Silent Hill 4: The Room finally makes the leap into the most personal of spaces, mapping even the home within the limits of the influence of the series’ demented town. The last console installment directed by the original Team Silent, The Room wasn’t even a planned part of the series, with conclusions tied to the franchises’ overarching narrative made later in the development. Despite not being intended as a part of the franchise, the Silent Hill formula of exploration, puzzles, and combat remains strong with this one. A revitalized map system – and the occasional first-person perspective – may have also been the leap necessary to bring the series to a much larger audience. But a pitiful adherence to gameplay sins and an even more bizarre storyline make The Room fall drastically short from its inherited roots.
Henry Townshend wakes up one day to find himself locked in his apartment from the inside, a mass of winding chains barricading his door shut. After several attempts to contact those outside go mysteriously unnoticed, Henry finds the only way out of his domicile: through a hole in his bathroom. Crawling through it brings Henry to several different worlds steeped in the Silent Hill curse, the completion of each sends Henry back to his progressively more possessed apartment as he searches for the meaning behind this supernatural occurrence.
While the different, segmented worlds make progression in Silent Hill 4’s story much more episodic and palatable, the mass of NPCs along the way are stock characters at best, and down right aggravating at worst, most having a one-note personality that doesn’t even last long enough for them to fall victim to the town’s far-reaching evil. Henry himself is the most doltish and unlikeable of the Silent Hill protagonist, making “What the hell?” his catchphrase and barely mustering up enough emotion – both in facial animation and voice-over delivery – to pass as more than one of the monsters he battles. Any deeper meaning inherent in the game’s imagery and narrative is lost with its terrible protagonist and odd plot points. While each world carries an amount of intrigue, the main story progression is too bizarre even for Silent Hill standards, and while the main antagonist hits a much more personal level, by the time you met him long enough to establish it, most players will have been long past caring.
Where the game shines, perhaps stronger than any other franchise entry, is in combat. This is due mostly to the integration of the menu system deeper into gameplay, where a simple button press will bring a scrolling bar into active, un-paused gameplay, on which weapons can be slid to and selected with little effort or difficulty. Combined with a much tightened movement and attack control set, combat feels much more natural and fluid, which is good considering the many more monsters placed in your way than in previous entries. While weapons do degrade and break – never a good idea in any game save for Condemned: Criminal Origins – various death-dealers will quickly fill up both your inventory and storage space (a bottomless chest in your apartment) and are easily swapped out, the only annoyance with the degradation then being stopping to drop any broken weapons in between battles.
Despite combat herein being arguably the best the series had ever seen, The Room hits a major imbalance after all the demon monkey creatures in a specific area have been killed. There is simply a gross lack of puzzles with any amount of challenge. Most being merely slots for items obtained later in the game, or simple one-line logic dilemmas like (and this is true) going back to your apartment to get some chocolate milk for a thirsty key-holder. The puzzles can honestly reach a point of insulting simplicity, even on the harder difficulty settings. It’s the most obvious flag that harkens to the game’s sudden attachment to the series, and it’s one that nearly breaks the entire experience for it. If the puzzles were intended to be this stupid from the beginning, they simply should have never been integrated. Another major hit to gamer sensibilities is the sheer amount of backtracking required by the title, an obvious artificial extension that is equally insulting, especially since the extended game still doesn’t breach the average Silent Hill game length, even with full completion.
But with all of the subtler changes made to the gameplay, the most blunt to the franchise is the first-person interactions, which mark each time Henry is in his apartment. Despite being an aggravatingly abrupt jab to the gameplay flow, the perspective is implemented well, and provides more than a few brilliant scares as the apartment grows more and more in line with Silent Hill chic. The routine of saving, checking inventory, and interacting with a few key objects does become annoying repetitive as the game wears on, but only by gamer habit rather than design. There stymied utilization in the overall game, however, makes it feel like a neat trick rather than the cool franchise innovation Team Silent intended.
If it wasn’t for the continued high-production values, you would barely tell the resemblance to the series moniker The Room bears. Despite a lack of cut-scene facial animation, most characters still move in a lively, if cartoonish, fashion, giving them at least a semblance of humanity. Smaller details are much more tangible this time around, with the most intimate item fully realized. Voice acting hits below even the first game, save for a few supporting characters, and levels stretch on far too long with little variance in their detail, making them large and bland as you progress through them. This is made especially apparent when you are forced to trek through them a second time.
But, even against some of the worst decisions the series has implemented, the Silent Hill stamp of excellence can still be found in The Room’s audio work. Arguably sporting the best game theme of the franchise, the background melodies are especially tense, with a more expansive library of metal foley work and animal noises than ever before. While the soundtrack as a whole doesn’t maintain the emotional qualities of 3 nor the mixed delicacies of 2, The Room still manages to craft an identity of its own with more bodily grunts and moans dotting the audio landscape, giving the game an oddly perverse backbone.
Silent Hill 4: The Room is barely, in the core sense of the term, a Silent Hill game. Its lack of challenge in the puzzles – or even in puzzle appearance – chop off a major gameplay limb the franchise had become known for. Its story also fails to hit either the creepy camp or psychological complexity of its predecessors, and the main character is a simply a douche. But revisions to the combat have made the most major chip off the series’ shoulder, and the mini-worlds do still hold enough mojo to merit a single play-through. First-person is cool but under-utilized, and the game is a visual mixed bag, but the audio design still manages to reach Silent Hill quality, making The Room a worthy rented adventure for most players, a purchase only for the most dedicated to the franchise.