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Silent Hill 4: The Room  
Frustration through awful, insulting gameplay mechanics reaches new heights in Silent Hill's latest and very worst installment.

HarryNo other game frightened me like the first Silent Hill. I remember that every time I turned off the console I realized that a sense of uneasiness had grown in me. Maybe the fact I always played the game at night, and that after the game I had to walk all the way back home on foot at 4 a.m. amidst a thick fog and in a desert provincial town helped a bit, but I swear that in those nights I was entirely paranoid.

While Silent Hill 3 remained a PlayStation 2 exclusive and Silent Hill 2 was released on Xbox only months after the PlayStation 2 release, for the first time in the history of the series Konami released Silent Hill 4 simultaneously for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. If the first game for PlayStation was saluted by many just as an original alternative to Resident Evil, the success of the latest two installments made of the Silent Hill franchise one of the most important in the industry. This isn't necessarily a good thing, at least for long time fans of the series. Silent Hill games have always been extremely valid and stimulating artistic creations; the added pressure of being part of one of the most important franchises in the industry can definitely have effects like shorter development times, multi-platform development, a diminished desire to risk, innovate and provoke the players - all elements that can easily go in favor of Konami's business but against the artistry of the series.

This happened, in part, with Silent Hill 3, even if the game is still one of the most sophisticated experiences of the latest years. More based on action, Silent Hill 3 apparently tried to shorten the distances with Capcom's Resident Evil, trying at the same time to preserve the disturbing elements of the preceding installments. The result was an uncertain work, a game that evidently lacked a good direction, still much more mature than Capcom's survival horrors, yet unable to be as deep as the previous installments (Silent Hill 2 has probably one of the most beautiful, complex, tense storylines ever to grace a videogame within a wonderful circular structure) and as fun as Resident Evil. The will to add more classic survival horror elements - dozens of monsters everywhere, greater variety of weapons - ended up intoxicating, dirtying the purity of the series. But Silent Hill 3 could have also been a necessary moment of transition, a first step of the developers in search of a new formula for their series.

From many points of view, Silent Hill 4 seems to take a road that starts where the third chapter ended. Yet, the game soon reveals to be an entirely different project, with different values and a slight but concrete shift in themes. But Silent Hill 4 has also many evident limits, for the most part in the atrocious game design, in the lack of atmosphere, and in the limited technology powering the experience. Brilliance is present, but it's also accompanied by a "seen that, done that" feeling, that aches because this is not Resident Evil, this is Silent Hill. Not only standardization goes against what this series has been all about from the beginning but it also goes against the strong need to change elements that evidently needed to be entirely redesigned. As a matter of fact, Silent Hill 4 is the worst game of the series to date.

Of premises and storylines
Once again, the hero, named Henry Townshend, seems an ordinary man (probably just a tad cuter, younger, and more athletic than Harry or James) forced to confront an apparently inexplicable situation. Henry has been locked inside his apartment. The once friendly white wooden door is now locked by a net of chains and padlocks - no chance to break them, no chance to open the door. Henry is trapped. "The Room", the apartment in which Henry is trapped becomes the core of his nightmare, a hub to access other locations of the game. In fact, Henry manages to find a way out of the apartment, two strange holes that appear around the apartment, but he will continuously have to come back to The Room - to find more clues, to solve the two or three easy "puzzles" present in the game, and to save the game.

The premise is more similar to the one of Silent Hill 3 than to the ones of the first two chapters, even if the series as a whole can be seen as a progressive shift from a realistic premise to more surrealistic ones. In Silent Hill, players had a concrete reason to start their voyage into the nightmare. Harry had to find his daughter, mysteriously disappeared into the foggy and desert town of Silent Hill. You can hardly think of a more concrete starting point for a survival horror. Silent Hill 2 had an even stronger premise. James Sunderland received a letter from his dead wife, in which she invited him to join her in the peaceful town of Silent Hill; dead people don't write letters, but James had no other choice but going to Silent Hill, in a desperate effort to change something that couldn't be changed. Silent Hill 2 started with an entirely irrational premise, but surrealism in the game was never gratuitous: it was what made the whole adventure meaningful, touching, complex, desperately human, able to reach the player's heart. Silent Hill 3's premise, or lack of premise, moved another step toward surrealism, but in a more exterior way, as part of a project that was clearly aimed at deconstructing the classic mechanisms of the genre. Eventually, the real emotional premise appeared half way during the game, but it wasn't used effectively to move the story forward.

