I’ve had a strange relationship with Silent Hill. Or Silent Hills. I played what turned out to be the first fifteen minutes of the original PlayStation game several times after buying it on launch day in 1999, and it took me finding it in an old cardboard box to actually play it properly in 2020. And this time I instantly adored it! After that, I had to have the sequel on PS2 as soon as a reasonable price on eBay would allow! And wow, I wasn’t expecting what happened there, and it became one of my top five favourite games of all time. I went way over the top writing about it here, so won’t go nuts again now, but what I wouldn’t have said then (because I didn’t know at the time) was that for the past year or so since the time of writing, I’d play it over and over… I’ve always got a game of Silent Hill 2 on the go!
I eventually picked up a copy of Silent Hill 3 – also on eBay and also for a reasonable price – at the end of November 2020. It was more out of duty than really wanting to play it though; I knew it was very unlikely to top either of its predecessors in my eyes, but I also knew it wasn’t as bad as anything else that followed it, and it was the story sequel to the first game that I loved after all, so was worth a shot!
Silent Hill 3 originally appeared on PlayStation 2 in 2003 from Konami’s Team Silent. Interestingly, and unusually, it launched in Europe first, in May, then Japan in July and America in August. It’s more of the same (although apparently it was originally planned as a rail-shooter) and picks up the third-person survival horror exploration, puzzling, clunky combat and Oscar-worthy voice work from its predecessors. There’s fog too, so actually not sounding too bad so far!
Having just finished the game for the first time, I’m still processing the plot because it’s as bonkers as you’d imagine, so for this paragraph and the next I am going to spoil it a bit to see if I’ve got it! We are seventeen years after the first game, and the baby that gets handed over at the end of that one is at the shops for her dad, stops off for a burger, falls asleep and starts dreaming about Silent Hill. With you now in control, you’re wandering about in its nightmare amusement park until you get hit by the rollercoaster. She wakes up, gets confronted about her birth by a stereotypical private eye who Silent Hill-based cult “The Order” have hired to find her, then does a runner around the shopping mall, comes across The Order’s leader, ends up in a classic bloody, hellish, decaying Silent Hill Otherworld (a bit like Bedford’s town centre), and soon we’re doing all of Silent Hill’s familiar other stuff too!
Things quickly escalate into revenge for murder, as well as the resulting trip to real Silent Hill with the detective in tow to take down The Order. And this is where things get complicated… As well as learning all about the first game, Heather learns that she’s the reincarnation of Alessa, the original vessel for the cult’s god, and that they now want her to give birth to it. Gameplay-wise, we’re back in really familiar territory, in the wonderful fog of Silent Hill’s streets, it’s hospital and other Otherworlds, working your way to the cult and its plot, before a wide awake second visit to the nightmare amusement park to find your way into The Order’s church (providing you avoid the rollercoaster this time). It’s here that she confronts the big witch, works out what she’s up to and how she fits in with the original vessel, vomits out a supernatural fetus that the witch ends up swallowing then dying while she gives birth to it, and onto a boss fight with the new god and the end. I think. It all got a little bit hectic in that church!
Now for my story with the game, and after all that hanging around, I actually sat on Silent Hill 3 for exactly another six months after I bought it! That was partially down to me getting a bit carried away with filling in other gaps in my PS2 collection around the same time and being distracted by all of them, but mainly because the two times I got to it on my official list of games to play next, I decided I needed to play Silent Hill 2 again first… Mainly because I just like being there! Anyway, before I talk myself into ending up there again now, at first I wasn’t really clicking with the third instalment. I didn’t know what was going on (which didn’t really change, but I got accustomed to it), it was all a bit dark, the sun was shining through my window on a very hot day, and I was instantly frustrated by the ridiculous new 3D controls. I couldn’t make Heather go anywhere I wanted, which isn’t helpful when you’re in a pitch black fairground surrounded by holes in the floor and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going! Fortunately, it’s easy to change to 2D controls, where Heather moves left and right and in and out of the screen regardless of the way she’s facing rather than trying to work out which direction is which in relation to where she is.
