Silent Hill 3
|Review by Thaumaturge
Her head resting peacefully upon the table, her eyes closed in sleep, Heather Mason might look just like any other seventeen-year-old girl. It is to be hoped, however, that most girls do not share the dream which wraps her about behind her eyelids. In that dream fog drifts through the twisted scenery, half-obscuring rusted metal and decaying wood, tile and brick. Strange sounds float on the air - and the weirder and louder presage the presence of terrible creatures, such as surely exist only in such nightmares - creatures seemingly intent on Heather's death. Above the gates bright letters read "Lakeside Amusement Park."
Waking from her nightmare, Heather finds herself once again in the warm orange sunlight that streams into the little shopping centre restaurant in which she slept. She goes to a public telephone and makes a call to her father, smiling and happy, letting him know that she's about to head home. As she finishes her call Heather notices a man standing at the corner, looking at her. His clothes are unkempt - his collar rumpled and tie half-undone under a brown trench coat - the image completed with a brown fedora and graying stubble. She sends a question with a look and gesture, but he shakes his head; no, he doesn't want to use the ‘phone. She walks away, but he calls to her, and he knows her name. He introduces himself as a detective, his name Douglas Cartland, and tells her that he has been sent to find her, for some reason related to her past, to her birth. There's someone who wants to meet her, it seems. Wanting little to do with the stranger, Heather refuses his requests to have an hour - even half an hour - of her time, eventually escaping his persistence in a lady's room.
The pattern drawn on a mirror in that bathroom doesn't bother her overmuch, beyond a headache and a nagging sense of familiarity. It will appear many more times, however, on the path which she has unknowingly begun to traverse.
The return to the mall finds the metal shutters down before many of the shop doors, and most of those remaining locked. And while the corridors, shops and back rooms may seem empty, not all are. Horrific creatures stalk the mall as they did Heather's nightmare, and with no more peaceable intents on her. Even when she escapes the shops, Heather's trials have not ended. Her world seemingly lost to madness and populated by terrible monstrosities and supernatural events, she struggles onwards. Her goal is to reach home and to her father.
Worse still, at times the environment about her changes. The buildings show signs of decay, corrosion and neglect, surfaces alter, many floors being replaced with rusting metal plating or grates. Doors that were locked might be open, open ones closed. More, doors, corridors or rooms may appear that were not there at all, ones that were there may be gone, or much changed. New, gruesome and twisted appointments are scattered about, perhaps the most common being hospital gurneys, on which rest long, low forms, obscured by sheets stained a reddish-brown.
Heather's journey will for the most part be taken alone, but there are other players in this game. The detective Douglas, sent to find Heather for reasons unknown to him. The mysterious Claudia, who speaks of the coming of a Paradise, to which Heather must lead. The enigmatic - and slightly sinister - Vincent, to whom this warped setting is "fascinating."
But home is not the end of her journey either, for Heather's past contains a dark secret. A secret intimately connected to the tainted, mist-wreathed town of Silent Hill...
Silent Hill 3's story is well-conceived. Heather begins her journey trying only to reach her home. Claudia's cryptic words offer her little comfort or insight - what cares she for Paradise, and what does this strange woman mean when she says that Heather should remember her "true self"? The answers will come in time, but not without a great cost to Heather, and much danger. The story has as its background the events and characters of the first game in the series, and weaves about it themes of vengeance, hate, fanaticism, and achieving a goal at any cost.
The characters of Heather, Douglas, Vincent and Claudia are very well realized, with fluid animations and expressive faces. They "act" well, for the most part (although they do at times overact, and their faces are at times perhaps a little overwrought, especially when portraying shock or surprise), and most are similarly well-voiced. Heather in particular stands out to me as one of the better performances, her lines generally (if not always) being delivered well and with a great deal of emotion (and she does seem - perhaps understandably - to be particularly prone to anger). On the other hand Douglas is probably the least well-acted, often sounding a little stiff, the pacing of his speech a little off. The cut-scenes are very well directed, making good use of camera angles and the characters' acting and expressiveness.
Cut-scenes, documents and even at least one tape are used well to describe the characters, the latter two forms adding insight into elements of the characters that they might not have said aloud, giving them form and depth, becoming, to my mind at least, an interesting cast. We see the reasons behind the actions of two of the major characters, elevating them from the simplistic roles into which they might have fallen.
