Saturday, May 12, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 7

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories -- Snowbound, Haunted and Hounded


I just got done replaying the dreamlike little game that is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Once again, it cast a spell on me. Hard to believe that it was made by Climax Studios, the same folks responsible for the unintentionally hilarious scavenger hunt that was Silent Hill: Origins. While Origins was content to tread water in the shallows of the Silent Hill kiddie pool, Shattered Memories dives off the deep end into a place none of the games have gone before. I can’t even call it a sequel or prequel. It’s a re-imagining, one of the few that can seriously call itself that. Usually, in movie/TV/game terms, “re-imagining” just means “remake, but shittier.” Not in this case. Shattered Memories stands alone. And I really, really like it.

I get sick of typing the name, so let’s just call it Memories. It was made for the Wii, presumably in an attempt to bring the franchise to a wider audience. I’ve only played the PS2 port, which is honestly pretty crappy -- but doesn’t distract from the game’s considerable strengths. At first glance, it does seem like a straightforward remake. Again, you are Harry Mason, writer and single dad to young Cheryl. Again, there is a car crash and Harry must hunt for his girl through empty streets and claustrophobic rooms, flashlight in hand. Some of the characters from the first game also reappear, more or less. And there are still deadly monsters and mind-warping reality shifts. But everything else is new, and even the familiar staples of Silent Hill are utilized in dramatically different ways. You may have noticed a pattern in this series: either the gameplay is good but the story is weak, or the story is strong but the gameplay is lacking. Memories features extremely simplistic gameplay (it is the Wii, after all) and I can’t defend it on a technical level....but the story. My God, the story.

It’s winter. Silent Hill is held in the grip of a tremendous blizzard that has blocked most of the roads and driven the town’s inhabitants indoors. And, yes, there are actual inhabitants. This is not a ruined, devastated town where terrible events have taken place. This version of Silent Hill is normal. Peaceful. Serene. The nightmare is taking place entirely within the personal bubble of Harry Mason, and more than ever, we have the sense that it’s all in his head. The crash has left him with, yes, shattered memories. He thinks he knows where his home is, but is mistaken. He thinks he knows who his daughter is, but soon discovers things that directly contradict his notion of reality. He meets a girl who claims to be his lover, then meets an older version of her who claims to be his wife. And everywhere he goes, the nightmare follows. At any time, without warning, the world may freeze over and shift into an ice-choked Otherworld inhabited by shrieking, faceless creatures who chase Harry relentlessly. All he can do is look for an exit, and even if he finds it, who knows what “reality” he may be returning to?

Shattered Memories has a big, fat, honking gimmick that it trumpets from the rooftops: it psychologically profiles you. At the beginning, you’re in the office of a smug shrink named Dr. Kauffman (last seen as a drug-dealing creep in Silent Hill 1 and Origins) who’s determined to dig into your head. During gameplay, you return to Kauffman’s office several times to answer questions and perform little activities designed to determine your personality. And the game changes depending on what you do. The changes mostly have to do with the characters’ appearance and behavior. For instance, Cybil the friendly police officer can appear as a plain motherly type, a militaristic hardass, or a fetishized sexpot. Harry himself has a different demeanor depending on how you play him. This is intended to make the game scarier, and it doesn’t. It makes the game more interesting, to be sure, and adds some solid replay value. The first time I played it, Harry was like me: a bit shy, but possessing a wry sense of humor and the ability to be a gentleman. The second time, I made different choices and Harry became a less likable, easily-angered former jock. Unfortunately, this just goes to show how arbitrary the “profiling” gimmick is. It only works if you play along, and the changes in gameplay aren’t drastic enough to truly fuck with your head. Sometimes, you must choose one of two paths: do you go through the art studio or the planetarium? But the first time I played, I kept missing the choice and going through the first door I saw. So what’s the game supposed to do with that data?

