Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-10-21 05:51:00

Silent Hill 0rigins


Mirrors are more fun than television

Prequels have a very bad reputation. Oh, the intent is fine enough: showing what the world was like in the Before Time, letting us see familiar faces and the events that shaped them, that kind of thing. But all too often, they devolve into brainless fanservice, burying you in an avalanche of knowing winks and sly glances. You can hear them pissing themselves with sheer glee as one character tells another that their brother will never betray them/will be the death of them/could be the greatest of us all, or some other ironic comment, rather than trying to get some actual tragedy or pathos out of the events. And woe betide if you don’t have any working knowledge of the original, since you’re going to be left wondering every few minutes if you just saw something important. So yes, to your average viewer, prequels are never a good idea.

Silent Hill 0rigins is a prequel to the original Silent Hill. It’s also, not very good, though in its defence, that’s not entirely the fault of its status as a prequel. Give it its due, it sucks on its own merits.

Okay, fair word of warning here: I love the SH series. It redefined the then-burgeoning survival horror genre beyond all recognition upon its release ten years ago. The other main front-runner in the genre, Resident Evil went for traditional shocks, showing you things you were more than likely already scared of, but bigger (a spider the size of your thumbnail is not scary – a spider the size of a van, on the other hand…). It was classic Hollywood jumpscares, and looking back, frankly, they’re laughable. I played the first game again recently: even with the most infamous scares, like the dog window (you know the one I mean) there was barely even a twitch. Going back to the first Silent Hill, on the other hand, you realise that, regardless of the fact that the graphics have aged badly over the last decade, it’s still scary. Play it on a PSP with the lights out and headphones on and watch your complacent smugness fly out the window as you’re scared shitless by a so-called ‘old’ game. The second set the benchmark for storytelling, not just for survival horror games, but arguably for gaming in general, knowing exactly how much to say and how much to merely hint at, leaving many of the finer details for the player to work out for themselves. The third simply had the unfortunate luck to come after the second, being an underrated but still good sequel to the first, and the fourth tried to do something new, but failed in the attempt.

There was no fifth Silent Hill game. This isn’t the flauros you’re looking for, move along.

The deck was stacked against 0rigins from the start really. Of the original Team Silent, only Akira Yamaoka, was to be involved, and, outside of the music department, he had been relegated to ‘creative consultant’ or something equally vague. The game itself was being handled by Climax Studios, better know for such games as Battlezone: Rise of the Black Dogs and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch 2: Hamsterveil Havoc. But fear not, they claimed they were big fans of the series and wanted to do it justice. They knew their shit, and they were itching to prove all the naysayers wrong. All they needed was a chance to prove themselves.

SH0 is set about seven or so years before the original. While on a job near the town of Silent Hill, Travis Grady, a trucker, nearly hits a figure on a quiet road. Trying to find out where the person went, he goes for a wander in the countryside and eventually stumbles across a burning house. He rescues a girl from being burned to a crisp (well, more of a crisp by this point) and gets back outside. And that’s the point where the story pretty much collapses on itself.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a story here, and it’s an okay one, except for two details. First off, it’s a prequel, yet Grady’s involvement with the larger plot is almost non-existent. He runs into most of the major cast, but doesn’t have any real impact on them or their goals. He unwittingly assembles an important McGuffin one Harry Mason would later find somewhat helpful, but you can hardly say he plays any major role, or makes any amazing revelations about anything we already know. Well, that’s not true, the game clarifies one minor fan theory about the relationship between Lisa Garland and Dr. Kauffman. SWEET SAMAEL IN THE OTHERWORLD, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG!!! Is your mind shattered? I know mine is.

Trav’s story, on the other hand, involves a trip he took as a lad with his parents, when his mother got herself committed to an insane asylum after she tried to kill him. Yup, turns out he has a Dark and Twisted Past with the town, and it’s keeping him here because… well, see, that’s the other problem with the game. It all falls apart when you realise there’s literally nothing keeping him in this town. His primary reason at the start is to find out what happened to the girl he rescued. Fair enough, I can respect that after saving someone, you’d want to at least know if they’re dead or not, right? But once he confirms that, and the town’s started doing its spooky shit (more on that in a bit) he’s determined to stick around for no goddamn reason.

Let’s take a moment and compare the motivations of the heroes of the games, shall we?

