When you think of Silent Hill, what jumps to mind? A misty town? Cryptic dialogue? Walls dripping with blood? Well, the good news is that Silent Hill: Origins has all those things, and now Konami has lifted the foggy veil on the PlayStation 2 version of last year's PSP iteration. That alone should please series fans who are looking to developer Climax's prequel to provide plenty of atmosphere and further expand on the Silent Hill mythos. But in this case, the good news is also the bad news because from a gameplay perspective, Origins is exactly what you would expect. It delivers a conventional adventure that relies on eight-year-old franchise hallmarks at the expense of anything truly new.
Origins is a prequel set before the events of the original Silent Hill for the PlayStation. This time, you're in the shoes of Travis Grady, a trucker navigating through a downpour of rain on an eerie, foreboding night. If that sounds familiar, well, that's because it is. Like the previous Silent Hill games, Origins is light on scares but heavy on murky atmosphere and mysterious dialogue. In this case, it also relies heavily on nostalgia to set its mood, which may be fine for many fans, but the setup lacks the originality of prior series plots. In any case, Travis spots a little girl in the middle of the highway just in time to avoid hitting her. She runs off, and Travis, for no apparent reason, takes pursuit. If you're a Silent Hill fan, you may already have an idea of who she might be.
What's missing here is a clear sense of suspense. Unlike with previous series installments, Travis doesn't have any pressing reason to visit Silent Hill, save for pursuing the strange child. A subsequent fire rescue adds some missing urgency, but the opening never gives you the sense that Travis needs to be in Silent Hill, which makes him the least interesting of the franchise's protagonists. Nevertheless, how Travis fits into the ongoing mystery of Silent Hill eventually becomes clear. If you're here to fill in the missing pieces of series lore, Origins has plenty of meat for you to chew on and plenty of familiar locales to explore.
You control Travis from a third-person view, navigating between destinations through the foggy streets of the titular town. There's a lot to piece together here in the way of puzzles, many of which are entangled in other puzzles. For the most part, they are pretty clever, requiring you to explore every nook and cranny for scraps of clues and various items. They also require you to move in and out of the otherworld (an alternate dimension) at will by touching any of the various mirrors that are scattered around, which is a new mechanic for the series. It's in the otherworld that Origins is at its most disturbing. Dirty, bloody asylum walls and ragged teddy bears are series standards that still manage to elicit chills. Random groans and sudden encounters with other characters are also appropriately creepy, if not exactly scary.
You'll encounter your fair share of monstrous oddities, some new, many familiar. Unfortunately, combat is as weak as ever for the series. Melee is as plodding and unsatisfying as you remember, usually bloody but too measured and monotonous to be much fun. In all fairness, there are some attempts to spice things up. At times, an enemy attack will trigger a contextual minigame that requires you to hit the necessary buttons within a prescribed time limit to avoid taking damage. Of course, we've seen this mechanic in countless games, and Origins does nothing to make it any more interesting.
The other main combat addition is that of limited-use melee weapons. You can grab a television, radio, or hospital drip stand that you can use to bash your enemies. You'll get multiple uses out of some of them, whereas others are done after a single hit. However, as long as you avoid combat (usually an easy task), you'll have plenty of weapons at your disposal. It begs the question, though: How can Travis carry a TV, a hatchet, a drip stand, a scalpel, a meat cleaver, a filing cabinet, and a huge plank of wood at the same time? Impossibly huge inventory space isn't new to games, but the extent to which it's carried here feels wildly out of place. Gunplay feels better, though again, it's wiser to simply avoid combat whenever possible and save your ammo for the boss fights. This is where Origins is at its best: Boss monsters are huge, designed well, and fun to take down.
Origins certainly looks the part, thanks to the traditional Silent Hill mist and its re-creation of the environments we've come to know over the years. Nevertheless, when compared to its PS2 predecessors, the visuals simply can't compete. Although some aspects of the PSP original, such as character models, have been obviously enhanced, the animations are stiff, and textures that looked sharp on the handheld iteration look pixelated on the larger screen. Fortunately, the sound design is fantastic, thanks to a terrifically disturbing soundtrack and all the menacing bump-in-the-night echoes that ring throughout the streets and hallways.
The problem with most of the game is that it's all been done already, and was done better by the last three games in the franchise to hit the system. It's like the developer had a laundry list of everything that makes a Silent Hill game a Silent Hill game, but forgot to throw in anything distinct. It doesn't even fix long-standing problems. Finishing blows are still a pain to pull off at times, especially when an enemy falls on top of another corpse. Getting a handle on your health status is still too vague a prospect. If any franchise has room to grow, this is the one, yet not a single meaningful element of Origins takes the gameplay anywhere the original Silent Hill didn't already go. This comfort blanket of unevolved familiarity might be welcomed by accepting fans, but it might make you wish that the series would grow up a bit.