Silent Hill HD Collection Review
Calling it a collection is pushing it, given the number of Silent Hill titles excluded from this package. But with HD makeovers all the rage these days, it's hard to argue with the appeal of a full refresh for the second and third instalments of Konami's beloved horror series.
The problem for the team tasked with such a remastering job is in managing the expectations of two distinct audiences: those coming to the experience for the first time, and those wishing to relive a classic. For the former group, elevating the presentation to acceptably modern standards might be enough, as long as the game holds up. But the latter's hawk-like glare will be checking that every pixel preserves the integrity of the original.
There's been a right old hoo-ha over this release and the quality of the conversions. Forums are aflame, rage fuelled by comparison images and videos ostensibly highlighting the shoddy, careless work that has destroyed these masterpieces. Even the original art director has joined in, expressing astonishment on Twitter that a screenshot of the PS3 update was taken from a "released version", branding it "poor". So, is all of this fair comment or more entitled whining from spoiled babies?
The short answer is that Hijinx Studios has turned in a package that is very sloppy in places, inexcusably inattentive in others - and yet, the games themselves still enthral and chill with such twisted brilliance, I couldn't help but fall for them all over again.
2001's Silent Hill 2 has suffered the most in transition. I'll leave the technical dissection to the more capable hands of Digital Foundry (who will look at the much-derided PS3 release, as well as the 360 version reviewed here, in a future article) - but the main problem is that they've buggered up the fog.
I don't really understand how or why, but the original's thick, dense clouds of mist have lifted and lightened to reveal a little bit more of the environment at any given time. For the most part this has no significant negative impact on the experience, though it remains a greater mystery than anything in either game why it looks worse now than it did on PS2 11 years ago.
There are, however, a few key scenes where the whole does suffer: a cut-scene by the lake, for instance, where the lighter fog exposes unfinished environments; or, worst of all, a sequence in which a boat is rowed across a lake, where the water now appears ridiculously luminescent, with embarrassingly visible joins.
Otherwise, the HD upgrade captures the lugubrious despair of this stiflingly sinister game rather well on a big modern telly. 2003's Silent Hill 3, meanwhile, fares far better overall. The visual leap between the original releases was striking enough; here, the added definition is very effective for the most part, vividly realising some of gaming's most horrifically gruesome scenes.
Playing the games side-by-side, I was struck by how different they feel in tone despite employing what are effectively the same mechanics and structure. In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland's weird search for the wife he believes is dead unravels at a funereal pace, its chills coming from the psychologically oppressive story and setting, its dark secrets lurking menacingly in the mist. Silent Hill 3's horror is delivered with greater shocks, but its predecessor is scarier in part because of what it holds back, allowing the player to fill the darkness with their own terrible imaginings. It also features the magnificently terrifying Pyramid Head, an evil figure whose awful presence is rarely far away.
The story of Heather Mason, in Silent Hill 3, is more explicitly obsessed with matters of the occult, which the game's artists have seized upon with unsettling relish. Once past the rather boring first couple of hours, the visual inventiveness on display is staggering: a blood-spattered paean to the infinite possibilities of gore, with images that will haunt the mind long after the disc is back in the box.
Silent Hill 3 is the more varied title and the more accomplished game by modern standards. But the narrative is a bit too silly for its own good, its barking-mad conclusion memorable mainly for the grotesque visual climax rather than any character resolution. That said, for those on board since the PlayStation original, there are lots of neat incidental details chucked in to help make more sense of the universe.
In the context of today's games, the most arresting feature in both is the puzzle-solving. You will not be held by the hand in your journey around Silent Hill. Often you'll have little idea what to do or where to go next. Solutions can be obtuse, to say the least, and items essential to progress can be missed with dispiriting ease.
I have a dreadful memory for games I haven't played in years, a bonus here. Having to think, struggle and backtrack so frequently was a real jolt to the system - and a timely reminder of how linear action games are today, even those that purport to offer freedom. Silent Hill's lack of direction can be enormously frustrating, but it also helps this pair of oldies feel freshly engaging.
Inevitably, not everything has aged well. The bad old days of fighting against the in-game camera are back, and I lost count of the times I ended up going back on myself by mistake in confusion. And the standard of the translated dialogue in both games is, how shall I say, very 'video game from the early noughties'.
A quick note on the voice acting. All parts have been re-recorded for the HD Collection, with the original voices an option in Silent Hill 2 alone. From a purist's perspective, I can perfectly understand a preference for the original. But the performances were spectacularly awful first time around, and I much prefer the new takes - although there's still some appalling delivery from the new cast, most strikingly in Silent Hill 3.
Lip-syncing is another matter. Plainly, matching new dialogue with old animations must be a fiddly business. But there were too many occasions where I was left wondering whether Hijinx actually bothered trying to line them up at all. It's all over the place, to be honest, the worst instance coming at the climax of Silent Hill 3 - quite an important bit of the drama - where my characters lips were moving, but the words didn't come until seconds later.
None of the mishaps I've described were game-ruining for me (note: I haven't played the collection on PS3, which reportedly comes off worse). But we really should expect better treatment for titles of this calibre. Nothing better sums up the sheer laziness of it all than a glaring typo scrolling past in the new credits.
Silent Hill HD Collection is a product that screams "will this do?", when it should be a loud celebration of two gaming greats. And yet in spite of all that, the games themselves have aged far better than I would have expected, their foreboding atmosphere and striking imagery as impressive now as they were over a decade ago.
I can see why some fans will hate the way this collection has been handled. And I can also see how much there is for newcomers to enjoy. As a standard for HD remasters, it really isn't good enough. Lucky, then, that the games still are.