If you thought it was grim up North, you should try paying Silent Hill a visit. Fog, mutant dogs, slime, axe-wielding nurses and deranged paedophiles are just a few of the delights that will greet the unsuspecting traveller. For some strange reason, every psycho loser seems to end up going there at some point or other, and Silent Hill 3's lead character Heather (who looks spookily like the sister of James Sutherland, Silent Hill 2's lead) is no exception.
Supposedly a happy, carefree 17 year-old, Heather is in fact blighted by her worst nightmares almost from the game's kick off. A merry stroll around her local shopping mall marks the start of a gruesome, terrifying and predictably confusing adventure that unravels her secret past. So secret that in fact even she had no idea why she keeps slipping in and out of some hideous parallel dimension, or why distorted hellspawn and mental patients are terrorising her at every turn.
Some parts of this game may be considered violent or cruel
This is no tedious B-movie sub-Resident Evil sludge, though. As fans of the series will heartily testify, the standard of the plot, the voice acting, and just about any other facet are superior to any other survival horror adventures you could care to mention.
Given that's it's the game's centrepiece, let's talk about the plot first. Avoiding any spoilers, it's fair to say that as far as gaming storylines go, Silent Hill's is more than a little distressed, if not at times distressing. Continuing the series' theme of searching for answers, you take Heather on a voyage of self-discovery to unravel a mystery that has been kept under wraps for almost a quarter of a century.
Kicking off in a shopping mall, the game twists and turns via a plethora of stunning locations including a train station, a train, a haunted house, an amusement park, a hospital (yep, again), sewer, office complex and of course the fog ridden Silent Hill town itself, making a subtle reprise. Each of the game's numerous locations are, of course, populated by the kind of rank evil that Konami seems to have honed to a fine art.
Twisted mutations lurk in every dark, festering corner, eager to slice you open at the first opportunity, and each possess a particularly chilling death call, lending the game an oppressive, stark and ominous atmosphere that veterans will be all too familiar with. We're not sure quite why or how this formerly sleepy town manages to mutate its former occupants in such bizarre ways, or what they're doing hanging around in darkened corners, but there they are, groaning away in the darkness again, scaring us half to death.
Nightmarish delusions come to life
It's just as well, then, that your arsenal is up to the task of dispatching this screaming, writhing army of the undead. Predictably, you start off with nothing more threatening than a steel pipe, but quickly you build up an impressive armoury, including the requisite pistol, shotgun, sub machinegun, along with a stun gun, mace, and the unexpectedly useful Katana sword. As ever, health and ammo are at a premium, so picking your targets is the name of the game, as many can be nimbly avoided. Standing and fighting isn't always the way forward, unless you're happy to continually die repeated gruesome deaths at the hands and jaws of this frothing army. Apart from the odd new weapon here and there, you also get the chance to lay down bait for your foe, bizarrely, in the form of strips of beef jerky - although in our experience this rarely worked. Just run. Run for your lives!
Doubtlessly it's been said before, but one of the most pleasing aspects of playing Silent Hill games is the slick interface and generally helpful camera system that consistently aids the player. As with the game's predecessor, the camera does a fine job of dynamically swinging to the best point of view, while also being pretty adept at maintaining the suspenseful angles that survival horror games are renowned for.
The game scores even more brownie points for enabling the player to swing the camera behind, by tapping L2, with L1 allowing for a significantly superior combat experience than any of the Resident Evil games. Rarely do you not get to see what you're aiming at, although the auto-targeting system does a fine job even when you can't quite get the right camera angle. Also, during the more adventure heavy areas of the game, you're able to scan around your environment should you feel the need. In general, though, significant objects are always clearly placed, and this enables the player to just get on with the action without having to resort to the adventurer's bugbear; the 'click on everything' syndrome.
You will birth a God and live in eternal paradise
Another area that Silent Hill 3 excels in is the way it allows its audience to play the game the way they want to. With three levels of difficulty in both the action and puzzle areas, you're able to modify the challenge as you see fit. For the purpose of this review, however, we plumped for the default 'Normal' setting, and found it pretty satisfying, albeit somewhat linear and therefore obvious in terms of the puzzles. At times the areas are pretty confined, and it would be harder to not work out the solution, such is the narrow scope of what you're supposed to achieve. However, on one head-scratching occasion we were stuck for a completely arbitrary reason, and the chanced upon solution had us cursing the designers. Fortunately this was a one off, and for the vast majority you can actually just get on with the task at hand without ever feeling unnecessarily frustrated. Even the (by now familiar) save game mechanic beats the competition over the head with a big stick.
Hum. All of this gushing praise and we've barely touched on the audio visual experience! The graphical style is ostensibly a minor update of the already sublime Silent Hill 2, with a grainy overlay that makes it look a world away from the competition. It may not have the pre-rendered attention to detail of the recent Resident Evil Cube titles, but the detail is hardly compromised nevertheless, and the light and shadow effects are far better realised this time around. Heather occasionally plunges into a parallel 'worst nightmare' dimension, and the resulting blood-drenched, festering versions of familiar locations are often gut-wrenching. Combined with the squelchy audio, it's hard not to wince at some of the sights and sounds you're subjected to. It's not that they're gratuitous. Far from it - but be warned if you have an active imagination. You might not sleep too well after a few darkened nights in the company of the weirdo cast in Silent Hill 3.
Unnerving... compelling... classic
On reflection, apart from feeling slightly disturbed and mentally unbalanced after playing it, Silent Hill 3 pushes all the right buttons in the adventure genre. While it arguably does little in term of innovation, it has some classic puzzles, far more satisfying combat elements than ever before, some truly horrifying sections, fantastic visuals, gruesome audio and a quality storyline that kicks most of the embarrassing competition out of sight. It's hard to think of many titles as unnervingly compelling as Silent Hill 3, and as such already ranks as one of the games of the year. Classic stuff.