In Silent Hill 4 the premise is entirely absurd, but it's much more concrete than the one of Silent Hill 3. At first, you feel close to this poor everyman trapped in a situation that is apparently bigger than him. Henry finds a hole in a wall of his bathroom that will lead him to many alternate worlds - worlds that appear as dreams, dreams populated by other tenants of South Ashfield Heights, the building in which he lives, dreams where a sinister figure, a serial killer, hunts down his preys following an evident but apparently meaningless path. An interesting premise, which could have lead to a fantastic storyline, if only the developers had taken the time to build it up. One of the things I hated in Silent Hill 3 was that the storyline was clearly created with the purpose of making the experience more accessible to a generic audience; lost was the complexity, the silence that hides, the truth that fades, present in past Silent Hill games in favor of a general banalization of the series' themes. But at least Silent Hill 3 showed some kind of character development, and explored themes, like women sexuality, in a way no other game has ever done. That's what made Silent Hill 3 still a classy experience, despite its evident limits.

Silent Hill 4 hints at the fact that the actions of the killer are never as terrifying as the many different loneliness of the people he kills. Loneliness is the theme that permeates the whole game, that moves across all the levels, and that manifest itself in the room and in its isolation from the rest of the world. But it's evident that the many people Henry meets during his adventure are entrapped in their own worlds, in their own idiosyncrasies, in their own little decaying rooms. Silent Hill 4 tries to describe a universe of unspeakable desperations that remain closed in inner worlds protected by walls of incommunicability, a protection that ends up suffocating and eating the soul of those who seek it. Silent Hill 4 has the ambition to narrate the story of different people, like Silent Hill 2; in fact, Henry's voyage is punctuated by the encounters with the tenants of South Ashfield Heights. The windows of the rooms seem the only possibility to communicate with others, the only objective view on the physical world, a world that remains separate from the truer one, the one where the soul resides. The killer seems the only one that in this paralyzed world tries to change the order of things, but just to build his own, to protect his own room, to find his own nest.

This beautiful theme, that could have made of Silent Hill 4 a game as deep as Silent Hill 2, is strangely developed without strength, only in an exterior way, without ever trying to go deeper into the thoughts and the real feelings of the people of South Ashfield Heights. The characters show some kind of mental disorder that they "communicate" to the outer world in different ways, but everything feels gratuitous, not realistic or strong enough to make you feel something - love or hate - for them. The main song of the game suggests that this is probably what the developers wanted, but the fact that you must feel nothing for this people doesn't necessarily imply that the game must feature no character development at all. It's a too easy way to convey a theme that movie directors, including David Lynch, always source of inspiration for the team of Silent Hill, expressed following a more complex and more enriching process. In Twin Peaks, Lynch explored in his unique unconventional and often ironic way the many personalities of the people in the small town; it's through this exploration that he showed how these people, who lived all their lives so close to each other, represented all separate worlds - in Twin Peaks, contact with "the others" is more like an infection of the soul, something that ruins the purity of the individual. But Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which isn't definitely one of the director's best works, goes closer to what the developers of Silent Hill 4 wanted to achieve. In Twin Peaks, the spectator is still supposed to feel something for all the characters; in Mulholland drive, even if the director uses an enormous amount of details to describe the psychology of the characters, the truth about each of them remains always too far away, lost in a nonsense that makes it impossible for the spectator to actually feel something for them. In other words, Mulholland Drive goes further than Twin Peaks - the complexity of their respective inner worlds makes it impossible for the characters to love and understand each other, but at the same time makes it impossible also for the spectator to understand the characters and even the meaning of the whole storyline. The spectator is left with the doubt that there could be some order behind the events and the actions of the characters, but this order is lost, broken, fragmented.

