A Portal To Purgatory
After I played the original "Silent Hill", I was left wondering what direction the storyline would take in its sequel. I didn't expect a direct continuation, because the elements of that storyline were so conclusive. But I did at least expect it to take place within the Silent Hill Township, and more importantly within the mythos of the first game. In that first story, a child and her father feel compelled to go to the Silent Hill resort town to resolve a preternatal past that is haunting her. The father sees a young woman walk in front of his car, and to avoid hitting her, steers away and crashes. When he awakes, he has entered into some new reality, one that alternates between a deserted foggy state and a nightmare state. What's worse, his daughter is missing and he must embark on a quest to find her. As the story progresses, we discover the sinister link the missing girl has with a religious cult operating under the covers within Silent Hill, and that the cause of the shifting states of reality is that her nightmares are manifesting themselves in the town. The game ends on a drastically final note with the destruction of her nightmares, and a rebirth to innocence.
Needless to say, this presented a challenge to any would-be sequel: how to continue a story that ended in such finality, and how to recreate atmosphere and gameplay elements which literally owed their existence to the unique circumstances of the first game. This sequel took a very reasonable approach, not attempting to create a continuation of the original storyline, but using the basic plot over again in more generalized circumstances. It paints the Silent Hill resort town as an open portal to purgatory where lost souls go to face fears and resolve issues in a sadistic play for their own survival. This time around, many are compelled to go to Silent Hill and enter this portal, where their nightmares arising from their personal guilt or grief are manifested as realities in the township. The resulting framework is far more psychological than that of the first game, as the main character isn't experiencing someone else's fears but rather his own.
The game presents four individuals drawn to Silent Hill to seek judgment or resolution to their past. These include a child grieving for the only mother she ever knew, an oafish man seeking to escape his guilt for his own cruelty as well as the cruelty shown to him by others, and a woman who seeks relief from the scars of childhood abuse. The main character, James Sunderland, has lost his wife to a horrible illness. He receives a mysterious letter from her beckoning him to return to Silent Hill where she will be waiting for him. He returns to Silent Hill to find out just what is going on. In the process of his journey, he must face his fears, his nightmares, a manifestation of his wife as he would have preferred her to be, and even a manifestation of himself as executioner, weighted down with all his sins on his shoulders.
This game was our first chance to experience Silent Hill on a console with advanced capabilities in graphics and sound, and the result was far more than I expected. Graphically, the game is eye candy. The environments are crisp and delicious with lots of detail. The fog obscures a lot of that detail until facing specific items and structures close up, but the fog is not there to hide flaws in the backgrounds, as it was in the first game on the Sony Playstation. Bowling alleys look like bowling alleys, hospitals look like hospitals, and hotels look like hotels, on both the inside and the outside. Another visual play inherited from the original game is the grainy dithering meant to simulate the viewing quality of a VCR tape. This time the effect can be turned off after playing through the game at least once; however, I suggest keeping the effect turned on, as it creates the same ethereal quality of watching an old horror movie from a VHS tape.
While the game is more graphically astute than anything before it on both consoles for which it was released, this XBOX version is well ahead of the Playstation 2 version in terms of quality and realism. When light beams descend in dark places, when shadows are generated from that light, or when reflections are cast in water and mirrors -- that is when the XBOX port really shines above the Playstation 2 version of the game.
Sound is ripe in this game, and with its clanky unnerving effects, it is very much of the style of the first game. The same could be said of the incidental music. Themed music is a different story, as it has a much more contemporary upbeat bend to it. This marks an unexpected departure from the first "Silent Hill" game's mood. Instrumentally it is very much the same, but emotionally it’s lost the "American Gothic" small-town dysfunctional edge in the original's soundtrack. If there is any one area where the sound quality hits a high note, it's in the voice work. The dialog written for this game is already top-notch, but the voice work brings it to a level of polish rarely achieved. This is some of the best voice work in any available title in the series.
The developers of "Silent Hill 2" took the criticisms players had with the first "Silent Hill" seriously, and worked hard to rectify issues particularly in respect to gameplay. The good things about the series have remained. These include the radio that puts out increasing static as enemies draw near, and interiors that are mostly dark and require a flashlight to illuminate your surroundings. These added a creep factor in the original game that left the player expecting the unexpected, and they haven't aged badly. Town exploration is still a major aspect of gameplay, just as it was in the first game. What is presented is actually a completely different section of Silent Hill than that which was presented in the first game. That game dealt with the part of town which sits north of Taluca Lake. This game instead presents the portion of town south of that lake, which is huge and detailed in its own right. That the game deals with another section of town that wasn't presented previously makes the gameplay seem just as fresh. It's just a tad bit less complex than that first game's presentation, but there's still enough here to keep the player busy figuring out where to go next. The nightmare state the town enters into is still there, though it has an artistic direction of its own that is very different than that of the first. That is more than fitting as this nightmare state is now explained as a manifestation of James' own unique nightmares.
One major problem I had with the original game was with the 3D tank-like control scheme borrowed from the "Resident Evil" franchise. While this game still uses that control scheme by default, it allows users to switch to a more traditional set of 2D controls. This option makes the game so much more fluid that it feels like a different game. The original game had three separate modes for combat difficulty, and this game has expanded on that by adding one new "beginner" mode for combat difficulty to allow the player to experience the storyline without as much combat-heavy effort. New difficulty modes for the game's puzzles have also been added. There are initially three, but completing the game on all three reveals a fourth possible puzzle mode which introduces some truly mind-bending puzzles.
The game has incredible replay value, especially the XBOX version of the game. There are six possible endings, the first three of which occur based on how you play the game overall, including how much time you spend with certain characters and how much you protect them. It's a very interesting approach that I have never seen before. There are other endings too, such as an ending that is tied to the acquiring of certain religious relics, and a very comical ending achieved by finding a key in a doghouse. Finally, fans of the first game will appreciate that a UFO ending exists in the XBOX version, which is achieved by finding a blue channeling crystal and using it in key locations. Also available in this XBOX version is a separate storyline allowing the player to take control of a non-playable character who is critically important in the main scenario. Though this alternate game is much shorter than the main scenario, it does shed some light on just what is going on with James in Silent Hill.
I had my worries about where a sequel to the most perplexing survival horror game I had ever played could possibly go. The potential was there for the creation of a mediocre game with little connection to the original, or worse, a direct continuation of the original with a less coherent storyline. My fears were definitely alleviated as I played through the game for the first time. I like that the developers avoided making a direct sequel to the original game, and their decision has left us with a successful complement to its legendary predecessor. For fans of the series, it's a must-have and represents in my opinion the second best game in the series. For new players, it's a game whose storyline is not so connected to the original as to require delving into the original first. It's a game that stands clearly and remarkably on its own.