It’s not a scary game. It just isn’t. The only time you’re in any danger is when you’re in the Otherworld. Those sessions are certainly exciting -- Harry can’t fight, only run and evade the doll-like monsters. You’re tossed into a frozen labyrinth, and although the doors and pathways are well-lit, it’s easy to find yourself going in circles. You can hide, or throw down obstacles, or grab a precious signal flare to keep the beasties at bay, but if they overwhelm you, it’s back to the start. I kind of enjoy this part of the game; it gets your pulse racing. But it is just...not...scary. Honestly, the monsters are more of a nuisance, distracting you from the cool set pieces of the Otherworld, which look like a Roland Emmerich movie where M.C. Escher was the production designer. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to have the psychological profiling affect the Otherworld -- actually change the environment and look of the monsters based on what it thinks you fear? It’s a missed opportunity and it cripples the game’s attempt at scariness.

And yet, I love Memories, and it’s because of the story and atmosphere. This game is shrouded in mystery. Harry’s isolation leads not to dread but to a deep sense of melancholy and loss. The people he meets are real people with real flaws, and they only serve to underline that he is cast adrift in his own mind. And the memories of others intrude on his. Harry has a cell phone with which he can take photos, make and receive calls, or check his map. And throughout the game, he finds...echoes. Flickering fragments of someone else’s memory that his phone will pick up and record. He’ll take a picture of a particular spot and hear a woman reciting her marriage vows, or a boy crying for help as his friend drowns. He will also find objects, keepsakes, that you can collect and store. None of this is necessary to the gameplay, but it all gets woven together into a wonderful tapestry of symbolism. In terms of interactive storytelling, Memories is incredible. It’s not about the gameplay, which amounts to a four-hour walking tour. It’s not about the puzzles, which are generally lame. (Oh, no, the door is locked! Where in the immediate vicinity is the key?) It’s about the fragmented narrative. We share Harry’s confusion as nothing around him makes sense. We hunt for answers along with him.

When I first played Memories, I initially thought it was dopey -- just a dumbed-down version of the original concept. But as I kept playing, I was utterly sucked in. It is a powerful game, not for its failed attempt at horror or its flawed gimmicks, but for the care that was given to Harry’s story. The dialogue and voice-acting are quite strong; each character comes to life. You care about them, worry for their safety -- and wonder if they’re even real. It’s a game that requires its players to be smart enough to read between the lines. A lot goes unsaid, just like in Silent Hill 2. But there is an explanation. The ending of Memories is perfect. There’s a big twist, and it’s pulled off so goddamn well. You finally understand what’s been going on, why Harry sees what he sees and does what he does. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that I’ve never been so blown away by the simple sight of a character walking into a room. Depending on the choices you’ve made, the game’s ending can be poignant, tragic, heartwarming, bitter, or all of the above. But it’s always powerful, even after multiple play-throughs. And, trust me, this is a game you want to play through more than once. It has a helluva lot to offer.

Shattered Memories is far from perfect, but I love it and it gives me hope. Someone was bold enough to try something completely different with the idea of Silent Hill, to shake off all the clich├ęs of the franchise and go in an entirely different, thoughtful direction. I wouldn’t mind more paradigm shifts like this one! I guess we’ll see what the future holds.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 6

Silent Hill: Homecoming -- America, Fuck Yeah!

Riddle me this: How can you tell when a Silent Hill game was made by American developers? Give up? Solution: The nurse monsters have the biggest tits, the combat produces the most blood, and the hero says “fuck” a lot! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha I wish that were funny.

So, yeah, here we have Double Helix’s Silent Hill: Homecoming, a game that grudgingly agrees to be a Silent Hill game when it would much rather be Resident Evil 4. I know there’s worse games to rip off, but the thing is, the Resident Evil series has always walked a different path than Silent Hill. It’s scary, yes, but in a more hectic and survivalist way. It drags you violently through a lathe, whereas Silent Hill convinces you to put your hand in the lathe willingly, on the offchance that maybe nothing will happen. Both are good in their own way, and Homecoming is not that bad a game on its own merits. But it faceplants, cheeks aglow with shame, when it tries to work as an entry in the subtle, understated Silent Hill franchise. I really, really, really hate blaming this on Americans, because I am an American myself and this country has many things I feel proud of. Adapting stuff from Japan is not one of them.