At first, Silent Hill 4 gives you the illusion that behind what you are said there must be a hidden truth; you think that the point of view on the story you are given could be a lie, or it could be not. It's this doubt, built during the first half of the game, that makes Silent Hill 4 intriguing for a while. An illusion. Because Silent Hill 4 is twice as banal as Silent Hill 3, and explains to the poor unintelligent player everything that would be too dangerous to leave unsaid, hidden, like it was done in Silent Hill 2. By the end of the game, you can summarize the storyline in a single phrase, and that's really no good, no good at all, in a series that reached the heights of Silent Hill 2. But the most serious limit of Silent Hill 4's storytelling is that character development is as deep as in the cheapest horror B-movie. Characters remain flat, uninspiring and boring; they look like common everymen, but in reality they are just cardboard figures that have nothing of the depth that even the most common individual hides in his heart. Past Silent Hill games had the intuition, innovative for the video games industry, that common people hide a whole interior world made of dark and blinding memories, of fantasies, of hope and despair, a world that can be even more real than the physical world. Only the more exterior aspects of this theme are present in Silent Hill 4. Also the theme of the serial killer, used in a way that is only remotely reminiscent of the clichés of detective stories and murder mysteries, is never used to create a figure able to turn into the nemesis of the main hero or to grow to become interesting in some way - the story of the insane killer of Silent Hill 4 is steeped in worn-out pathos and predictable clichéd elements like religious cults and Satanism that are quite laughable for anyone who has seen a couple of decent horror or thriller movies or has read a couple of books in his life. This poor twisted bad guy kills people that are as boring as him, leaving the classic grand-guignolesque remarks a bit everywhere - "Look, that's human skin! Covered with blood! With a piece of meat still attached to it!". If the developers of the game think this is scary, that's because they have never seen an episode of the Teletubbies.

Gameplay : 5.0

I should stop working as a reviewer if I write that Silent Hill 4 is fun, in any way. That's what I kept saying to myself while I was approaching the end of the game. I've been an enormous fan of past Silent Hill games, so my love for the series could have drawn my attention away from the truth - Silent Hill 4 is never fun. As a matter of fact, it's one of the worst action games I have ever played. The game director admitted, in an interview, that the final game had many moments in which gameplay was definitely annoying; too bad that these moments take about 75% of your time with Silent Hill 4.

The awful problems that make of Silent Hill 4 a thoroughly forgettable gaming experience originate for the most part by the previous installment; in Silent Hill 3, developers pretended to create a more action oriented experience than Silent Hill 2 using the same mechanics and the same technology of the preceding installment. Silent Hill 2 was not designed to be a title focused on action, so character movements were very limited, slow, and the combat system was simple and straightforward; that's why the system didn't work too well in Silent Hill 3, a game where rooms were often filled with at least three nasty zombies attacking your character from all sides. In Silent Hill 4, these problems reach a new level, thanks to nice little add-ons to the game that were thrown in probably to make the experience even more frustrating and thanks to the complete focus of the game on action.

In fact, Silent Hill 4 says goodbye to the difficult, but awesome puzzles that became a trademark of the series; there are a couple of Resident Evil's "find the number to open the door" or "put the object into that box" puzzles, but nothing else. Of course, this means that there is no longer the possibility to select the difficulty of the puzzles like in other games of the series; at the beginning, you can now only set the overall difficulty of the battles.

A game entirely focused on action. It may sound nice for all those who didn't like past Silent Hill games because they considered the puzzles to be too pretentious. But a game focused on action should offer you a rewarding experience through its combat system, its interface, and its atmosphere.

The biggest innovation or novelty should be "The Room", Henry's sweet home. While in the apartment, you go around in first person view; you can't use weapons while in first person view, so you will never have to face real monsters while in your apartment, even if in the second half of the game you will have some surprise to take care of also when you are "at home". The first person view works well, as the developers used it to let you take more confidence with your apartment than with any other place, but it doesn't even remotely play the important role that many were expecting after the first announcements of the developers. This said, looking out of the windows or spying on your beautiful neighbor, Eileen, is useless but strangely addictive, and it adds something to the experience. The simple action of looking through a hole in your wall, with an unknown person on the other side, and the impossibility to communicate with this person, serves well the purpose of portraying the sense of loneliness that permeates the whole game.

