Silent Hill 3 - Just a Little Bit Overrated


Taking a break from my massive Tekken retrospective, I deigned to play the original Silent Hill  a couple days ago. It still holds up as one of my favorite games ever made, and my pick for the scariest game ever made. Even though the 1999 PS1-era graphics make it look like the Blocky Horror Picture Show, the first Silent Hill game is fascinating in just how well it succeeds at creating an effectively chilling, horrific atmosphere. There are flaws, to be sure; the aforementioned graphical limitations do no favors unless one is into that sort of thing (like I am), the voice acting is about as bad as one might expect for a PS1-era survival horror game, and it's a bit hard to buy the idea of an all-powerful cult when you only see one of its members, yet I find myself replaying it at least once a year to remind myself just how scary it is and how engrossing the atmosphere is. Silent Hill to be one of the absolute finest games ever made.



Its sequel, Silent Hill 2, is even better. While I (somewhat controversially, I suppose) find the first game to be scarier, the second in the acclaimed series is just so much deeper in terms of emotional content; it has one of the greatest twists in video game history, it looks pretty much perfect, the voice acting is much better, it has one of the most immersive atmospheres in any game I've ever played, its story means something, and - at its very best - portrays an accurate facsimile of how I was feeling at the absolute lowest point of my life (that's not just a compliment, it's a compliment of the highest order, like the climax of Fantasia 2000 making me frustrated). Silent Hill 2 isn't just a game; it's the proof one holds up when presented the quandary of whether games are art. It's not just art. It's high art. It's a masterpiece.

Whenever I play Silent Hill, I can never get enough. After I've completed the first game, I almost always go right into Silent Hill 2. When that's done, I almost always go right into Silent Hill 3 (writing this out makes me realize this could be a plausible explanation for why I'm not exactly an avid gamer; I seem to replay my favorites over and over rather than branch out). Unfortunately, I must confess that while I think Silent Hill 3 is an almost excellent game, and one that I heartily recommend to others, I also don't think it's anywhere near as good as the first two, and in fact I find it distinctly overrated. That's the impetus for this piece, instead of writing those Black Narcissus or Tekken 3 pieces I've been sitting on for months now. It's downright puzzling that I see so many fans of the series list Silent Hill 3 as the best SH game. Perhaps it's just me, but I feel like being a contrarian in this regard is deserving of a full piece rather than a pithy, sterile complaint on a message board.

Before anyone comments about how I deserve to be sacrificed to a demon god for my terrible opinion, understand that I'm already aware this is a hot take (and not my first one, either). First of all, plenty more where that came from. I'm not shy about my beliefs. Second of all, it's critical that I impart the message that Silent Hill 3 isn't a bad game at all; far from it. Really, it's a very good game. Better than any Resident Evil game besides the fourth one. In fact, just to further show just how good this game is, I'll get the positives out of the way before getting right to the picking of the nits. 

The Good Stuff


The graphics and lighting are the best series has ever seen, and the art direction is top notch; most of the scares come from the confusion of "just what the fuck am I looking at?" The sound design, though largely inconsistent (as I'll explain later), still does that thing I love where you'll be exploring some ordinary room and a thoroughly unexpected sound will play. Seriously, I love shit like that. The voice acting for Claudia and Heather are some of the best the series has ever had, even if their written lines aren't world class. The return to the nightmare world of the first game is also greatly appreciated, even though I suppose it wouldn't have made too much sense in Silent Hill 2.

You know what else I love? Set pieces that just build the atmosphere. There's this pathetic monstrosity stuffed in a locker, and you can't really do anything besides look at it, but it adds to the atmosphere. Probably my favorite part in the entire game is this bit where you're in a room with a bunch of headless mannequins, sans one that still has its head attached. You walk to another row (still in the same room), where the camera puts the regular mannequin out of sight. You hear a distant scream of a woman, and go back to check the mannequin - which is covered in blood and now distinctly headless. There's a room with a mirror (it's speculated that the protagonist has spectrophobia) that you get locked inside, and you start to panic because this weird blood trail starts transferring from the mirror to your world. It's just a great way of adding flavor to a game. 



Perhaps the thing this game should be praised most loudly for is its attention to female-specific fears. There are two, namely: the first is that the protagonist, Heather Mason, is pregnant with a demon god that wants to bring about the apocalypse. Kinda like Rosemary's Baby, except definitely way scarier (even more hot takes, I never really liked that movie). Pregnancy and motherhood is a joy that only women will ever appreciate, but for many, many women it is also a central fear. There's really no equivalent for men, yet the game does an excellent job of making her demonic pregnancy relatable to all players, regardless of gender, which is a spectrum is fluid doesn't exist. The other fear - really only present at one stage in the game, but one significant enough that it stuck in my mind - is the fear of a stalker. You never actually see this creepy guy following you around, leaving you love letters and handmade dolls in the haunted (I'm just going to use "haunted" instead of "scary" for this review, hope you folks at home don't mind) hospital, but you still feel the stress of someone you've never even met being so enamored by you. 