Silent Hill: “I’m not leaving this town until I find out what happened to my daughter.”
Silent Hill 2: “I’m not leaving this town until I find out who sent me that letter and what happened to my dead (?) wife.”
Silent Hill 3: “Stay in this town? Me?! Fuck that, yo, I’m getting the hell out of here!”
Silent Hill 4: “I’m only here so I can get out of my fucking flat, I don’t even want to be here!”
Silent Hill 0: “I’m not leaving because someone keeps leaving me vague clues about where to go next and it really annoys me when people do that!”

Clearly, Travis is a man driven by an OCD urge to punish people who mildly annoy him. That, or he has a fetish for being led about by the nose everywhere. Worthy and admirable traits for any hero to possess. Sorry, did I say ‘hero’? Darn, I meant to say ‘easily manipulated fuckwit’. I always get those two confused.

Okay, okay, we’ve played games with flimsier plots and dumber heroes. None that can top this are springing to might right this very second, but I’m sure there was at least one. Besides, it doesn’t matter as long as the gameplay’s up to snuff, right? Resident Evil’s storyline had dozens of incidents and plot details carved from finest whatthefuckium, and people still enjoyed them.

Would it surprise anyone to learn the gameplay’s not up to scratch? Didn’t think so.

Take a look at this map here:

Big, innit. That’s the second major stage. Not the last, the second. Actually that’s one floor of the second major stage. There’s another floor above that, and a basement as well. And, thanks to the game’s reality-shifting mechanic (you can move into the famed Otherworld at will simply by going up to a mirror), there’s two versions of it, so that’s a grand total of six floors you have to wander about! Okay, yes, most of the rooms suffer from the classic “The door is stuck/locked/actually painted onto the wall itself” thing, but seriously, look how many of the fucking things there are! And it’s not like things logically lead from A to B with a small sidetrip to C, D and E, oh no, everything is placed at opposite ends of the map from each other, resulting in lengthy journeys all over the place. There’s a costume to be unlocked if you complete the game in under two hours, and another for looking at the map less than 25 times. Frankly, both of those are bullshit: the asylum takes about two hours by itself, and it’s stupidly easy to get lost or forget where you’re going without outside help. I don’t mind backtracking as much as others, but done to this degree, it’s padding, plain and simple.

One of the biggest bugbears I have with this game is with the combat. Okay, Climax, buddy, I know you probably thought it was a good idea, but on behalf of everyone who played this game, DESTRUCTIBLE WEAPONS ARE NEVER A FUN GAMEPLAY MECHANIC! Lowering the durability/effectiveness of a weapon? Well, that’s just about forgiveable, as long as you’re not reduced to poking away at a tumorous mass the size of Godzilla with a wet teabag. But weapons that break outright is not on. Really, it didn’t work in the last game, and it sure as hell didn’t work here. And when that’s coupled with a weapon quick-select that’s anything but, you’re looking at a lot of very unhappy gamers, especially since, when they break, you’re automatically forced to go back to the basic 1-2 punch combo, that does bugger all damage. It’s a horrible idea, and a terrible design choice that makes you wonder what the fuck they were thinking. And don’t think gunplay’s going to be much better, because that’s just as fucked up. Shooting foes is all well and good, but then you’ve got to finish them off when you drop them. And shooting them again while they’re down is spotty at best, so you run up to finish them. Except, you’ve got about three seconds to do that before they get back up again, and the game’s mighty picky about letting you finish a downed enemy. So they get back up again, and you take a whole lot of damage from them and you vow never to fight another foe again. But that’s not that difficult, really, since the moment you put the lights off, you’re amazingly invisible to all! And since the stages are reasonably bright, you almost never need to have your flashlight on at all. Y’see, this is another thing you should be aware of, Climax: we avoid combat in survival horror games because we;re scared of it, afraid of going into battle unprepared, lest we get our shit royally fucked up. We do not avoid combat because it’s badly done and because, overall, it’s infinitely easier to just sidestep anything that confused its insides with its outsides.