Silent Hill 3's graphics are very good indeed. The characters and objects are well-modeled, with convincing textures. The characters are particularly effective, hair and skin textured especially well. Adding to this are some good special effects. Clouds of fog drift past the screen, obscuring the middle distances and further. An overlay of noise lends the game a slightly grittier feel. The light from Heather's torch casts a strong light, its source flaring brightly and casting lens flares when she faces the camera, casting its light over the scene before her, that and other sources of light leaving convincing shadows in the lees of objects and creatures. Furthermore, Heather not only casts shadows onto the objects and environment around her, but onto herself as well, an effect which I feel, if not always perfect, adds well to the overall realism of the graphics.
The game is played in the third person, as though viewed from a hovering camera. Often the camera follows Heather, hovering above and behind her, but in many places specific camera angles have been defined, either to draw the player's attention to something or for dramatic effect. In both of these aims the camera often succeeds particularly well. It might frame an important item or feature, hint at something unnerving to come, hide the results, or reveal it for the player's disquiet. This system is not without flaw, however. At times the camera's orientation can obscure elements that the player would probably want to see - such as approaching monsters.
Sometimes on entering a room the camera will be set to show Heather, and while this perspective prevents the player seeing the monsters present in the room, audio cues betray their presence - an effect that, combining knowledge of their presence with the lack of knowledge of which way to aim or how many they might be and the overall atmosphere, can at times potentially cause one to panic and run. However, once that initial fright is over, such limited angles can prove more frustrating than fun. This is alleviated to some degree by the ability to, while a key is pressed, take a point of view over Heather's shoulder, using the mouse to look around within a limited range. However again, this is at times limited, in a few cases to near uselessness.
As mentioned earlier, at times the world about Heather will change, and this change is accompanied by notable differences in the appearance of her surroundings. While for the most part this is enacted in a change of scene, having scope over the entirety of Heather's current location, at others the textures change as she walks, or only begin to take place on or shortly after her entry. In these cases the resultant texture often resembles flesh or blood, even flowing or pulsing as if it were alive. These transitions are smooth and well-done. They do a good job of adding to the sinister, otherworldly atmosphere.
The sounds that accompany these graphics are similarly very good. Heather's footsteps have different sounds to describe her walking over different surfaces - they might clang on metal grating, thud on wood and carpet, or tap on stone and tile, for instance. Strange ambient noises help to maintain the atmosphere even when there is little of note occurring. The monsters howl or moan or whine, depending on their form - some of those weird moans carrying the hint of humanity. Furthermore these effects are crisp or dull as is appropriate to their origin, and are seldom less than effective, and in some cases truly eerie.
Of particular note are the sounds associated with the presence of monsters. When living monsters are in the area, a strange sound makes itself heard, a half music, half ambient noise that has a discordant, clashing quality appropriate to both conflict and the unnatural feel of the adversaries that Heather faces.
In addition, Heather will at one point discover a small radio that, when turned on, will emit static when monsters are near, the volume depending both on the radio's volume setting and the proximity of the creatures in question. This warning, and that of the noises mentioned above, can be valuable assets in preventing being taken by surprise by threats - but their ominous tones can also contribute to unnerving the player, I found, especially when the danger is as yet unseen.
For the most part in-game music is eschewed in favor of ambient noises, a choice which, I feel, adds to the sense of Heather's isolation. When it is used, however, the music of Silent Hill 3 is another element which I would consider to be a success. Most often noticed in cut-scenes, the music is on the whole well-chosen and very effective.
The majority of Silent Hill 3 involves exploration of the areas in which Heather finds herself, usually with the goal of reaching some place (for instance Heather's home, at the start of the game), but also at times in search of a person (as in her search for a man named Leonard in Brookhaven Hospital).
The areas through which the game takes the player are often large, and the route to their exits or objectives not often direct. Often the player is required to explore the available areas well in order to discover all of the items and clues relevant to passage through to the end of the area.
It can at times be easy to lose one's way amongst the many floors and rooms of some of the areas, or to miss a door in the dark or under a covering of pulsing red; for this reason a map can be a useful discovery. Most areas hold a map for Heather to find somewhere about them, in some cases placed near to the entrance to that area, in others further in. Once a map is found, Heather will mark off in red any important discoveries that she makes about the area shown on the map, including whether doors are open, locked, or inaccessible (as a large number of doors are), noting the positions of important features, such as puzzles, and , in a few cases, adding areas not already included on the map.
