Silent Hill 3 is still, indeed, a classy gaming experience - there are few games that can rival the strength of the artistic choices behind this game - but it's in many ways inferior to the preceding installments of the series. One of the elements that made the previous games so powerful was a perfect fusion of storytelling and gameplay. Both games narrated the story of average men lost in a desperate situation. In Silent Hill, awakening after a car crash, Harry found that his little daughter had disappeared from the car - from this classic premise, the story dramatically evolved into a nightmare, arriving to a climax that found no classic solution at the end of the game. In Silent Hill 2 the developers went even further, and put the player in the role of a man, James, who receives a letter from his wife, Mary; in the letter, the woman says she's waiting for him in the town of Silent Hill - but Mary is dead one year before. "In my restless dreams I see that town, Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday, but you never did. Well, I'm alone there now, in Our special place, waiting for you" - I can hardly think of a game with a more dramatic beginning than Silent Hill 2. A letter from a dead person is something seen in many bad B-movies, but in Silent Hill 2 all felt immediately so honest, so true, so real: it's because in horror movies death is often little more than mockery, while in Silent Hill 2 all is filtrated through the suffering of a man that could be me, or you. We all fear death, but the thing we fear the most is the death of the loved ones, and this isn't necessarily an altruistic feeling. We love others for what they are, but also for what they represent in relation to ourselves and our needs, for how their soul mirrors ours, for how their body can be a resonance to our heartbeat and breathing, for how their existence is a grip into our loneliness. That's why their death is really also our death. James's voyage is entirely emotional, entirely interiorized, and impossible to accept with rationality as the only meter. In different ways, Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 were able to create in the player immediate identification with the main character.
The (dis)equilibrium between gameplay and storyline
PLAY SILENT HILL BEFORE PLAYING SILENT HILL 3
In Silent Hill 3, things are different, and the equilibrium between gameplay and storyline is distorted, rough, and in part purposely so. From the very beginning it's clear the developers wanted to go against the "classic" elements present in the structure of the preceding games, where despite the surrealistic storyline the player was still moving into a "description of a situation - development of the situation - solution (or better, lack of a true solution, but this is a cliché of movies of directors like David Lynch)" scheme. In Silent Hill 3, there isn't a starting situation, and you play the first four-five hours of the game knowing nothing about the character you're controlling, knowing nothing about the place in which the adventure takes place, with just a pair of cutscenes to introduce minuscule storyline elements. Basically, until you reach half of the game, all you know about Heather, the main character, is that she's a common girl that one day went to do her shopping downtown and found herself in the middle of a nightmare populated by strange monsters. The developers successfully broke the classic mechanism of identification behind any Survival Horror game, giving you no elements to feel all in one with Heather or with her situation. While this is completely unusual for a video game, it's something pretty common in movies that refuse classic aesthetics; and, actually, it works marvelously at the cinema. But the enormous difference between a movie and a game is that the player can't be passive: in the survival horror genre, he must struggle to proceed in the story; to see what's next, he must "survive". But in Silent Hill 3 you are given no reason to proceed in the game for almost five hours, five hours in which what you have to do is for the most part killing enemies or escape from them.
Needless to say, we arrived at half of the game with a sense of disappointment. Then, all of a sudden, an extraordinary coup de théâtre hits you - after five hours into the game, you finally discover what's really going on. But even in this wonderful, literally breathtaking moment, Silent Hill 3 has one of its biggest limits. This revelation can be actually enjoyed and understood only if you have played the first game of the series. If you didn't play the first Silent Hill, you'll miss more than half of the enjoyment that Silent Hill 3 can give you, and you'll understand nothing about the storyline. Silent Hill 3 requires Silent Hill to be played, to the point it should be written on the box of the game, right next to "Memory Card 8MB" and "Dual Shock". And most important, playing this game before playing the first installment means killing also the pleasure of playing the first Silent Hill, one of the most beautiful games of all times. Well, this is actually so important that for all the people who like to skip paragraphs in a review, I must write it clearly:
But the point is: is it right to develop a game that absolutely requires another game to be really enjoyed? No, it isn't, because it's a lack of respect towards the player, who dared to spend $50 on a product that's supposed to be complete, but that in practice lacks fundamental elements to be understood. The rule of thumb when developing a sequel is giving everyone the chance of having fun with it; take as an example Metal Gear Solid 2: it's deeply connected to the previous game, but it can be thoroughly enjoyed even by players who have never heard anything about Solid Snake. Like the team behind Silent Hill 3, Kojima is an artist, but he never forgets to be first of all a game director - and one of the most difficult tasks of a game director working on a sequel is assuring that even the first time player can find in the content of the game all the things he needs to have fun with it. Only after this necessary premise a skilled developer can go crazy and build a whole edifice of cross-references, like a second level that works in synergy with the basic one to let long-time fans of the series have an even deeper experience with the game.