And another thing, Mr. Climax (why does that sound like a pornstar name?): your choices of weaponry. My suspension of disbelief is a mighty thing to behold. If you could hook it up and use it as a power source, mankind could travel to the stars. You tell me something works in a show because it does, I’ll buy it. Tell me those vials over there contain a virus that transforms some people into plain old zombies, but others into freakishly deformed abominations? Fair enough. Walk over first aid kits or magical glowy things to be cured of all that ails you? Not a problem. People can survive any number of explosive magical or physical attacks in battle, but the second we move to a cutscene, a simple prison shiv can end the live of even the biggest badass? Sucks because he was my favourite, but yeah, alright. So while I can get behind Generic Effeminate RPG Hero #712 being able to carry several million tonnes of equipment and supplies on his girlish form (but only ever up to a stack of 99 per item), something about its usage here pisses me right off. I mean, giving you tons of weapons like straight razors, screwdrivers, okay, they’re small and easily concealable. Sledgehammers, meathooks and pointy bits of wood? Bigger, but still well within acceptable limits. How about IV drip stands and lamps taller than the character himself? How about large gallon jugs of medicinal alcohol? How about filing cabinets, typewriters and portible TVs – often a dozen or so at a time? That’s the point where you start calling bullshit on the whole endeavour. You can get away with it in an RPG, because, by and large, you can say they’ve got advanced/ancient technology, or an airship or, fuck, magic or something. But this gets to the point of stupidity, then decides, “screw that, we can go further!” with a rousing ‘hurp, durp, fight the power!’ as its battlecry. The only reason I can think of for any of this is to make some of their other ideas, like the QTE attacks, for example, look like glorious successes by comparison.

Perhaps the biggest sin committed, however, is to the series itself. Climax claim they know their shit. I claim otherwise. Now, I’ll admit, I’m one of those freakish people who reads and studies things I’m interested in at great length. You ask me about any of the symbolism or plot elements in the first few games, there’s a better than average chance I can give you a fairly good explanation of why X = Y. And I’m not the only one. Even the most casual Silent Hill fan knows that the series is heavy in symbolism and meaning. It’s one of the cornerstones of the games, and probably one of the best things about it. And yet here, Climax have managed to do something amazing: they’ve managed to take all this symbolism and allegory… and miss the point entirely. One of the main references for the game is most obviously, Silent Hill 2. The opening – a character walking through a long, lonely stretch of deserted road – is taken almost verbatim from the earlier game. Travis is also a poor man’s James Sunderland, a self-deluding type with some vaguely sexual hangups if you squint a bit and tilt your head to the side, kinda. But you can’t force genius, and while everything came together right for SH2, they’re trying too hard to force it here, and it just rings hollow and artificial instead. They’re aping things with seemingly no understanding of why they’re doing it. Why is there a long walk through the fog from the start of the game? Because it was in SH2. Why are there holes that you have to jump into to progress towards the end? Because they were in SH2. Why is there a big scary man in an apron with a big sharp slicey thing that looks like everyone’s 1d4-headed monster violator? Why the hell do you think? There are, in fairness, a few big nods to the movie, but SH0 wants to be the second game so badly, it’s almost hilarious.

Are there any redeeming points to this game? Well, the music’s good, but coming from Akira Yamaoka, you’d expect that. But even here it seems half-hearted. There’s nothing on a par with You’re Not Here, Theme of Laura or even Room of Angel or Hometown. There’s a couple of nice ambient pieces, but otherwise, the soundtrack’s mostly forgettable. But the fact that ‘forgettable soundtrack’ is probably the thing the game does best least wrong alone should give you some idea of the thing as a whole.

Silent Hill 0rigins is a game that somehow manages to annoy me on three levels: as a Silent Hill fan; as a survival horror fan; and lastly, as a gamer in general. If it seems like I’m being a horribly nitpicky retard fanboy just because it’s not done by my beloved Team Silent, trust me, I’m not. Frankly, I wouldn’t really care who was responsible for it if the end result was any good. This is a bad game, plain and simple. The combat is terrible, the enemy designs amount to big chunks of meat with no real defining characteristics (and they have the cheek to reuse some of them – only bigger!), the final boss is Diablo, from the games of the same name and the whole premise the game hinges on – that it’s a prequel to the first game – is borderline false advertising. The game’s a gigantic con: you think you’re about to uncover something interesting, only to find that there’s nothing here you didn’t already know. It’s like two slices of prime Kobe beef steak glued onto either end of a cut of discount meat from a cheap butchers – literally, since the majority of the non-Travis related plot occurs at the start and the end of the game. Silent Hill 0rigins is a hideously misaimed game with none of the atmosphere or dread we’ve come to expect from the series, and an outright insult to anyone with any love for the series, or the genre in general. Avoid.

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