It’s a bit odd trying to review a game like Silent Hill 4, because it’s a game that I personally love, but also one I wouldn’t really recommend because people who value different things about games than me probably won’t enjoy it. Sort of a Killer 7 scenario. That being said, I will try to review the game as objectively as possible.
Silent Hill 4: The Room; man, Lisa and Mark really took a turn for the worst after Tommy’s suicide, was released in 2004, just one year after Silent Hill 3. Now that I got the obvious joke out of the way, I can focus on the review. The game wasn’t even originally meant to be a Silent Hill sequel, it started out as a new IP named Room 203 and changed part way into development probably due to marketing concerns. A lot of Team Silent had also been shuffled around by this time. Most of the prominent members had either left the team to work on other projects at Konami like Metal Gear Solid 3, or they had quit to form the development studio that teamed with Shinji Mikami, the director of Resident Evil to make a new horror IP in Siren. It could be said that this was Team Silent’s “B Team” that made the game, but that’s a bit reductive, I think. Sometimes even the best sports teams with great coaches need to hear a new voice in the locker room to get back up to their potential, and it shows here because Silent Hill 4 is one of the few Silent Hill games that actually breaks from the formula a bit.
Silent Hill 4: The Room centers around Henry Townsend, a man who wakes up one morning from a nightmare and realizes that he has been locked inside his apartment and can’t get out. He soon finds a hole in his bathroom wall that leads him to a series of bizarro nightmare worlds inhabited by people who, when they die in the nightmare realm, also wind up dead in real life. The story unfolds slowly over time, with an almost noirish series of events I quite like. The truncated version is that there is a deranged serial killer that has to murder 21 people in specific ways to perform a ritual to revive a demonic god, and all of that centers around Henry’s apartment for some reason. This is definitely my second favorite Silent Hill story after 2, and I know I’ve repeatedly said in these reviews that I don’t like the human element being involved in the stories, but I think this game pulls it off better because you don’t actually ever go to the town of Silent Hill, and thus the aspects of the gameplay and the story are a bit more separated, and don’t rely on each other as much.
That doesn’t mean that the game loses that all important lunar-narrative synchronicity I’ve been banging on about for every review. The theme here is voyeurism. Of course, you can look out the window in your apartment and see the people passing by on the street, but you can also look out the peep hole on Henry’s front door and see the neighbor’s going about their lives, and hear them talk, but also see a new bloody handprint on the wall every time Walter, the serial killer claims another victim. The best level in the game is a panopticon prison, which is a prison system designed around the guard station being in the middle of the jail cells so they can always see everyone within the walls at once. Then of course, there’s one of the game’s classic moments. A hole in the wall allowing Henry to look into his neighbor’s bedroom appears after a while and you can look into her room. There is a stuffed bunny on her bed. The first few times you look, it just appears normally as you spy on your female neighbor that it is revealed later that Henry might have a crush on. The third or so time you chose to look though, the bunny will turn its head to stare at you all by itself.
The main problem with Silent Hill 4 though is that its design choices have no middle ground whatsoever. Its good ideas are fucking brilliant and its bad ideas are fucking awful. The concept of the room is fantastic horror design. You return to your apartment after every level to heal up and gain some respite, and the camera turns to first person which makes it feel comfortable and safe. Which is why it’s so shocking in the second half when the game takes that all away from you and the apartment becomes haunted. The game even randomly generates some special haunting events that change every time you replay it. It captures the cold, oppressive atmosphere of Silent Hill without ever actually going to Silent Hill. The core gameplay still revolves around seeing hellish entities and trying to repel them with a bit of old plywood, but there is no longer the tank controls with the fixed camera angles, so it’s very hard to control properly. Then there’s the inventory system, which is more akin to classic survival horror games. This makes sense in context since you revisit the room and swap out items after every level as needed, but in execution, it just makes everything a chore, especially since bullets can’t be stacked. Besides, it makes no fucking sense that two bottles of health drink take up as much pocket space as a goddamn chainsaw.
Again, the sound design is mostly excellent. Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is once again brilliant, with some fantastic melodic guitar harmonies and songs, but also the unsettling ambience and soundscapes that define Silent Hill. But, then there’s the enemy sounds, most of which are literally stock sound effects, and the footstep noises are so fucking loud when you walk across anything metal, it sounds like the ghost of John Bonham came back to haunt you. Speaking of haunting you, there are indestructible ghosts that show up in every level, some of which are the ghosts of people that Walter killed in real life. Again, this on paper should work, as having some nightmarish, indestructible ghost that moves and looks unnatural following your every step should be frightening, but eventually it just becomes more annoying than scary. Sure, you can pin them down permanently with items called the sword of obedience, but these are scarce and limited, and spoiler alert: You need them for the second half of the game otherwise it becomes a fucking chore.
Speaking of the second half of the game, a big reason that this game is so divisive among fans is because the entirety of it is an escort mission. Sure, it’s not the worst escort quest in a game. At least Eileen can help you out in a fight, but what is a real dick move is that the more damage she takes, the closer you are to getting the bad ending. This means you have to decide if you want to heal her to get the good ending, or heal Henry and actually get to finish the fucking game, which is a bit like a set of twins deciding which one was the unplanned one. Not only that, but most of the later levels are just either reused earlier levels or reused assets, and at this point, bloody metallic hallways aren’t so much Silent Hill tradition as they are a post-it note with the words “Insert Silent Hill environment here” written on it. Furthermore, the game strips away the multiple weapon types and combat variety of Silent Hill 3, and graphically, I’m not sure it’s that much better, if at all since the dynamic lighting engine was also done away with for some odd reason.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Silent Hill 4: The Room is considered the cult classic of the series. If you value story, atmosphere and music over moment to moment gameplay in a horror game, then you’ll probably love this game as it has a truly great narrative and amazing atmosphere. It’s also one of the few Silent Hill games that actually has an original concept, which automatically makes it better than all of the western developed Silent Hill games. That being said, the game was obviously rushed to cash in on the popularity of the franchise, and due to that, a lot of things in gameplay are either stripped, unpolished or straight up broken, and for a lot of people, the second half might be too much of a slog for them to enjoy. Silent Hill 4 has a ton of great ideas, but they’re buried under a ton of ideas that aren’t thought out enough. It’s the type of game that could go for a full remake, because all you’d have to do to make the game infinitely more enjoyable is fix some of the wonky design decisions, but unfortunately, I think this game will never be revisited. It was absent (maybe thankfully) from the HD collection, and I don’t think Konami will ever think about re-releasing it, except maybe as a pachinko machine that carves numbers into your forehead.