Gameplay, Story and Value:
From a purely mechanical standpoint, Silent Hill is “okay”. That is to say, it controls poorly, however it’s still just as good as anything else released at the time. I’m getting the negatives out of the way early, because there’s a lot of good to talk about here.
Silent Hill is a PS1 horror game that borrows a lot of fundamentals from the Resident Evil series, however it would be a stretch to call the games similar. Where Resident Evil likes to throws hordes of zombies at you with restricted resources to handle them with, Silent Hill builds its terror up over a long period of time. It’s a psychological horror that cares more about making you as uncomfortable as possible than it does about swarming you with undead.
There’s a constant sense of isolation, both indoors and outside in the foggy streets of the old town. You’re always kept on guard, as you never know what’s lurking around the corner or in the mists. Silent Hill excels at environment building and puzzle solving, while never throwing difficult combat encounters your way unless you’re playing on the hard difficulties.
In fact, it could be said that even the enemies only exist in this game to unsettle you, and they’re nothing if not unsettling! From start to finish, every new enemy encounter would make me jump just a little, as I’d never know what behaviors to expect from the monster that just cornered me in a dark hallway.
Silent Hill’s main story line keeps you going, but if you want deeper insights into the lore, you’ll have to do some exploring and reading. In fact, the best of the game’s five different endings is extremely obscure if you’re not paying incredibly close attention. Yes, the control scheme and occasionally clunky combat don’t do this game any favors, but the slow burning fear and tension, interesting and fun puzzles and excellent monsters and story are more than enough to make up for it!
Presentation, Music and Sound:
It would be fair to say that, like most PS1 games, Silent Hill hasn’t aged well. It would also be fair to say that the dated visuals have a negative effect on the tone that Silent Hill is trying to set. Finally, it’s fair to say that when you actually sit down to play this game with the lights off, none of that matters anymore.
Sweeping, cinematic camera work, well-placed doors and corners and an undeniable sense of dread and uncertainty ensure that even nearly 30 years later Silent Hill is just as horrifying as it ever was. The first transition into the Otherworld is jarring and induces panic, and you can actually feel the sense that your world has just been flipped upside down. Every section of the game feels like a slow descent into madness, and that’s in spite of the game’s visuals. The pre-rendered cutscenes are, admittedly, just as bad, though I have to give it credit for the “outtakes” reel after the credits!
The sound design, both atmospheric sounds as well as music, is phenomenal. The scratching and clicking in the distance keep you on edge, and the sound of your paranormal-detecting radio firing up puts your hair on end. You obviously won’t be humming any tunes from Silent Hill after you’ve turned off the console, but the use of disjointed and eerie music are put to such excellent effect that the feeling they imparted on you will leave a lasting impact.
…then there’s the voice acting… The voice acting is bad in a lot of ways. I’m always forgiving when it comes to bad voice work, and I’d be able to look past Silent Hill’s very bad voice acting if it weren’t for the fact that it was so poorly implemented. Specifically, I’m referring to how it was mixed. Character voices are often completely drowned out by the music, sometimes to the point of being completely inaudible, and it’s a real shame. For a game that makes such great use of its audio, it’s really strange to me that this ball was dropped.
I don’t handle horror games very well, at all, which is why I’ve never played Silent Hill until now. Admittedly, after the halfway point I’d become comfortable enough with this one that I was able to go back to playing it like a normal video game, but up until then, I was fighting off multiple heart attacks, finding it very difficult to stay in front of my TV.
This has been a good experience for me, and I honestly can’t wait to play Silent Hill 2 later on this list, and Silent Hill 3 on my own time after that one. I had a great time playing through this horror classic!