Silent Hill Play Novel Review
Posted by Dave Frear
Choose your own survival horror
A popular release for the Playstation in 1999, Silent Hill saw players take control of Harry Mason – following a car accident, he awakens to find that his daughter, Cheryl, has disappeared. Naturally, Harry sets off to find her, but it soon becomes apparent that there's something strange about the surrounding town. This is also the set-up here, but as the name suggests, Silent Hill Play Novel is a little different, changing the game by having it play like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are a few puzzles, but you'll spend the vast majority of your time reading text before being presented with two or, sometimes, three options for what Harry should do next. As you can imagine, this is a text-heavy game and as a Japanese exclusive it requires either an understanding of the language or a handy translation.
The story is one that keeps the player interested. It's snowing out of season and it appears the place is deserted – however, as you begin looking around the empty streets, you soon see that monsters inhabit them. If that wasn't strange enough, the appearance of the town seems to be changing, leading Harry to wonder if he's going mad.
Accompanying the text is a variety of stills. The characters and varied locations look impressive as they resemble the PSX cutscenes – in fact, some are frames taken directly from the original FMV sequences. There's a wide range of images in game, changing with each location to show you your surroundings. Some pictures are not completely static as they utilise simple effects such as flickering light or falling snow. The text is laid on top of the images, but you can make this disappear by holding the B button if you'd like a clearer look at things. One thing you'll see a little too often is a black screen. The darkness works well in some situations (Harry falling into unconsciousness, for example) but at other times, it just seems lazy.
There are some brief video clips in the game that have a grainy quality, which jars a little with the rest of the imagery (creepy moments with TVs excepted), but also adds to the atmosphere. One fault with the clips is that there are so few of them. If there were none in the game it wouldn't matter, but having experienced some, their absence from other moments feels odd.
Music and sound effects are used effectively throughout. The intro features the start of the Silent Hill theme, which sets the tone for the rest of the music: simple but creepy – although at times it can be rather ominous and ruddy mysterious. Silence is also effectively implemented, whether the scene plays through without a score or the music has suddenly stopped. Sound effects are used especially well: a sudden knocking, a door clicking shut, the ring of a telephone or a screeching howl that could be one of those monsters or just simply the wind. On a few occasions, a constant sample in the background becomes annoying, but generally the wide range of sounds enhance the experience.
As you play, you'll discover you're not the only person in town and encounter several characters. These include police officer Cybil Bennett, who has come to investigate after all communication with the town was lost, Dr. Kaufmann, who first greets you by sticking a gun in your face, and the strange Dahlia Gillespie. You'll get to know more about these people as the increasingly intriguing story, involving a cult and a girl called Alessa, progresses.
How the story goes will vary depending on the choices you make. You will be asked to decide on things such as where to go next or whether to hide from a monster or fight it. Sometimes your decisions will greatly affect the story, but at other times they cause very minor changes, making the requirement for your input borderline pointless. Occasionally, the decisions you have to make are a little odd – like being asked what an object is before you've seen it (your answer determining what it is). You don't have to worry about making wrong decisions during the game as none of the options will lead to an early death: once you've started, you play through until the end. Being guaranteed an ending means that in some way the game presents no challenge, but the decisions you make will affect what that ending is, and some endings are better for Harry than others.
Due to the nature of the game, it can be completed in one sitting. If you haven't the time you can simply switch your Game Boy off as your progress is saved automatically. If you don't like the way things are going, tapping Select brings up a flowchart showing your path so far. If you want, you can go back to an earlier decision and choose another option to take the story in a different direction.
Occasionally, you will need to do a little more than decision-making, as there are a few puzzles requiring you to do things such as complete a circuit. If they appeared more often they would be a good fit, providing a change of pace, but with so few of them they just become an annoying distraction.
Once the game is completed, you are rewarded with a few "Digital Trading Cards" of characters and locations – the cards vary depending on which ending you received. These are nothing spectacular, but they do provide an indication of how many endings you have seen. However, you may want to put off making poor Harry go through it all again as the game will now let you play as Cybil as well. Cybil's story is shorter than Harry's but provides an interesting alternative version of events, with different puzzles and new decisions to make as well as another set of endings.
There are three save slots in the game, so you can have one for each of the characters if you wish. Originally, there was a third character you could play as: a young boy called Andy, whose story was available to download via the short-lived (and Japan only) Mobile System GB. With the service no longer available, anyone hoping to get a complete set of the trading cards is going to be frustrated. There are still the other two characters to play as, however, and with eight endings for Harry and six for Cybil, the game will keep you occupied for a while as you see the different ways in which events could have panned out.
Thanks to the story, Silent Hill Play Novel is engrossing, and seeing the different ways events can play out is interesting. However, there are still a few problems such as decisions that have little impact. The visuals (though largely stills) work well with the audio, but with only a smattering of puzzles, there's little in the gameplay that could not be accomplished with a paperback release. A larger selection of these or of impactful decisions would have greatly benefited the game, but overall, Silent Hill Play Novel works well as an Adventure Game Book, providing a different way to experience Harry Mason's quest to find his daughter.