Reviewed: March 29, 2008
Released: March 4, 2008
The Silent Hill series has long been a survival-horror genre fan favorite, and with good reason. With chilling storylines, terrifying enemies and intriguing characters, Silent Hill games are as scary as they are fun. In Silent Hill Origins, a game originally released on the PSP, fans are treated to the story that comes before all other stories in the series, in a prequel that explains what happened seven years before the first game.
Silent Hill Origins begins on a dark stretch of road outside the town of Silent Hill where a trucker, who we learn is named Travis, is forced to slam on the brakes when a hooded figure crawls out into the street. When he gets out of his truck to investigate, no one is there, except the sudden, eerie reflection of a young girl in his truck mirrors.
The mysterious girl runs away into town, and Travis, fearing that he has hit the girl and she may be hurt, follows her on foot. He then encounters a burning building as he walks into the city limits. The scream of a girl coming from the flames convinces him to run inside to rescue whoever is trapped there. He finds the badly burned body of another young girl laying on the floor in an upstairs room, surrounded by strange occult symbols and candles.
He runs outside with her, passes out on the ground and wakes up on a park bench in Silent Hill, though the town is filled with an eerie mist and a marked lack of any sign of life. Travis decides to go to the hospital to see if the girl from the night before is being treated there, and as any Silent Hill fan knows, this does not bode well for the poor fellow.
Once in the hospital, all hell breaks loose, and Travis finds himself trapped in a terrifying world that can only be escaped from by entering the even more terrifying Otherworld via various mirrors. The few people Travis does encounter are strange themselves, and some of them know him, though he does not know them. Still, there is something familiar about Silent Hill for Travis, something to do with the nightmares that haunt his sleep.
Players, of course, guide Travis back and forth between two dangerous, nightmarish worlds, solving chilling puzzles, wandering through mazes and fighting or outright avoiding monsters and ghosts in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery that is Silent Hill.
Intriguing, spine tingling stories are a staple of the Silent Hill series, and Origins gives its fans another one, this time in the form of a prequel. While the set up and game controls are largely run of the mill for the series and the game doesn't stray too far into groundbreaking territory, it does offer up some new tidbits here and there.
The fighting system is still the usual “equip whatever can be used as a weapon and beat the crap out of the weirdos” setup, but with a few added twists. For instance, an enemy may grapple with Travis, whereupon the player must press a series of buttons in order to fight it off and not take damage. Some enemies throw projectile attacks at Travis, and careful attention has to be paid to how to approach them without getting hurt.
Barricades can be set up, and some enemies are better off avoided altogether, which may mean walking agonizingly slow in order to not make too much noise running to get their attention, or turning Travis' flashlight off and spending some nail biting moments in the dark. Tons of different objects may be used as weapons, from guns to television sets and, if worse comes to worst, Travis can resort to his bare hands. While the fighting in Origins isn't terribly in depth or innovative, it does mix things up a bit to keep it from being nothing more than a button mashing nightmare.
Controls in Origins aren't perfect, and there are times when there is a slight delay between when a button is pushed and when Travis actually does what he's told. This can get very frustrating when fighting more than one enemy and switching between targets is a necessity. While clunkiness in the controls could be contributed to the fact that Origins is a PSP port, it should also be noted that even though this doesn't make the game unplayable at any point, it is quite frustrating nonetheless.
Most importantly, Origins is a lot of fun overall, and is also quite scary. The story is interesting and immersive enough to encourage braver players to fight through each twisted layer of the game and put together the next piece of the story's puzzle. Silent Hill fans will be familiar with this game almost before they begin in some regards, and some critics may bemoan yet another remix of the typical formula that makes up the Silent Hill series, but that formula has kept fans happy so far, and Origins will too.
Origins overall looks pretty decent. The design of the environment is well put together on both a conceptual and physical level. The “regular” world (which is more or less abandoned, but still filled with creepy ghouls), while not blood- and rust-covered like the dark nightmare world that Travis enters through the mirrors, is still disturbing and eerie.
The haziness of the atmosphere and the generally disheveled look of the environment gives off the appropriate feelings of isolation and neglect. The world beyond the mirror goes beyond spooky and into horrifying, as grotesque imagery fills the screen. Enemy designs are wonderfully upsetting: crazed, acid spewing monsters in the disfigured form of a human in a straitjacket, large trundling horrors that look pieced together from random body parts, shadow people that can hardly be seen and loom in the glare of Travis' flashlight, and a butcher that is reminiscent of Pyramid Head are some particularly outstanding designs that keep this game terrifying and fun at the same time.
