The classic Silent Hill horror series continues with Silent Hill 3. As a teenybopper named Heather, players must explore an accursed town and Heather's strange inexplicable fears. Nightmares and reality combine for a potent mixture of uncertainty with every development in the story. New grotesque monsters, psychologically horrifying scenes, and plenty of gory shooting action -- with pistols and fully automatic weapons -- are in store.
I've often referred to the Silent Hill series as the "thinking man's Resident Evil." Unlike the Resident Evil series, which goes for its scares through an unsubtle combination of hideous zombies and gallons of pixelated blood, the horror in Silent Hill comes from a combination of incredibly rich atmosphere, a suitably horrifying (if slightly incoherent) storyline, and the kind of monsters that would make Freddy Krueger hang up his spiked glove and head for parts unknown. Silent Hill 3, the latest edition of this illustrious series, does a pretty good job of holding up the franchise's legacy of quality, but several problems -- some inherent to the game itself, some in the jump to the PC -- serve to make this version less fun than the previous games in the series.
Silent Hill, for those who have never visited this quaint little burg, is the absolute worst town in America for ... well, anything. It apparently straddles the line between our dimension and some place that makes Hell look like Disneyland. It's constantly infested by hideous creatures and lots of spooky fog. Without spoiling any part of the storyline, Silent Hill 3 is a direct sequel to the first game and stars a teenaged girl named Heather -- the daughter of Silent Hill 1's protagonist. Heather, it seems, is being haunted by disturbing dreams, and in the course of the game, must return to the town to discover her destiny.
That storyline is one of the game's strongest aspects. It is, at turns, suitably mysterious, icky, and horrifying, and touches on all kinds of disturbing themes. It's not terribly coherent, and while it makes a laudable effort to help people catch up, it may be a little tough to follow for people who haven't played the first game. Still, coherence isn't necessarily a virtue in a horror story, and the freaky nature of Heather's plight and the fever-dream quality of her tale actually helps accentuate the terror as the player is never quite sure what's real and what's really going on.
Unfortunately, Heather herself is the weakest link in what's otherwise a great presentation. The voiceovers in the game are consistently great -- except hers. While the game's other characters all have mysterious agendas, they manage to be consistent and compelling. Heather, though, is a remarkably unsympathetic protagonist who never seems to react the way she really should. She never seems truly afraid, even when she says she is, and she seems to just blithely accept visions that had me, as the player, looking away from the screen.
Fortunately, if Heather herself isn't enough to draw you into the game, everything around her is. Silent Hill is notorious for its atmosphere, and the latest version doesn't disappoint. The game's graphics are incredibly well done, filled with greasy, dirty, and downright disgusting textures that made me want to soak in a long, hot bath after watching them. Even better, the flashlight effect that was so effective in previous games is back. Heather will travel through her adventure in incredibly tight, dark areas only barely illuminated by her flashlight which contributes to a wonderfully creepy feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia.
Impressive as they may be, the visuals are nothing when compared with the sound effects. They're absolutely amazing. The creak of every door, the wailing wind, the far-off cries of some ... thing ... in the darkness easily sets one's imagination on fire. The music, too, helps set the mood and preps you for the inevitable encounter with the grotesque monsters that haunt the town. This time around, gamers will be facing (among other things) dogs with split open heads; a weird tumbling mosquito thing; something in a butcher's apron with big, meat-slab arms; a big, nasty worm; and a group of nurses that will keep you from ever going to a hospital again. They're all great in that, "Oh God, I'm going to be sick" kind of way.
So far, so good. Silent Hill 3 packs in some pretty potent scares. Unfortunately, to get to them, you're going to have to wade through two issues -- one major, one minor. The minor one is the quality of the game's puzzles. The game has two separate difficulty settings -- one that controls the difficulty of the action, the other that controls the complexity of the puzzles. Unfortunately, none of the settings for the puzzles is entirely satisfactory. The lowest setting almost entirely eliminates them, leaving you in what ends up being a pretty poor action game. The highest setting gives you puzzles that require a PhD in Literature to solve, and the middle setting adds puzzles that are way too easy to solve and that require a lot of backtracking.
Still, even that wouldn't be enough to hurt the game a lot, if it weren't for the game's biggest problem -- the control scheme. First, like so many PC ports, there's barely even an attempt to try to re-jigger the controls for a keyboard and mouse. The game is playable with this method if you do extensive remapping of the keys, but it never feels easy or right. Unfortunately, the available alternatives aren't much better as there isn't much support for PC gamepads. Accepting the default configuration for any gamepad is just a recipe for finger-twisting nightmares, and the interface for remapping a gamepad is obscure and difficult.
Still, if you do manage to remap the gamepad to the point where the game is playable, you'll find the same annoying control scheme that afflicted the PlayStation 2 version. Namely, the developers tried to map far too many functions onto the gamepad's buttons. The attack controls, in particular, are awful. You need to press one button to move Heather into "ready" mode, keep that button pressed, and then press another button in order to attack. Between that and trying to move Heather around, well, let's just say I'm glad carpal tunnel is covered under my medical insurance. The game is eventually playable once you get the control problems worked out, but it never becomes the effortless experience it should be. I know, I know, the "ready" button for attacking is a survival-horror tradition - well I'm here to say it shouldn't be.
It's always a shame when simple game mechanics hobble an otherwise great title. Taken merely on its aesthetic and gameplay merits, Silent Hill 3 is an exceptional product. The PC version is well worth picking up -- if you're willing to put up with some technical sloppiness that mars the experience.
People who downloaded Silent Hill 3 have also downloaded:
Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 4: The Room, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Resident Evil 2, Alone in the Dark 4: The New Nightmare, Dino Crisis, Simpsons, The: Hit & Run
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