If you've ever played any of the Silent Hill games in console format right before going to bed and didn't have some highly unpleasant dreams at least once, there is something wrong with you. But conveying any kind of creepy mood via the small screen of a handheld videogame is tougher; Silent Hill Origins does an admirable job, although it does occasionally veer from the series' time-tested formulae.
Every game in the series starts with some luckless soul drawn to, or blundering into, the worse-than-haunted town of Silent Hill. Origins is no different: Travis Grady is a solitary type, a long-haul trucker with more internal baggage than most of us, but he -- like all Silent Hill protagonists -- mostly seems like a fairly normal kind of person; no conquering hero, no elite agent, no super-cop. Just a guy, about to have the worst day of his whole life.
Silent Hill Origins actually tackles three difficult jobs at once: Conveying the moody, "survival horror" experience on the small screen, attempting to sort of retroactively reconcile elements from the long-running game series and last year's motion picture, and finally, trying to live up to all the gameplay standards set by its larger-console precursors. Two out of three ain't bad.
In terms of overall mood, Origins sticks almost all its landings. The camera follows Travis through a gorgeously-presented -- but bleak, deserted and menacing -- town of fog-shrouded streets crawling with skinless, gibbering horrors; of dilapidated, gore-splattered hospitals and nightmarish crumbling sanitariums filled with terrible secrets and walls scrawled with messages in blood. And that's before
you flip into the alternate, hellish other-world lurking just beyond every mirror (as with all Silent Hill games, the world of Origins has two overlapping versions of the same world -- one is decidedly worse, but neither one is very nice).
Compared to previous "heroes" of the series, Travis is actually an okay fighter, even with his bare hands (don't truck with a mothertrucker). In addition to obvious things like pistols, rifles and police batons, just about anything you can find lying around the town can be pressed into service as a weapon: Hammers, scalpels, chunks of ragged wood -- you can even bash threatening creatures with IV drip stands, TV sets and file cabinets, if you have to.
Such implements can eventually break, but in practice you're likely to end the game still carrying a dozen serviceable weapons; it would have added to the menace if, as in the previous games, armament was a little harder to come by. If a monster catches you by surprise before you can crank off a round (or huck a microwave oven) at it, there are some real-time button-pressing sequences to break the hold a creature might have on you… but since the best you can hope for is a zero-sum breakaway, you still end up having to deal with the thing
you just grappled with. Combat was never the strong point of the Silent Hill series anyway, really; it's always first and foremost about the mood, and the constant menace.
Which brings us to something of a sore point (and a fairly major deviation from the Silent Hill "formula"): Travis can bring on the change to the hellish otherworld at will
, simply by touching any mirror he comes across; sometimes this is done to bypass barriers, which may change or disappear from world to world (the opposing realities have the same general layout, but with different details… and a crumbling, blood-soaked, major-yuck makeover for the otherworld), and it also creates new rooms and situations.
Unfortunately, this flies in the face of the "traditional" Silent Hill world-shift, which in previous games usually came uninvited, and indeed at what would seem the worst possible moments. It was part of the charm; long-time series fans may find the new scheme makes them feel a little, well, safe
But that feeling generally won't last long: There's always some godawful thing lurching for you out of the darkness or the fog, some creepy but not-overly-brain-bending puzzle, and a fair amount of seamless, startling flashbacks and other cinematic intrusions to throw a scare into you (they're slightly cheaper scares than the Silent Hill norm, but they're effective, all right; you might fumble or drop your PSP if you're playing in a reasonably dark, quiet place -- as you should).
And headphones are a must. Music composer and all-around Evil Sound Wizard Yamaoka Akira has once again done the score and the industrial-haunting sound design for this game -- and over the years, his work has been consistently phenomenal; his moody game music (often with actual vocals) is always a serious album-worthy soundtrack in its own right, and he finds creepy feelings on his musical equipment you didn't even know there were sounds
No matter how long your play-session, do not
fall asleep with your PSP headphones on and the ambient game-sound running. Trust me on this one.
Origins continues the Silent Hill tradition of multiple endings and weird little rewards for finishing the game the first time -- everything from new outfits and items to game options and goofy little extras best left as surprises -- and even the voice acting/dialogue is decent (God knows even the excellent Silent Hill 2 had some Bad Moments in Voiceovers).
Even with some heretical veerings from the earlier console iterations, Origins is an admirable new step into the streets of Silent Hill…and a promising signpost on the road to portable spooky gaming as a whole. Happy trails.
And pleasant dreams.