Silent Hill 2 is masterpiece of persisting psychological tension -- not a huge step beyond the original game, just a refinement to near-perfect horror. It is about the very essence of fear, captured in myriad qualities. The grimy visuals, the horrifying sound, the manipulation of your senses...
The designers behind this game knew _exactly_ how to evince fear in a player. They play on the fears a lot of regular people have...strange, dark places; darkness; weird sounds. Firstly, your vision often somehow restricted. Most oppressive is the ubiquitous fog sluiced in the town; in dark places, you must rely on a flashlight. Sound is also used effectively. James carries a radio that creates distorted noise when monsters are near. Imagine the uneasiness of the following situation: you are standing in a dark, narrow hallway, your flashlight shining ahead, revealing nothing. However, you are nearly deafened by the cacophony coming from your radio, and there is a fleshy thump of a demonic creature staggering around somewhere ahead.
The sum of these effects (visual and sound) is a pervasive fear that can be virtually suffocating. It goes farther, still. Random sounds can be heard as you explore. Maybe you'll enter a room and hear breaking glass. This puts you on edge, because you think it could be an attacker or just a random sound inserted to frighten you...there's no way to tell. Sometimes an area will contain a monster physically unable to attack you, but because of the darkness there is no way to tell. You will be constantly on alert because of the monster's sounds and the static of your radio. With the right audio gear, the game can be experienced in surround sound, which greatly enriches the experience. The music can be downright terrifying...although it is rarely music, actually. Often, it is just oppressively creepy atmospheric noise.
The visuals also work hard to unsettle you. Camera angles often impair vision, used to inject senses of claustrophobia or vertigo. Aesthetically, this design team is so deranged/talented it's scary. Grimy environments, decrepit buildings, messages written in blood... That's not so bad though. The truly frightening imagery appears later, where blood covers walls like paint, rusty iron grates cover abyssal pits, gruesome paintings adorn rooms, sheets covers walls and floors (why _is_ that so creepy?), and generally weird, sick stuff that eludes description. Silent Hill 2 has you exploring locales like an underground prison and a mental hospital, which let the developers show off their devilishly twisted creativity. The monsters are sick and bizarre, usually resembling fleshy, humanoid things smeared with red-black gore. Their movements alone are unsettling, with jerky, sporadic movements and attacks.
It's difficult to describe how all these elements factor into the experience. Let me try and explain my own thoughts... From the beginning, the game is unsettling, and it is relentless in its tension. As the game goes on, I found that it was becoming psychologically and even physically taxing to continue. Every encounter with a monster left me tired. It's not that fighting the monsters were difficult in gameplay terms, but their movements and sounds created a nearly paralyzing desperation. All of the twisted imagery, jarring sounds, and unending anxiety really wore me down. But it's just a game, right? Sure, but the guys at Konami tapped into virtually every conceivable factor that makes one afraid, and they mercilessly hammer at you. The visceral impact of this game is nearly incomparable.
The game is paced very well, from the tepid yet nerve-racking opening to the intense final hour, and the game is set up so you don't have to backtrack as much as you did in the first game. The puzzles are pretty easy (even if you put riddle difficulty on "hard"), but clever and disturbing in their own way. I don't think the game is difficult, but it _seems_ like it is, because it keeps beating up your courage.
Some have said Silent Hill 2's story is stupidly convoluted and weird. I would suggest those who make such comments have not bothered to think about the story fully. In-depth analysis reveals the story's complex brilliance. I encourage players to ask themselves: What is the very nature of Silent Hill -- how does it affect the people there? What is the connection shared between the humans drawn to the town -- and how is Laura different from the rest? What is the underlying cause behind the different monsters that appear? The answers lead to understanding. Having played and analyzed the story of the first game will help one's grasp of the second, as well. Silent Hill's story is so deliciously complex and open to interpretation that it beats not only most games, but also a wealth of good cinema and literature. Really.
Silent Hill 2 has four endings, as well as a fifth joke ending. Usually if a game has more than two endings I won't pursue them because I don't have the time, but my desire to more fully experience this game drove me to getting the four main ones. They are called: "Maria", "Water", "Leaving", and "Rebirth". Personally, I interpreted "Leaving" to be the happiest ending, but opinions may vary. "Rebirth" is particularly dark and twisted, available only after beating the game once and acquiring several secret items. The game can be beaten once in about 10 hours, but I think it's still a great value given the sheer intensity of the experience. Quality over quantity!
There is still much more I could say (I could write a book on the plot analysis), but I think I'm pushing Amazon.com's word limit. In short: this is by far the most frightening game ever. Don't pass it up.
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