Sometimes it's hard not to be paranoid. As blissful as we are in our ignorance, certain strangeness creeps up you until you can almost feels its breath on your neck. Is this the scary of coincidence born of the crazy dreams of an overactive imagination or did they really happen? Perhaps a mild addiction to Jarlsberg? Too much herbal relaxation? Could be. But exactly when did the furniture get rearranged? Where did weird wall stain come from? How come the door's covered in chains? They did warn us that chat rooms were full of dangerous weirdos, but how did they get our address? What is that noise? Can you smell something? What's that note? "Don't go out?" Well, it doesn't look as if we have a whole lot of choice right now.
The question is, who's behind it all? Perhaps it's the grinning execs at Konami all along, happy to lure us in with the day-glo happiness of Dancing Stage before eating away at our very souls with the mind altering Silent Hill series. Somewhere near its milky, putrefying surface is a test of lateral logic and primal fight or flight. Dig a little deeper and you have a series wrapped up in harrowing subjects touching on euthanasia, loss, love, confusion, and forever tainted by the omnipresent fear of death.
Moan, moan, moan
The first three were loosely connected variations on a theme (2 being something of an anomaly) centering on the mythical abandoned town of Silent Hill. A place of swirling fog, populated by the lost and lonely, along with a gang of unfeasibly twisted, mutated, writhing, moaning apparitions with limbs in entirely the wrong place, not to mention blood, mucus and locked doors. Far too many bloody locked doors.
Konami knows it can't just keep churning out formulaic sequels endlessly. The law of diminishing returns would see to that cynical strategy, and some would rightly observe that version three wasn't exactly a huge departure from the marvelous No.2. What the sinister men in long coats in Tokyo have done with the latest in the series - due out in September in Europe - is essentially fix the things that annoyed people in the previous titles while retaining that uniquely malevolent Silent Hill atmosphere.
For all its marvelously brooding atmosphere, the last thing most people want to do is trudge around a vast, sprawling game area in order to find the object-that-fixes-the-puzzle-that-gives-you-the-key-to-the-door-all-the-way-across-the-other-side-of-town. It's part of the deal, but does it make the experience any more fun? Probably not. Likewise, other areas of the game needed a touch up, with certain elements of the combat and control system perhaps not giving the player the degree of flexibility you might wish for these days. It's often the little things that conspire to reduce your enjoyment and yank you back into the real world.
Henry: Portrait of a serial thriller
The modifications in The Room over the previous trilogy are immediately apparent, with the first section of the game dropping you right into the heart of the central character's apparent nightmares. Viewed through the eyes of Henry, the first things you see are the spinning blades of a ceiling fan. Dazed and apparently confused, Henry gets up off his bed to wander around his apartment, noticing an unusual stain on his wall before recoiling in horror as a dark creature of the damned emerges headfirst from the wall, as if being born, covered in black slimy placenta.
[Minor spoiler alert.] Cutting to the credits it appears the whole thing is just some crazy nightmare. "Oh man, what a dream," utters a dazed Henry, relieved to note that his apartment has returned to sane normality, with all the gack and filth no longer adorning every facet of his accommodation, and the creature from hell back in its lair. But when the phone rings, and all he hears is the sound of an analogue modem, you know the nightmares have only just begun. [Spoiler over.]
At this point you take over, and it's quite disorientating at first to navigate your way around the four-roomed flat from a first-person view. With a quick customisation of the controls to accommodate our reverse Y-axis preference we slipped straight into the new system. Wandering around, it's apparent that Konami has responded to calls to make it more obvious as to what you can interact with, with an eye icon appearing anytime you're within range of something of interest. The principle is the same as before, with the game offering up simple yes/no options to the user, but it helps solve those potentially frustrating moments where you miss an otherwise crucial object.
We don't go out anyway. No problem there...
[Minor spoiler alert.] Further exploration reveals the power's been cut off, and the front door wrapped up in chains, with a sinister message daubed on it screaming 'DON'T GO OUT!' Although everything looks normal from the view from your windows, clearly something is very wrong indeed. A sinister note slipped under the door pleads "mommy, why won't you wake me up!" A mere hint of the childbirth-related chaos to come.