By the time I was back in the shopping mall, things were picking up a little, even if I wasn’t massively keen on the setting so far, but it was starting to feel like a Silent Hill game. As we progressed into the subway station, through the sewers and up around the construction site and other not Silent Hill yet town buildings on the way to our apartment, it went even further, and I found myself quite enjoying it simply because it was Silent Hill by numbers. And then we got to Silent Hill itself, and I welcomed the sight of my beloved fog and felt the warmth of cold familiarity as I wandered its streets, but then, again, I started to feel a little down on the game – Silent Hill was just a bit lifeless compared to how it had been in the previous two games, where every texture seemed to be alive and with the promise of secrets, demanding to be touched and explored. The town here just felt like a pathway to the next set-piece. But when that set piece is everyone’s favourite Silent Hill hospital, the mood immediately improves, and this was the start of the best of Silent Hill 3!
You know you’ve spent too long playing Silent Hill 2 when you enter Brookhaven Hospital for the first time and don’t only not need a map, but it feels like home – especially when it goes Otherworld too! I was so happy wandering around here, but there does come a point where things get new and unfamiliar, and this was probably the highlight of the game so far for me; an unmapped maze that appears through a new door, that siphons you through its concrete corridors and self-opening and -closing metal-grilled gates, building up incredible tension even though there’s no obvious threat apart from the prospect of running through these bleak passages forever! It wasn’t long, and with hindsight it wasn’t massively clever, but I got a real thrill out of this bit!
It was also around here that I started stopping the action to take screenshots, awkwardly old-school with a camera badly lined-up in front of the screen! As you exit the maze and climb a horror-drenched ladder into the hospital’s Otherworld, there’s a wonderful moment where you see a hand suspended outside the window of what’s now more like a torture chamber than a treatment room; the first of a concentrated series of horrific postcard imagery! There’s a mirror puzzle that is probably the creepiest moment of the game as the Otherworld literally closes in on you while your reflection becomes disembodied as you watch, apparently completely helpless and with no escape. I also got a real kick out of the twisted altar that triggers the boss here – just classic Silent Hill decoration!
It’s worth mentioning how it all looks while we’re talking decoration. It’s quite occult in feel versus the more personal hellscapes of its PS2 predecessor, and all of this religious imagery, set against more traditional themes of rust, decay and bucketloads of blood – and in such a wide variety of environments – gives it its own disturbing aesthetic. It’s very Jacob’s Ladder, the 1990 horror movie that delves into the bizarre mind of a messed-up Vietnam veteran, and is quite the influence on the Silent Hill aesthetic as a whole, though here there’s a more blatant reference to spot in the subway in Silent Hill 3! There’s a slight graininess to it all that adds an air of the video nasty, much like Silent Hill 2, but this time I think they’ve gone a bit further with the use of light and dark and shadows to ramp up the fear of the unknown. It’s certainly a looker, especially when you’re in the disturbed imagination of the Otherworld, which also felt a bit more gooey this time around.
That’s certainly true of the sound effects too – a lot of the mechanical, almost industrial audio terror from Silent Hill 2 is replaced by a more squelchy and organic ambient horror that you really don’t want to know the source of! And again, that’s still backed by the more traditional themes of children crying, monsters feasting, things opening and closing somewhere… But overall I think I found the sound less dense than in Silent Hill 2, and the atmosphere did suffer in comparison as a result. I’ll quickly mention the music here too – it’s nice enough, but Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack was pretty forgettable to me while I was playing. Yeah, I know, maybe not a popular opinion! It’s very varied, the vocal tracks are strong, and there’s some more ambient tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Miami Vice, which is the kind of praise that should make up for some of my ambivalence! That reminds me, despite what I said earlier, the voice acting isn’t actually that terrible this time out either!
Back to the game, and we were heading towards the home-stretch before I veered off into review land. Now we’re back in the Lakeside Amusement Park, the place we had burger-fuelled nightmares about in that fast-food joint at the start of the game! I know I said I liked that maze bit before, but it was really getting to know this place this time around that I suddenly realised I couldn’t put Silent Hill 3 down because after all those ups and downs, it was suddenly brilliant! As an aside, I also found my new favourite place to hang out in any video game ever here, and it’s in Silent Hill so my long-running plan to retire there based on my Silent Hill 2 obsession is still valid, but now I’m getting a part-time job as a rollercoaster operator! Let me set the scene… At the start of the game, you get woken up after being hit by the rollercoaster, so when you come across it again for real this time, you need to make sure the rollercoaster isn’t rollercoasting, and after a bit of detective work you end up climbing up the rickety stairs to the top of the rickety ride and into a locked cabin to sort that out. And I just loved that little, decrepit wooden hut, with its handful of dials and levers, and plenty of space to put your lunch down and make yourself comfortable looking out at the hell on earth through its dirty old cobwebbed windows. My idea of heaven on earth!
