Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
We’ve all been there. Crummy place in a not-so-great part of town. Food and clothes everywhere. That one annoying neighbor, and that hot one. Chains on the door. Blood in the tub. Holes leading to dreamworld dimensions. Demon babies crying from inside the walls.
College was a weird time for all of us, I’m sure.
Either way, the fourth game in the Silent Hill series represents a departure from eerie survival horror to the pseudo-action games that follow it. Silent Hill 4: The Room is not pure survival horror, nor is it as action-centered as the later titles.
And yet, it is not a lukewarm title, either. It is a transitional fossil, and perhaps because it was developed by Team Silent, the group behind the first three games, it retains much of what made the first few great, all the while adding in some variety in gameplay and story.
The game begins, as the title suggests, in a room, though not one in Silent Hill. Henry Townshend has been holed up in his apartment in South Ashfield for days, and true to the series, he can’t quite remember why. Nothing works. His stuff is missing. Even though he can peer out of his windows, he is cut off from the rest of the world. It is a classic Silent Hill trope.
The mystery is further compounded by the portal in his bathroom. It transports him to a nightmarish mirror reality of his waking life, one that is both dreamlike and substantive. It’s sort of like A Nightmare on Elm Street, because whenever Henry’s neighbors perish in the dream world, they die in real life. It’s that strange duality that gives the game its surreal, hypnotic mood, and the more the worlds converge, the more unsettling the game becomes.
Though the game was produced by Team Silent, it has an altogether different aesthetic. It looks good, but it is grimey, less prone to the claustrophobia of wide open spaces, and the environments can get overly same-y. The cutscenes are eerily well-done, and even though the game can be somewhat mundane, the mood is relentlessly grim. Really, the game is defined more by how it looks than how it plays, so having something that is different from the other Silent Hills and yet still intriguing is a benefit to this entry.
The J-Horror surrealism is an especially freaky part of the game. Tunnels and static make for interesting metaphor in representing the main character’s unstable relationship with reality. There is also something interesting about the game’s obsession with voyeurism. Looking out windows or through peepholes gives it a Hitchcockian feel, and some parts of the story possess shades of games like Heavy Rain (which comes way later, I know, but still).
Perhaps because of the change in environment, there is less cohesion in the world, and you will probably spend less time wandering around these area than you would have in, say, Silent Hill 2. It feels more linear in nature, with a purpose.
Unlike the first games, however, which were built entirely on mood, Silent Hill 4 focuses more of its attention on weapons, enemies, and combat.
The combat is standard stuff, though it is more advanced than in earlier Silent Hill games. You’ll never really have a problem with losing health from fighting if you’re smart about avoidance. However, get caught up in a fight when you should be running, and it’s easy for your health to dwindle. Running is always the best option.
The other major problem with the combat is that most enemies can be killed by stomping on them when they’re down, but it is difficult-to-impossible to stomp on a downed enemy if an upright one is in the vicinity. You’ll end up swinging at one while the other gets off the ground to attack, and that doesn’t make fighting off tougher enemies – like the Twins – any more fun.
It hasn’t become Call of Duty, of course, but it is slightly more action-oriented and sidestepping encounters with enemies isn’t as easy as it was the first couple of go-rounds. Some ghosts are unkillable and attack Henry relentlessly throughout the game, and while it is possible to bind them with special weapons, those are few and far between.
The game handles well, beyond the sort of uneven combat, and the controls are a lot more precise than what I remember from the series. The puzzles require a lot of backtracking, and there is almost no puzzle-solving to be had – it is merely a series of seek-and-finds – but the game isn’t really about the puzzles. Still, since the screens within each world are so similar, traveling between places can be confusing, and not just in a purposeful, Silent Hill-y sort of way.
Henry picks up a cohort about halfway through, and though the game never becomes a single, long escort mission, this other character sometimes complicates the gameplay experience. She – I won’t reveal too much, for those who haven’t played it – is helpful in combat but can be a little too zealous in trying to thwack enemies, because even when avoidance is preferable, she will hang back and swipe at enemies until they die or run away. It can be really, utterly frustrating.
Even though the game diverges from the first few games somewhat, it still ends up tying in to the whole Silent Hill mythology. However, for me, the story never makes a lot of sense. There is a haunted apartment, and a serial killer, and somehow they are all connected via the orphanage in Silent Hill, but in playing it, some of the connective tissue is sort of lost on me.
One of the major flaws in the game is the inventory system. Henry cannot carry a lot of items, nor can he put down one item in preference of another. If you want one item to displace another, you have to go back to your apartment and drop it in the supply box. To have to backtrack to save in order to delve back into the game to pick up an essential item is an oversight they definitely should have fixed.
Despite being nearly opaque at the outset, the story becomes tolerably logical toward the end, and the game is paced well enough so that uncovering the story is neither tedious nor boring, though picking up notes is a storytelling device I can do without these days. Henry discovers the truth behind what haunts the apartment, and some nice paradoxes drive him to seek what may be an ultimately unsatisfying ending. There are a few in the game, so the way the player’s story finishes up may change depending on a few select choices throughout.
Many fans deplore some of the games that follow in the franchise, so it could be easy to lay blame at the feet of Silent Hill 4, but it’s actually really good. There’s a lot of movement, and the graphics still manage to hold up, even if Henry Townshend looks like a cross between a horror lead and someone out of Devil May Cry.
Though Silent Hill 4: The Room doesn’t quite reach the heights of earlier entries in the franchise, it is nevertheless an interesting departure, one that does not make too many missteps in trying to do something different. Parts of it haven’t aged well, but the game is entirely playable, and the surreal nature of the visual style is still captivating.
The Final Word: Check out this title if you loved the original games and passed on this one because it seemed too much of a change from the others. If you’re new to the series, you should probably play through Silent Hill 1 or 2 first, though you won’t miss too much story through playing this game.