The Shitty Stuff

Silent Hill 3 starts off in medias res, in some rinky-dink haunted looking amusement park. All you've got is a radio and a terrible pocket knife. You run about avoiding these split-head dogs, which are easy enough to avoid, and these hulking monstrosities with huge swollen arms. This is called a Closer, they're really common, really easy to avoid, and among the most confusing enemies in the game. Why is this monster so huge and hulking and intimidating-looking if it's so easy to deal with? I feel like maybe this is one they could've reworked. Furthermore, the monsters in the first two games seemed to represent a certain character's latent fears of feelings, but I have no idea what this guy is supposed to represent.

The Monster Design

In fact, most of the monsters don't really seem to represent anything. I guess I'll leave the split-heads alone, since zombie dogs were in the first game (ditto the nurses, which get guns now, an excellent addition), but what's up with the really huge fat guys? What's the deal with the Numb Bodies? What is the point of the Slurper, other than to knock me down and frustrate me? What is going with Leonard Wolf, and how did he get like that? On whose authority was the Pendulum inserted into the game?

Pendulum

The part where you meet the Pendulums is the point where I immediately regret booting up Silent Hill 3. It gives me a headache and makes me want to play something else. I'll admit I have no idea what I'm looking, and that's pretty impressive in a horrific sort of monster way, but the Pendulum marks the point where Silent Hill stops being scary and starts to grate on the nerves - and this is in the first few seconds of the game if you play as fast as I do. The Pendulum spins around and kinda walks around aimlessly; they're mostly easy enough to avoid, but that's not the problem. The problem is they produce the single most hideous ear-penetrating screech/whine/groan I've ever heard. It's not scary. It's just irritating. After about thirty minutes of gameplay I just mute my TV because I've got no desire to hear that. I play games to have a good time (yes, being scared and confused can be a lot of fun), but these enemies sound like a broken washing machine. It's not cool, or fun, or clever. It's annoying. It's genuinely one of the worst parts of the game.

In fact, the whole beginning of the game is just too noisy and cluttered. I sort of get the idea of dropping Heather into a nightmare, but the openings of the previous games are done so much better. The first game slowly slips you into a pool of horror, and the opening of Silent Hill 2 is so good it really ought to be experienced. Silent Hill 3 isn't designed to frustrate, but it's immediately too busy, and while it doesn't kill the atmosphere, it neuters the terror somewhat.

The Level Design

After a brief cutscene, Heather has to navigate a haunted mall. This leads to another one of my complaints, though one that doesn't hit very hard: the level design. I really don't like the layout of this game, and a lot of the areas of the game just look too same-y...except when they don't. See, this is one where I'm of two minds: there are moments when the game is just dull and not much fun to look at, but as far as I can tell every room keeps prop/texture reuse to a minimum, and each room has something new/interesting to look at. The same cannot be said for the first game. It's not often I say this game improved upon the original (you know, besides voice acting and graphics), but at the same time the layout ceases to hold my interest as well as the first two games did. The first two games had this wonderful quirk where you knew you had to go to a specific room in order to progress, yet you were reluctant to do so, apprehensive of the scares you might encounter. It's a difficult balance to make a game so scary you don't want to progress and still make it fun. This third game simply doesn't do that very well at all. I just run around avoiding all the enemies, picking up pieces to puzzles, not at all intimidated. It's very easy to get lost, even with a map (particularly in the subway and underpass sections of the game). 

The mall is just boring for the most part, though that's probably my fault for having played it more than any other level. Whenever I get to the subway, I immediately groan and think "oh great, the worst part of the game," because it's the one exception to the rule of "something interesting to look at in every room (possibly because there are no rooms). Then I get to the underpass, and groan louder, because I remember this is my most hated level in the game. Full disclosure: this is completely my fault and I'm biased as hell: the first two times I beat this game I went through the entire underpass without getting the map. All you Silent Hill 3 fanboys can stop laughing and try - just try - beating this level without the map. Now do it twice. Now imagine doing it the first two times you've played this game. The lingering question in your head should shift from "why is the author so dimwitted as to not pick up the map?" to "why did he keep playing?" but that's not what I want you to ask. Ask yourself: "why is the underpass designed like this? What's the point of those giant numb bodies? Have I muted the TV after seeing all these pendulums? The business complex is a welcome respite, and the hospital is probably the best level in the game. The amusement park is extremely difficult for me to navigate, but that's probably just because it's so dark. I love the idea of using a child-drawn map for the church, but by that point I'm bored and just want to beat the game.