We did end up in Silent Hill by numbers territory again in the last section, the church, but it’s so well realised, and there’s so many twists and turns (around completely ridiculous plot points!) that you won’t really notice. There was one really fascinating (but very brief) side-story going on here though, which as I write is something I want to delve into a bit more later (after I’ve gone into the mystery figure in the far distance I just found for the first time at the end of Resident Evil 4)… As you leave the altar area and go backstage in the church, there’s a confession booth. Investigating the door closest to you informs you that there’s someone in there, so obviously you go around the back and play the priest! It’s clear that all’s not quite right as soon as you go in, with pictures on the wall that you won’t recognise but are clearly out of place. And then a woman’s voice, confessing murderous revenge for the death of her daughter, at the end of which you’re asked to forgive or not forgive, and whichever you choose will influence your ending, despite it being completely missable. But who is the woman is what’s currently fascinating me! Is it the baddie from the first game, or from this game, or the original vessel Alessa, or your character Heather herself having a premonition, or some other lost soul, or no one of importance at all except to question Heather’s morality before she goes all out? I don’t know, but just like my other current fascination, the Tombstone Thunderbird (one for your cryptozoology fans!), I plan to find out more!
I ended up really enjoying Silent Hill 3, far more than I’d expected going in, and came out of the other side with my own little bonus confessional mystery to investigate later too! I also came out with an unlimited ammo machine gun for my next play-through, simply because I ran out of ammo on the final boss and had to finish it off with a sword! And let me tell you, that was a shocker – I’ve never not ended up with a ton of ammo, grenades and rocket launchers when I’ve finished any Silent Hill or Resident Evil or similar game before! But would I be playing again without that helpful little incentive? Well, someone has to operate the rollercoaster, but apart from that, I’m not sure. Until I got to the fairground, I’d filled the Silent Hill 3 space on my PS2 and Atari ST games overflow shelf with my newly acquired Advanced Ski Simulator, which I had on the Spectrum but never on ST, and probably should have left it that way; and Silent Hill 3 was going back to eBay. Now it’s back, and I’ve got nowhere to put Ski Simulator! That said, this just isn’t Silent Hill 2 for me, and I can put that down to three things – the intensity of storytelling; the realisation of Silent Hill as a place; and its inhabitants, which I’ve just realised I’ve not really covered…
Let’s start with the obvious – no Pyramid Head! In fact, none of the bosses are memorable in the slightest, either on their own terms or most definitely in comparison with the horrific unrealities of Silent Hill 2. And in turn, the big hitting scenes they should be delivering here have very little impact. Moving to the regular enemies is a similar story, with the iconic sexualised insanity of the monster designs in the predecessor replaced with what’s mostly a charmless laziness akin to watching a Paranormal Activity movie (or that dreadful Silent Hill: Revelation 3D thing)! They’re all far scarier when you can hear them but can’t see them, and don’t even compete with some of the (admittedly brilliant) environmental horror they’re crawling around in. And as I think about them again, I am wondering if I’m better off just speed-running with my infinite machine gun to my rollercoaster hut and making a permanent save there!
How did I end up getting so down on this when we were so close to a second play-through? I reckon I’d get down on most things that aren’t Resident Evil 4 when I start comparing them to Silent Hill 2, so just ignore me! It’s a crazy, polished, atmospheric and sometimes overwhelmingly horrific tale that still looks and sounds great throughout its 7-8 hour duration. The puzzles aren’t too mental, but there’s an easy setting for both puzzles and gameplay if that’s not your bag, and you can always slide it in the other direction too if it is! Actually, I just thought of a fantastic upper to close on, and that’s the extra costumes when you finish. There’s tons of them, and I think they’re unlocked for going out of your way on things in subsequent play-throughs (I’ll get back to you on that), but the one you get for finishing first time is this really cool red vest for Heather, that has a picture of her in action with Silent Hill written underneath. Wonder if there’s a Pyramid Head one somewhere?