Silent Hill Origins
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I'm not totally sure where the tradition for doing "Zero" entries to a series, the logical step backwards from the first to represent a part of the story that happens before it, came from. Certainly the first prequel that I heard naming itself this way was Ring Zero. The Cube series started off with Cube, then Hypercube when it added an extra dimension, then Cube Zero (which really should have been called Square). I'm sure there are many others. Silent Hill Origins was called Silent Hill Zero in Japan, but they clearly thought that nobody else would get it and they tacked "rigins" onto the title to form the odd hybrid that it eventually ended up with.

The game opens with CB radio speak that might as well be in a foreign language ("20/20, ten pints right. Keep the hens in the henhouse") that introduces Travis, a trucker who rather overoptimistically decides to take a shortcut through Silent Hill in the middle of the night. While a-truckin' down the road he sees a cloaked figure in the mist ahead in much the same way as the first game, slams his brakes on and comes to an emergency stop in an impressively short distance of about a mile and a half. After getting out, he sees nobody there, but when a distressed figure appears in the mirror he flees into Silent Hill, a mistake unmatched by even the most dim-witted protagonists in the series yet. To cut a long story short, he then finds the Gillespie house on fire and saves the smouldering Alessa, starting the events that began the series in the first place.

For some reason I had heard a lot of things about this game that caused me to have low expectations of it. The average score from players on Gamefly was around 6/10, Yahtzee's review of it was fairly scathing (but then, when isn't he), and I had mentioned because of those that when I started playing it I was expecting it to be (quote) a bit rubbish. But I've been pleasantly surprised - for everything that's been said about it, I honestly think that it's the closest to classic Silent Hill that the series has managed to come since the second game. It might be just because I'd been so alienated by the complete departure that was Silent Hill 4, but it's oddly nice to see the familiar things again - having to hunt around darkened buildings (sometimes in a ghastly alternate dimension) with rooms that have been stricken with some sort of Dutch Door Disease, trying to find the rooms you can enter and then working out gradually how to escape in between running away from half-seen apparitions with heads on their bottoms and legs growing out of their ears. Lisa the nurse is back as well, with a new voice actress who's merely sub-par instead of wallbangingly appalling.

A new addition to the gameplay comes in the form of being able to switch between the light and dark dimensions via the use of - and I will probably have this game to thank for playing on and fully awakening another thing I've always found unsettling - mirrors, which show the wrong reflection and will transport you between the worlds when they're touched. This makes the possessed world become more a fact of exploration than something that you're forced into by the plot, and instills a new sense of dread in you, that in order to progress you're going to have to visit it voluntarily. In fact, because of the way that the worlds are now used as part of the general puzzle in this way, with some parts of the scenery being subtly different (for example, you have to knock a key down a drain in the light world and then switch to the dark one to pick it up, because in the dark world the grate on the drain isn't there) I find myself wondering if somebody on the team had played through Trilby's Notes, which itself took an enormous amount of inspiration from the Silent Hill series and used two parallel worlds in this way. It's a nice thought, anyway.

As for things that might have prompted the negative opinions that I've seen... well, it's true that as far as the story goes, Travis doesn't seem to have a whole lot of reason for being in Silent Hill. Unlike other people who were searching for others (or themselves in time paradoxes), he doesn't seem to have quite strong enough a connection to the place to really want to find out what's going on as much as he does - his first objective is to see if Alessa is all right, but at the stage we're at he seems to have forgotten about that and is following clues to seemingly irrelevant places like a demented Treasure Hunt with Anneka Rice. I would certainly have started finding a way out when the second location that the game directed me to was a giant abandoned sanitarium. And some of the combat feels a bit strange - there seems to be an encouragement to use melee weapons like in the fourth game, except those weapons break faster than most of my webpages.

This is offset, though, because as far as inventory management goes, Travis seems to be completely opposite from the dimwitted Henry in the fourth game, who had difficulty carrying more than a couple of playing cards around. Instead, he seems to have a jacket that easily rivals my own, and is able to haul around multiple TV sets, filing cabinets, golf clubs, a couple of hatstands, bottles and sticks of various sizes and still have room left over for a few guns if throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the nightmarish apparitions around him doesn't put them off enough. Ammo is not rare either - in the fourth game you had an irritating choice between clogging up your severely limited inventory space and using weapons that were totally useless, but after experiencing that, not feeling that even the basic pistol is too good to use on anything and has to be saved up is very welcome.