Okay, diving in. In Homecoming, you are Alex Shepherd, a young soldier who....wait, hold up, there’s your problem right there. The earlier Silent Hills featured ordinary folks caught up in a nightmare. Making the hero skilled in combat and dodge rolling removes a lot of the dread of monster encounters, and it doesn’t even make sense in the context of the story because [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] it’s heavily implied that Alex is just batshit crazy. What, did he learn fighting skills from Randle McMurphy or something? Anywho, Alex returns home to Shepherd’s Glen, a tiny town near Silent Hill that really wants to be like Silent Hill but isn’t cool enough. Needless to say, everything is fucked up in the usual foggy, monster-y way, and Alex sets out to get to the bottom of things and hunt for his baby brother, Josh. Which leads to another problem: the character models. Alex is supposed to be in his early twenties, but he looks about ten years older. Josh is nine, but looks fifteen. This makes every scene between the brothers extremely creepy in all the wrong ways, especially when they’re sharing a bunk bed. But I digress. The mystery of what’s going on is fairly well-handled but steals too much from Silent Hill 2, including the string of screwed-up supporting characters who all die horribly, and the incredibly non-shocking final twist. Also, Homecoming drags the stupid Silent Hill Order into the mix because we’re kind of hung up on them, aren’t we?

The other big thing Homecoming took inspiration from was the Silent Hill movie, which I’ll be reviewing in due time. Now, I thought the movie was alright, but it was louder and gorier and less cerebral than the games. That’s allowed, because it’s a movie. But I’m saddened that this game felt it had to continue the trend. The references to the film are utterly blatant, especially when Pyramid Head shows up. It’s not the creepy, pitiful, shambling Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2; it’s the sexy, pumped-up, overblown Pyramid Head who tried to shish-kebab Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden on the big screen. And ol’ Pointy-Face’s presence in Homecoming is without rhyme or reason; he just cameos because the developers think people expect him to. If there were a Silent Hill Ten Commandments, one of them would be: THOU SHALT NOT INSERT SHIT INTO A SILENT HILL GAME SIMPLY TO PAY LIP SERVICE TO THY SUPERIOR PREDECESSORS. Another big one is, THOU SHALT NOT HAVE TO FIGHT ORDINARY DUDES. But you do. The anticlimactic last section of Homecoming trades monsters for cheesebrained cultists in gas masks who yell things like, “It’s Shepherd! Get him!” Who cares if this is the exact opposite of scary? They were in the movie.

The game isn’t without its merits. Being the first 7th-gen Silent Hill, it looks fantastic, although the addition of camera controls make it impossible to capture the same sense of vertigo and claustrophobia that the first couple games used so effectively. I like the monsters; they’re weird and frightening and utterly inhuman, and I dreaded meeting them, as I should. I bitched about the combat earlier, but let me qualify that by saying that advanced combat does not make this game easier. In fact, it’s quite challenging; Alex may be a good fighter, but the monsters can dodge and parry and block right back, so just whaling on them with a lead pipe doesn’t always work. Bullets are scarce and you can only carry so many, so there’s no hoarding. You have to know how to fight, and you’re always wondering if you should save your shotgun or rifle for something worse that might be coming up. This is good! A Silent Hill game should be no walk in the park! Yeah, I have no quibble with the mechanics of this game. That’s why I find it a tiny bit superior to Silent Hill 1: because Silent Hill 1 looked and played like absolute ass. Sorry, but it did.

It’s just...ugh, Homecoming constantly alternates between Trying Too Hard and Missing the Point. Is the violence suggested rather than shown? Nope; the blood flows like water and real-time wounds appear on the monsters as you turn them into sushi. Are you alone and alienated? Not at all; you have a female love interest and a black sidekick who looks like Forest Whitaker and sounds like a Wayans. Will you be exploring vast, labyrinthine environments? Nada; all the areas are as linear as can be, even when they don’t look like it. Is this game scary? Well, here and there. The boss fight with the giant porcelain doll creeped me out, and the police station sequence had the appropriate tone of  “oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit OH SHIT OH SHIT.” But like I said before, the endgame is just stupid and boring. Speaking of which, Homecoming has several endings, like the other Silent Hill games, but while the other Silent Hill games shift endings depending on complicated factors, this one doles out a resolution based solely on moral choices you make at three specific points. And that’s dumb. I did appreciate the implication (by one ending in particular) that everything we see is entirely in Alex’s head; that’s a concept the series has constantly teased and it was good to see it acknowledged. But a couple of the other endings make no fucking sense and leave a bad taste in your mouth.