Another scrap of paper nearby offers an immediate clue as to what to expect from The Room, and talks of a world that "exists in a space separate from the world" a place "within yet without the lord's world" in "extreme flux". Uh-oh. A place with "unexpected doors or walls, moving floors, odd creatures". Sounds like a perfect template for Silent Hill all right. Worse still, "anyone swallowed up by that world will live there for eternity, undying. They will haunt that realm as a spirit".
As if that bombshell wasn't enough, this anticipation of nightmarish oddness is only further confirmed with a visit to the bathroom that reveals that some kind of tunnel has been burrowed direct into the wall. Trapped, alone, and with no choice but to venture into the dark bowels of hell, you grab a sewer pipe as a weapon, climb into the 'womb' and emerge utterly confused in the depths of an apparently abandoned underground train station with a strangely flirtatious woman called Cynthia for company. [Spoiler over.]
Ah, zombie dogs, we meet again
At this point the game kicks off in earnest, with the viewpoint switching to third-person and the more familiar Silent Hill gameplay of old, with an immediate selection of malformed dogs and floating zombies to contend with, alongside the traditional lock/key puzzles that we all know and love.
Some interesting additions to the control system give a greater degree of flexibility to the proceedings, notably the ability to 'charge up' your weapon swing by holding down R2. A quick stab might be good enough to fend off approaching enemies, while a longer press will cause the clock meter to fill up and result in a mighty lunge complete with shuddering force feedback. The game provides a whole range of objects to use in this manner, including a full range of golf clubs, pickaxes, a spade, a sword, a bat, chainsaw, spear, bug spray and even a wine bottle.
Naturally projectile weapons play an important role, too, with a basic pistol available almost straight away, with the promise of more powerful arms as the game progresses.
No spoilers here
Without wanting to drop any further clues as to the direction of the plot, Konami appears to have solved many of the problems of trudging around large play areas by effectively using your flat as the central gaming hub of the world, with the option of ending the 'dream' and returning you through various holes in the wall/portals back to your bed, with recharged health. Often the plot gets moved on via subtle additions to your flat, such as objects moved, which themselves help move on elements of areas that you may currently be stuck on. Once you get your head around this, progression seems fairly straightforward, with each task in hand becoming your focus.
Later, we dipped into two other sections to get a feel for the other environments and their denizens of doom. In trademark Silent Hill fashion, the creatures conform to the expectations of being simultaneously evilly mutated, sinister, bastard-hard and even comical. The two-headed creature which walks on its hands stands out as being a particularly nightmarish creation, but if you've played any of the other games you'll almost take such displays of freakish unreality as read. Elsewhere you'll encounter flaming floating zombies, giant flying bugs of death, and plenty of long tongued canine freaks - no doubt with a face off against some vile pissed-off embryo from the pits of hell.
Visually, the previous titles were easily among the most stylish the PS2 has ever seen, and The Room keeps up that tradition with some wonderfully realised environments full of impressive touches that you can almost smell, such is their slimy, decayed hell-bound crustiness. The texturing and lighting are wonderfully dark and murky as ever, with just enough abandoned detail to make you relish every disgusting locale. Both the Water Dungeon and Forest environments are classic survival horror locations, and complemented by a newly flexible camera system that now allows you to snap back behind the character with a tap of L2. If you find the dynamic camera a little badly placed, tapping this button usually gives you an immediately favourable view, and instantly the camera issues of old are solved.
Give me hell on Earth
All round, from our three-hour stint with the game there appears to be more than enough to excite old hands while providing a good entry point for those who have somehow managed to resist the series' charms. If you've been absent from the proceedings so far, you're pretty much risking the gaming equivalent of eternal damnation to not consider The Room as one to watch.
But the question we're burning to find out is what prompted all this foetus related bile in the first place? It must have been a difficult pregnancy. What did Henry ever do to deserve all this crazed madness? He doesn't appear to be as ruefully lost as previous Silent Hill characters, but my god does this man need a decent night's sleep. The truth is we're itching to get a chance to play the finished article, and all the signs are that The Room is shaping up to be one of the thinking man's adventure games of the year.
The Room is due out on PS2 in PAL territories during Q3/4, with a Japanese version confirmed for a June release. NTSC territories can expect a November release. For more exclusive screenshots, click here.