Back in 1999, Konami unleashed Silent Hill, its first entry into the survival horror genre. But rather than ape the shock-based thrills popularized by Capcom's Resident Evil series, Konami went for a darker, creepier feel in everything from the game's environments, to the monsters, to the story itself. The resulting game offered its own fair share of shocks, as well as some genuinely fearful, emotional, and disturbing moments. What began as a game with something of a cult following has ballooned into a strong franchise, giving the new Silent Hill 3 some big shoes to fill. The good news is that this latest installment lives up to the series' high standards and is especially well suited to those who've enjoyed the previous Silent Hill games.
Like with most horror-themed games, Silent Hill 3's gameplay is a combination of combat, exploration, and puzzle solving, structured around a mysterious story. The game puts you in control of a young girl named Heather, who finds herself in an all-but-abandoned shopping mall after waking up from a frightening dream about a dilapidated and monster-filled amusement park. Soon after waking, she meets two of the game's more prominent characters, a detective named Douglas and a fanatical religious woman named Claudia, who both suggest that there may be more to Heather's childhood than she has come to understand. The story's slow buildup is arguably one of Silent Hill 3's few downfalls--it takes off with considerably less momentum than the stories in the previous games. In both those games, you were looking for a missing person, someone your character apparently cared about, and you were looking for that person in the ominous town of Silent Hill. In Silent Hill 3, you don't even get to town until the second half of the game, and in the first half, you get pieces of the story only little by little.
The structure of Silent Hill 3 has been left almost completely intact from the first and second game. You explore a closed environment for clues, keys, notes, or anything else that might help you get to the next section. Along the way you'll encounter a multitude of monsters--some that creep slowly toward you and others that may fly or run quickly at you--and each is notably horrific in its own right. You'll fight them off with a variety of different weapons, including both melee weapons and firearms, and this is where the gameplay has changed significantly. In past games it was relatively easy to fight off every single monster. However, in Silent Hill 3 you may find yourself barely scraping by with a minimum amount of ammunition and health supplies to stay alive, so running instead of fighting will often be the preferred method of survival. As you take damage, you'll heal yourself with energy drinks and first-aid kits, and you'll also have packets of beef jerky, which you can use to bait monsters so you can quietly slip past them. Once again you'll have your map of each area, where you will take notes, mark doors that are locked or broken, and jot down clues for puzzles to aid you in their solution.
Silent Hill 3 introduces a number of new environments to explore and also revisits some familiar locales. Heather first finds herself in a shopping mall, after waking from her dream, which should be recognizable if you played the first Silent Hill. Heather will also find herself in a subway station, in which the game makes reference to a long-standing inspiration to the series, the film Jacob's Ladder. You will also explore a maze of water-treatment tunnels and an abandoned office building, all before returning to the quiet town of Silent Hill. Here you will revisit Brookhaven Hospital and eventually make some sense of the beginning dream sequence. As you proceed, nearly every environment shifts to its "dark world" counterpart when a key part of the story unfolds. Heather will lose consciousness and awake to find the once-familiar environment transformed--walls appear bloody or made of flesh instead of wood, rusted grates cover the floor, and many details are obscured by shadow. Gory hospital beds and discarded corpses can be found everywhere, and every detail speaks to extremes of human misery, decrepitude, and destitution.
Without a doubt, Silent Hill 3's strongest suit is its production values. Its predecessor was no slouch in this regard, either. With its grainy camera filter and outstanding lighting effects, Silent Hill 2 raised the bar for what could be expected of a PlayStation 2 game's graphics. If Konami had simply produced another game using the same 3D graphics engine, it would have stood up quite well. However, a new engine was created for Silent Hill 3, and it makes for some truly amazing visual effects. The characters all look outstanding and are rendered with exceptionally high resolution models and textures, especially in the in-engine cutscenes. The dynamic lighting allows environmental lights, as well as Heather's flashlight, to cast detailed shadows. In the "dark world" areas, some textures on the walls will pulsate and bleed, move in and out of focus, and otherwise trick your eyes, which gives you the sense that perhaps you shouldn't trust what you see. Each enemy is rendered with an equally high level of detail, and they are animated in an unworldly, unsettlingly horrific manner. The grainy filter is back in this game, though its presence has been toned down to the point that you may not even notice it--but you can turn it off if you prefer.
Going hand in hand with the staggering visuals is an outstanding show of force in the audio department. Every single treatment to the audio, from Heather's footsteps in an empty hallway to the howl of a far-off monster, helps to create an atmosphere dense with fear and tension. As monsters close in on Heather, a broken radio she found earlier bursts to life with crackling static, growing louder as the monsters draw near. The soundtrack is as well placed as the audio effects--sometimes it makes music out of environmental sounds, such as creaks and ambient industrial noise, and other times it weaves lonely ballads out of a single guitar or synthesizer, giving the game a deep, brooding overtone. Each character is voiced reasonably well for his or her demeanor, though sometimes their deliveries aren't quite believable. Additionally, you might notice that a number of sound samples have been recycled from the previous game, but these just help make Silent Hill 3 feel like a part of the series and don't cheapen the game.
All in all, Silent Hill 3 is an excellent addition to the series. Its story is tied into the story of the first game and keeps a number of themes and locales from the second game well in focus. There's no remarkable new gameplay to speak of, so the game is clearly intended for fans of the series, who've been impressed over the years by Silent Hill's unusually dark and psychological style. This new game will be familiar to them in many ways, and the story, the characters, and the visuals add up to make Silent Hill 3 a worthy successor.