During the course of my career as a horror film critic, I've complained about one thing time and time again: sequels. While sequels have worked their way into every genre of film these days, no one kind of movie has had their credibility decimated more so than the fright film. Any domestic horror film that does well will invariably spawn a series (and even some that don't do well will too—which explains how there are now six films in the Leprechaun canon) —and said series will inevitably ruin what was so compelling and magical about the first film. Take, for example, John Carpenter's Halloween. The original film is a classic story about the boogeyman and the nature of absolute evil. By the time audiences reach the eighth film in the series, slasher Michael Myers has been reduced to little more than a caricature, and the story has migrated into some twisted familial obsession thing that makes no sense when examined critically (don't even get me started on the whole Druid thing in Halloween 6…).
The Silent Hill series is in danger of becoming the latest cool horror item marred by the almost compulsive urge to make sequels. Like Resident Evil before it, Silent Hill has ultimately become a victim of its own success—and each subsequent (and largely unnecessary) sequel continues to tarnish what was so wonderful about that first game. By the time we arrive at Konami's latest installment, Silent Hill 4: The Room, the series doesn't even take place in Silent Hill anymore…players spend the game in the nearby town of Ashfield. Unfortunately, calling the game Ashfield 4: The Room probably wouldn't have inspired many sales as gamers the world over wondered what the hell ever happened to Ashfield 1-3…it's like that whole Bill Cosby/Leonard Part 6 mess, and I think everyone learned their lesson on that one.
But, grouse as I may about how a new installment every year is both unnecessary and detrimental to the Silent Hill series as a whole, the game still needs a review—and a review it shall have.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Silent Hill 4 is that the stories are still intriguing even after four games. In fact, without the creepy surrealist Salvador-Dali-meets-Hieronymous-Bosch plots, these games wouldn't be nearly as popular as they are. And while this installment continues to spiral ever farther away from the story of the first game, it's still oddly compelling.
Players take the role of Henry Townsend, a young man living in an Ashfield apartment complex. Things are going fine until Henry wakes up one day and finds himself trapped inside the apartment—huge chains cover the doors and he has no way of unlocking them and no one can hear him scream…
Searching the apartment (despite the title's claims, Henry isn't trapped in a room…) leads Henry to discover a hole in his bathroom wall. Climbing into the hole leads him to different parts of the game world—all of which are, at best, tenuously connected to reality. During his journey through the wormholes, Henry will encounter the occasional human non-player character (NPC), puzzles, surreal and disturbing scenes of carnage, and, most importantly, hordes of monsters.
The game's monsters are the usual assortment of incredibly bizarre creations that take something from the human world and twist it around in a way that would make David Cronenberg giggle like a school girl. Mutated dogs (a survival horror game staple, it seems), weird monkey men, ghosts that can't be killed, and more all turn up in one spot or another—all just waiting for Henry to beat them silly with his assortment of golf clubs.
The disappointing thing here is that the combat is still largely unrefined and unsatisfying. While Konami should certainly get kudos for making the average Joe lead character realistically clumsy with every weapon he picks up, it really bogs the game down in all of the combat segments. Fighting in Silent Hill 4 is a chore. It's never particularly hard, but it often takes longer than it should—a fact compounded regularly by the game's inept targeting system. Monsters in the game will fall to Henry's bludgeoning in time, but they're not really dead until he stomps on their head. This is problematic whenever Henry fights a group of enemies, because as soon as one monster goes down, the game targets the next standing one…making it all but impossible to deliver the finishing blow to the fallen enemy. Because of this, Henry not only has to beat monsters (sometimes repeatedly as they keep getting up before he can finish them off in some sort of bizarre parody of that I Love Lucy episode with the chocolates and the conveyor belt), but many times he'll have to lead them away from the rest of the pack and then kill them…which is something of a pain.
As far as the rest of the gaming elements go, Silent Hill 4 is a mixed experience. Graphics are nice—dark and brooding as expected, and the weird grainy filters coloring a lot of segments are a particularly nice touch. The music is great, as are most of the sound effects. I say most, because whoever decided that the patient enemies in the hospital level should make a belching sound when hit should be taken out behind Konami headquarters and shot. The controls are responsive (and do not utilize the god-awful Resident Evil control scheme we all know and despise), and the camera blows. The fixed camera perspective is something that should really be scrapped in these sorts of games as it makes navigating dark and cramped spaces even more difficult than it should be, and it leads to tons of cheap hits in the combat portions of the game.
However, the title's greatest shortcoming is in the gameplay itself. Simply put, Silent Hill 4 would make for a better film than a videogame. The story is intriguing enough that I kept playing onward through arbitrarily designed puzzles and the tedious combat and necessary backtracking (more on that in a bit) just to find out what was happening. How disappointing is it, then, when the game becomes one giant escort mission just after the halfway point—complete with a Resident Evil 3: Nemesis-styled enemy who keeps popping up at random intervals? Pretty disappointing in my estimation.
What is truly confounding about the game, though, is why Konami has decided to tweak with so many game elements that were fine the way they were.
Henry's apartment is the game's hub, and for some reason the developers are hell-bent on having players go back to it regularly. Granted, many of the game's story interludes take place in the apartment, but they're all easily accessed after completing each of the game's scenarios (when a "chapter" is finished, Henry wakes up again in his room). The apartment is where players can save, store excess items (yes, now players can only carry a set number of items—just like in Resident Evil; Konami gets a big boo for this), and regenerate health. The problem is that to get back to the apartment, Henry must find a hole in the area he's exploring-which often means backtracking through the level just to get home, then moving forward once more through already covered areas on the way back. This sort of gameplay might have worked in 1996—but in 2004 it looks really bad and annoyed me time and again.
Whether or not one enjoys Silent Hill 4: The Room depends on just how interested they are in the story. The game does boast yet another nicely crafted tale of the macabre, but the gameplay gets in the way of it much too often. Similar to the Tony Hawk games, this is a series that needs to take a few years off before the next installment. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and seeing a new Silent Hill game once every year is certainly not making me miss these games, particularly when even the strongest elements of the game's design (i.e. the story) are starting to falter. This isn't to say that Silent Hill 4 is a bad game—just that it's starting to look really long in the fang and could use an extended rest at some abandoned sanitarium. Otherwise, the only thing that's going to be scary about these games is the frightening pace Konami churns them out and just how far they've fallen from the original.