I don’t hate this game. I just feel sorry for it. It has no idea what it’s doing, what made the series work so well before. It took its cues from all the wrong places, and it’s depressing to think that there are people out there for whom this was the intro to the franchise. They don’t know what they’re missing. Since Homecoming, the Silent Hill games have gotten back in track somewhat. Double Helix has gone on to make absolutely fucking nothing, unless you count tie-in games for such masterful films as Green Lantern and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. So I guess karma had the last laugh. After all, THOU SHALT NOT MAKE A SILENT HILL GAME THAT SEEMS TO PUNISH PEOPLE FOR LIKING THE FRANCHISE. Homecoming’s existence is unfortunate and we should leave it to quietly fade away.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 5

Silent Hill: Origins -- Derpy McTrucker and the Rubik’s Cube of Horrible Doom


After four solid entries, the Silent Hill franchise left the white city of Konami and entered the ramshackle shanty town of Western developers (Konami did remain as a publisher). This was worrisome. There are profound differences between Japanese horror and Western horror. The former tends to be more understated, showing us how the superstitions of old clash with high-tech modernity, and how subtle terror can creep into everyday life (textbook example: The Ring). The latter leans more towards blood and tits and murder and mayhem. Of course, Silent Hill had plenty of that, but how to marry two different sets of aesthetics? When Climax Studios got handed Silent Hill: Origins, their strategy was to toe the line like their lives depended on it, and the result was the only Silent Hill game that works as a screwball comedy.

I mean, look at it. You play as a stereotypical trucker in a redneck cap and plaid flannel, whose actual name is Travis Grady. (There’s a reason you never see an astrophysicist or ballet dancer named Travis.) You’re in Silent Hill, but rather than just fucking leaving, you run around collecting pieces of a magical pyramid puzzle just because that Alessa Gillespie chick says you should. Your weapons break, but there are literally dozens to find and a bottomless inventory, so you wind up with, no exaggeration, two toasters and four samurai swords and three hatchets and a handful of portable TVs, bedside lamps, police truncheons, propane canisters, crowbars, IV stands, and sledgehammers. So you’re basically a superhero, who is also maybe a serial killer, and there are a bunch of references to Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare’s Tempest in a quaint attempt on the game’s part to look smarter, and the final boss is the goofiest-looking thing ever. And the best part? This is supposed to be a prequel, giving us the story of how the town of Silent Hill first became all foggy and monster-infested -- only while you’re running around collecting the pieces of the Triforce, the town is already foggy and monster-infested with no explanation! It’s so funny! I giggle so much while playing this alleged horror game!

So it’s awful, right? Ha, fake-out! I actually like Origins quite a bit and think it’s a very solid, enjoyable addition to the series. I just acknowledge that it’s also the stupidest. Its mistake is to climb in bed with the weakest of the Silent Hill plot elements, which is the Order and the story of Alessa. Not only is that story lame, but it was already told. It’s dangerous to make a prequel because you’re slotting in something that was never mentioned before and expecting people to buy it wholesale. Travis saves Alessa from her burning house and then....he’s just there, running around collecting that stupid Magic MacGuffin Device and meeting younger versions of the characters from Silent Hill 1, whose contribution to the plot is absolutely nil. Yeah, they give Travis a tragic backstory, he must Face His Demons, and there’s that whole might-be-a-serial-killer thing, which is demonstrated by this game’s version of Pyramid Head, a hulking dude with a meat cleaver and a mask covering half his face. How’s that for subtle symbolism? Basically, every time a cutscene starts, I roll my eyes because I know the atmosphere is about to be ruined by the torturously stupid chain of events that Origins calls a plot.