Monsters all twitch, lumber, jerk and attack in their own unique and twisted ways. When an enemy is near, the screen distorts a bit and takes on a scratchy, washed out quality, which is both convenient for the anxious player on the lookout for monsters, and effective at making the game even creepier. These kinds of details are what have long set the Silent Hill series apart from other survival horror games in the past, and Origins displays the same twisted attention to design details as its predecessors.
I also really liked Travis' design. Another everyday Joe trying to survive the horrors of Silent Hill is not exactly surprising, but Travis looks particularly unassuming and normal. A trucker in a baseball cap wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a vest, Travis looks very obviously plucked from the real world, and thrown into a nightmare that he must somehow get through. His scruffy five o'clock shadow and bleary eyes give the impression that he is a man who does not sleep often and is haunted by something deep rooted and dark—which of course, he is. He looks his part wonderfully however, and I found myself growing concerned for him as the game progressed. He looks like your dad's fishing buddy.
I do have a couple of complaints, as much as I enjoyed the overall visual effect of Origins. While I thought Travis looked great, other characters suffer from a blocky and sometimes stretched look to them, which is a common issue with ports of games from hand-held systems to consoles. The realism of the characters is not as impressive as they have been in past games, even as far back as the second and third titles in the series. Some lines are noticeably blocky, jagged and generally not as clean as they should be, another telltale sign of the PSP to PS2 port. The collision detection in the game occasionally falters as well, leading to enemy bodies falling halfway between solid walls after they have been knocked out, and the occasional general graphics hiccup (pop-in, et cetera). These glitches are few, but when they happen they are, unfortunately, quite noticeable.
Also, it's too damn dark sometimes. While I understand that not being able to see things all that clearly makes them creepier, it also makes playing the game more annoying at a certain extent. I found myself more frustrated than scared at some points, because I just couldn't see clearly enough to tell what was going on. This game would have benefited from an option to lighten the screen for those of us who want to see where Travis is looking as he runs by a precious, precious health drink that may mean the difference between living and dying later on.
Akira Yamaoka, the Silent Hill series' long-time resident composer, has a real talent for writing some of the coolest and creepiest music ever conceived, and the music of Origins is no exception. The game alternates between quiet, creeping notes, intense, grating industrial sounds, unsettling silence, nail bitingly tense ambient noises, all tied together with Yamaoka's unsettling yet cosmopolitan songs, which are played according to what is going on on screen. Certain sounds and songs (or the lack of them) can give the players hints as to when danger is approaching in the form of a ghoul, and effectively ramp up the intensity of the moment even more. As in most Silent Hill games, the soundtrack is an integral part of the whole anxiety inducing experience and Origins carries on this tradition beautifully.
Voice acting in Origins is also well done, though not perfect. Characters' inflections and tones are believable for most lines, though occasionally, I found myself wondering why Travis didn't sound more, well, scared, as he damn well should have been. Perhaps the recurring nightmare that he's grown accustomed to has given him nerves of steel, though I still think a note of panic in his voice could have helped made his situation more believable.
There are occasional glitches with the audio, just as there is with the graphics, times when sound effects (such as a door creaking open) are cut off too early. And while most enemies' grunts, growls and gargles are effective in both being scary and icky, I sometimes found myself amused by the sounds the enemies were emitting. For instance, I could have sworn that one enemy enthusiastically screeched, “Oh, hi!” at me as I approached it with my pistol drawn. Maybe I was desperately looking for some levity in the disturbing world of Silent Hill, so it sounded that way to me, but it still gives me a chuckle, which is obviously not the intended response the game makers were looking to elicit.
Silent Hill Origins is a little on the short side in terms of how long it takes to play through the basic story. Thankfully, the game boasts several different endings which are determined by how the game is played. These endings are influenced by such things as how many times the game was saved, how many times a player gets a game over, how many enemies are killed, how much damage Travis sustains, and so on. The puzzles aren't terribly difficult or obscure, but there will be a few that take some consideration and careful exploration to figure out. While Origins could stand to be a bit lengthier, it is still a fun game that warrants (and rewards) a second or third play through.
Silent Hill Origins is a pretty solid game, even though it does not stray much from the typical formula that the series has used since its inception. Still, there are some interesting differences in the controls, and considering that Origins is meant to be a prequel to the rest of the games, it's forgivable that the game doesn't try to revolutionize the entire series. For horror fans who have perhaps never played these games, Origins is a logical start, and longtime Silent Hill fans should be satisfied as well—I was.