Like most games in the so-called survival horror genre, Silent Hill 2 has a combination of unintuitive puzzles, confusing camera angles, and sporadic violence. The Resident Evil games at least had the good sense to take inspiration from zombie films so that the silliness and bad dialogue seemed like a necessary ingredient. Silent Hill 2 builds its nonsensical story on more serious subjects, such as child abuse, insanity, and terminal illness, so that the ridiculous plot and awful dialogue aren't as easy to enjoy as a campy B-movie horror flick.
What the game does have in its favor is atmosphere. Like the original (and superior) Silent Hill, the entire game is set in the eponymous town. The streets, which are constantly shrouded in a thick fog, are filled with potential terror as you run around, wondering what may be lurking just out of your visual range. The only respite from the haze is the many ramshackle buildings of the town, and the decrepit apartment buildings and hospitals adorned with broken lights, piles of refuse, and arterially spray-painted walls don't offer much solace. If Silent Hill 2 offered more scares to back up its impressive mood, it would be easier to overlook its faults.
In the game, you play as James Sunderland, a tortured young man who has come to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife. There, he meets several other strange folk who have equally bizarre reasons for visiting. They all speak in strange clipped sentences that would seem stylized if they weren't so awkward. Over the course of the game, Sunderland will solve not only his own mystery, but those of the characters he encounters as well.
Unfortunately, along the way the game descends into total incomprehensibility. The original Silent Hill had a point in which everything turned weird--what started as a somewhat straightforward horror story became completely surreal. Not to be outdone, Silent Hill 2 has two points at which everything gets weird. At one point in the game, an otherwise run-of-the-mill ghoul-infested hospital turns into a sort of pagan shrine, full of twisty roots and autumnal artwork. The second point involves a series of descending pits leading deep down into the bowels of the earth. While these pits may seem to figuratively represent Sunderland's descent into his own psyche, in reality, it just seems ridiculous that anyone would build a meat locker so far underground.
Silent Hill 2's puzzles are typical for survival horror games. They mainly involve finding some trinkets--a music box or a clock key, for instance--that you use in a device to open a door. There are ample "locked door" puzzles of every sort, and most areas will require you to run back and forth as you find keys and triggers that will open new areas.
Standing between you and the locked doors are a small variety of creatures. The game's creepy monsters are one of Silent Hill 2's real strengths. Among the creepiest are the zombie nurses and a thing with four legs (and not much else). The scariest of all is the monster known only as "Pyramid Head," a creature that looks like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, bloody apron and all, wearing an industrial sink for a hat. There aren't many different creatures in Silent Hill 2, but the few that are there are unique and add to the general atmosphere.
The monsters look really great, as does most everything in Silent Hill 2. Though the artistic design may seem a bit too bleak and tend a bit too much toward the sadistic for some, the game does have a distinct look, as far as games go. Unfortunately, the graphics don't compensate for the confusing camera angles, which from the very beginning are problematic. In the very first room, you'll be hard pressed to find the exit door. Things get better when Sunderland heads out into the open and the camera switches from static angles to one that moves around him, but it moves at an occasionally slow pace that takes some getting used to. Thankfully, the PC version of Silent Hill 2 at least gives you plenty of graphic-tweaking options and even lets you save the game anywhere.
Silent Hill 2's sound adds a great deal to the atmosphere. The industrial-influenced soundtrack is subtle, until something scary approaches and the scary music kicks in. There's nothing like someone banging metal trash can lids, or Sunderland's radio suddenly blurting static whenever a monster is near, to add tension to a scene.
But the problem with Silent Hill 2 is that it's all atmosphere and no real scares. Though there are a few good scenes--such as the first time you see Pyramid Head--it becomes quickly apparent that there aren't many startling, truly scary moments to support the mood. Silent Hill 2 has repetitive puzzles and an implausible story, and you need to play through it several times to get the "good" ending. Not even the game's foggy atmosphere is thick enough to hide Silent Hill 2's problems.