Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams
System: Xbox Publisher: Konami Developer: Konami
Genre: Survival Horror Type: Survival Horror Circa: 2001

James Sunderland begins his quest for unlocked doors: 1 down, 452 more to go.

Sorry. I'm too busy sulking over television's lack of quality entertainment right now.

There's an early cutscene in Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams in which a character vomits repeatedly into a toilet. For the first few hurls and "blehhhs!", I could sympathize with him for feeling sick from what he's experienced in the bizarre town of Silent Hill. After a few more it ceased being empathic and now seemed funny. When I realized he would continue puking for the entire duration of the 2-minute video, I thought, "This isn't scary or funny anymore, it's just stupid." That scene is symbolic of the greater problem with Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams: It's excessive, but never where it needs to be.

A staple of the Survival Horror genre is the finite number of life refills and weapon ammo that often cannot be replenished without expending some first. No matter what creature comes shambling out of the mist, how frightening a dark corridor may seem, or whatever sounds go bump in the night, the biggest worry always stems from the possibility of depleting your item supply to the point where the game cannot be finished, and you'd have to start all over again. The crazy thing about Silent Hill 2 is that item conservation is never that big of an issue, no matter what difficulty setting you're playing on. Therefore, the game must rely more heavily on its atmosphere to work up a scare...which leads me to wonder where I should place the most blame for the fact that I was never truly scared by it.

I don't care about the ghosts. I'm moving to Silent Hill for the better gas prices.

We obviously did not learn anything from The Shining.

Part of it is that I don't scare too easily, but I may not be entirely at fault here. Research has told me that Konami intentionally toned down the horror from the original Silent Hill in the wake of controversy over video game-related violence in the media and the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. Supposedly, they felt audiences may be too sensitive to handle another game as scary as Silent Hill in the current climate. Indeed, Silent Hill 2 often feels like it's trying harder to be weird than horrifying.

However, there's an even easier target to pinpoint: An obnoxious "noise" effect that makes the entire screen look fuzzy. Silent Hill 2's graphics are generally dark, foggy, and monochrome. Placing a layer of static over them seems like overkill, and it makes everything so hard to see (even in lighted interior areas), that it gave me eyestrain. I need to be able to tell what I'm looking at to have a chance of being scared by it. (I purposefully played Shadow Man with the N64 Expansion Pak installed because I heard that some areas were dark and difficult to see without it.) Once Silent Hill 2 is completed, an option to turn off the noise layer appears in the menu. Since my ability to enjoy the game greatly increased with it deactivated, I'll contest that such an option should have been made available from the start.

How much is that kitty on the window?

That's information that ought not to have any applicability elsewhere in this game.

Silent Hill 2's story is another reason for my initial detachment. Though a sequel to Silent Hill, it's entirely self-contained: Random everyman James Sunderland arrives in the town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife, Mary, stating that she is waiting there for him in their "special place". The problem is...Mary died three years ago, and James has no idea what is meant by "our special place". Finding the road mysteriously closed off, James travels into town on foot, only to discover it is abandoned, covered in a layer of eerie fog, and crawling with horribly disfigured zombies.

While you may expect that the mystery will slowly be revealed as you play, most details are kept under wraps and it's left up to you to figure out what's going on. There are hints that Silent Hill has a sordid history, but it doesn't directly relate to whether or not Mary is still alive or if James is crazy for continuing a quest in a monster-infested town to find a dead person (a quest that, by the way, often requires him to leap down dark holes hundreds of feet deep without being able to see where he's going).

Well, you'll kill somebody, but with the gun pointed like that, it may not be who you expect.

James's wife didn't die. She just changed her hair and clothes and he no longer recognized her.

James will meet up with several NPC's along the way, including a confused woman who's looking for her mother, ne'er-do-well Eddie who is paranoid about people making fun of him, and a mysterious woman named Maria who looks nearly identical to James's late wife, Mary. Most of the plot involves run-ins with these characters who have all come to Silent Hill for separate reasons, but are experiencing similar phenomena. The only exception is a little girl named Laura who moves about the dangerous town at will without ever being bothered by any demons. Laura seems out-of-place, but it's her inclusion that is the key to understanding the nature of Silent Hill's hauntings - maybe they aren't bio-engineering disasters, but personal demons manifesting in corporeal form by the town's omniscient governing powers.

Without such prior knowledge, it may take several replays before these NPC encounters start seeming like anything other than randomness and (sometimes) overwrought voice acting. I often got the feeling that information was being held back so there could be a "big reveal" later on (not uncommon in these types of games), and while there technically is one, it doesn't necessarily explain everything. Silent Hill 2 has six possible endings, and Konami will not comment on which is "canon" because they want players to decide. Ironically, the ending that's most worth seeing is one that couldn't possibly be considered anything more than a joke - a revelation involving an elaborate space-age control room and a Shiba Inu.

The patients in this hospital are in danger of giving and receiving some bad treatment.

And that is why you never jump off the diving board during the off-season.

