Retro Review: Silent Hill 2

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By Josh Nichols on July 16th, 2021

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The original Silent Hill was created by staff members that Konami didn’t believe in, with the team consisting of employees Konami had removed from other areas of the company. Filling in the rest of the team were people that didn’t want to work there any longer and were making plans to leave. Konami instructed Team Silent to make a game that would be successful in the United States, asking the team to use a Hollywood-like atmosphere for Silent Hill.

Among the development staff, were people frustrated and fed up with Konami’s restrictions over creative freedom and having their ideas rejected. It was different with Silent Hill though. Konami put all of their problem people and anyone that didn’t fall in line on Team Silent and then went back to ignoring the team.

In my restless dreams, I see that town

Team Silent went against Konami’s wishes, instead choosing to go in their own direction. The team focused on creating something that would appeal to player emotions. The team chose to create a psychological horror game influenced by the occult, David Lynch, and the fear of not knowing. The team also decided to utilize some vague plot elements so some of the game’s story would be left to interpretation. This was to keep things weird and unsettling but it also kept Silent Hill on people’s minds and off of store shelves. Players lingered long on the game’s themes and questions and Silent Hill quickly became not only a successful game in the United States but also one of the most defining games in the survival horror genre.

Producer Akihiro Imamura provided IGN with some interesting details surrounding the development of Silent Hill 2 in an interview that was published on March 28, 2001. IGN asked if a Silent Hill sequel was planned and Imamura responded with “Well making games is a business. It’s natural of course to make a sequel to a hit title!” but he added something especially interesting when IGN pressed for more information.

Imamura said something that immediately gave further importance to Silent Hill 2. He said, “However there were also creative issues. We made the original fairly late in PlayStation’s life, and there were issues we were frustrated with in terms of being able to realise the creative potential of the Silent Hill. So honestly speaking, the team were looking forward to making a Silent Hill game without compromises. It wasn’t just a business decision.”

Silent Hill had just helped redefine the possibilities of storytelling in the games space and was considered an instant classic by players and critics. And here was Imamura saying they weren’t able to fully realize their creative potential because of the PlayStation’s limited technology.

Silent Hill 2 was released seven months later and sold over a million copies within a month. Team Silent had created another horror masterpiece, using the first game as a foundation for something somehow even more special.

Silent Hill 2 is a story of loss and grief. A story thick with pain and suffering like the very fog smothering Silent Hill. The game begins with James Sunderland arriving in Silent Hill to look for his dead wife. He’s in possession of a letter from her that says she here in Silent Hill, waiting for him at their special place. Murky tones echo across a desolate parking lot as you begin your journey to Old Silent Hill. James’s car door is left wide open with no way to close it, like the shadowy mouth of the town ahead.

I can’t even begin to think about Silent Hill 2 without hearing its soundtrack. Akira Yamaoka twisted together a blend of fuzzy rock, hazy piano, and unnerving tones that all seamlessly become the very air of the world. At times it feels reminiscent of Twin Peaks, in an original and wonderful way. And then there are notes of dread and despair that will pull at a thread hanging off your brain, without it ever pulling loose. The soundtrack lives in this weird place, tucked in between those two realms. It immediately became one of my favorite video game soundtracks. The feelings of isolation, dread, suffering, and the game’s flickering flame of optimism echo across the soundtrack. The music bakes the gameplay and story together, creating the ultimate immersive experience for anyone willing to take the trip.

Walking through Silent Hill’s abandoned streets and claustrophobic interiors is uncomfortable but it’s hard not to keep moving forward. Captivating story details scratched on walls and paper are scattered throughout the fascinating town. It’s independent of the first game’s story but it’s still the same town. You don’t need to know anything going into Silent Hill 2 to understand and enjoy the game but you’ll want to learn more about this town as you play. Everything becomes increasingly horrifying and interesting as James learns more about the town, himself, and the other people he encounters.

It’s hard to see with this fog, but there’s only the one road.

Everything is built with a specific purpose in Silent Hill 2. There are reasons for everything. And it all works together to tell the full story of the town in its current state, the story of James, and the story of Mary. As James searches for answers and clues surrounding Mary, he encounters other people that are also visiting Silent Hill. Angela, Eddie, Laura, and Maria are also visiting Silent Hill for their own reasons. Angela is a teenager who’s run away from home and is searching for her mother. Eddie is also a teenage runaway. Laura is an eight-year-old child who often mocks James and says he didn’t really love Mary. She was friends with Mary for initially unknown reasons. Maria looks remarkably similar to Mary but dresses and acts differently. She’s lost in Silent Hill and frightened by all of the monsters and so she joins James.

The monsters of Silent Hill are disturbing and unlike most video game enemies. They’re disturbing, otherwordly creatures that feel like they’ve been pulled from nightmares. There’s meaning surrounding everything in this game, and that includes the enemies. It’s yet another mystery players should discover for themselves while exploring the town as James, but another knot worth untangling.

Combat isn’t difficult but James does feel tired as he swings and shoots. It feels appropriate but there’s definitely an added weight to his movements. It’s no doubt to mirror the emotions and condition of James. It works perfectly and adds to the tension. There are tough moments that gave me issues but the difficulty is largely manageable. The game also has several difficulty options so you can choose the incline for your walk through Silent Hill.

Puzzles and exploration are the bulk of the gameplay and they work in perfect harmony with the storytelling and atmosphere. The game looks and feels miserable and cold while still featuring interesting locations. It feels like you’re lost in a strange American town, untethered from reality. It looks empty and hollow like something was here until it suddenly wasn’t. The world is perfectly designed and functions as one of several necessary pieces for its incredible storytelling.

If I stretch my arm out, I just might be able to reach it.

James’s story is like a weird fever dream. It’s hazy and smoky. It’s chaotic and nothing all at once. But then you keep playing and things start to fit into place. The story of Silent Hill 2 is equal parts elegant and horrific. It’s a gruesome tale in more ways than one but it’s also beautiful in how it unfolds. The layers are pulled back in such an interesting way and certain events and outcomes are specifically impacted by player actions. The actions don’t feel like video game actions though. The outcome legitimately feels like a result of James’s actions. The fate of James and his effects on the world are tied to his mind and intentions. I can’t praise this game enough. There are a million reasons it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made.

The lingering questions and piano notes that continue ringing in the back of my mind will keep me coming back to Silent Hill 2 for the rest of my life. It’ll be a journey I won’t stop repeating. I may take different actions when I visit Silent Hill but I know I’ll keep going back, just like James will in all of my repeat playthroughs. Something will always pull me back into this game. Its story, the exploration of its themes, the music, and everyone making their way through Silent Hill will always whisper to me, beckoning me back. It’s a horrifying experience that tugs at my soul in a most alluring way. I’m already packing my backseat for my next drive to Silent Hill.

Silent Hill 2 is playable in various forms but it’s worth trying to play it on specific hardware due to issues with the porting process and remakes. Digital Foundry has all the info to make the best decision that fits your needs.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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