Silent Hill 2. Hide behind our sofa as we go sightseeing in Silent Hill.
WARNING THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!
When Konami released SH2 back in 2001, I doubt anyone could have expected such a well-crafted classic just less than a year into the lifespan of Sony’s then far from dominate PlayStation 2, although conversions to the PC and Xbox to follow later. For those who had not played the first instalment it the series it was a rude awakening from the flood of cookie cutter driving simulations and graphics demos masquerading as games. In fact, I will go as far as to say SH2 has possibly the best first hour of any game ever. From the opening at a deserted highway rest area with the haunting Theme of Laura track. This then leads into your descent to the forest below and then into Silent Hill itself all the while swathed in an oppressive fog that ramps up the tension and sense of unease with far off unearthly noises, whispers and radio static now synonymous with the Silent Hill games.
The protagonist in this instalment is James Sunderland a man tormented by his past in particular his wife Mary who we learn died some three years before from a sudden illness that left him an emotionally shattered wreck. The games opens with James revelling he has received a letter from Mary telling him to return to Silent Hill and look for her in their ‘special place’ where she is waiting for him. Despite knowing his wife is dead and the origin of the letter unclear, he leaves for Silent Hill determined to find the truth behind the letter.
The moody FMV then leads to James’ descent from the highway and into the wooded slopes surrounding Toluca Lake on which Silent Hill sits having found the entrance to Silent Hill barred by huge metal gates that keeps everyone out.. or something in. The expanded mythology of Silent Hill tells that the town was victim to a huge fire started in one of the town’s coalmines and quickly spread into the vast underground seam of coal that runs through out the area leaving it covered in a thick fog of caustic ash that will remain until the seam has burnt out. While this might sound the stuff of fictional nightmares this actually happened in the town of Centralia, which is in Pennsylvania USA.
The descent takes a few minutes even using James’ sprint button and is virtually featureless amid the dense fog that clings to everything leaving just an odd tree or handrail showing the way down the bottom. This is the first time that the atmospheric audio really comes into its own with strange howls and gurgling cries that echo around the wooded path with unsettling frequency. The only feature amid this isolation is a simple covered well that hides a strange red piece of square paper that hurts James’ head if read but functions as a save point, one of many that turns up in the game often amongst other papers or pined to notice boards and the like.
Once James has traversed the path, you find yourself amid a near derelict graveyard it is here you meet the first of few survivors from Silent Hill, the tragic figure of Angela. Angela was victimised and abused by her father whilst her mother turned a blind eye this has lead to her looking much older that her actual age would suggest. After years of this abuse and a failed attempt to run away Angela killed her father and fled to Silent Hill where she has been surviving in her own self styled purgatory unable to forgive herself or vanquish the demons both psychological and psychical that torment her. She warns James to stay away from the town but driven by his own demons James forges on through the fog and into the town itself, although it is far from the idyllic riverside sanctuary he remembers.
Upon arriving at Silent Hill there is no grand reveal or bombastic music letting you know, just a few empty fields giving way to buildings and then streets all the while bathed in fog and near silence. A boarded up shop here and an abandoned car there until you find blood trails that lead down a side street and towards an overpass making strange buzzing noises. Long time Silent Hill players would have recognised the sound of the famous monster-radio-detector. James squeezes through the debris outside the underpass, enters to look for the source of the noise, finds the discarded radio all the while one of said monsters rears up from behind him, and starts to stalk towards him just like a scene in every horror movie since the 70’s.
Looking like a cross between a fleshy all-in-one hoodie and straightjacket the monster moves with disjointed steps while sometimes spraying a nasty liquid mist at James. This the most common monster in SH2 was designed after a Konami programmer saw his friend walking into work wearing a tracksuit with the hood up while listening to music on his CD player. Taking control of James again, you batter the hoodie monster to death with a piece of 2×4 leaving James even more shaken by this alarming turn of events. Exiting the overpass James barely has time to regain his composure before the radio buzzes into life again but not with the monster detecting static but a voice message from someone who sounds like Maryâ€¦
Undeterred by the mental and monstrous assaults against him James returns into the town proper and restarts his search only to find much of the town blocked by debris and even full on craters and collapsed roads. More of the hoodie monsters now stalk the streets. While happy to shamble around if stayed away from when provoked by nearby, movement will seek out any trespassers and deal with them. What little comfort James can get is the odd health drink left hidden inside doorways or behind wire fences but with only a 2×4 for his defence avoidance is often the best tactic rather than all out conflict.
In no time at all James’ map of the town is altered with all kinds of marks and notes indicating blocked off streets or places of interest be it locked doors, local landmarks or places James needs to visit. You quickly find James has been lead to an abandoned motor home in the south part of town. Inside is another save square and a cryptic note that gives further clues how to proceed. Before you know it, James is finding keys to new location, ambushed by more hoodies and even given oblique references to past events in the original Silent Hill and possibly the soon to be released Silent Hill Origins.
The game follows the same linear path throughout but never fells restrictive. Locations vary from urban apartment blocks with some rooms containing riddles to be solved to nightmare versions of the same area filled with rust, grime and the now legendry Pyramid Head monster with this Freudian cleaver and metal helm blinding him to the world about him. Toluca Lake is explored and the hotel where James and Mary spent best time before her illness is visited for one last time. Other characters are introduced, all with their own distinct personalities from a mysterious femme fatal that is the splitting image of the long dead Mary to possibly the only true innocent in Silent Hill, the child Laura.
The atmosphere throughout is what makes not just the first hour special but also the whole game. Sound and images get under your skin and stay with you forever once experienced. Hopefully reading this you make you want to revisit Silent Hill again or if never played try it for the first time to see what many say is the scariest game of all time. It is not. The Project Zero (Fatal Frame outside Europe) games are. Silent Hill 2 is by far the most unsettling and psychology disturbing ever.