Actual map used in the game

Of note is the fact that the first four levels take place in the "real" world, outside of Silent Hill. I don't mind this at all, and neither should anyone else. The point is that Heather brings the nightmare world with her everywhere she goes, so the game maintains its horror even when it's not in Silent Hill proper. That doesn't excuse that awful subway level, but I guess one more defense of the game isn't too intrusive for my readers.

(An aside: my copy of the game glitched out and I couldn't pick up any handgun ammo. No matter, thought I, as I'm pretty decent at this game and I've got moves like Barry Sanders. I progressed throughout the nightmare opening and the mall without firing a single shot, and dodging enemies without taking a single point of damage. Then I got to the first boss and realized you can't beat him without the handgun. I was relegated to watching a longplay of some guy beating the game on Hard, and it turns out the game is much easier to navigate if you're not a colossal idiot like me who keeps checking the map every new room.)

Me vs. Silent Hill enemies

The Weapons

I guess it's my fault for losing my PS2 copy of the game and having to resort to the PC version. My recollection is that the firearms work just fine, as well they should (they're more accurate than the first game, for what that's worth). This is going to be a bit of a nit-pick here, but the weapons in Silent Hill 2 were so much better than the ones in Silent Hill 3, and it's a noticeable difference that's more than a bit jarring. I'm not talking about the effectiveness, but rather about the appearance. 

Pipes, knives, and handguns are all well and good, but there's just something that's just way too not scary about Heather carrying around a submachine gun. I know that ammunition is sparse, but just the image of her carrying it around is more funny than it is ominous. This isn't even a secret weapon either, it's one of those you-can't-miss-this-important weapons. I'm sure the mace would have been a scary weapon back in the dark ages, but it just stands out as antiquated in this game and looks fairly silly (another criticism of the first game is that the hammer, my favorite weapon in the game, looks hysterical). This game has its own best melee weapon, an honest-to-god katana. It just looks goofy, and it's goofier than it would ordinarily be because as soon as you find it, it's the best weapon in your arsenal and remains that way for much of the game. I can't tell if that's supposed to be funny.

The Tone

Honestly, what I just said about the katana applies to the entire game. I just know I'm going to get absolutely railed for this, but there's some sort of problem with the tone of Silent Hill 3. For much of it, it's ominous and serious, which is exactly what I want from a game in this series. It seems, however, like there's just a whole...departure every once in awhile, with a joke or two too many thrown in, usually said by the main character. Ordinarily I wouldn't mind this: there's one single, solitary joke in Silent Hill, and it's a very dark one (that might be in poor taste, depending on your views on animal abuse). There's one single, solitary joke in Silent Hill 2, and it's enough to make me laugh every time I hear it. I can't tell whether Silent Hill 3 is quite making jokes, but it seems like it's having too much fun with itself. 



Imagine you're in Silent Hill. That totally sucks, right? You don't want to be there! Now imagine you're pregnant with a demon god bent on total annihilation. What a terrible Wednesday this turned out to be, right? You're not gonna poking fun at things, right? Why does Heather do that? She's way too casual when confronted with Leonard Wolf, a freakish demon-thing. It's almost like she's too cocky at times; she's surrounded by demons and monstrosities, and as such should either be quiet or freaking out. Her determination is admirable (and at times even essential for explaining why she's even here), but it doesn't communicate that the world is scary to her. The ending is one of the most bizarre things; it's played way too hard for laughs as the music tries desperately to keep the mood frightening. It's not like all humor is bad; the Borley Haunted Mansion is one of the best parts of the game, and I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be at least somewhat humorous. I don't want a completely dour experience, but some pretty heavy stuff is going down here. You'd think Heather would recognize that.

The Characters

Heather's mostly fine, though. Her voice acting is some of the best in the series, and she's got a legitimate reason to be in Silent Hill - perhaps a better reason than anyone else. She's a real hero, though it seems as though she doesn't recognize it (especially by the end of the game, something she has in common with Harry - neither one of them seem to care so much that they've stopped the world from total destruction as much as they've resolved their own personal missions). She gives a realistic performance, and it's a likable performance. 

