent. You can spend an hour in this game and not find a single resource, but then suddenly find a handful of first aid kits and 50 rounds of ammo in the next two rooms. On the flipside, you could also spend an hour or two finding resources every 5-10 minutes, just in noticeably smaller amounts. I could never tell if the game was trying to push me to conserve items or empower me by giving me large quantities. I would have preferred something a little more in the middle of these two extremes, or at least for it to double-down in one direction instead of awkwardly bouncing back and forth. You also have an inventory with unlimited space, so you can grab everything you come across and not have to worry with managing storage space, which removes some of the strategy of the genre.
Although most of the difficulty in Silent Hill stems from the odd implementation of resources, there are plenty or grotesque creatures to try and stop you in your tracks. The enemy types you face are dependent on whether you’re inside or outside, as well as what type of building you’re in. For starters, the streets are infested with savage skinless dogs and flying monstrosities that resemble Pteranodon’s with elongated limbs. These are probably the most troublesome, since they can either pounce or glide in from the fog and easily catch you by surprise. As for the indoor areas, the enemies encountered are thematically linked to whichever building you’re in. For example, the previously mentioned school is inhabited by small child-sized creatures that stalk the hallways, whereas a later hospital stage sees demented nurses lumber towards you with scalpels. Absurdly powerful melee weapons, unlimited storage space, and the ability to avoid most encounters makes the majority of the game a breeze. If you’re looking for a challenge I would recommend bumping up the difficulty to Hard right from the start.
While the difficulty in combat leaves a bit to be desired, the puzzles have the tendency to be incredibly tricky. One of the ways Silent Hill transforms these puzzles into absolute brain exercises is by making you earn the information required to understand them. You can’t stroll up to a puzzle, solve it, and call it a day. Instead, you have to decipher cryptic notes for clues, find ways in which the environment relates to the puzzles, and come up with clever uses of the items in your inventory. As someone who loves a good puzzle, I found what was offered in Silent Hill to be fantastic. The only downside to the puzzles is that they don’t ease you into them and throw some truly difficult stuff at you very early on. One in particular (teased in the image above) has you deconstructing a poem and figuring out how to translate it onto the keys of a piano. I spent a good 45 minutes trying to figure this one out, but when everything finally clicked and I played the keys in the right order, the sense of accomplishment made it all worth it. There was also one puzzle near the end that I felt was very poorly presented and made way harder than it needed to be, so don’t feel bad if you have to look up a guide for a nudge in the right direction.
My final complaint is aimed at the real horror element of Silent Hill. That’s right, I’m talking about the “tank” controls. I simply have a hard time controlling games where movement is based on the direction a character is facing instead of the way the camera is aimed. While I wish I could say I grew more accustomed to them as time went on, I spent all 8 hours of the game occasionally having hiccups where I would run into walls, face the wrong direction, and get turned around and lost. This might be more of a me problem than a game problem (there’s actually a weird group of people who enjoy this control scheme) but it’s worth noting that you can’t change to different controls, so keep that in mind if you ever decide to play this game.
Although there’s elements to the experience that haven’t aged well, Silent Hill is very clearly a classic for a whole slew of reasons. From its wonderful use of fog and shadow to create a nightmarish atmosphere, to its solid cast of characters, dark and mature storyline, and challenging puzzles, you can tell the team behind this game wanted to make something different and focus on a more thoughtful experience. The strong writing makes this game stand above other horror titles of its time (sorry, Resident Evil) and its insistence on making you afraid of the things you can’t see allows it to still be psychologically affecting two decades after its release. Sure, the use of tank controls, easy combat, and unbalanced resource implementation could be better, but when you consider every other facet of the game that still holds up after all this time, it’s clear that Silent Hill is deserving of its spot as a classic in the horror genre.
– Zack Burrows