Version tested: PlayStation 2
One of the most appealing things about Silent Hill Origins' release on PSP last November was the way Climax managed to shoehorn a fully-fledged and exclusive Silent Hill adventure onto a handheld. Played with the lights off on a winter's night, it was a great little stopgap release for long-term fans - not least because, as a prequel, it helped reveal a little more of the back-story of Alessa Gillespie, and the oddball cult that caused all this nonsense to occur in the first place. On that basis alone it was well worth buying, even if it did practically zero to innovate or improve the somewhat clunky gameplay.
Now available on the PS2, its belated release serves a couple of purposes: die-hard fans unwilling to shell out for a PSP can enjoy the first Silent Hill release in almost four years, and series aficionados who prefer big-screen gaming can experience things in a more cinematic sense. But other than a cursory upscaling of the visuals, and improved sound quality, this is the exact same game that received generally warm acclaim the first time around despite being an unapologetic cover version of the first three Silent Hills. So is that good news or bad news?
Sticking rigidly to the wonderful but now-ageing survival-horror template, the things that the series is brilliant at - i.e. atmosphere and compelling narrative - are well up to scratch. And by returning to the puzzle-based, exploration-heavy gameplay of the first three Silent Hills, it's generally a pleasure to work through. Some old niggly gameplay problems remain, but this was never a game that was designed to take the series forward - that's for the forthcoming Silent Hill Homecoming. For now, this is a chance to take a step back and find out where this perpetually intriguing story began.
In typically spurious circumstance, we get to explore the troubled past of a character confronted by their inner demons. In this case, we follow the nightmarish adventures of lone trucker Travis Grady. Travelling at night, he almost runs over a young girl. Fearing for her safety, he makes chase down the foggy, darkened lane, only to find that the fog is actually smoke pouring from a nearby house. Bravely dodging between the flames, he discovers a charred victim and carries her outside before blacking out.
Coming around in the foggy nightmare that constitutes the eerie, abandoned streets of Silent Hill, Travis and therefore you get to indulge in a bit of obligatory exploration before wandering around a grimy hospital, supposedly looking for the girl you encountered at the start. In reality, of course, this is just another thinly veiled excuse to try the handles of an untold number of locked doors, continually flicking back to the map screen to determine where you haven't been. As usual, you must negotiate your way past writhing, deformed creatures of unknown origin, either dodging them completely or taking them on with your fists, bits of wood and firearms.
And, just like all the other Silent Hills released over the past nine years, the combat's a bit clunky, inaccurate and frustrating. The camera system rarely gives you a chance to see what you're fighting before they're eating your face, but at least an auto-lock targeting system ensures you don't waste too much precious ammo.
The one major addition to the gameplay is the need to duck backwards and forwards between the light and dark world via the various mirrors that you encounter. While this adds a great deal to the puzzle side of the game, it does also add the unwelcome headache of having to flick between different maps far more than at any point in the entire series. One section in particular is a complete nightmare, with three large intricate maps covering three floors - effectively giving you six maps to pore over at once. At times like these, you wish the series would introduce a mini-map or come up with some sort of map overlay.
Elsewhere, one area that's a bigger disappointment than it was on PSP version is the drop in visual quality, because of course the other recent Silent Hills were on PS2 anyway, and even next to 2001's Silent Hill 2 this game suffers in comparison, with stilted, angular character models and cut-scenes that are alarmingly rudimentary compared to the peerless work that Team Silent managed early on in the console's lifespan.
You can forgive such aberrations in a PSP game - the smaller screen helps mask some of the more disappointing visual elements - but blown up on the big screen, things like human character models are jarringly basic. Conversely, the enemies you face, and the game's environments, are fairly close to replicating the trademark style and vision, although admittedly totally lacking in either inspiration or imagination.
Overall you can't help feel that the least we can expect this long after Silent Hill 2 is something which matches what has gone before. With Konami passing the series around external developers, there's a growing sense that the publisher isn't treating the brand with the kind of respect it deserves. Is it really enough to rely on the audio masterwork of Akira Yamaoka to carry forward the spirit of the game? The answer has to be no.
We can only hope that Silent Hill Origins marks a temporary period of neglect. In its own right, it's by no means a bad game; it chugs along at a decent pace, and ticks all of the right boxes in terms of atmosphere, puzzles and narrative - and we certainly approve of the greater emphasis on puzzles after the combat-centric gameplay of The Room - but it's hardly going to convert anyone either. Its willfully old-school design and clunky combat belong in a bygone era, and for the optimistic price-tag Konami has slapped on the game we've every right to expect more. Only the most hardcore of fans will have time for this; the rest of us should wait for Homecoming.
6 / 10