In a recent interview with OPM, Silent Hill's creators remarked that one of their main goals with the game was to frighten people on an instinctive level, and that's something that, in my mind, they've clearly succeeded at doing. While similar horror titles, like Capcom's Resident Evil series, work well at making you jump in a "boo!" sort of way, Silent Hill establishes a very unsettling atmosphere that at once puts you off and creeps you out.
Silent Hill accomplishes this through a host of wonderful little touches: a radio that emits static whenever monsters are near, a lead character that must catch his breath after running, the placement of wheelchairs and broken stretchers in abandoned stairwells, and so on. One of the most successfully unnerving elements is the game's lighting, which is almost always cast from a flashlight, whether you are in a dark alleyway, a fog-enshrouded back street, or a dank basement. The glare it gives off obscures almost as much as it illuminates, like a dying candle. It was that effect, much more than any fearsome creature, which made me leave a hall light on one night after playing it. That's not to say that the monster design is under par though. In fact, there was one species in particular - a shaggy man-thing that barks and sets after you on all fours - that sent a chill up the back of my neck every time I saw one.
To back up a bit, Silent Hill begins with a car accident that separates the main character, Harry Mason, from his daughter. He wanders around looking for her in the off-season resort town that they had happened upon, encountering things and events that seem inspired at least in part by horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King (anyone remember The Mist?). Figuring out what's actually going on in the burg is much more of a draw for the player than discovering where some little girl has made off to, but both quests lead you around the streets, houses, and major buildings of a fairly convincing 3D Midwestern town. Aside from a slightly grainy cast to Silent Hill's look, its graphics are pretty tight. The use of fog and darkness work so well to enhance the game's mood that you don't mind that they're obviously hiding pop-up (perhaps your suspension of disbelief is withheld so that you ignore it or something), and the lighting effects produced by the character's flashlight are often jaw-dropping. The sound effects are likewise very strong, with scary monster growls (as I've mentioned before), random clanks and crashes that force you to turn around and inspect a room you're sure is empty, and eerie piping that wafts in throughout. Imagine an instance in which all these elements are combined: You're in a dark courtyard, and snow is coming down. Your flashlight only illuminates a few feet ahead of you, but you know something's there with you because your radio is blaring static, and you've heard some indescribable something out there make a noise. You draw your gun and... wait, while the music builds. This sort of event makes for some very tense and very entertaining moments, and the game definitely repeats and serves them quite often.
On the downside, Silent Hill's storyline doesn't deliver nearly the payoff promised throughout. You can beat the game without learning some of its most important plot points and, without a doubt, the first time you win you'll be left wondering what the hell happened and if that was really it. And it's not. There are four different endings within Silent Hill that are reached based on your performance during some key moments. Personally, I hate when developers try to extend the life of a game by making you play it through more than once. But at its base, Silent Hill still has a decent amount of play to it. A handful of well-designed puzzles keeps the game from being too short; it's just a shame you can't learn everything you want to know the first time through. Another gripe is that the game camera suffers from the same problem as many other third-person-game cameras: It always seems to fail you when you need it the most. It's the lack of a real climax that probably hurts the game the most, but the perspective can be vexing as well.
In the end, though, Konami's first entry in the horror genre - while not quite up to the mark of Capcom's Resident Evil 2 - is a great beginning. Let's hope we've seen the start of a new franchise by the company, because this would be an excellent starting point.