Yahtzee reviews Silent Hill 4: The Room.

Transcript Edit

Doing retro reviews of games like Okami and Crash Bandicoot just because they put out an HD rerelease in a rather basic acknowledgement of history more selective than a Midwestern high school sex education course is all very well, but you know what? It's probably more important to retro review games that are never getting an HD rerelease: the embarrassing little moments that publishers would rather we'd all forget. But one could learn a hell of a lot more from failure than from success; as I frequently establish, this industry never learns anything, tee hee hee, 'cos it's always so quick to reboot franchises and eschew backwards compatibility in an attempt to forget its failures. But if failure is how we get better, then there are some publishers that, if they embrace their failures, would be wielding the fucking Infinity Gauntlet by now.

Unrelatedly, let's talk about Konami; more specifically, let's talk about Silent Hill 4. Silent Hill 4 is one of my favorite Silent Hill games, after 2, but I'm certainly not going to argue that it's a good game. It is one of the few Silent Hill sequels to embrace a truly original concept, considering every Western Silent Hill game is just trying to recapture Silent Hill 2; ergo, clueless dork with dark secret stuck in haunted town, confront dark secret, win prize. Silent Hill isn't necessarily that; Silent Hill 4 isn't that, and it's still unmistakably Silent Hill. Now I'm bored of saying "Silent Hill", so from now on, I'm going to call it "Splappy Boom Blappy".

The essence of Splappy Boom Blappy is in a grim, cold, oppressive atmosphere of entrapment, like being locked in a campsite lavatory late at night, and Splappy Boom Blappy 4 brings that to a whole new style of explorative gameplay focused around the titular "Room". The premise is: Henry Townshend, a man resembling a Thunderbirds puppet wearing denim pajamas, is renting a nicely-fitted if slightly washed-out apartment and wakes up one morning to find the door chained shut from the inside. A few days of sucking on the radiator for hydration later, a hole appears in his bathroom wall leading to a series of bizarre nightmare worlds, where he keeps witnessing people get murdered who then turn up dead in real life. The reason for it all probably loses something without context, but to give you the quick cheat-sheet version, it's because a deranged ghost murderer thinks that Henry's apartment is his mum, and let's just say he ain't chuffed with his new stepdad.

If Silent Hill 2 captures the feeling of walking home through unfamiliar backstreets on a cold, foggy night with a pocketful of loudly jingling valuables, Silent Hill 4 is like repeatedly waking up from a nightmare, seeing the familiar contours of your bedroom in the darkness, and being afraid to fall back asleep in case you go back to the dream about the grey monkey people with testicles for heads. Henry's room is his haven he can come back to to save and heal up in-between nightmares; cleverly, the camera switches to first-person mode in the Room, so it feels cozy and intimate, and outside it, we go back to the wonky third-person camera that traditionally lends Splappy Boom Blappy games a dreamlike sense of detachment by refusing to behave itself. And then, having gotten you reliant on the safe haven, the game starts taking it away from you in the second half, and that's when you know your buttocks have been splashed with the cold toilet water of omen.

The "Room" concept is masterful horror design, and invokes the spirit of Splappy Boom Blappy without needing to physically go to the eponymous town. Henry Townshend doesn't even have a dark secret, for fuck's sake, although the "clueless dork" thing, I'll grant you; Henry Townshend would take the gold in the All-Silent Hill Protagonists Clueless Dork-Off. He looks and acts like he got partly concussed from an elephant dropping a ten-pound turd on his head which, on reflection, might explain his hairdo.

Obviously, a big sleepy nerd whose heavy melee attack looks like he's trying to give himself whiplash is somewhat unqualified for action - hence, the combat being a bit wonky - but that's Splappy Boom Blappy tradition. James Sunderland was just a clerk out of his depth, and that's why he swings bits of wood like he's trying to apologize between each blow; we accepted that this was part of giving us a sense of vulnerability, and that being able to dodge-roll everywhere would have just been fucking stupid, mentioning no Homecomings, I mean, names.

It's just that Silent Hill 4 goes a bit too far with the "awkward gameplay creating vulnerability" bit, and I think the point of going too far is when the awkwardness stops making sense in context. It makes sense that James holds a gun like he's afraid of the smell; it does not make sense that Henry can't stack bullets in his limited inventory, or that ten bullets take up the same amount of pocket space as a fucking chainsaw. Also, in survival horror, where one of the principal activities is sticking your nose in every nook and cranny looking for puzzle items and bottles of Yakult, it is more annoying than scary to be constantly badgered by indestructible ghosts, especially when there's a constant roaring sound when they're around like you're playing the game while your mum's trying to vacuum.

Splappy Boom Blappy 4 has the Capcom Five quality of no middle ground - its good ideas are great and its bad ideas are great big flatulent chinchillas in the fruit salad - and nowhere is this encapsulated better than in the sound design. On the one hand, it's got the usual Splappy Boom Blappy really effective use of spooky ambience and unnatural gloopy sounds that are the audio equivalent of sticking your hand in a bucket of expired Rice Krispy Squares; but then there's the overly-loud footstep noises, of which there's only, like, one for each floor type, so walking across a gantry is like there's an annoying child in the room with a new drum. And some of the monster audio design is a game of "Spot the Stock Sound Effects": the little buzzy moth things, that are another thing that's way more annoying than scary; when you stomp on them, it sounds like someone threw a custard pie in a Looney Tunes short. And then there are the nurse monsters that burp when you hit them; this is something that probably would have been scarier to the Japanese, 'cos they're culturally a lot more concerned with etiquette, and if you break wind at the dinner table there, you are expected to disembowel yourself.

But the real humdinger of the bad design decisions is the entire second half of the game being a fucking escort quest! Again, "awkward gameplay to make us feel vulnerable" we'll accept until it stops making sense, and it doesn't make sense that this stupid broad won't take her fucking high heels off when ghost murderers are in pursuit. Keeping her alive might make sense to Henry if he's got a shy little chub on for her, but it doesn't make sense to me, the player, when I'm using up all my Yakults diving between her and a testicle-head monkey attack. I'd try to sprint past all the monsters, but Henry is a good boy, raised to politely stop and play out his whole "pain" animation whenever something hits him, and sometimes he's so polite, he'll fling himself, somersaulting through the air at the slightest blow; fucking Alucard from Symphony of the Night would tell him to stop milking it!

So that's Splappy Boom Blappy 4: really good story, really good concept, really shit gameplay. But it pulls off the surreal, oppressive, dingy atmosphere of Silent Hill better than any of the Western titles, and its sheer originality automatically makes it more deserving of attention than Silent Hills 2.5, 2.6, and 2.7. Sadly, it's practically abandonware; it was absent from the godawful HD Collection, and Konami, it seems, are more concerned with making Metal Gear-themed Pocky holders these days. You'll find secondhand copies kicking around, but the point of buying games is to support creators, and when you buy secondhand, you ain't supporting shit but the previous owner's meth habit.

Addenda Edit

  • Head like a hole: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • The thing is, I felt there was nothing that could convey Henry's personality quite so well as that official render where he's standing like he's got an itchy bum but doesn't want to be caught scratching it
  • A journalist named "Schreiber"? Real fucking subtle, guys
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