After the aforementioned turning point - which is actually more like a starting point, because the first five hours are like a long meaningless introduction - Silent Hill 3 goes back on track, and follows a pretty predictable storyline, that like in any other Survival Horror game ends with a final confrontation with the evil that started it all. Overall, Silent Hill 3 is not as convoluted as the previous games, and it's far from being as complex; it's true that if you haven't played the original Silent Hill it's impossible to understand the game, but it's also true that Silent Hill 3 hasn't the courage of the previous games to leave things unsaid, wrapped in silence. Silent Hill 3 explains all the things that were unclear in the original game, and it's absolutely successful in making them banal - yes, in part, Silent Hill 3 ruins what was great in Silent Hill, abandoning the surrealistic attitude of the original game in the name of worn-out horror themes like religious sects or Satanism. To be clear, the elements that in Silent Hill 3 are so clearly manifested (religious sects, dark gods, corruption of the soul and of the body) were all present in the first game, but were left in the background, like a tissue of snakes moving in the darkness - what was really important was Harry, his feelings, his lack of power and understanding in front of the horror, his desperate search for his daughter. In Silent Hill 3, character development remains extremely superficial, to the point that the situation seems more important than the persons who move into it, who make it. It's a shift in target that leads to the complete loss of that difficult, lacerating Romanticism that was behind Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2. The occasional hints given by the developers about the possibility that what you are seeing is not the truth, or not what is commonly considered "the" truth, feel more like last time additions thrown into the game to add depth than like constitutive elements of the adventure.
The horror has changed
Silent Hill 3 seems also to show a different kind of horror. In the previous games, anguish and fear were instilled into the player through darkness and silence: the horror was there but half hidden, half said, half understood - the horror was just suggested, so that the player had to imagine it, and reflect in the darkness his own fears. For all the ones always looking for "the scariest game of all times", Silent Hill 3 is by far the less scary game in the series, and only one who hasn't played the previous games could say differently. In order to supply to this evident diminished amount of fear, the developers introduced moments that would better fit in a Resident Evil game, of the kind of the classic "zombie dog jumping through the window", easy tricks that hardcore fans of the Silent Hill series would have never expected to see in Silent Hill 3. Instead of relying on anguish and fear that slowly grow in the player, the game is built on a constant sense of disgust - everything is dirty, smells badly (and "smell" is one of the words Heather uses more often), revolting, filthy, and sickening. Then, this sense of disgust is subtly linked throughout the game to the themes of woman's sexuality; it's not by chance that the main character is, for the first time in the series (if we exclude Maria's side story in Restless Dreams) a woman. The link between these references and the storyline is probably the most captivating and courageous element in Silent Hill 3, something that seems even more surprising in a video game, where maturity is often confused with easy violence and with a macho approach to sex (Grand Theft Auto anyone?).
The lack of development of the storyline is in part a stylistic choice, but it's also an effect of the shorter period of development behind this installment of the series. This becomes even plainer if we take a closer look at the gameplay of the new installment.
Surviving in Silent Hill
Controls and gameplay mechanics have remained exactly the same of the preceding installments, and nothing really new has been added to the old formula. Once again, there are two different difficulty settings, one for the fights, and the other for the puzzles. I suggest playing the game the first time with the puzzles' difficulty set at least to Normal, even if I personally preferred starting in Hard mode: this makes the challenge more interesting, and adds something in terms of gameplay time. Puzzles, like usual for the series, are intelligent, well built, and occasionally require the player to use some cultural reference outside of the game world; for example, in the very first puzzle you encounter, it's extremely useful to know something about Shakespeare's works. During the game you can also come across mini-puzzles, where you basically have to use an object to overcome an obstacle, but these are never as gratuitous (read: as stupid) as those found in Resident Evil games.