Claudia is fine too, though it seems like there are multiple points in the game where she could have been killed and no one seems to bother to pull the trigger. I like the shaved eyebrow look; makes it hard to tell what she's thinking or feeling. Her performance is good too, and she seems like she would have fit in perfectly in the original game. 

Douglas is a bit of a mixed bag. His voice on its own sounds like a 50-something-year-old man, but it's way too slow and stilted. There's just something weird about the way that it's performed. You really get the sense that he's a helpful guy, so it's kinda sad that Heather constantly snaps at him, but he's also an assortment of pixels and data, so you don't care that much. 

Vincent to me is the hardest to get a grasp on, and I'm pretty sure that's intentional. His voice is pretty much perfect, as is the delivery on his part, but it seems like Team Silent put a lot of unnecessary pauses between his words that make it sound way too weird. His writing isn't exactly fantastic either. He's one of the more interesting characters in the series just because he's hard to figure out, but whenever he's on screen I'm just bothered by the weird way his lines are split up. It's distracting, that's all. 



Actually, there's a part about Vincent I just have to mention: late in the game he intimates that Heather enjoys killing the various enemies in the game, that she gets some sort of sick thrill out of snuffing out their lives. Ordinarily I might consider this a brilliant way to subvert the standard way of thinking about video games, to make the player do a bit of self-reflection, a la Spec Ops: The Line, and perhaps do a little bit of damage to the fourth wall. 

The problem: does anyone actually enjoy killing the monsters? It's almost always out of necessity: either in self-defense or because it's the only way to advance. The combat in this game isn't anywhere near as clunky as many would claim (I would argue it's the best in the series), but it's also not really the draw of the game. If the combat was the main draw of the game, you wouldn't see nearly every player run from nearly every enemy encountered. It's not just a faster way to progress through the game, and it's not just a way to preserve ammunition: it's because combat isn't as much fun as the puzzles. It's Silent Hill 3, not Doom. This makes Vincent's whole spiel kinda worthless and a waste of my time.

Denouement

All these little niggling annoyances build up and make my recurring headache so much worse when I play this game. I'm not sure whether I'm being fair, though. There are moments in the first two games where I'm far more forgiving toward things I would hate in the third game, like in Silent Hill where you have to solve Nowhere without a map, or Angela's voice in Silent Hill 2. Somehow those points make those games stronger, whereas there's no defense for the pendulum's sound in Silent Hill 3. There's no doubt that Silent Hill 3 has some great moments, even some of the best moments in the series (such to the point that it's not going to escape this review without a tentative recommendation), but I can't pretend like it's a game I'm going to want to replay anytime soon. I know it's nowhere near as bad as the HD Remake (which I recommend everyone avoid at all costs), but you'd be better off playing the first two games and moving on to a real classic, like Shantae.

One more leftover thought: Silent Hill 3 has the single worst ending song I've ever heard in a video game.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece, I just finished a replay of the game myself earlier this week for the first time in about 4 years and I came away feeling mixed about it. On the one hand, from a scare standpoint I feel it's the most effective in the series, as the sheer amount of disturbing imagery on display feels like a pretty constant assault. It's also probably the most technically impressive game on the PS2, like you mentioned above there's always something new to see and it's nearly always accompanied by some kind of new visual effect, like the bizarre crawling imagery along certain walls, the weird heat box in the hospital, bizarre creatures and plenty more. It really feels like a showpiece for the hardware that just does everything it possibly can with it.

    I like Heather as a character too, especially her commentary on all the different scenery in the game. Just about everything she'll give you the description, but also add some kind of opinion on it herself, and they're usually pretty sharp and witty and all consistent with her characterization. This is as opposed to the usually pretty dry and straightforward descriptions from Harry and James in prior games, and makes Heather feel a lot more real and like I know her better by the end of the game.

    It's really hard for me to put my finger on why but something about the level design in this game just feels boring at a point. Despite the backtracking it almost always felt like I was just progressing in a linear fashion. Sure, sometimes you'll have to backtrack a little to open an old door, but that door will always lead you directly to the next item you need to progress. And that item will lead you to the next one, and so on and so on. Even in the office building where you're tasked with finding the pieces of a story it's the final piece that lets you escape. It would have been cooler if you had been tasked with tracking down all of them and could have done it in a different order. I think the only time the game really subverted this was with the tarot card puzzle in the very final dungeon, in which you can find some of them out of order, but that was too little too late.

    So yeah, great art direction, kind of uninteresting gameplay. Though it's been equally long since I've played Silent Hill 1 and 2, so I'm looking forward to playing them both this month and seeing how well they hold up by comparison. I still remember all the major details, but the nuances are lost.

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