Bad, vile and meaningless: Silent Hill 4 from Alan's clob

Silent Hillbilly the Kid

The nice bit, in theory, about Silent Hill 4 is that it's not a fast-paced shooter game, but instead it's more of a mystery game. That's different from my usual dose of 3D gaming... But Silent Hill 4 suffers terribly from its relatively crappy 3D engine, and the user interface is definitely going to give no end of frustration.

The story so far

So you wake up in your apartment, and you find that the door is chained shut from the inside, with big chains and locks. Windows seem locked shut, too. All that you can do is wander about your apartment. Then, suddenly, you hear a crash from your bathroom. There's now a big hole in the wall. Big enough to crawl in. Grabbing a piece of pipe as a weapon, you soon find that there's no choice but to crawl through the hole, and begin solving the mystery that has left you locked in your apartment. So far so good.

You soon discover that there's other people who are also trapped in the same nightmare, and one by one they all get killed, with numbers clawed on their bodies. Except that this is no nightmare; when they die, they really die. Interestingly, all of them seem to live close by. So whatever it is that affected your room must affect the place at large.

The deaths seem related to a serial killing case from years ago. The police think they caught the killer, who killed himself in his cell, and this all is just some copycat continuing the original work. But a mysterious person putting notes from under your door seem to think otherwise. Walter Sullivan is not dead, and he has, through mastery of the occult, made a reality outside the normal world and is completing his killings for the purpose of fulfilling the 21 sacraments...

I got no beef at all with the story, I like it. However, I think that everything else is not so great. This is the zillionth game where you find all sorts of notes and diaries scattered in most unlikely places that convey the story. The problem with the writing is that it's mindnumbingly bad. Other half of the time it's typical semicomprehensible mumbojumbo about some arcane occult work and then other half of the time the written stuff has this accidentally humorous quality. It's impossible to take any of it seriously even in the context of the game, let alone now when writing about it. Let's hear a bit of it:

I want to go back to that time...
Things were so good then...
The day of my birthday...
The cute cat in the pet store...
All those balls in the basket...
Playing pool was fun too...
The door of time was wide open...
When I see four things...
I can't help but remember that time...

This deep "poetry" is actually a hint how to solve a level. You must put cake candles on the birthday cake, place a stuffed cat into a cage in the pet store, drop a volley ball in the basket full of other balls, and finally place a billiard ball on the pool table. After that, a door opens (with clock stuck on it, hence "door of time") and you can exit the level.

There is a more general problem in the game which is that its world doesn't make much sense. What about the following piece of amateur writing:

The baby cried and cried. When he thought of the mother, he remembered
the feeling of being connected to her with that magical cord.

The cord is ... yes, exactly that. I get the feeling that the whole idea with gross thing such as an umbilical cord being some kind of magical token is just a red herring to cover for the fact that the story is ending here and they couldn't come up with something better to properly finish it off. (Somehow I get all Engrishy thinking about the magical umbilical cord. Let's all make happy together!)

Special effects' nightmare

This game features two kinds of cutscenes. There's the usual 3D engine ran animations, but then there's also so-called live action. Here it means blurry edited shots that go about 3 frames per seconds and are heavy with motion blur. Watching the intro gives you actually a pretty good overview of the cheap 70s horror flick homage. Dark, noisy, hazy, red-green-blue colour porridge... While some people may find this a treat, I find too great contrast with the crisp reality of the 3d reality of the game that will follow the cutscene. For instance, when they introduce a new ghost it's always overlong sequence of reeaaally cheap shots, and what it always boils down is that there's now a new enemy to run away from. Bah.

The fighting system has even less actual user control than, say, Prince of Persia. It involves first pressing the right mouse button down firmly, and watching your hero take attack posture, then pressing down the left mouse button, and watch as some yellow indicator indicates how his muscles are now somehow turbocharged to attack. (The hero makes no movement at all to indicate that his muscles are charging up.) Then, when you release the left mouse button, he performs some kind of move that is slow swing with whatever weapon he is wielding, and hilariously overdone, for instance with a pickaxe he makes a double pirouette. (Unbelieveably, that double piroutte can disable up to 2–3 enemies at once, if all of them seemed to be clustered together at one spot.)

