Retro Review: Silent Hill 2

TechNews Writer
Mon Oct 28, 2019

Welcome. Presumably, you have come here from my list of recommendations on spooky games too spook you into the Halloween spirit? And, by extension, you have come here to hear of the spookiest of all spooky games? Let's say you have. Nearly 20 years ago, Konami released “Silent Hill 2” for the PlayStation 2 and other less important platforms. The game garnered immediate critical success, and went on to cement the legacy the “Silent Hill” series would have on the horror genre and gaming as a whole. It is a game I consider easily among my top three for candidates of the greatest game of all time, perhaps behind only “Portal.” So indulge me as I waste the next few minutes of your life rambling about why it's so good. Or better yet, save yourself that time and go play the game for yourself.

What “Silent Hill 2” does better than any game has ever done is atmosphere. The dense fog surrounding the abandoned town of Silent Hill serves to limit vision and give eerie sensations as much as it does to keep the game within hardware limitations. The giant quarantine wall bisecting the town sprawled with dire warnings written in human blood contrasts the small town American buildings and homes as well as keeping map cells within size limitations. The whole thing drapes you in a blanket of sheer, crushing loneliness. The town is completely devoid of life, with the exception of the monsters that feel more like flies or automata as they play radio static when close, than actual entities inhabiting the town. All the non-playable characters (NPCs) behave in abnormal ways that make you question their sanity, or eventually your own, as if they see the town in a different way than you do. But what wraps it all up is the excellent score by Akira Yamaoka, slow subtle plucks at the guitar in an ever-building crescendo giving the player constant stress of what could be right around the corner. The constant, oppressing dread that weighs on the player as if the town itself were on their backs. 

What “Silent Hill 2” understood that so, so many other horror games like “Dead Space” or “The Evil Within” forget is subtlety. The town isn't running red, covered in shredded guts with loud, gurgling monsters running at you from across a dimly lit room. It’s actually rather clean, looking like a fairly typical small town in the middle of rural America. Homes and buildings are messy, papers strewn about the floor and the occasional broken or knocked over piece of furniture, but look more like everyone was too lazy to clean the place up more than they look like the place was run through by a horde of zombies. What puts the player on edge is that everything is slightly off. Floors and walls often appear worn with age, things are suspiciously placed, telephones randomly ring and, of course, there is not a soul to be found. The town looks almost like it's perfectly fine, but is yet completely devoid of life. And, of course, there are places with clear contrast with the otherwise normal looking town, the aforementioned quarantine barricade, messages written in blood, dead bodies lying against walls, or the monsters themselves. It all serves to build an off-putting tone, keeping the player suspenseful without pushing them over, maintaining the perfect, constant terror. No jumpscares or blood-soaked bodies piling upon the floor. Just an omnipresent, relentless and inevitable dread. 

The “faults” of “Silent Hill 2” come in its gameplay. Combat is clunky, unintuitive, and often unfavorable. Monsters take forever to kill, weapons break easily and take a long time for each swing, and are often scarce. But all of this is by design. If combat was quick and easy, would the monsters be all that threatening, and would the game be all that scary? You’re supposed to run away or sneak around enemies. They bring the ever-important sense of danger, a looming threat that you have no reliable means of dealing with. But combat can hardly be called the main form of gameplay. For most of the game you’ll be running around to find various items to solve various puzzles, the majority of which boil down to finding various forms of keys to slot in various kinds of doors. Often, the solutions can be fairly unintuitive, operating by the unique point-and-click adventure game logic where you put together a comb and some string to make a grappling hook. But the gameplay serves largely to hold together the important bits of story, which is the real strength of “Silent Hill 2.” 

The story is the perfect complement to the wonderfully crushing atmosphere. It focuses on the psychological aspects of both the player and the game’s protagonist, James Sunderland. Everything in the game, from the town to the enemies, is symbolic of something within Sunderland’s psyche. Without wishing to spoil too much, the initial premise of Sunderland entering the town after getting a mysterious letter from his dead wife telling him to meet her there peels away as you uncover the mysteries of the town and uncover revelations about the past and present. Sunderland is also one of the most distinctly human-feeling characters I have encountered in a game. All of his actions and reactions feel rational and appropriate while also falling within the limits of his faults. He reacts with surprise, anger, and emotion, unlike a lot of game protagonists. The only area where Sunderland seems to lose rationality is his decision to stay in the town. No collapsing entrance or broken bridge stops him from leaving. Nothing is keeping him there except for himself. But as the game goes on, you get a deeper sense that there is a reason why Sunderland keeps himself in the town. 

“Silent Hill 2” is, without exaggeration, one of the finest pieces of art in video games. The rich atmosphere complements the dense story built from interesting and complex characters. And it is the perfect way to bring yourself into that Halloween mood. Play it for the first time and fall in love with it, or revisit it this season and fall in love all over again.

Final Score: 10/10, thank you for sticking with me as I explained why the game is so good. But my true goal is to get you to go out and experience this game for yourself.



Appears in
2019 - Fall - Issue 8