That said, everything else about the game is pretty damn good. It looks good, it handles good, and while it adds little to the table in terms of gameplay, it’s still fun. One of the upsides of copypasting everything from the earlier games is that the quality stuff carries over as well. While Silent Hill 3 and 4 snuck in an alarming amount of linear progression, Origins brings the emphasis back to exploration and searching, which I far prefer. There’s a blast of nostalgia when you visit the same hospital from the first game, and the other indoor environments -- an asylum, a theatre, and a motel complex -- are huge and sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies. I get a weird sense of pleasure from watching lots of little red squiggles appear on the game map as I methodically check every door. Adding to the fun is the fact that Travis can switch between foggy pseudo-reality and dark, twisted Otherworld by touching mirrors. Yeah, it’s less scary when the Otherworld can’t suddenly pounce on you, but it forces you to think, especially when puzzle-solving. I think the puzzles in Origins are some of the best in the entire series -- arbitrary, but also clever and satisfying to figure out. The monsters are alright, though a couple are copied straight from earlier games and fighting them isn’t much challenge when you have enough melee weapons to fill a dump truck. And there’s QTEs. But what can you do?

I’m kinder to Origins than a lot of Silent Hill fans were. I can’t do what I did with The Room and say it deserves points for creativity. It’s not creative. It stamps out the Silent Hill formula with such care, such blockheaded determination to follow the established order. And all the fear and dread of Silent Hill vanishes when the intangible evil of the town is centered around a goofy occult relic that Nathan Drake would stick on his bathroom windowsill. Yeah, Silent Hill 1 did that shit too, but let me just remind y’all that I think Silent Hill 1 is the weakest game in the series. Origins is better because of its superior graphics and solid gameplay, but in terms of plot and characterization, it’s a joke. But I like it anyway. There’s something to be said for refusing to fix what isn’t broken, and I rather wish someone had told that to Double Helix Games when they got to make the fifth official entry in the franchise. Next up, over-the-top American gorefest that has Silent Hill in it for some reason.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 4

Silent Hill 4: The Room -- 1BR, Full Fixtures, Quiet Location, May Contain Portal to Insanity

And so we come to the strange chimaera that is Silent Hill 4: The Room. Rumor has it that this was supposed to be a standalone survival horror game, but Konami repurposed it as a Silent Hill sequel partway through. I can only speculate on this game’s development process, but the final result, while maintaining the feel of a Silent Hill game, also seems to fragment into frayed conceptual threads. If Silent Hill 2 is the scariest of the PS2 Silent Hills and Silent Hill 3 has the best graphics and gameplay, then number four is the most experimental. As a result, it is probably the least-liked Silent Hill game of them all. Many devoted fans hate it and don’t think it belongs.

I’m here to confess that I have a deep fondness for it, despite -- and because of -- the things people don’t like. Crazy bastard that I am.

The town of Silent Hill does not appear in The Room. You play as Tommy Wiseau, a frustrated actor/director who.....wait, sorry, that’s something else. You play as Henry Townshend, a freelance photographer who has just moved into Room 302 of the South Ashfield Heights apartment complex. Cozy new pad, hot next-door neighbor, hipster is good for Henry. Until he wakes up one morning to discover that the door is covered in chains and padlocks. He can’t get out, and no one on the outside can hear him. On the fifth day of his imprisonment, a black hole appears in the bathroom wall. Henry crawls through and finds that reality is no longer following any sort of rulebook. The hole leads to a series of locations that are sort of real and sort of not -- but Henry finds other holes that allow him to return to Room 302 at his leisure. His search for an escape route leads to a series of grisly murders, which lead to gradual insights about a very scary man named Walter Sullivan, a product of Silent Hill’s child-brainwashing operation, who....well, what he has done, and still plans to do, is fucked up. And Henry is involved whether he wants to be or not.

The Room holds onto some of the series staples -- the fixed camera angles, the hospital level, Akira Yamaoka’s eerie music -- but makes some rather drastic changes as well. As mentioned, Henry has to repeatedly return to his apartment (where the camera switches to a first-person view) because that’s the only place you can save your game. I like the gimmick; it’s kind of comforting to have a safe zone. You can find messages slipped under the door, or look out the peephole at your neighbors, or use stuff in the apartment to solve puzzles. And then, halfway through the game, Room 302 starts to become dangerous and frightening as well. Watching the deterioration of your secure home works on a psychological level, and hey, Silent Hill is all about that. The other big change is that you have a limited inventory and must juggle weapons, health items, puzzle items, and so forth. Don’t worry, though, you can store the extra crap in a special trunk. And if that sounds ripped off from Resident Evil...Yes. Yes, it probably is. But it adds an element of strategizing. Some weapons break and others are useful against specific supernatural foes. What will you take on your next foray into the dreamworld?

