Sunday, January 18, 2015

VGR Silent Hill 4: The Room

Let's mark the 10th anniversary Silent Hill 4 with this special review, with a little delay - and I'm probably one of those few people that probably will want to celebrate the ten years of this episode.

Some people believe this game didn't start as part of the Silent Hill series, but it was always meant to be a Silent Hill game. Only it was originally going to be a spinoff title, and not part of the numeral series while an actual Silent Hill 4 was being developed in parallel. It's kinda funny how not only did The Room end up part of the main series but also both the last numbered Silent Hill entry AND Team Silent's last game in the franchise.

VGR: Silent Hill 4: The Room originally known as Room 302, also known as either simply The Room or also Silent Hill 4 and just SH4
From Team Silent/Konami Computer Entertainment  
Played on PC
Also available on PS2 and Xbox

Type Survival horror/Psychological horror game
Year 2004

Following a Silent Hill 3 that confirmed way too much regarding the town and its cult if you ask me, came a very unique entry, a game unlike any other in the entire franchise. It was also the last game to be developed by more or less the original Team Silent responsible for creating Silent Hill.

With series composer Akira Yamaoka now in charge of the production along his role in the sound department (as executive producer, as he has remained since then).

Silent Hill 4: The Room actually started its development right after the release of Silent Hill 2, alongside Silent Hill 3 to be precise. The idea was to explore the same kind of themes but use a different gameplay and direction from the rest of the games so far. Yes. It was always meant to be part of the Silent Hill series despite the rumors, never a separate horror title. But originally it was simply known as "Room 302" (or more precisely, probably Silent Hill: Room 302 before it ended up as "Silent Hill 4").

Silent Hill 4 sees a protagonist trapped in his own apartment, exploring other worlds from hole he found in one of the rooms. Looking for a way out to escape from his apartment.

The idea was to avoid the constant fear looking over your shoulder from the past games, instead providing "the room", the safest part you can find in this world.. and then turning things upside down at some point as the danger starts creeping up in the apartment as well! Giving this episode a nice claustrophobic feel. And also new to the series, featuring a first person view used as a simpler way to explore such a small room and also directly immerse the player in this environment/story. As things change through the story, not only does it changes the room but it also gives a new look at the different areas you get to explore a second time.

"There was a HOLE here. It’s gone now."

Since Silent Hill 3 was a direct continuation of the first game, Silent Hill 4 rather makes a few links and nods to Silent Hill 2 this time. Some previously unseen characters from SH2's story get much bigger roles like this reporter Joseph Schreiber (only alluded in an article) and the entire story revolves around this dead serial killer Walter Sullivan only mentioned in SH2. His grave and his suicide in a jail cell were mentioned in SH2, and we even get to "meet" the two children he was said to have killed. And the game also features the father of Silent Hill 2's protagonist James Sunderland!

Whatever has been happening in past Silent Hill games seems to be starting to spread to the outside world. It reached Heather in SH3. And now it seems to be happening in this apartment building in South Ashfield, nearby Toluca Lake.

Silent Hill 4 is the first (and more or less last) installment not actually set in the town of Silent Hill. The story takes place in another nearby fictional town, at the South Ashfield Heights Apartments.

Our story opens with Henry Townshend in his apartment, in Room 302. Henry has been locked in his own apartment for a week. He can't communicate with the outside world for some reason, nobody hears him screaming. And he was about to finally give up to his fate, but he's also been having these recurring nightmares... when he finally finds an exit of sort! A ...hole has appeared on the wall of his bathroom?

His neighbor Eileen Galvin is concerned about Henry. But the superintendent, Frank Sunderland, cannot open his door from the outside. The door is shut tight will all these strange locks Henry can't break.

Henry decides to "go down the rabbit hole" and finds himself exploring these other worlds. At first these "dimensions" feel like they're just dreams but it's actually the reality. Or at least, one version of "reality". Henry grabs a steelpipe and is first able to escape to the nearby subway station, where he meets this Cynthia Velázquez. Strange creatures seem to roam the station, and Cynthia is finally killed by a mysterious figure. The next day Henry listens on the radio about Cynthia's death in the real world. Is this really happening? What is going on!?

Henry finds more and more strange things regarding his own apartment, starting with a mysterious peephole on his way from which he can watch Eileen...! He's able to observe Eileen and even the outside world through the window. Eileen seems to be passing time before heading to some party.

Cynthia's murder matches this old case about a long deceased serial killer... Walter Sullivan. There's also this strange innocent child appearing here and there several times... and this dangerous boogeyman.

A theme familiar with the Silent Hill series. This time taking the form of the main antagonist (compared to, say, the more stalker Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2), an undead serial killer!