The apartment, a central element of the storyline, is a central hub from which you can access the many worlds (or levels) of the game. Silent Hill 4 is absolutely linear, so don't expect multiple holes open on multiple worlds that you can access in the order you prefer. There is always only one hole that you can enter, and the destination of this hole changes dynamically during the game. For example, in the first part of the game the hole will lead to a subway station; then, it will lead to a forest; and so on.

The apartment has many important functions. First of all, you will receive mysterious messages and diary pages under your door that are actually the main source of information about the game's characters and the storyline. Then, occasionally, you will have to find some clues in your apartment to complete the easy puzzles found in the various levels. But what's really important is that the apartment is the only place where you can save your game and the only place where you can store your inventory items. Old fans of the series, reading the last phrase, will hear a bell ringing in their head. Two bells, actually. In Silent Hill 4, for the first time in the series, you will not find save points scattered throughout the levels; adding to that, you can no longer carry with you as many items as you wish, but just 10 different objects (in Normal mode). In the end, both these additions add nothing to the formula of past games, leaving aside a good dose of frustration and the feeling that instead of going forward, the developers preferred to go backward, exhuming old gameplay mechanics.

The fact you can only save the game in your apartment is the less frustrating "novelty". In fact, you will find many holes that can bring you back to your room within the same level, and when you want to go back to the place from where you left the level, you just have to enter the hole in your apartment. Anyhow, gameplay-wise this feels often stupidly time consuming and breaks the already fragmentary and feeble atmosphere of the game; adding to that, when later in the game your room will start to be infested by strange presences (I don't want to spoil any of the few surprises), paying a visit to your apartment may become as dangerous as fighting a boss battle. You may ask why the developers didn't include traditional save points within the levels. The answer is simple, they needed the player to come back to the apartment more often to narrate the storyline through the messages you receive and to let you witness the sinister changes occurring in your room. But this way of narrating the frail story goes entirely against the gameplay. Probably for the same reason the developers decided to limit the number of objects you can carry in the many levels; with just 10 slots available, you will often have to come back to your apartment to leave some objects you no longer need or take something you wrongly left into Henry's container. Once again, this forces you to visit the apartment more often than you would like to, but it's source of serious frustration.

The way items are managed and arranged is suspect, to say the least. It's evidence of pure obtuse gameplay mechanics, to be more precise. You will often need to bring with you a melee weapon, a firearm, one or two healing items, at least one or two items needed to unlock doors in the level you are playing, at least one item to protect you from ghosts' influence, and later a "Sword Of Obedience" needed to stop boss ghosts. We have at least 7 slots taken. This means that if you find just three more objects during the level, for example powerful but breakable weapons, additional healing items, holy anti-ghost items, or anything else, you can no longer pick up objects. This is even worse if you consider that bullets are not grouped together. Each box of bullets takes a whole slot in the inventory, so carrying two boxes of ten pistol bullets and the loaded pistol means that you have said goodbye to three slots. Of course, this makes it impossible to bring with you two different firearms using different bullet types. This wouldn't be a big problem, if it weren't that Silent Hill 4 is entirely focused on action. But the most stupid thing behind the whole item management is that if your inventory is full, and you come across a new item, you are not said what kind of item you are looking at. The only message you get is "You can't carry more items". This is amazingly stupid, but it becomes insulting when it's coupled with the impossibility to drop the items in your inventory and make space for the new object - that's right, if you really want that unknown object, you must find a hole, go back to your apartment, leave some item in the container and then go back to the room where you left the object. Probably the developers thought that the idea that someone could really have had fun with Silent Hill 4 was terribly insulting. The only good thing in the item management is that items in your inventory can be now displayed on the screen without accessing the usual in-game menu. By pressing the Square button all the items into Henry's pockets are displayed on screen; you can select them with the d-pad and then press Square again to use them.