So, I like those changes. What don’t I like? Well, I don’t really like Henry himself. I can’t tell if this was deliberate or not, but he looks and acts like a massive stoner. Think Keanu Reeves. He barely bats an eye when confronted by hideous monsters and the thorough raping of the laws of physics. I’ve encountered people of the female persuasion who find Henry’s spaciness dreamy, so maybe I should just shut up. I also think the environments and monsters are kind of uninspired -- well, except for the cool rotating prison and the creepy cloaked thing with two baby heads. There’s more combat and less puzzle-solving, and that sucks. But let’s talk about the thing that absolutely everyone hates: the fucking Victims. The Room’s most persistent and frustrating foes are a series of ghosts that show up everywhere you go. They cannot be killed. You can stun them, but they’ll get back up. You can pin them down with special swords, but there are only five of these swords in the game and once you use one, it’s gone, unless you free the Victim again. Lastly, they drain your health just by being near you. What the fuck. Okay, yeah, it’s kind of a cool idea, but its implementation makes you want to scream. The Victims often appear in tight, narrow areas where you can’t evade them. And they can teleport, kind of, so you can’t outrun them. There is NOTHING about them that doesn’t suck.

I respect The Room for daring to be different. I honestly would rather that a game series try to play with ideas instead of stamping out the same game over and over. This particular sequel took a lot of chances, and not all of them paid off. There’s a tug of war between the tedious gameplay elements and the story, which is really good. Seriously, the tale told in The Room is soooooo much better than anything involving the Silent Hill Order, and the mystery unfolds with perfect timing. At the same time, the game goes on for too long and in the second half, you just revisit all the levels a second time. With a female sidekick who needs constant protecting. And an invincible villain who chases you around with a chainsaw and pistol. And even nastier, more powerful ghosts. Then it pulls itself together for a very solid endgame. Then it suffers a concussion and gives you a very shitty, frustrating final boss. It’s good, and then it sucks. It’s inspired, and then it’s dreary.

Well, I like Silent Hill 4: The Room, warts and all. I think its strengths are just enough to make up for its weaknesses. If you like a game with a good story, here you are. It actually works well as a sequel to Silent Hill 2; the two games do refer to each other, and The Room recaptures some of the silence and subtlety, the air of great mystery and dread lurking just out of view. It’s scary! Too bad a lot of the fear comes from knowing that the gameplay’s gonna turn miserable again as soon as another unkillable ghost turns up. So, while I don’t always get along with it, I do think it’s a worthy addition to my favorite franchise. It’s probably gone further into the Bizarro Zone than any other Silent Hill game, and it deserves merit for that alone. Also, it was Konami’s last hurrah before the damn round-eyes took over developing the franchise. After this, things got.....lost in translation.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Silent Hill Series, pt. 3

Silent Hill 3 -- Kicking It Up a Notch

After Silent Hill 2 was such a triumph, the way forward seemed clear: each game in the series should take the idea further and offer a self-contained horror experience. And that is indeed what happened.....kinda. Sorta. Eventually. Problem was, the first game had introduced all that stuff about the Order and Alessa Gillespie and Harry Mason’s lost daughter, who (spoiler alert) turned out to be a portion of Alessa’s soul made flesh. Alluring as it was, I guess the developers didn’t want to just drop all that completely. Thus, Silent Hill 3 was a direct sequel to Silent Hill 1. Unluckily, this meant its story suffered. Luckily, it continued to build on the ideas of the series and push the horror elements farther -- perhaps a little too far.

I have a strange relationship with Silent Hill 3 in that I love it and find it very playable, while acknowledging that it has some glaring flaws. Maybe if it hadn’t had to follow the incredible numero dos. Again, it’s the story of one person’s descent, but told in a more conventional horror-movie manner. The heroine is Heather, a teenage girl (and the series’s only female protagonist thus far) in a puffy vest and miniskirt, who is enjoying a day at the mall as the game opens. Well, maybe “enjoying” isn’t the right word. It’s hard to think about shopping when you have a horrible nightmare in which you die in a creepy amusement park, then wake up only to be stalked by a private detective and a religious nut with no eyebrows, then discover that everyone in the mall has vanished, it’s pitch-dark, and there are monsters. And, holy shit, Heather’s not even in Silent Hill! Yes, it’s a brand-new concept, the idea that the evil force infecting Silent Hill can reach its tendrils to other places and warp the mind from a distance. The game chronicles Heather’s attempts to make it home, which in turn leads to a trip to Silent Hill itself for some answers. I feel like the big twist regarding Heather’s identity is pretty damn, but I won’t spoil it.