Is Walter alive and continuing his killing spree or is that copycat... or worse, is it all taking place inside Henry's head? The more the story progresses the more his apartment seems to be at the center of it all.

As the story go on, Henry finds more notes from the reporter that used to share his apartment. And the tale of this orphan that never knew his parents who left him in Room 302 as a baby. And who grew up in an orphanage... in the town of Silent Hill! This story about these 21 murders, the ritual of the "21 Sacrements". How Walter might be looking to purify Room 302 to shape it into this mother he never had...

It's... really creepy to say the least.

While Henry Townshend appears a bit bland on first impression, it's a decision made on purpose. For a reason, and that is because before anything else Silent Hill 4 is the story of Walter Sullivan. That's why we even get to see a lot of the game through Henry's eyes, Henry's really mostly an avatar for the player. The actual main protagonist is the villain. That's why Henry doesn't really have much of a background (aside from being a photograph), through his interaction we get to known some of his neighbors such as Andrew DeSalvo, Richard Braintree and Jasper Gein.

The first and most notable difference that appears in Silent Hill 4 on a quick look is on its gameplay. The overall game still takes form of a classic 3rd person survival horror, lots of exploration, dealing with survival with limited resources and a few puzzles to solve in order to progress.

But the game starts from a first person perspective, as Henry is trapped in the eponymous "Room" in his apartment. The exploration in the apartment is always played via first person (except in a much later "flashback"). From then on every time you visit the apartment again is from this FPS view, the main departure from the series. The apartment is visited as the story moves along, in-between new environments Henry will always get back there. It also works as the game's only save point. In the first half of the game the apartment also restores Henry's health, so it's better to never uselessly spend any health item for that part. But much later things will finally take a turn for the worse as this entire premise is turned upside-down and the concept changes for the second half of the story. The room is possessed by various hauntings that will then drain health instead....

This constant backtrack to save and progress also kind of makes the game feel a bit more linear (like you're this time playing levels instead of the usual natural exploration and losing yourself in the town of Silent Hill.

As usual, there's several kinds of melee weapons you can find. Mostly limited-range weapons. The steelpipe, a baseball bat, etc. And a lot of golf clubs that can be damaged. There are only two guns this time, both revolvers, and they're not really useful, only for a couple of situations when wanting to avoid direct contact of multiple enemies. There seems to be a bit more focus put on direct combat, at least for the most part of the creatures found in the game. Henry can even perform one huge charge attack, pretty useful to put monsters down for the final kick.

The other main new feature are the "ghosts", the victims of Walter Sullivan that now haunt South Ashfield. Ghosts cannot be killed, only slightly stopped or slowed down. These unkillable ghosts hurt with their mere touch, but you can pin them down with special swords which helps explores around (and you can even take the swords back for multiple uses). There's a couple of useful items for these ghosts such as talismans which work great to help you navigate around ghosts or candles that can clear the hauntings from the apartment. Some of the main victims-turned-ghosts really need to be pinned down for good, since they might prove the last level of the game much more difficult.

Let's not forget to mention the fairly limited item slots inventory this time, Henry can store all sorts of stuff in a chest in his room. There's very little "adventure game-styled" puzzles this time, the puzzles mostly consist of finding the correct items to use, and this almost always will have the player backtrack to the apartment to find something new or clear a special item found in the stages.

At mid-point through the game, much of the story will be revealed, Henry will get to explore outside of his apartment (in the Otherworld) and finally meet his neighbor Eileen Galvin.. and then the game will turn into one giant escort mission with Eileen! Eileen can't actually die, but the more she takes damages, the more she will succumb to her injuries and be prone to get possessed. It's also one of the key stats that will directly affect which set of endings you will obtain after the final boss.

Revisiting the same worlds is a bit "different". Eileen will certainly slow down your pace, and it might even get a bit frustrating at times when trying to keep her safe. She's injured and can't really keep up with Henry. But it's really a question of being smart about it, whenever you have to equip her with a weapon or not, and not hesitating to leave Eileen behind in a safe place while exploring. 

And Walter Sullivan will then become this game's main Nemesis-like foe.

Visually, despite its age, the games still looks pretty darn good thanks to really detailed settings and environment (thanks to a particularly well-optimized PC version). Pretty stunning visuals. The game is pretty close and similar to SH3 on a first look, but it has some nice particle effects and the real difference with past Silent Hill games is that not a lot of SH4's environments actually take place in the dark like past games. There's several sources of light, the game doesn't rely on darkness to hide its backgrounds, there are often lamps and all around (and no need for a flashlight this time!).

The Room was a big departure for the series. It seems to take a lot more from J-Horror in its tone. And also a very distinct Hitchockian feel.

