The art direction is, as in SH1, sublime. The environments are far more frightening than the monsters--Team Silent has a knack for tapping into the uncanny valley, just beyond your comfort zone, and perverting the ordinary into the ominous. Cafeterias covered in white bedsheets! Empty, dark offices filled with screaming voices! Mannequins dressed in your dead wife's clothes! Your own corpse in an easy chair, watching static on a bloodied television! It's merely creepy, at first, the way SH1 was creepy. It's a cheap fear, the fear you get by not knowing what's going to be around the next corner, or why there's a low growling sound coming from nowhere in particular. And then, it grows quiet. Too quiet. The cheap gimmicks scale back--there's nothing to scare you in each room except the yellowed papers strewn about a wooden table, the shadow cast by an empty flower vase. And the game's world, dark, the only illumination being the little circle from James's shoulder-mounted flashlight, starts to feel like abandoned places in real life: empty, sad, and crushingly lonely.
It is in these moments, running around empty apartments and hospitals and hotels in some physical embodiment of morbid introspection, that you will happen upon a distant, ominous humanoid figure leaning its way around a corner. And that's when your radio starts to hiss, and the discordant music starts to play...
More about those: The way the monsters tie into the protagonist James's subconscious is brilliant. Whereas the monsters in SH1 were all manifestations of simple psychological trauma from a frightened, uncomprehending, brutally abused little girl, the monsters in SH2 are born from an even more freakish tapestry of memory and emotion woven by an adult. James is deep in grief over the death of his beautiful young wife, and virtually everything in the game reflects that in some capacity--the guilt, the alcoholism, even and especially the sexual frustration. There's one monster, for example, that resembles the bottom halves of two decomposing female bodies sewn together at the waist. It ambles at you slowly, flailing its upper legs at you in a disgustingly spider-like way. Shoot it with a handgun, or strike it with a lead pipe, and the upper legs spasm and it lets out this bloodcurdling scream. Not your typical bored or exaggeratedly sexual female death scream, but a hoarse, throaty wail of pain and rage and raw unbridled fear. It drops to the ground, both pairs of legs quivering pathetically, and then the quivering becomes a form of locomotion, the bleeding, gasping corpse scuttling around as it spasms in a twisted parody of orgasm, running around you in circles and grabbing at your heels. Horrifying to watch. It's almost less unsettling to let one live than to kill it. And what's so evocative about it is that troubling bouquet of guilt, shame, betrayal, and fear you might feel when encountering one is exactly what it represents. They appear only during after events that cause James to experience such emotions in himself (you're attacked by a whole slew of them when James meets a woman he likes for the first time since his wife died). The four-legs are women as the Other, the way our protagonist sees them, or accuses himself of seeing them--equal parts threat, victim, and histrionic wailing mess.
And if you think that's unsettling, wait until you see Pyramid Head--the series' infamous indestructible, slow-moving, rusty-greatknife-dragging personification of guilt and the darkest elements of human sexuality--brutally rape and murder one of the four-legs, while James hides whimpering in a closet, powerless to intervene. YOU WILL NEVER WANT TO HAVE SEX AGAIN.
I'm not even going to get into the more Freudian monsters, like the abhorrent hanging bed-boxspring creature that represents childhood abuse. I have never wanted to kill something so badly just for existing.
Nothing is just a zombie or ghost in this game. Every monster ambling out of the darkness, twitching in silhouette, makes you think, "Dear shit, what the fuck is that?"
And if all of this reflects poorly on the experience--this is not a spoiler--if this all makes it seem like playing this game would be the most upsetting thing ever, a thing you would give to Guantanamo Bay prisoners to get them to confess to sins they've never committed, bear in mind that the game continually implies that, at some level, all of this is in James's head, all of the ugliness and the abuse and the sexual violence he sees throughout Silent Hill is his self-perception made manifest. He sees Pyramid Head and thinks, "This is me." He sees the twitching leg-women, and thinks, "This must be all women are to me." The true antagonist of the game is James himself. Silent Hill is mind-scarring to him because he feels like he deserves it--as he descends deeper and deeper into self-loathing, the environment grows increasingly abstract and surreal, degenerating from nightmare into even worse nightmare. And it's this aspect--the discovery of how he came to be this way, and what brought him to this foggy abandoned resort town in the middle of nowhere, and why it is destroying him inside and eating away at his spirit, that makes the story so compelling. Every bit of the game, from the puzzle locations to the details in the graffiti, is a reflection of James's psyche, in what I'd say would be a very Stephen King kind of way, without the cheap OH NOES WE ARE BEING BRUTALLY PICKED OFF ONE BY ONE thriller angle. This isn't so much a journey into the town of Silent Hill as much as it's a journey into James himself. If the town in SH1 was Hell, a place where sins are repaid for with excessive, perverse justice, it is Purgatory in SH2.
(Marrieds: If your spouse insists on dragging you to a creepy, vaguely demonic New England ghost town for your next vacation because the mist over the lake looks pretty, a bit of advice: it is time for a divorce.)
There are moments that belong in an art gallery. There is an absolutely immortal scene with a burning staircase. There are boss bottles that seize the back of your neck with claustrophobia, instead of just pawing at it playfully like some more recent survival-horror games do. There is a house of leaves. One of the endings is intensely, powerfully sad.
Is it any wonder that this game keeps coming up in discussions of video games as a new literary form? I know emotion is the cheapest, easiest thing to produce in a work of fiction, but the mise-en-scene, the depth and complexity of the characterization, the artful use of the medium to communicate far more about the characters than could be expressed through dialogue...this is a game written by a bunch of people who thought beyond "let's scare the shit out of some kids" and into "if M. Night Shyamalan and Stephen King had a lovechild..." The atmospheric and thematic elements that reach beyond the genre of survival horror, which SH1 and its perennial competitor Resident Evil popularized, make that emotion transcendent. It's the kind of game that gets you thinking about it, on a level far beyond "how do I solve this puzzle" or "how do I beat this boss," long after you put down the controller.
It's a testament to the power of the game's storytelling that despite the repetitive combat, the shitty camera, the large amount of pointless running around, and the infuriatingly nonsensical fetch-the-key puzzles (light bulbs inside a tin can? A door key inside a toilet? An item in a garbage chute that can only be knocked loose by throwing a six-pack of juice into it?), this is still a game worth playing. Multiple times, even. The game is almost eight years old, and its graphics and gameplay may be dated, but virtually no title you could pluck off the shelf at GameStop right now will creep the fuck out of you half as much.
Man in grief receives letter from wife, years after her death: "In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday. But you never did. Well, I'm alone there now....in our 'special place'...waiting for you." If you're sold on that concept, this game is for you.
I am really glad that, after the disappointment of the first game and the cheesiness of the movie, I gave this series a second chance.