Possibly the best thing about the game is Heather herself. She’s not like James from Silent Hill 2; although she has her demons, she’s a more or less sweet and chipper girl who takes no crap and can think like a mature adult. It’s hard not to fall in love with her and pray for her safety. Problem is, the game thinks she’s also a first-class ass-kicker. Silent Hill 3 is way kinder when it comes to fighting monsters: you get a knife, a handgun, a shotgun, a mace, a taser, a katana, a submachine gun, and (on your second playthrough) a fucking LIGHTSABER. Also, a flamethrower. Did I mention that you’re playing as a teenage girl? These games are supposed to punish you with difficult and unreliable combat. Heather can carve up monsters with relative ease, and it just gets goofy sometimes. It undermines the very good character animation and voice acting which is supposed to be convincing us she’s a terrified, confused child. And speaking of goofy, the monsters don’t really work for me. They’re interesting but very arbitrary, like the developers took all the monster designs that didn’t make the earlier cut. Killing them is fairly easy; after all, you’re a goddamn one-woman arsenal. Also, they’re too noisy. What happened to the earlier emphasis on silence? You can’t have the skin-crawling feeling that something unspeakable is creeping up on you when it’s going, “HI! I AM A MONSTER! RAWR!” One beastie in particular makes one of the most annoying sounds in video game history and I will never forgive Team Silent Hill for its existence.

Don’t get me wrong, the visuals and sound design are quite good. But like I said before, I feel like they’re a wee bit too good. Silent Hill 3 feels too cinematic for my taste. The scary noises are louder, the fucked-up visuals are slicker and way more in-your-face, the violence is ratcheted up, and so forth. In terms of gameplay, it follows faithfully in the wake of Silent Hill 2 and you even get to visit a couple of the same locations, but they decided to do away with most of the subtlety and kick things up a notch, BAM! Sorry, Emeril-san, but I liked Silent Hill better when it was a place of quiet mystery and menace where the lines between real and imagined blur and you can’t trust your own eyes. Here, it’s obvious when Heather enters the nightmare Otherworld because everything suddenly looks like a cross between a boiler room, the world’s least sanitary morgue, and the Saw franchise, and every surface is covered with thick oozing gunk and sludge and blood that Heather will never get off her stylish boots. It’s too HOLLYWOOD. It’s too WESTERN. And it’s worse in retrospect, because it foreshadowed what various non-Japanese developers would do with the franchise.

Okay, I’m making it sound like I don’t like this game. I do! I truly do. I said the story was weaker and it is, but the details work. This time around, we learn way more about the Order -- how they function, where they live, what motivates their members. The two human baddies are Claudia, a true zealot who craves the coming of her God, and Vincent, a sleazy creep who’s been cheerfully embezzling the Order’s funds. They both want to manipulate Heather, but for very different reasons. They’re technically on the same side, but they don’t like each other and disagree on fundamental things. I really love the contrast between them and how Heather reacts  with a mix of uncertainty and true teenage disgust. I’ve always found the Order to be a lame addition to the Silent Hill mythos, but if it must exist, I’m glad they dived deeper. (Sadly, the later Silent Hill: Homecoming would reduce the Order to moronic cartoon villainy.) The story is merely weaker when compared to Silent Hill 2, and I really don’t want to fall into the trap of comparing everything to the one game I worship. So let me reassure you that Silent Hill 3 is probably the second-best game in the series. (I personally liked Shattered Memories more, but that game stands alone, as we’ll see.)

Well, if Silent Hill 3 did one thing, it was to pretty much wrap up the story begun in Silent Hill 1. Heather’s quest may be overblown at times, but it ends on a good note and seems to suggest a well-earned happily-ever-after...or at least a resolution. So where can the series go from here? It can go into some weird-ass, polarizing places. Next up: the incredibly weird-ass and polarizing fourth entry....