After your enemy has now fallen, it is critical that you now rush on top of him and crush him under your foot or knock it once more with your pickaxe. Failing to do that causes will allow him to rejuvenate and come again at you in full strength.

For instance, in the hospital world you meet these humanoidish things that make a totally hilarious "oorgh" sound when you hit them. You fight them on the stairs, and they are supposed to roll down the stairs when you knock them down. What you hear is "oorgh oorgh oorgh oorgh" as they somehow slide down the stairs, and wake up at the bottom, and eventually you get back there and can kill them all one last time. The accidental amusement value of that scene perhaps saves it.

But nevertheless, when you face more than 3 enemies at once, you will only rarely get a good chance to blow the air out of the one you knocked down. Then, even more likely is that your dreamy hero's slow swings get interrupted as he takes some damage from a nearby ghost/dog/wasp/what-have-you. Which means that not only do the enemies come back with greater likelihood, but that it's harder to hit them at all in the first place. And you get to watch those slow, dreamylike swings and tap the mouse furiously to no effect. (Hint: the axe is probably the best weapon you are ever offered in the game.)

The battle is no fun at all. It's just frustrating to have to kill same shitty enemies over and over again, especially when there's nothing at all to be gained from the battle. No glory, no sense of power, nothing. There should be at least some positive reasons to bother with them, I think. What the battle system motivates is basically weighing between two evils: whether you are good enough to run away without losing any health and hope you don't ever have to return to the place, or bother with killing them properly hoping that none scores a hit in the battle.

The wake-up is also the reason your gun is useless as weapon. When you shoot someone down you rarely get a chance to do anything at him until it's too late. The gun could be most useful for dropping hordes of enemies at distance, but in practice it's the most useless there. The only thing the gun is actually good for is for firing a few silver bullets at ghosts at point-blank range so you can knife them down with swords. (And maybe at the long stairway at the metro where there's those things coming out of the walls. You can disable the enemy before he can do anything at you.)

The camera is also hard to control. You can press tab and sometimes it agrees to show you part of the scenery you wish to see, but usually you just have to run around the scene trying to trick the camera to show what you want to see. There is no way to force the camera to spin to give a good overview, it's obsessed with showing the floor/ground nearby because you will need the same general-purpose angle for walking around. It is not good either that during this artificially difficult camera control you have some time to pay attention at the fact that the animations are clumsy and things go through the walls/floors/other objects and that the hero's feets do not actually synchronize with the ground etc. In fact, the whole display is just pathetic.

A good strategy for avoiding battle and the enemies in this game is switching between rooms. It seems that your ghost enemies need to spawn again, which is a great thing if you have to take care of that Eileen bitch that trails you at some point. It's extremely convenient to simply switch rooms all the time when you are dealing with the unkillable monsters, and waiting for Eileen to catch up. This also goes well with the Walter guy wielding pistols that is extremely annoying.

On the other hand, it's lame that you avoid monsters simply walking into another part of the room (sometimes there's no door, even) and then the enemies can't follow because they are part of the other "room". More sense of disbelief. But hey, this was all supposed to be a nightmare, right?

Character gallery: Cynthia

Some bitch that you meet in the dream world. Tells the hero that she'd shag him on the first useful chance. (It's a dream, you see, so why not have some fun.) Of course she's dead with numbers carved on her flesh before we get to any action. Good scare though, since her eyes look like she had had long history of drug abuse, and her liberal attitudes towards sex allow us to surmise any number of STDs. Total turnoff for any man.

T-T-The s-s-s-s-s-st-s-s-st-stuttering m-m-m-m-m-m-man

Reminds me of the movie Cube, as this guy rambles on about whatever, holding his hands to his ears and so on. It's clear that he has some supreme role later on, even if it turns out that he is simply one more victim. Later on he haunts the place as a burning ghost. (One of the cheapest flicks prelude his coming. Check it out, it's really bad.) Seems like he wasn't that important after all.

