Silent Hill's a strange and wonderful place. Full of twisted nightmares, ruined lives, half truths, yet always a faint shred of hope. A hastily abandoned place, the sort you can imagine David Lynch, or members of Slipknot growing up in. Nothing ever quite adds up, but there's always the sense that it might one day. Somewhere among this otherwordly place exists a framework for basing the most sinister, haunted, and unhinged horror games you'll ever experience.
The first two episodes in this unhinged series established Konami's Tokyo studio as a creative force dedicated to take both the adventure and survival horror genre further than it had ever gone before. As with the previous two adventures, there's no direct link between the stories, making it feel like you've just turned on a movie that you know nothing about.
Of bunny suits and hammer headed nightmares
This time around you're controlling 'gentle teenager' Heather, who starts the game apparently in some kind of unsettling dream. Wandering around the dark grainy interior of an abandoned shopping mall armed with a steel pipe, the only thing you can coherently manage to do is to dodge giant pink bunny rabbit costumes or fend off the attentions of the odd rabid dog. You can also duck in and out of the odd shop, but there's seemingly nothing to do, nothing to pick up. "What a weird introduction to the game," you muse. Eventually, after dodging everything in sight you'll eventually succumb to a gigantic hammer headed, malformed foe. But oddly, rather than the Game Over sign appearing, you come around from what appears to be some kind of nightmare. What a mad dream.
Before long you're in the 'real world' avoiding the attentions of a bearded gentleman that seems to be in the know about your fate. Crazy stuff. Shortly after wandering around the (now light and airy) mall, the game once again switches back to the nightmare scenario, whereupon proceedings settle into the familiar mechanic of scouring every room for a vital object - some random key, map, health item, ammo - you know the drill. As before, the game centres around avoidance of hideous enemies, and some beautifully realised puzzles. Following the example set previously, you can choose at the beginning to set your combat and puzzle difficulty to your taste (Easy, Normal or Hard). As ever, we took the default 'normal' setting, and found our foe impossibly difficult, but that was mainly as a result of being ill-equipped in the weapons department.
Puzzle-wise, it was all nicely logical and satisfying, and within an hour or so we were faced with a hideous giant subterranean slug boss monster, which we're happy to say we didn't take too long to suss out. From there, we attempted to guide Heather out of her shopping mall hell, back to the train station. Except this deserted train station's been closed for weeks, after a commuter threw themselves onto the track. Worse still, the bloody thing's haunted and any attempt to enter the platform in question results in the tortured spirit of the dead man pushing the unfortunate Heather onto the tracks into the path of an oncoming train.
Intensely scary stuff
It really is intensely scary stuff, riddled with atmospheric sounds (seemingly recorded from the pits of Hell), superbly grainy, stylised visuals largely in-keeping with the excellent Silent Hill 2. We're making a big assumption here, but it looks very much like this has been built with the same engine - but anyone who played through the last edition will agree that it was a stark, grainy, yet detailed style, which renders characters with a level of lifelike facial detail rarely seen in any other game.
In terms of basic mechanics, the game also hasn't changed in any discernible way. Controls are exactly the same as before, as is the method of 'saving' your progress in front of a mysterious red blob. Even the inventory and mapping system is exactly as it was last time around. But all this is a good thing so soon after the last edition - you slip straight into the game without spending ages re-learning everything. It's a whole new story tacked onto the same tried and tested template, and one that sucked us in within minutes.
There are the occasional camera gripes, of course, but the ability to swing your viewpoint back the other way anytime you please generally solves most of the 'out of sight monster' issues that blight the Resident Evil games. Otherwise, the game's interface is as slick as you could wish for and thus you're far more focused on making sure you've covered every location thoroughly (which the automapping feature helps you out with brilliantly).
It's one of the games of the year
Just three hours in, Konami's PR guru Steve Merrett insists we've "barely scratched the surface" despite not having been stuck for more than a few minutes at a time. One area Konami has reportedly improved upon this time around is the game's length. We hope this is the case, as if there's one game we want to be lost in for hours, it's this one. Games like this really can't be too long. The mysteries of why Heather's trapped in this nightmare world have barely started to unravel and we're already expecting this to provide us with one of the finest gaming experiences of the year. Now that's praise for you. The game itself is due to hit European stores on May 23rd - some five months ahead of a US release, a decision made that reflects the game's huge success in Europe. Expect an in-depth review to emerge from these murky depths in the run up to the game's release.