Nothing has changed in the controls from Silent Hill 2; to move Heather you use the left stick, and you can choose between the classic 3D control scheme (where right and left are used to change direction and back makes your character walk backwards; this is the most precise scheme, typical of Resident Evil games and of the first Silent Hill, but it's also the one that feels more clumsy), and the 2D camera relative control scheme (where the characters move on the screen in the direction you are pressing on the stick; this is less precise, but more intuitive than the 3D one). X is the action button, Circle turns the flashlight on and off, triangle displays the Maps, Square is used to run, R1 and L1 are the strafe buttons, and by holding R2 you can draw and aim your weapon; select and start are used to access the inventory and pause the game.
Controlling Heather feels like controlling James or Harry in the previous games; weapons are a bit more varied in Silent Hill 3, and they differ in speed and efficacy. One thing I loved in past Silent Hill games were those huge hand weapons, slow but deadly, like the pickaxe in Silent Hill and the enormous sword in Silent Hill 2; after a bit of practice, using them was great bloody fun. This kind of weapons is still here but it's a bit less useful, since enemies will more often come towards you in groups. In Silent Hill 3, fast weapons are easily the best choice, and you'll soon find some exotic hand weapon (I don't want to spoil it for you) that is strong enough against most of the monsters. Ranged weapons for your first game (powerful extra weapons can be unlocked by completing the game) include the omnipresent Beretta handgun, a rifle, and even a machine gun. The machine gun is actually a nice addition, fast and powerful, but unfortunately you can use it rarely in your first game because it has the obvious tendency of running out of ammo in a few seconds, and ammo is scarce in Silent Hill 3. Anyhow, one of the unlockable extras you can get by completing the game will be a machine gun with infinite ammo - lot of fun, if you decide to replay the game.
The fact that the gameplay mechanics have remained the same unfortunately doesn't mean that Silent Hill 3 is as well balanced as the previous games of the series. We already talked about the problems with the balance between gameplay and storyline, and one of the strongest points of the previous Silent Hill games was a perfect fusion of storyline and gameplay; that's why Silent Hill 2, while using the same mechanics of the first installment, was able to be an even more refined experience. All worked like a clockwork, with storyline serving as the prime mover for the gameplay, and the gameplay serving as a natural extension to the storyline. In Silent Hill 3 there is no storyline supporting the gameplay in the first half of the game, and you'll often find yourself asking why you are doing what you are doing; things don't get too different in the second half of the game, where the absence of true character development makes the search for the final enemy the only motive behind your actions.
Anyhow, the biggest change from the previous games is the great emphasis given to action and direct confrontations with enemies. Monsters come in six-seven shapes, with a couple of them coming from older games of the series; unfortunately, the monsters' design is way less disturbing than in Silent Hill 2. The most common monsters are the usual zombie dogs and pretty comic two-legged armless things; there is a new species of monsters, seen in many pre-release screenshots, that are bigger than any other creature seen in previous games: I was expecting the developers to use some kind of cinematographic touch to emphasize the first encounters with the creatures (like dramatic camera angles), but the direction is flat and uninspired, and you'll soon consider these gigantic things like annoying elephants you must just avoid. But even more dubious is the decision to put monsters everywhere, leaving little space to those long sections of silence and waiting experienced in Silent Hill 2: those silent moments served to create suspense, to let the player imagine the horrors hiding in the darkness, and made the more occasional encounters with those sad contorted creatures extremely dramatic and truly nerve-racking. Together with the lacking storyline, this is the main reason that make of Silent Hill 3 the less scary game of the series, and surely the one with the blander atmosphere.
