(Insert chorus of angry boos here)
I’ll admit it has problems, but comparing its flaws to the successes of its three predecessors is a whole event in and of itself. But even with its shortcomings, Silent Hill 4 absolutely nailed everything that a survival horror game should do to put you on edge and scare you. Mechanically and in its presentation, Team Silent’s objectively worst game in the series still outshines most contenders in the genre.
Silent Hill 4 opens with a superb setup. We start in first-person mode, something no game in the series thus far had. It tells the player that this is different, this isn’t the same Silent Hill experience you’re used to. Movement is a bit clunky, making you feel uneasy by denying you the control you want. You have limited, tunneled vision. The narrow view means something could be behind or right next to you.
They reinforce this oppressive, claustrophobic feeling by trapping you in your apartment, and they reinforce that feeling by subsequently trapping you in the places you travel to. The theme of being trapped never goes away no matter where you are in the game. And in later parts of the game, they tie that feeling into the deeper narrative and mechanics.
When you explore your apartment, someone locked the door from the inside, giving the impression that whatever locked you in there is still inside with you. But you can’t see it. For most of the game, there is no evidence there is anything in the apartment with you at all. However, you can sense something watching you. You feel their gaze but lack the ability to interact with them.
In order to escape your apartment, you must travel through a mysterious hole in your wall. Nothing forces you through. It is up to you to go through that hole. And that decision shows us something so different about Silent Hill 4. It shows us who Henry (the protagonist) is at his core and what we can expect from him (and the game) by introducing zero conflict.
In the beginning of the game, you’re trapped in your apartment, but you’re also safe. There is no immediate threat to push you forward. In Silent Hill 1, you knew who Harry was because he was willing to chase after his daughter into extremely dangerous situations to try and save her. In Silent Hill 2, James is a broken and desperate man who presses on because of desperation. His grief has overtaken his willingness to live. In Silent Hill 3, Heather is running away from a suspicious man that appears to be a danger to her, and that’s when the world changes. In all three of those games, you have to move forward. The story and characters compel you to do so.
In Silent Hill 4, Henry could stay put and die in peace in his apartment. It would be lonely, but it would be safe. The only escape from his apartment is through a hole in his wall that leads to a horrific place full of monsters and mysteries. Every time he returns home (for most of the game), it is safe. Every time he returns, he could quit right there and live out his remaining days in the safety of his apartment. But he doesn’t. He chooses not to die alone. He chooses to fight to escape, no matter how bleak his chances seem or how terrifying the places he goes are. While the other three protagonists had clear motivations, Henry’s drive to survive is more on the player to interpret.
That lack of the protagonist having a solid purpose or drive does become a problem for some players. It’s not until later in the game you discover there is a serial killer that lived in your apartment before you and that you can try to stop him. If you make it to that part of the game, you’re probably already sold on the game simply by the creepy atmosphere and tension.
And Silent Hill 4 creates an incredible amount of tension. The monsters have a different feel to them than in previous games. They’re from the mind of a serial killer, and all but a few have an eerie amount of humanity to them. The game has some familiar settings to the previous installments, such as an apartment building and a hospital, but they are not like the ones in the previous games. Silent Hill 4 really showed how different it could be to the previous 3 games but still be a Silent Hill game.
Each sequel took the town, mythos, and meaning of Silent Hill in a new direction. While is a direct sequel to 1, 2 and 4 experimented even further. They introduced characters that did not possess the solid connection to the physical town itself, like the characters from 1 and 3 did. Similar to Silent Hill 2 and 3, Silent Hill 4 plays with the idea of the influence of the town stretching beyond the city limits. In 2, it’s only a letter, but it’s powerful enough to pull James hard enough to get him to drive there. In Silent Hill 3, the influence of the town grows further. The world changes in a mall not far from Silent Hill. However, since Heather is running away, there’s a sense that it’s luring her into it rather than it rolling over the mall like a wave. In 4, the influence of the town is so powerful, it can reach a stationary man and engulf his entire apartment. This puts the protagonist into a sort of pocket dimension where he can see and hear the outside world but no one can interact with him. As the game continues, we see how much more influence the evil of the town has over the world beyond its borders.
While the end results of the story and characters certainly fail to capture the gravity and personality of the first three games, the individual parts of Silent Hill 4 are just as good as its predecessors. The monsters and creepy, the atmosphere is chilling, the sound design is amazing, and the levels are on par with the previous 3 games. It’s a shame they don’t culminate to create something as good as the first 3 games, but it really does stand alone as a good game.
But in order to implement the innovation they wanted to try, they had to take some risks. And risks they took, some paying off more than others did.
And for the fourth game in the series, Team Silent could have rehashed different ideas from the first 3 games and churned out a soulless sequel that probably still would have made them money. But they didn’t. They made bold choices to try something we as the players hadn’t experienced. They surprised players with a different story. They offered fear and unsettling images in ways previously untouched by the other games.
One of the risks involved changing the lore even more. The first three games do this as well. Each game tells you how the town of Silent Hill works to some extent, but that changes with each game. It never stays the same. And that’s a good thing. A key component of the games is that you cannot feel safe when in Silent Hill. It’s always unpredictable. If we as players knew how the spirit that is the town worked, we could figure out how to predict it, how to combat it. It’s always changing in the games, leaving us wondering how it will be different not just from game to game, but from moment to moment. That uneasiness is a staple in all 4 games.
It’s harder to say where Silent Hill 4 really falls within the genre.
If you want a game that is scary without relying on jump scares, Silent Hill 4 is better than any of the Resident Evil games (though I have not played Resident Evil 7 at time of writing).
And let me clarify: I love the Resident Evil series, from the original trilogy to 4 to the REmake and beyond. And as tense as any much of the Resident Evil series is, I found Silent Hill 4 much scarier. The atmosphere is more oppressive. The level-design is creepy and full of surprises. It truly is a more horrifying experience to move through the environments of Silent Hill 4 than it is to move through the streets of Raccoon City.
If you want a good horror game that has interesting puzzles, I’d say Silent Hill 4 is better than Fatal Frame 2 or 3. There’s no way anyone could get me to say Fatal Frame 2 or 3 are anything short of horrifying. I’d even say they’re great games in general. However, I had to constantly check with a walkthrough to beat either of them. The clues were too vague, the level designs were too similar, and while the muddied visuals really pulled me into the atmosphere, I couldn’t figure out where most things were. The recurring need to check the internet for where to go and the maddening amount of backtracking I had to do when I was trying to figure it on my own pulled me right out of the experience. In its defense, when I did figure out where I needed to go and what I needed to do in those games, it didn’t take long to get pulled right back in.
I also think Silent Hill 4 is scarier and a more gripping game than a lot of modern horror games. I’d recommend Silent Hill 4 over Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Slender, or any of the Silent Hill games that came out after it.
Despite the flaws that will keep it from being as good as the first 3 games, Silent Hill 4 is one of the best survival/horror games I’ve ever played. I may not be completely alone in stating that, but I still feel the collective gasps when I say it, making me feel like a bad nerd.
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