Despite a couple of predictable gimmicks, the combat system is always the same - the same of Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, and Silent Hill 3. The same that after 5 years in which the action genre has done wonders needed to be redesigned. By holding the Dual Shock's shoulder button you can holster your weapon; then, you just need to press the X button to attack a nearby enemy that your character will target automatically. It doesn't take a genius to see that this basic combat system can give the player some headache, especially when you must face more enemies at once. Each weapon has a fixed speed, and there is a small delay between the pressure of the action button and the execution of your first blow; also, if you press the attack button continuously you trigger a sort of combo that once started can't be stopped. This means that each weapon, especially the heaviest and most powerful in the game, requires good timing to be used; this worked fine in the less crowded and much less frequent fights of past games, but feels incredibly outdated in 2004, in a game that puts all its focus on action. There is no way to counterattack or stop your enemies' blows, but you can try to dodge the attacks using the d-pad: you will instinctively not rely on this move too much, as Henry is as agile as an elephant and he is often attacked by at least two enemies. The auto-targeting system fails miserably whenever there are two or three enemies on the screen that attack you simultaneously, and sometimes your character remains locked on an already dead opponent, while other monsters unleash their rage on your back. The addition of the charged attacks, a classic element of action games, which you can perform by holding the X button for a while before unleashing your blow, is also meaningless.

The best thing of the whole combat system is the wonderful use of the Dual Shock 2's vibrating function, that succeeds in making you feel your blows on the stupid and ugly enemies of the game; hitting a giant two headed monster with the body of a bird with an aluminum bat will never be so realistic and satisfying. But unfortunately, fighting enemies in Silent Hill 4 is rarely fun, because of the aforementioned awful combat system but also because of the very limited A.I. of your opponents, that follow always the same pattern of movements, and that are entirely unable to do anything else but hitting you.

But if killing or escaping monsters can be frustrating, dealing with ghosts is a nightmare. Just gameplay-wise, unfortunately, because ghosts in Silent Hill 4 look more like floating zombies than sinister presences, probably with the exception of the ones infesting walls, usually disturbing and well-designed. Overall, there is really no comparison with the beautiful, creepy ghosts seen in Fatal Frame games. The presence of ghosts in this Silent Hill feels always like a missed opportunity, especially after the trailer of the game had made a good use of these physics-defying creatures to make us think that Silent Hill 4 was a scary game. Ghosts move using the same basic A.I. of the other enemies, with the funny difference that they cannot be killed. Early in the game your only choice is trying to avoid them. Easier said than done, because many of the places in the game are filled with ghosts. Ghosts' favorite sport is penetrating Henry's chest with their bare hands; pressing continuously the buttons on the Dual Shock you can try to free Henry from their claws. Ghosts can also kill Henry without touching him, just using their evil "aura", that you can fight back using the few breakable "Saint Medallions" found in the game; by equipping the medallion not only Henry will not be hurt by the ghost's aura: if close enough, he will occasionally be able to incapacitate forever the evil poltergeist. Holy Candles can also be used to exorcize rooms, but since you will need them also into your apartment, especially if you want to get the game's good ending, you will end up using them rarely against the ghosts found in the many worlds of Silent Hill. You will be also given five "Swords Of Obedience", which you should use to stop forever the five boss ghosts found in the game. To do so, you must hit the ghost with one of your normal weapons until he/she falls to the floor; at this point, you have a split second to select the Sword Of Obedience in your item menu and nail the ghost to the floor. Unless you take the sword off, the ghost will stay there forever. This sounds fun, but controls' response is so slow that nailing many of the ghosts to the floor is always a pain, unless you are very lucky.

The lack of a single decent gameplay element is irritating, and the repetitive game structure makes things even worse. Silent Hill 4 has the most linear, predictable, repetitive structure in the series, with just five main levels to be explored twice: the first time in the first half of the game, the second time in the second half. Not only you are forced to play each level twice, your scope is also always the same. In order to keep everything spoilers free I won't say anything else, but trust me when I say that Silent Hill 4's game structure is conceptually 6-7 years old - something that you can't accept in a series that has proven to be able to surprise and shock the players.

It's this repetitiveness, together with the weak storyline and the poorly developed characters, that make of Silent Hill 4 the less scary episode of a series that, five years ago, gave us the impression to have found a new road to bring horror in videogames.

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Dual Shock 2
8MB Memory Card
Release Date
North America
September 7th, 2004
June 17th, 2004
September 24th, 2004

Home sweet home, they say.

Incredibly disgusting things will happen in your apartment.

Zombie dogs are stupid.
More screenshots of Silent Hill 4: The Room

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