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When the whole survival horror genre of video games began to truly develop in the mid-to-late 1990s, the two gaming series which quickly became the flagship franchises of the burgeoning genre were Capcom's Resident Evil and Konami's Silent Hill. While each offered plenty of scares and intense, "don't play it with the light's off" gameplay over their first several installments, ultimately a chasm of quality began to arise with the two series, and nowhere is it perhaps better illustrated than in the fourth numbered titles in each. Resident Evil 4, originally released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2005, was an award-winning critical masterpiece. Silent Hill 4: The Room, quite conversely, was anything but a Game of the Year candidate.
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Please note that this section of the review contains spoilers. I usually like to avoid them in my reviews, but the plot in Silent Hill 4 is just so utterly absurd that it really needs to be fully analyzed, plot twists and all. The earliest Silent Hill games were known for their dark, cerebral tone, and after playing this game and experiencing its laughably bad plotline, it isn't all that hard to believe that this was not initially supposed to be a part of the popular franchise. Early on in the game, we are introduced to our protagonist, a mild-mannered Average Joe who goes by the name of Henry Townshend. You see, though, old Henry has suddenly started having terrible nightmares. Oh, and for some reason, he can't leave his room. Except through a hole in his bathroom (no, really) that takes him into different kinds of parallel worlds, where he meets all kinds of interesting people who wind up getting murdered. As it turns out, it's all the work of a serial killer who believes that his mother is, in fact, Henry's apartment, and that he must kill 21 people to cleanse her and be reunited with her.
Yes, for all the creepy atmosphere the game tries (successfully, for the most part) to present, the storyline boils down to the fact that there's a guy who is locked in his apartment who just happens to incidentally wind up getting involved in some whack-job's attempts to get reunited with his mother, who, and I really can't stress this enough, he happens to believe is a ROOM in an APARTMENT BUILDING! What? And why the heck is Henry trapped in the room in the first place? Is it because of the locks on the inside of the door or the fact that the windows are sealed? He gets a lead pipe early in the game. Why can't he just smash the locks, or break out the windows? Or for that matter, once a hole is opened where he can look into his neighbor's apartment, why doesn't he call out to her for help? Obviously, we're supposed to believe there are supernatural forces at work, but it just stretches a person's suspension of disbelief way beyond the boundaries of common sense. The game does do a good job of creating palpable fear while you're investigating the different areas and battling monsters, but that's just about all I can give this game credit for. Other than that, the writing is abysmal.
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Sadly, the gameplay isn't all that much better. The game does feature an interesting mechanic where you look around Henry's room in first-person mode, and then switch to third-person once you climb through the hole in his bathroom. Unfortunately, the game just about completely eschews the puzzle-solving aspects of previous Silent Hill games in favor of exploration and combat. That's a tremendous shame, not only because it de-emphasizes problem solving, but also because the controls are rather lousy. Walking isn't very responsive, but at least you move in the direction you point, unlike some old-school survival horror games. Combat, on the other hand, is a serious pain in the arse, because first you need to equip a weapon, then you need to prepare it by holding down the R2 button, then use it by pushing X. I imagine these things were done because the main character is supposed to be an everyman instead of a hero or a trained soldier, but it is nonetheless seriously irritating.
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Graphics and Sound
As many complaints as I have about the other aspects of Silent Hill 4, I have to admit that I was rather impressed by the game's visuals and sound quality. The character models are great, and the environments are nicely detailed. There are even some very cool flicker and static effects that occur when you first enter the hole. Likewise, the voice acting is pretty solid, the background music always fits the game's creepy mood and the sound effects are just as unsettling as you'd hope. For all the things the developers got wrong in this game, this is definitely one area where they definitely got it right.
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Sadly, though, some impressive graphics and good sound work just aren't enough to salvage an otherwise poor product. With a script so bad you'd swear it had been written by Ed Wood and frustrating gameplay and battle mechanics, there just isn't any good reason I can think of as to why you would want to subject yourself to something as ludicrous and largely unplayable as Silent Hill 4: The Room. Do yourself a favor and do one of three things instead: either go pick up one of the older Silent Hill titles instead, check out the far superior Resident Evil 4, or go to your local video store and rent yourself a classic horror movie instead. Whichever option you choose, you'll have found a much better way to satisfy your fright fix.