Actually, Silent Hill 3 is way too based on action for the kind of control system it uses; the control scheme was designed with previous games in mind, where the slow character movements, justified by the fact the main characters were just average men, worked fine because exploration was more important than direct fights, and these fights were never too difficult. In Silent Hill 3, the developers took the same combat system of the older games and pretended to use it in a game where you have to fight dozens of monsters, that often come towards you in groups of at least three elements: the augmented difficulty of the fights should probably create more tension, but is in practice just uselessly frustrating, even if you start the game with the combat difficulty setting set to Normal. The strange thing is that everything could have been balanced easily by giving the players more healing items and more ammo for certain weapons like the machine gun or the rifle, but instead the developers opted for giving the players almost the same amount of ammo found in previous games. And if this lack of balance is an issue in the first part of the game, in the second part things can get so frustrating you may find yourself yelling at the TV screen way too often to play the game at night. By frustrating I don't necessarily mean that you'll die often in Silent Hill 3, but just that you'll find yourself in situations that are no fun or tense.
If you played previous games of the series, you'll remember those moments in which everything seemed to turn into a nightmare: walls and floors disappeared and became rusty cages, and everything looked dirty and filthy - this is what is commonly called the "dark" or "alternate" Silent Hill. In Silent Hill 3 there is still the "dark" Silent Hill, but the developers also added a second level to the nightmare, a second kind of transformation that turns corridors and rooms into living things, with veins pulsating along the walls, and special light effects and filters used to create a strong sense of confusion in the player. These moments, visually extraordinary, are in terms of gameplay absolutely irritating - mainly because the developers decided to put hordes of monsters also in this "hellish" Silent Hill. You'll be attacked by three, four enemies at once while the camera fails to properly frame the action, the special filters and light effects applied to the image will make it terribly difficult to distinguish what is going on, and you'll constantly risk to fall into a bottomless pit. I perfectly understand the intention of the developers, who wanted to create tension by putting pressure on the player, but it just doesn't work. Once again, the player is not passive, and must focus his attention in surviving through the situation he has to face in the game; if you decide to create a situation where the player has to fight, but you make it impossible to properly control the character, the first thing the player will get will be just frustration against the game. These pure chaotic moments would have had more sense, would have been more accepted, if at least the storyline was able to be actually intriguing - but here not only I'm not having fun, but I'm not even having atmosphere, or a strong story as a reward to my fatigues.
Frustration can also come from other choices of the developers, like inclusion of many moments that seems taken from Tomb Raider games. In certain situations, in fact, you'll have to make a choice, for example choosing to pass across a bridge or not - if you choose the wrong option, you'll character could die immediately; the bad thing is that usually you're given no hint that may guide you in these choices: luck, and a bit of instinct, will be your best friends. There are even a couple of sections in the game where you'll have to run across corridors or rooms to escape from "something"; to make it clear, it's a bit like Indiana Jones escaping from the giant rock in the Riders Of The Lost Ark. Even in this case, your failure will mean immediate death, and rest assured that you'll die at least once, mainly because the control layout was not originally conceived with this kind of moments in mind. Silent Hill 3 also introduces a little new element to the gameplay, the possibility to fall into bottomless pits cheerfully scattered everywhere in the game. In certain areas, they are wisely positioned and actually serve to increase the tension; in others, the bad camera angles will make impossible to see that you are going to step into a black hole right in the middle of the room.
The automatic camera should have been reworked a bit by the developers, mainly because it was designed for the pace of the preceding games; the more frequent and more crowded fights of Silent Hill 3 clash with the too slow adjustments in the camera position, and the awkward angles used by default cause a lot of trouble when you absolutely must avoid to take a false step; the right stick can still be used to look around, but the function is not active in all the areas of the game, and it's anyhow extremely slow - this wasn't a problem in Silent Hill 2, where the limited views had some reason to exist, but it's a problem in Silent Hill 3, where corridors are for the most part infested by some kind of creature. Thankfully, the auto-aim function, already present in previous games, works smoothly, and lets you shoot with precision even at enemies not visible on the screen (players of Silent Hill 2 should remember this was a key feature in one of the most important boss battles).
Only in certain moments, Silent Hill 3 shows the same brilliance of the preceding games of the series, especially in the few new Silent Hill environments entirely designed for this chapter. In fact, long sections of the game reuses environments taken from Silent Hill 2 - a clear hint of the limited development time - that feel a bit out of place, because they have no real connection to the storyline of this sequel. It's unclear why you should visit certain areas of the previous game, and the suspicion that the only reason is the developers desperately had to add some hour of gameplay time seems to become often a certainty.