I don't think I've ever seen a game get so much slack on its programming and hardware limitations from both fans and the gaming press. Janky controls? "IT ADDS TO THE HORROR!" Fog and darkness used constantly to obscure very short draw distances? "IT ADDS TO THE HORROR!" Grainy, gritty polygons with a murky, dull color palette? "IT ADDS TO THE HORROR!"
Now, granted, it has been officially ten years since this game was released as I write this. That's a decade in which we've been inundated with Resident Evil games and their clones (which themselves are basically Alone In The Dark clones), most of which have far surpassed Playstation graphical limitations, and maybe I've just become so tired of the formula that I can't get anything out of it anymore.
Still, though ... if I was playing this game in 1999, would I really have been any more impressed with it? Maybe only as far as the 3D engine, which really is one of the best on the original Playstation (short draw distances aside), and the atmosphere that the game manages to create. The rest of it was really underwhelming.
The game gets off to a very Resident Evil start - same "impact" sound effect when you start or load a game, very similar look to the menu system and font, etc. It is very clear that Konami was just trying to horn in on the market here, and not going for incredible originality.
The selling point I've always heard from the many enthusiasts of the game, however, is that this is sort of the intelligent, cerebral Resident Evil. Yeah, it has the exact same clumsy and cumbersome control system (made a little worse here by constantly being submerged in darkness, and by the horrid auto-aim and target-switching abilities of the main character). But it also supposedly has better puzzles, a more intelligent story, and a horror atmosphere that generates fear through more mature means than just having a zombie burst through every large window that you pass. I found those claims to be greatly exaggerated, as I explored the foggy, snowy streets of Silent Hill.
The story begins with Harry Mason (cue theme music) and his wife finding a baby abandoned by the side of the road near the resort town of Silent Hill. Flash forward a few years and Harry's wife dies. Flash forward a few more years, and Harry drives the now seven year old girl (named Cheryl) back to Silent Hill with the intention of having a relaxing vacation. Some random woman appears in the road in front of him suddenly, however, causing him to swerve and crash. When he comes to, Cheryl is missing, so he takes off on foot into the town to find her.
The 3D engine is basically a modified version of the one used in Metal Gear Solid, but it allows you free continuous movement throughout the entirety of Silent Hill, which is actually a pretty large place. This is something usually not seen until more powerful consoles came along; the price you pay to get it here is the aforementioned fog and darkness, one of which will be with you no matter where you are in the game. I can roll with the fog as an aesthetic choice, but it clearly wasn't, and by the end of the game I didn't regard it as anything but the annoying programming gimmick that it was.
It would be great as a set-up for monster attacks, if the monsters here weren't so uninspired and didn't have such predictable, frequently dumb movement patterns. Even though the environment is rendered entirely in 3D, Harry is limited to seeing what is at shoulder level immediately around him, and the camera likes to automatically focus on him at the center of the screen (which gives you little peripheral vision to work with). There's an optional pocket radio you can pick up at the beginning of the game; take it and it will serve as a sort of monster early warning system, blaring static as they approach you. This is a novel system, and going without it makes the game even more spooky, but there's no two ways around the fact that the monsters tend to either be copied directly from Resident Evil (skinned dogs and birds) or just plain silly (I swear there was an armed badger at one point, I thought he was going to start singing about mushrooms and bees).
I think the biggest barrier to enjoyment of the game is Harry himself, however. As mentioned, the game copies the clunky style of Resident Evil with very little enhancement. Harry is manageable when he has some open space around him, but frequently the indoor areas pull the gimmick of having three enemies jump him immediately after he goes through a door, and in these corner situations Harry's control goes from "passable" to "awful". The main problem is Harry's seeming inability to accurately switch focus from one to another; supposedly you can just tap in one direction or the other, but this rarely actually works. Harry likes to remain focus on a downed foe while two others are busily stabbing the shit out of him, and sometimes he just turns in the wrong direction for inexplicable reasons and starts shooting/swinging at air. Also, in an attempt to inject "realism", Harry randomly misses foes who are at a distance with his shots. Monsters are never that far away from you (you can't see them beyond about ten feet), however, so it gets a little silly when he lands three shots in center mass and then suddenly misses two when the enraged enemy gets closer.
These situations are just infrequent enough - and ammo and health items frequently found enough, at least on Normal or Easy mode - that Harry's clunkiness becomes tolerable enough to press on with. The next problem that comes in is that the game wholly relies on atmosphere and the "what will jump out at me next" factor, because the plot is threadbare and frequently just does stuff without bothering with explanations or reasoning, and the cast of characters are among the most wooden and lifeless ever seen in a video game. Part of the problem with the characters is that the voice acting employs the "make random interns do it since we don't feel like paying anyone" technique that Konami and Capcom were notorious for in the 1990s, but I think a bigger issue is that Team Silent was so focused on scares that they sort of relegated the plot and character development to the sidelines, going with that lazy "just do random deus-ex-machina stuff and let players fill in the gaps for themselves in intolerably pretentious message board conversations" gambit that a lot of "genius" game designers seem to be fond of employing.
With all that sorted out, what does Silent Hill really have to recommend itself? The atmosphere, and the ability to scare you. That seems to be the crux of what people love about the game, and it is what kept me trucking when I was halfway through and wondering when all the tedious fetch-quests and street-running would end and the greatness would begin. So how did that all work out?
I don't know what it is, man, maybe it is just my particular psychological make-up, but not once did this game make me jump or even make me feel tense or apprehensive. And I tried, lights out, at night, headphones all the way. No dice. To me the game just seemed like a collection of tired horror tropes, thrown together in a mostly predictable way, and there was just too much to distract me from immersion - all the stuff just blatantly copied from Resident Evil, the awfully wooden voice acting, the complete disconnect from the characters, the lack of adequate explanation for most of what was happening, the annoying play control, and the crappy textures. Half the stuff that I was supposed to be horrified by, like the hanging corpses merrily distributed everywhere, I just kind of stood scratching my head over for a minute, wondering "Is that supposed to be a dead guy? A mummy? It would be nice if it wasn't some low-grade polygon blur or if I could actually focus the camera on it to find out."
Maybe it was the uninspiring enemies, or the handful of really lame bosses of whom none served as the sort of "killer villain" that Pyramid Head would be in the next game. Maybe just personal slant - I can't find any game where you have a gun in your hands all that frightening, even given Harry's incompetence. But I came away from Silent Hill feeling like it was one of the most over-rated games ever, just a Res Ev clone with a hackwork engine that strained my eyes with crappy polygons and terrible lighting and left me completely unconcerned about the fate of any of the characters involved. It didn't even have good puzzles, to satisfy the adventure gamer in me; despite the promise I thought most were about as blatantly obvious and fetch-questy as the average Resident Evil puzzle. The only one that was a stumper for a bit was cheap; it required knowledge of zodiac signs, which wasn't in the game, so I had to turn it off and go look on the internet to see what all the symbols meant.
* Gameplay Video