Sometimes progression calls for more than simply picking up a key with which to open a door. In most cases these problems are solved through the appropriate use of some item or items that Heather has acquired. These inventory puzzles are in general not too difficult, as long as all of the appropriate items are in the player's possession, as clues are often to be found in the inventory descriptions of those items. The items themselves are in general not difficult to find, as long as the player searches their environment fairly well, and pays close attention to the objects in their surroundings.
At certain (infrequent) points along the journey, however, Heather will face another form of puzzle: riddles. These involve determining a code with which to unlock a door (in general a numeric code, but in one case a positional code), the clues to which will be found nearby - in some cases covering appropriately grisly themes and images (the riddle associated with a keypad in Brookhaven Hospital springs to mind). The difficulty of these riddles is determined by a setting chosen at the start of the game, the player being asked to select from "easy", "normal" or "hard" levels - the "hard" level producing some riddles which can call for some thought, knowledge, or interpretation. These riddles provide, I found, a welcome intellectual element to the experience of the game.
Not all events are directly related to the story of Silent Hill 3 (at least not obviously so). In various places through which Heather passes strange things happen, eerie reminders of the supernatural nature of the story being told. Ranging from things as simple as the sound or sight of footsteps to some truly creepy events (which I won't spoil for those who have yet to play this game), I feel that these set-pieces add a very great deal to the tense, creepy, supernatural atmosphere that the game builds.
The exploration of the environs of Silent Hill 3 is not by any means safe, however. Over and above any environmental dangers such as pits, terrible creatures stalk the passageways, tunnels, rooms and streets through which Heather passes. Their only apparent goals are grisly feeding and Heather's death. The design of these creatures is very good indeed; many include some human elements, or appear to be mostly human, albeit changed and warped. In some cases the design includes a suggestion of madness - one creature, for instance has an almost wormlike head that twitches seemingly randomly, while another, a human-like creature with a conical head, crawls about on its elbows and knees. All seem decidedly unnatural, from the bandaged dogs whose heads are split down the centre to the creatures which seem to each be a pair of human-like torsos and heads joined at the waist, mounted in a bladed metal frame, and which either crawl on the ground like monstrous insects or float through the air emitting a loud mechanical whine.
Some areas end with a greater combat challenge - a boss fight. Like the standard creatures (if such beings can be called "standard"), these bosses are designed to be creatively twisted. Each of them fights in a particular way and there is a key to defeating them. Some have specific weak spots that are only displayed in certain poses, or move in such a way as to foil targeting. Some attack at close range, others with ranged attacks. One is defeated not by combat, but rather by uncovering a particular item. Each is very different, a fact which makes them in my opinion more interesting to fight.
It is perhaps worth noting that the difficulty of the combats in Silent Hill 3 is set in much the same way as the difficulty level of the riddles, by an option given at the start of the game.
In conclusion, Silent Hill 3 is a very good game indeed. Exploring the creepy environs of the game can be a great deal of fun, the monsters adding well to the sense of danger and the atmosphere of the unnatural. The puzzles are good, the riddles (on "hard" mode, at least) interesting.
While the exploratory gameplay allows for a great deal of atmosphere, the story is revealed only slowly, especially at the beginning. Nevertheless, the environments are well designed and exploring them can be a great deal of (potentially unnerving - for me at least) fun.
Although only sporadically told, the story is good, and is enacted by characters who are, for the most part, interesting and more complex than the simple roles that might have been given them, and who are, again for the most part, well-acted and voiced.
While perhaps not the scariest game in the world (although I'll admit that some of the set-pieces did scare me), it is nevertheless a truly creepy game, with an excellent and twisted atmosphere.
Finally, I would like to note that this is definitely not a game for the squeamish. There are scenes and events that are violent and potentially unnerving, and the story itself involves some dark and unpleasant themes.
Final Score: 89/100
|PC System Requirements:|
|Pentium III 1 GHz|
|256 MB RAM|
|4.7GB free hard drive space|
|32 MB GeForce3Ti/Radeon8500|
|SoundBlaster Compatible Soundcard|
|Keyboard, mouse, speakers|