It's a lot more combat-involved.

Sometimes I feel like it's the worst game in the series... and sometimes I feel like it's probably the best one!

Such fantastic monsters (those twin baby heads-walking torsos will haunt you forever!...), great level design and art direction for the worlds visited. It got a really mixed opinion. For a reason, it's probably not the best survival horror game ever out there, and takes some getting used to. But it sort of simply grows on you, thanks to a unique mood and experience. Those unkillable enemies work great for the tense atmosphere.

It's a a game were fear doesn't come from simply the visuals themselves, nor silly jump scares or gore, but from the slow build developed through the game. Such a tense atmosphere. And I think that's where the repetition aspect comes in. It all helps shape the pretty creep atmosphere.

Sure, the gameplay can be a bit unresponsive and annoying at times.

But it has such a captivating story.

To be honest the game has several big flaw. Running through the same worlds a second time could have been handled a lot better I think (like, imagine going through all these places completely twisted the second time, or through a more pronounced Otherworld appearance). Unkillable enemies, the whole escort mission, destructible weapons and the limited inventory management all contribute to much of the issues. But all these never really outweigh the good of the game in my eyes.

The apartment acting as safe zone then they pull the rug from under you... and no more health restored or quiet break in your room! The walls start bleeding.. All the tension is build up during the first half of the game. And it's all hidden in plain sight in all the small things you interact with, some fun routines you will develop every time like watching through the peepholes or witnessing the world continuing on outside the window. There's a really creepy interactive paranoia and claustrophobia feeling. While watching other people from afar.. are you also being watched?

Walter makes for a very compelling villain despite his general "normal" appearance. Killing all these people because he truly believes he can awake "his mother" again. All because of what the world did to him, is he really a villain? Henry/the player even gets a fairly decent conversation with him at some point!

It's a great unique game, with fantastic memorable creepy moments. Silent Hill 2's iconic Robbie the Rabbit even makes a small but noticeable appearance (or two). That freaky giant Eileen head...

This Silent Hill only contains four different endings, with the noticeable absence of the usual UFO/joke ending. Two if you're able to keep Eileen alive in the end and two darker endings in which she dies... What happens then depends on a couple of factors, such as keeping the apartment mostly clear from hauntings and keeping Eileen relatively in good health to buy you time during the final boss.

Unlocking some of the (hum) "sexy secrets" will require several playthroughs. There's a couple of variations of "New Game+" features, including secret weapons, a 1-weapon mode and more!

The game has a really good sound direction and decent voice acting (especially from our lead). Henry's nice and calm voice works great for the game's unsettling tone. Another missing feature from previous episodes is the use of the Radio. This time there's no way of getting a warning in advance via static sounds. Although Henry keeps a radio in his apartment that kinda works similar regarding the hauntings.

Once more, Silent Hill 4 also sees another gorgeous soundtrack composed by series regular Akira Yamaoka, with the fantastic Mary Elizabeth McGlynn on vocals on a couple of the songs (namely the opening theme and the endings). It uses a lot of electric guitar and strings for great effect.

Overall, Silent Hill 4: The Room can easily be described as both the best or the worst Silent Hill depending on your stance.

It's a great departure from the usual formula, shaking things up for the purpose of creating a different tone in the game. If anything it came as a well-needed departure and a new original direction series before Team Silent left the franchise in other hands. The first person really works in favor of the isolation and fear (something that we would finally see again in last year "enhanced" demo of Kojima's upcoming Silent Hills game, "P.T.").

Silent Hill 4 contains some great unique moments. A creepy voyeurism aspect, lots of weird camera well-placed angles and such a unique tension! Truly psychological horror at its finest! 

The story is slowly built at first, and kinda dark and twisted. Making you doubt if anything's real or if all's just nightmares our strange shut-in is having (has he chained himself his own door from the inside...?). The lines between reality and nightmare are blurred. The game has a fantastic creepy tone. Thanks to such unique memorable segments like the water prison or these walls of living flesh stopping in the stages. All these allusions to umbilical chords.

It was a huge departure and also a great surprise at the time.. and it really annoyed a few fan back then. What with the forced backtracking especially in the later game whenever you need to discard a few unwanted items, going back and forth to the room... Plus it kinda lack some actual boss fights (one of the two main bosses basically consists of one giant puzzle!).

This sadly really under-appreciated entry in the original Silent Hill series comes Highly Recommended for any horror fan or fans of the genre. It's the worthwhile successor to the classic Silent Hill trilogy, and it's just as good as those previous titles. Its main problems are not that it dared change things up but more that it actually didn't fully embrace these directions.

I give it:
2 / 3 Necronomicons!

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