I haven't quite made up my mind about Silent Hill 4: The Room yet.
If you read my recent preview, I was enthusiastic as hell about it. The gameplay was updated, the game was genuinely scary, there were interesting puzzles to solve that were centered around the game's new dynamic, and it still felt like Silent Hill. There were only a few levels in the early build, but they were enough to get me really excited.
The full version arrived a couple of days ago, and I tore into it. However, the more I played SH4, the more I came to feel as if something was missing.
SH4 begins in Room 302 in an apartment complex in the city of Ashfield, which is currently occupied by Henry Townshend. Five nights ago, he began having horrifying nightmares, of the apartment being slowly invaded and occupied by some unknown entity. Five nights ago, somebody chained his front door shut from the inside.
The windows won't open, the phone doesn't work, and no one can hear Henry when he shouts. When a hole opens in his bathroom wall, Henry doesn't see another way out. He crawls through it, and instead of winding up in the apartment next door, finds himself in the abandoned wreck of a local subway. The holes in the wall lead to other places in an alternate Ashfield, where nothing human has lived for decades... or in the woods surrounding a nearby town called Silent Hill.
The first weird thing about Silent Hill 4 is that it's pretty much a side story. There're very few references to past games in SH4, and they're easy to miss. Most of the game doesn't even take place in Silent Hill.
The second weird thing about Silent Hill 4 is... everything else.
The Silent Hill series was starting to get repetitive. In each game, you dug up a bunch of weapons and a flashlight, and then proceeded to explore a variety of surreal and horrifying environments. The graphics would be good, the music would be great, and if you were at all willing to buy into the game on its own terms, you'd get scared half to death. There'd be a few weird puzzles and boss fights along the way, and finally, you'd shoot something horrible right in the head. Game over, you win (sort of, maybe if you're lucky), see you next time.
Silent Hill 4 returns to the psychological scares of the second game, while simultaneously jettisoning most of the existing formula. There are almost no guns, no flashlight, no convenient save points, you're not alone anymore, you have a finite inventory that's accessed in real time, and you'll be dogged by invulnerable enemies at almost every turn.
Henry spends most of SH4 operating out of Room 302, which serves as a save point, item dump, and safe haven. Using the holes in its walls, you can access one "World" at a time, each of which represents one stage in the mystery that's keeping him trapped in Room 302.
When Henry leaves, he winds up in the ancient wasteland of the alternate Silent Hill. Each "World" has a goal for you, and when it's reached, Henry wakes up in Room 302. While you're in the field, so to speak, you can return to 302 via several (in)conveniently placed holes, which allows you to drop off extra items, regain health, save your game, and occasionally use 302 to solve a puzzle.
This is the first problem with the new system. Room 302 is your only save point. It slows the game down a bit, but more importantly, it gets less and less convenient the further you go. This is especially true in the last level, where going back to Room 302 also means going back twelve rooms and through enough monsters to invade Paraguay.
(There's also a slight problem in the second half of the game, where going to Room 302 at all carries its own special complications. You know something's screwed up when you catch yourself checking your inventory to make sure you have the gear to survive a trip to the room that contains the save point.)
Speaking of monsters, each World is packed with a marching horde of freakshow creations that has to be seen to be believed. There are the usual dogs, of course, but you'll also face giant mosquitos, huge doublefaced babyheaded gorillas, and hooting half-humans. If there's a theme to SH4's bestiary, it's things jumping out of walls or the floor. An empty room is no longer safe.
From the first World onward, you'll also run into a series of ghosts, which can't be killed. You can slow them down sometimes, by leaving the room or beating them senseless, but they'll just pop back up later on, good as new and ready to punch your ticket. They can fly, they injure Henry just by being in the same room as him, and some of them have other special abilities. In a way, much of SH4 is a chase scene, simply because of the ghosts.
It doesn't help that Henry's probably the least well-equipped of any character in the SH series. There are a couple of guns lying around, but ammo's scarce and the inventory system makes it hard to use them. (Since each clip of ammo takes up a separate slot, it's difficult to juggle a gun, bullets, quest items, and medical supplies with the ten slots that're available.) Most of the time, you'll be using melee weapons such as golf clubs, a hand axe, a length of steel pipe, a wine bottle, or a baseball bat. When he's equipped with a hand weapon, Henry can also hold down the attack button to charge up his swing. A full-power hit will knock a monster flying, letting you run away or giving you breathing room.
None of these changes, aside from the obvious problems with the inventory system and lack of save points, are intrinsically bad. SH4 still feels like a Silent Hill game despite the changes to its gameplay, which is a minor triumph by any stretch of the imagination. They've successfully reinvented the wheel.
The real problems with SH4 are a bit less obvious than that.
The game takes a decided turn for the worse around its halfway point. Once you reach a certain stage, SH4 turns into something that's half escort mission (albeit an escort mission with a functionally invulnerable NPC who can really take care of herself), half extended chase scene, and there's no way around it. At the same time, Room 302 turns into a deathtrap and you start revisiting every location.
It feels like the designers ran out of time and needed to figure out some cheap ways to make the game harder and recycle a few maps. Every Silent Hill game usually has at least one point where it feels like really tense busywork rather than a horror game (the Hall of Horrors in SH3, the sewers in SH, those interminable long-ass walks in SH2), and for SH4, it's the last couple of hours.
The central plot of SH4 is also missing something, and over the course of writing this review, I think I've finally puzzled out what it is. It's personality.
Each past protagonist in a SH game had some baggage to bring to the table. Harry was looking for his daughter, James was looking for his dead wife, and Heather was... well, she wasn't looking for much of anything to start with, but they went out of their way to give her some personality.
By comparison, Henry is a total blank slate. We never learn anything about him, except that none of his neighbors really know him. The furniture in Room 302 doesn't tell us anything either, since as Henry is careful to tell us, it was all there when he moved in.
Maybe they were shooting for some kind of universal everyman approach with Henry, but if they did, they went way too far. It's not just that he's relatively normal; it's that he's a parody of normal. By the time you reach the third World or so, Henry's complete lack of a reaction to everything he sees is almost a running joke, and it's crossed into the realm of absurdity by the endgame. This is what would happen if Keanu Reeves scored the lead role in a Silent Hill movie. ("Dude. Sammael itself is eating my legs. Whoa.")
Room 302 itself is also a problem. Akira Yamaoka said at E3 that one of the major themes of Silent Hill 4 was what happens when a place that you take for granted suddenly turns against you, when your personal safe haven suddenly turns poisonous and lethal.
It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it was instituted right. Room 302 never looks like someplace safe, ever; for one thing, the opening dream sequence features something jumping out of the wall to eat your face. The walls are the color you get from several decades of nicotine stains, somebody's been scribbling on the sideboard with an icepick, and the front door is chained shut. Even early in the game, where 302 represents healing and a monster-free zone, there's supernatural phenomena all over the place and at least one serious scare.
If they really wanted to make you think of Room 302 as a safe place, only to turn it around on you later, it might've been better to start the game well before Henry's first trip through the hole. (I was thinking of it kind of like what would happen if you were in a Resident Evil safe room, complete with the soothing music, when a Tyrant suddenly busted through the wall.) When you start SH4, the room is already a dank prison, and its eventual metamorphosis isn't really a surprise.
Silent Hill 4 is still a damned scary game, and it's one of the better survival horror titles out there because of that. It's good to see its designers taking risks and experimenting with the formula. This time, however, it's kind of a misfire. It's by no means a failure, but it's not a success, either.