Silent Hill 2's rigid structure is perhaps a greater burden on the suspension of disbelief than the joke ending. The game does portray the feeling of being alone in a strange place competently enough that I almost could have believed I was visiting a real haunted town. But alas, the illusion faded when I reached the second interior area. Due to its similarity to the first interior area, the underlying "video game design" became obvious: The streets of Silent Hill are a "hub world" with four "dungeons". While these "dungeons" do have organic purposes (an apartment complex, a hospital, a prison, and a hotel), they all play out similarly - most of James's time is spent walking down their dreary hallways and checking doors to find out which ones are unlocked. Would it have hurt the powers that brought James Sunderland to Silent Hill to force him to occasionally explore something that isn't a labyrinth of doors requiring silly little keys and solving goofy riddles to unlock 1/4 of them? Why have so many rooms on the maps that you cannot get to?

There isn't a huge variety of monsters to be found in Silent Hill 2 and while many theories persist as to what they all symbolize, none of it matters much on your first playthrough - they are just things for you to fight. Most of them share one of two common motifs: (1) creatures that are trapped within rectangular bed frame/torture rack devices (the more disturbing of the two), and (2) zombies with covered or missing heads that blindly amble about until you're close enough for them to hear you. The epitome of type 2 is Pyramid Head - a man in a butcher's apron wearing a huge metal executioner's hood.

This is either Pyramid Head having his way with a couple of mannequins or a Marilyn Manson music video. You decide.

Well, so long as you don't count the abnormal fog, lack of human inhabitants, and monster infestion anyway.

Pyramid Head is meant to be one of the more menacing figures in the game, as he stalks the corridors of every "dungeon" and often pops up when you least expect it. Even so, I couldn't help but notice a certain comical tone to him. The first battle involves him trying to hit you with a sword that is so big, he can hardly walk with it, let alone swing it, and he eventually shuffles away down a flooded staircase, whether or not you've actually damaged him. That, to me, was more funny than scary. The fact that Konami put a miniaturized version of Pyramid Head into one of their kart racing games might attest to them realizing that such an interpretation was possible.

Although Silent Hill 2's gameplay is generally consistent to a fault, about 3/4 of the way into it is this flabbergasting rowboat sequence that can cause you to drift aimlessly for a long time if you don't go exactly the right way. There is a trick that makes it possible to complete this part in less than a minute, but without realizing that trick, it took me over 7 minutes on my first try. That's 7 minutes of drifting in a boat. The controls for this sequence unexpectedly change on the Hard mode, which led to me fumbling with the controller for several minutes trying to figure them out. Why didn't Konami just make this part an automatic cutscene? As gameplay, it serves no purpose.

I am so totally giving away how to do this part here.

Give me your wallet or I'll beat you with a crowbar!

The Restless Dreams version of Silent Hill 2 contains an exclusive chapter in which you play as the mysterious debutante, Maria, that was not included in the original Playstation 2 version of the game. While this does give some insight into Maria's background, and a little something more to do with the game, it's not worth crying over if your version doesn't have it. Maria's quest, though it takes place in a new mansion location, is regrettably similar to James's neverending pursuit of unlocked doors.

With all of that said, there are some things I liked about Silent Hill 2, mainly its audio-visuals, sans noise layer. My personal favorite area was the apartment complex for its various rooms that each serve as little windows into the lives of the people who once dwelled in them. There's one especially creative unit that seems to have belonged to a butterfly collector as the whole place is filled with them, both dead and alive. Although The Shining had already convinced me that sometimes even a posh, 5-star hotel is a place you wouldn't want to be alone at night, Silent Hill 2's Lakeview Hotel is a good reminder.

No ordinary clock would have writing on it like this...

Who farted?

I generally prefer game soundtracks that have actual music to ambience, but the ambience in Silent Hill 2 is well-integrated. There is a lot of low thrumming and metallic percussion, making it seem like Silent Hill is perpetually within auditory range of a distant industrial rock concert. Other times the effects match the situations for heightened atmosphere (howling winds, unintelligble whispering from an unseen source) or as gameplay clues (a room with a clock has a persistent clock-like drone). Actual music, usually relegated to cutscenes, is comprised mostly of soft piano, violin, and ambient effects, with the exception of a spectacularly guitar-driven opening FMV theme.

While all of this is nice, none of it is enough to elevate the game beyond a somewhat audiovisually-impressive romp to a blood-curdling experience that pushes you to the edge of your seat. None of the four difficulty settings offer too many challenges, except for Hard, and even then it's mostly business-as-usual, with a few atypical spots. One such spot is a battle with Pyramid Head that can easily last over an hour. If that sounds more tedious than challenging, that's because it is. And for goodness sakes, if a long hallway of locked doors doesn't yield something genuinely exciting the first 5-10 times, you start feeling safe in assuming the next 10-20 won't, either. There is one great scene where James is trapped in a locked room as unspeakably grotesque monsters fall down out of the ceiling to attack him. Moments like those - too few and far between.

Are you absolutely sure you don't want me to go get the inflatable mattress?

Hellooooo, Nurse!

Maybe it's commendable that Konami was sensitive to the feelings of its audience in the wake of such emotionally-charged events as 9/11 and school shootings, but in hindsight it's easy to think that sentiment was misguided. The best way to have ramped up the tension would have been to simply make the game harder. (I would not necessarily say Resident Evil 0 was any scarier than Silent Hill 2, but it is much more difficult.) Instead, Silent Hill 2's methods of prolongation are artificial and excessive. It's probably not a good sign when upon completing a sequel, the thought I'm left with is, "I just hope the first one was better."




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