Some kid

Shy. Reminds me of the Cell, he is Walter Sullivan's approachable part while the man itself is some kind of monster. The kid makes what I'd like to call type error and thinks that the room 302 where Henry the Hero lives is actually his mother. Takes some amazing skills, that. Or liberal amount of typecasting. Either way, this could well be the least believeable aspect of the whole game.

Some random bloke from the same building

Electrocuted later on. Doesn't seem to be worth mentioning further.

Superintendent

Walks about trying to look like he's in control. Most unbelieveably he lets Eileen on a secret that he keeps an umbilical cord in his apartment. ("It stinks." Bahahaha. Can't believe this level of stupidity.) This guy is usually seen watching the apartment door as if he had nothing better to do.

The Eileen bitch

This is the neighbour. You actually peek at her through the hole in the wall. I don't think any normal person would develope any particular strong feelings at his neighbour just because she's a girl and you can peek her doing stuff like shaving her armpits. However, something like this should be going on, according to the reality of the game.

My girl friend is regularly bothered by the image of women given in games. For instance, when you recover Eileen in the hospital, she's like a weak bitch that talks stuff like "oh so horrible" and "I'm scared" and "please don't leave me". She wears high-heeled shoes, some kind of evening dress, and has a cast on arm and some bandage on her leg. She limps about like some zombie. Her weapon, as the game kindly calls it, is "Eileen's handbag [Eileen-only weapon]". So here we have some bitch that helps me out by whacking at monsters with her handbag.

For such a weakling she sure plays a strong bitch, but a handbag? As if that wasn't enough, the next weapon offered at Eileen is actually a horse whip! Sure thing, I understand that Konami is a Japanese game company and I'm sure plenty of guys over there have a hardon over a girl that wields a horse whip, but come on, now. For whatever reason, you can't hand your gun to Eileen to make her actually useful against the enemies. Eileen could shoot them down and you could be ready to step upon them, being like partners in some twisted dance whose moves would involve such pointing and stomping feet.

But the real mystery of the game is why the weapon Eileen wields eats away one slot at my inventory. Why is it at my inventory when the utility is totally useless for me and besides it is at Eileen's hands!? And I can tell you the inventory is pretty damn limited to begin with. I've frequently resorted to shooting 10 bullets off to consume one clip and make room for some new thing I need. Really great use of ammo, that. There seems to be no way to temporarily drop stuff off so you could hold some important item for a while. A trip back to apartment to offload stuff it will be. The level of frustration that comes from these trips is enough to make me scream.

The ending scene

Eileen seems to be in mind control stuff and is walking towards some kind of red pool of liquid where something like weird gyroscope is spinning. Walter guy is there again with his pistols, and he has gained teleporting abilities. You can't hurt him but you can use Teh Cord at the monster hanging on the wall and then stick him with a pile of spikes and after that shoot and whack Walter. Then it's all over.

The verdict

I seriously think that Silent Hill 4 would be better as a movie. I mean, the way you solve "puzzles" in this game is by doing what you are told. "Hey, I got this dirty coin, I bet I could wash it at the sink of my apartment." Or: "Hey, I got these unreadable red papers, I'll just push them under my door." If you are going to do this sort of spoonfeeding, you could just eliminate all user control of the game, too.

On the other hand, maybe that's too harsh. Last time I remember playing a mystery game this good was with Alone in the Dark. On the whole, maybe the experience is not quite so negative that I made it out, but I do remember that Alone in the Dark was a harder game. Perhaps it's with the times, and increasingly decreasing attention span: the puzzles in this game are simply thinly veiled guides to the solutions. If you would want to make Silent Hill 4 a good game, in these circumstances, you should make every second of the gameplay count: every new scene should offer something new and interesting, as should every part where you have to walk someplace to find a hole and go back to your apartment to advance the game's story worth another minute of your time. Sadly, this game is not rewarding enough, and only curiosity to the mystery's resolution powers it onwards.

It's a hard job making a good mystery game. I think that the game would benefit from parallel, nonlinear solving of the puzzles. There are several worlds, and I see no reason why you couldn't solve the different worlds at the same time. I think it could be more interesting this way. Lift off some limitations, too -- make the inventory infinite. Going forward and back to the apartment for the sake of putting some 20 bullets in the trunk is just not fun.