Survival-horror is one of my favorite genres, and yet I don't like most of the survival-horror games that I play. It's a difficult genre to pull off, considering the entire point is to instill feelings of dread and horror in the player -- if a survival-horror game doesn't do that one, specific thing, then it's failed at its job. I've played enough of these games that basically nothing scares me anymore, and I'm good enough at these types of games that the mechanics don't do much to inspire tension within me, either, so it takes a rare, special type of survival-horror game to satisfy me.
Silent Hill 2 was one such game. I didn't think very highly of it at first, but it grew on me as I played, and even stayed with me long after I'd finished. Looking back, I realized how much of an impact its story had in elevating a borderline decent-good gameplay experience to something truly excellent. Silent Hill 3 had the unfortunate luck of following what has been commonly regarded as a monumental survival-horror game; it's difficult to top a masterpiece, and SH3 therefore never achieved the same level of acclaim as SH2. In some ways, SH3 is actually a better game than SH2, but I wasn't all that impressed with it.
As one of the last mainstream survival-horror games to be released before Resident Evil 4 changed everything, SH3 has that classic feel that I appreciate without feeling like one of those old games that hasn't aged well. The game certainly didn't feel 11 years old when I was playing it; the controls work fine, and the graphics look great. Silent Hill 3 plays identically to Silent Hill 2 and similar "old school" survival-horror games that existed before the genre became more about action than survival. Movement is slow, combat is awkward and imprecise, and the goal of the game is to explore and solve puzzles, rather than to kill everything in sight.
Silent Hill 3 employs the good type of survival-horror where ammo and healing items are scarce, which makes every enemy encounter an important debate of "can I afford to kill this thing," or "can I afford not to kill this thing." You constantly have to think about what's best for your situation; sometimes it's best to preserve ammo, other times it's best to avoid taking damage altogether. It's generally best to avoid enemies whenever possible, but unlike a lot of modern games, there's no gimmicky run-and-hide mechanism that has you seeking scripted safe zones so you can take your hands off the controls while waiting for the enemy to wander off. There's no time to rest when avoiding enemies in SH3 because you're constantly in danger. Even when returning to rooms you'd previously cleared, you often find all-new enemies, meaning you never know when you're truly safe.
I've become somewhat desensitized to horror games so not very much in this game actually scared me, but it has a pretty solid, unsettling atmosphere. The droning ambient sound effects, the distorted visuals of the alternate world, and the camera angles evoke an awful lot of tension. Ominous foreshadowing adds to the tension, like when a seemingly dead monster conspicuously disappears when returning to a familiar location, or when you hear loud pounding noises coming from some area up ahead. Certain types of enemies are genuinely creepy (like the spiky, spinning blade dudes that hang from the ceiling) and are so difficult to kill without taking damage that I nervously panicked whenever they showed up.
Some of the scripted scares missed more than they hit with me. The haunted house at the theme park seemed like it had potential, with me wondering whether it would be a harmless scare ride or a sinister murder vessel, but I was able to brazenly waltz through the whole thing only once feeling concerned about what might happen. The mirror room, though -- dear God -- was one of the most frightening things I've ever encountered in a horror game. That one moment was so good that it completely made up for any other shortcomings on the horror side of things.
The story, on the other hand, leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. Silent Hill 2 featured a slow and steady buildup as James Sunderland arrived on the outskirts of Silent Hill, having received a letter from his dead wife urging him to meet her at their "special place" in Silent Hill. Its introduction allowed the player to make a strong connection with James as a relative outsider to Silent Hill, while offering an intriguing mystery as well as giving both the player and the character a worthwhile motivation to press on. In SH3, the player is dropped straight into a "nightmare sequence" to pointlessly fight monsters and die. Heather wakes up from her nightmare, having fallen asleep in the shopping mall, and decides to go home, only to find that the mall has turned into monster-infested hellhole like that from her nightmare.
It takes 3-4 hours (roughly half the game) before Heather gets any kind of unique motivation, and before she even arrives at Silent Hill. For those first few hours, the entire game revolves around Heather trying to get home when her world is suddenly turned upside down for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Getting home and not dying in the process feels like a totally compulsory video game task made even more dreary and uninteresting by the fact that Heather makes little reaction to what's going on. At one point she gets on a subway car intending to go home, and then for some inexplicable reason the game sends you to an industrial maintenance area, then into some sewers, and then a construction site, and Heather makes no comment whatsoever about this strange detour. There's no narrative reason to be in these areas at all; they're basically just gameplay filler.
Throughout the game you can press the action button to examine things in the environment, which brings up a text description of Heather's inner monologue as she observes the item. I like games that include these kinds of text-descriptions of things because it helps connect you with the character, in terms of what they're seeing and thinking, but examining things in SH3 rarely offers any kind of insight to Heather's psyche. Most of the time, she just states the obvious ("There are books lining the shelf,") and then dismisses it as totally irrelevant ("but I don't really need any of them right now"). Why bother programming those hotspots and writing descriptive text for them if they're not going to serve any kind of worthwhile purpose?
Puzzles feel relatively scarce in this game; I can only recall a half-dozen logic puzzles in the entire game, and two or three of them were pretty straightforward. Otherwise, the game falls victim to typical adventure game logic that has you picking up random items at random times because they'll be necessary for some puzzle up ahead. Once I picked up an empty wine bottle wondering what possible use I could have for such an item; a few minutes later I needed to move gasoline from one location to another, and it was painfully obvious that I should use the one and only item I found in the area. In another scenario I discovered a trash dump, and of all the possibly useful items, the only one I could take was an electric hairdryer, because Heather psychically knew she'd need it to defeat a water monster up ahead.
It's also a shame that so much of the game takes place in claustrophobic buildings, many of which feature a fairly linear progression through their various rooms and corridors. Tight spaces are sometimes important for making the player feel trapped with nowhere to run, but it would be nice to have more of a balance between building interiors and spacious exteriors. After all, the most common thing people associate with Silent Hill is running around the town unable to see through the thick fog; there's only one such section in SH3 (when you have to travel from the hotel to the hospital and back), and even that section is awfully limiting on where you can go.
The game's mystery centers around a woman named Claudia, who at first seems to be the cause of the monsters trying to kill Heather, and who later kills Heather's father to get Heather to follow her to Silent Hill. Heather sets out for revenge and soon discovers that she's being used by Claudia to give birth to a cult's deity. I can't elaborate any more than that because I just did not care about this game's story -- it did not engross me in the slightest, and I never felt compelled to explore the mystery. It never felt like anything was at stake and I never understood why Heather should care about anything that's happening, let alone why I should care.
If you like survival-horror games, Silent Hill 3 is definitely worth playing because it gets the basic mechanics right and its atmosphere feels sufficiently dark and tense. It's not a particularly difficult game, but it was so draining and stressful that I could only play for an hour at a time before needing to take a break. I couldn't appreciate SH3 as much as SH2, however, because the story did absolutely nothing for me and other parts of the game felt rather nonsensical. It's a good game, but it lacks the thematic cohesion of SH2 and doesn't have as many distinct, memorable moments.