Everything is different in the dark. The play of light and shadow can lend any partially obscured object an ominous tone. If you've ever navigated your room late at night after waking from a deep sleep, half-aware of reality and half-aware you're no longer in your bed, you know this feeling – the feeling that dwells at the heart of Silent Hill.
Few games have mastered this ambience as well as the Silent Hill series, and here we have two classics from its library, Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3, in Silent Hill HD Collection. It promises to bring these legendary scares to a new generation of gamers to whom standard definition graphics of the early 2000's stand to retain as much shock value as a Vincent Price film. Certainly the originals could still hold the same power for the right audience, but for everyone else a hi-def upgrade is a great idea.
The first of the two follows James Sunderland, who follows instructions from a letter sent by his dead wife Mary — as we all would, because it doesn't sound like a terrible idea at all. He searches out their "special place" where she waits, uncovering distorted memories as he goes along and encountering others who seem to have arrived by similarly confusing means. Meanwhile, the sequel – not a direct continuation, mind you – sees teenager Heather arrive in the same town under even more mysterious circumstances, though there's no dead pen pal this time around. Whereas Resident Evil gave players heaps of plot and premise, Silent Hill dares to keep the details light and esoteric, a welcome change of pace at the time and still a gripping storytelling method.
Dilapidation and suffering are two key tropes of Silent Hill. You'll make your way through rotting hospitals, ancient prisons with hanging bodies intact and a plethora of filthy, rust-covered, blood-spattered walls and floors. You'll recoil at nightmarish toilets, decipher horrific warnings scrawled on walls and acquaint yourself with a barbecued dog and the contents of its stomach (spoiler: it's just a key). Even the enemies appear to be constantly suffering: they twitch, shamble, and crawl; many are mangled, sliced up or simply born without all their body parts. A great sadness pervades Silent Hill, and it's one aspect that makes it all so unsettling.
Light and sound are the other two major elements that comprise the creepy atmosphere. The developers ration out the former in puddles, and in both games you'll find yourself viewing most objects and enemies by flashlight. Silent Hill 2 makes great use of fog in outdoor areas as well, capturing the same mysterious effect as shadow. Meanwhile, spooky sounds come in horrifying abundance, from the static of your radio as you approach enemies to their moaning, screeching and wailing that accompanies most moments. At other times you'll simply hear a jarring combination of organic and mechanical sounds that seem to emanate from nowhere; in moments of clarity these can feel like unfortunate false alarms, but when you're at your most scared – as you likely will be for a great portion of the game – these are the sounds of Silent Hill itself creaking and crying out.
But not everything ages well. Nostalgic gamers and those among us who made peace with clunky tank-like control schemes will have no problem re-encountering them here, but gamers used to their more fluid contemporary counterparts will likely have some difficulty putting up with them. These work in tandem with the camera system; while you can generally move it about your character, often the game places your viewpoint in such a way that you cannot see the thing that's growling at you from only feet away. There's no way to reload quickly and auto-aim doesn't cover a great enough distance. And did we mention the controls?
The combat system is imperfect; it's difficult to switch who you're aiming at, and some close-range weapons actually back your character up with each swing until the enemy is out of reach. The game is as much about running away as it is about fighting, maybe more so, so this isn't a deal-breaker. You'll spend large portions of both games running around tight, claustrophobic hallways as well – it's simply a trope of the genre and works well with the constraining camera to heighten your anxiety. Another common theme here is the puzzle system: you'll find objects and keys and then search for places in which they might fit. Sometimes it's fairly obvious, while others have you pondering for far too long thanks to a general lack of logic to them. You're relatively unguided beyond this, which gives you a greater degree of freedom while making it at times difficult to know what to do next. Ammunition is also a concern, and you'll have to keep an eye on it to make sure you aren't in danger of running out.
But not every issue is the fault of the passage of time. Slowdown and stuttering are common but generally don't terribly get in the way, while the lighting and contrast take an arguable step down. It's debatable, but if you haven't played the original games then you'd likely never know the difference. A new and improved vocal track for each game is included, though you can go back to the markedly more awkward original delivery of Silent Hill 2 if you choose. However, it's not uncommon for them to go completely out of sync with the video, a jarring and unfortunate effect. The HD graphics do, however, pack a punch and appear much more crisp and detailed than their original counterparts.
Gameplay-wise the two are extremely similar. When Silent Hill 3 originally came out, many criticised it for a lack of innovation over its predecessor; having the two together as one game feels right, as you can simply continue from one to the next undaunted. SH3 is also somewhat shorter than Silent Hill 2, and its monsters, while just as creepy and imaginative as before, never match the unbridled gloom and fury that is Pyramid Head. The second game also packs a greater emotional punch that the third doesn't quite match, though both are suitably entertaining, creepy and sombre.
Silent Hill HD Collection proves a good way to experience two great horror classics that embody psychic fear and buried emotional pain like no others, with gruesome settings, monstrously imaginative enemies and a thousand creepy, dark hallways. The sound design and lighting are excellent as well, and the graphics have never looked better or grimier. However, the flaws of the control scheme, combat system and obscure puzzles are more apparent a decade later, and while the graphics get an upgrade, it comes with some slowdown and minor changes in lighting and contrast that may upset purists. At the end of the day, these are two games from a dying genre that deserve to be remembered and played again.