And the part that I pined for in the fourth game: the puzzles are back. No half-hearted sticking cards in marked places on a wall this time - instead you get properly demented ones like having to feed horrible-looking dolls different coloured pills according to what mental disorder they represent to open a desk drawer for some reason and a very Myst-like episode with an iron lung. There isn't a choice between putting them on Dipstick, Normal or Completely Bloody Impossible modes like in the second and third games, so it looks like you only get the one set this time - but what we've seen so far are at just the right level, just difficult enough to make you feel clever about working them out afterwards.

If there's one thing that I think has been wrong with the series for a while it's the bosses, because the games' combat was always awkward by design - it's meant to make you feel like your characters were fragile and really didn't know how to handle weapons. But during fights with large monsters, the result is generally that you had a direct mutually exclusive choice between shooting and trying to run away, meaning that boss fights are exercises in standing still and pounding away while checking your life force every so often (and the stylistic choice of using red-amber-green for your health, only absent from the fourth game, means that I always have to have someone on hand to tell me how my state looks). In this one, movement seems a little more free - at least, I defeated our latest boss just by shooting all the shotgun ammo I'd saved up at it while continually walking backwards - but it still seems like something that could work rather better. I've actually heard that the team doing the next game said that they had replaced the boss fights with things that were more "Zelda-style", which sounds like possibly a good idea but puts strange images into my head of Harry Mason spinning round on the spot madly with the Master Sword.

There's a verse that's meant to help you remember the lengths of months of the year that you probably learned as something like:

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have thirty-one
Except February, which has twenty-eight, except in leap years when it has twenty-nine, and those come every four years unless the year's divisible by 100. It's a silly month, anyway.

That's just about how I learned it before discovering the far superior finger method, though Wikipedia has a list of rather more satisfactory endings. But the point I was going to make was that this is a bit how Silent Hill Origins felt - it starts off very promisingly but at the very end it all sort of falls apart a little. It's not exactly bad, but you start getting fed up of your underpowered melee weapons breaking all the time, noticing the cracks in it a bit more and almost wanting it to end.

Part of that, of course, is because you really don't want to have to steel yourself to explore any of the nightmare contained within this game any more - the next-to-last section is in a motel (yes, Mother) with a veritable mountain of doors to try, most of which will be stuck, locked or jammed, and you get a real sense of dread when you find one that opens and wait for it to load whatever's lurking on the other side. Curiously, even a lot of the open rooms contain absolutely nothing useful - there was one room with a suitcase full of shoes and another with wedding clothes laid out on the bed, and we wrote these weird features down in anticipation of the contents of the rooms being used for a puzzle which never came.

The other puzzles were well done for the most part, though, especially after their absence in Silent Hill 4. I actually liked the way that this time they were presented as almost believable sometimes - in previous games the approach had been to give you an often completely irrelevant-seeming poem and then expect you to get a sequence of digits or piano keys out of it, but here there was sometimes some odd humour in finding notes taped up around the place saying things like "Mike - To raise the safety curtain you need to turn the stage lights on, you can't let lights A+B exceed the wattage of D, and C can't be more than twice as much as half of the difference. And tell the electrician I want a word with him." The one in the end section was rather more subtle and involved finding a date for the odd-looking fish calendar in the manager's office, where we got the month and day but somehow missed the year and just guessed it (the puzzle being rather more open to experimentation than in previous games). Though there was quite a good one after that involving assembling the Flauros, or the Seal of Someone or Other, that had been collected throughout the game until then.

The largest anticlimax was that of the Butcher. Shortly after the first stage of the game you're treated to a brief look at a hulking great monstrosity in an iron mask, and then get hints at him having been in places before you throughout the rest of the game, often accompanied by various noises in the distance that imply he might be just around the corner. It had built all this anticipation and then threw it away on a very normal boss fight with you running continuously around a kitchen counter while he waddles behind you, occasionally turning around to poke him in the ribs with your shotgun. Granted, he does have a great big knife at the time, but I was expecting one of the buildup scares to finally come to something, and for him to become a Welder-like invincible enemy that pursued you until you managed to shake him off. Instead, you just interrupt him while he's cutting up someone else and then fight. When you feel you can actually damage something it isn't nearly as frightening, though doing it that way probably did wonders for my sanity.