With Halloween just around the corner, there’s no better time to reflect on the once great video game genre of survival horror. Although it’s made a resurgence in recent years with excellent titles such as Amnesia and Outlast, survival horror has certainly seen better times. Back before horror-action hybrids like Dead Space and Resident Evil dominated the genre, the Silent Hill series was the king of horror gaming. Both the Silent Hill series and arguably the entire genre peaked in 2001 with the release of Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams, a nightmarish title that still stands up to this day as a textbook example of how to do horror.
In a departure from the vague yet disturbing occult-themed story of the original game, Silent Hill 2 tells a much more personal story: The protagonist James Sunderland is a widower who lost his wife Mary to illness and has yet to work through his grief. Three years after her death, he receives a mysterious handwritten letter from Mary that invites him to come find her in Silent Hill, a resort town that they vacationed at during happier times. He arrives in Silent Hill to find a fog-covered and abandoned town that is littered with twisted puzzles and grotesque monsters, chief among them being a horrifying semi-human figure with a pyramid-shaped head that relentlessly hunts him.
Inspired in part by the rich imagery and purgatorial themes of the 1990 horror film Jacob’s Ladder, Silent Hill 2 combined eerie surrealism and a chilling atmosphere with a thematic richness that is so rare in horror games. To give an example of this, the game is in many ways defined by its obsession with duality. The town itself periodically transforms from a cold and lonely labyrinth to an oppressive otherworld where the environments are decayed and covered in rust and blood, and the use of doppelganger figures throughout the narrative reveal hidden and often painful truths about the characters. Even the soundtrack features two distinct sides, with almost indescribably suffocating tracks being contrasted by hauntingly melodic songs that play during more melancholy moments.
Furthermore, what Silent Hill 2 did that even the best horror fiction often struggles to do is that it managed to tell a well-crafted and emotional story without compromising the horror elements. There’s terrifying moments and pulse-pounding chases sprinkled throughout the game, but it never loses sight of the grief and guilt lying at the heart of the story. Everything from the impressively detailed symbolism in the monster designs to the haunting messages you find scrawled in graffiti on the town’s dirty walls ties together and pulls you further into the living hell James finds himself unable to escape from.
The dialogue and voice acting are admittedly somewhat clunky, but it more often than not fits with the dreamlike atmosphere. Much like the surrealist films of David Lynch (whose movies also influenced the Silent Hill series), the dialogue is often clipped and delivered in strange tones as if the characters can’t fully grasp what is happening to them. As you wander the town in search of Mary, you meet other lost souls struggling with their own problems, but you’re always left alone in the fog searching for the answer to why James was summoned to Silent Hill.
Along the way, you must fight (or alternately flee from) the various hideous monsters that wander Silent Hill with whatever weapons you can find scattered around the town. Combat can be a bit of a chore at times, since like many older survival horror games, Silent Hill 2 suffers from awkward controls that make combat and movement feel a little clumsy compared to the tight and responsive controls of more modern games. Thankfully, not all your problems have to be solved with force; you frequently have to wrap your head around wonderfully bizarre puzzles to proceed. In one of its most novel features, the game decides the ending to the story by taking into account subtle aspects of the player’s behavior and actions throughout the game and matching them with the most thematically fitting conclusion.
If reading this convinced you to give the game a try, you may be wondering how to best go about finding a copy. There is a re-mastered collection of Silent Hill 2 and 3 that was released on PS3 and Xbox 360, but they are arguably worse than the originals due to being plagued with a staggering number of technical issues. Purchasing a used copy online of either the original PS2 or Xbox versions is your best bet at this point. The graphics will be a little grainy and the gameplay isn’t as polished as some modern games, but the fevered nightmare that is Silent Hill 2 is still well worth experiencing all these years later, especially around Halloween.