Some of the most frightening moments in horror owe their debt to little things.
Take the diminutive girl stuck down the well in The Ring, for example. Or that boy imprisoned in the hotel with Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Or, of course, that bat-shit crazy kid whose head spins around in The Exorcist or, trying not to think too hard about this right now, the evil girl in Don't Look Now who drowns and then keeps turning up to terrorize her distraught parents. Children of the Corn, Rosemary's Baby, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Er, seriously, who in their right mind would ever reproduce?
The point is that we all know small things have the potential to be sphincter-collapsingly frightening. But a horror game on a handheld… well… isn't that a bit like showing a YouTube video at the Imax Cinema in 3D-o-vision? In other words, completely inappropriate for the screen size?
It's a question that must have been at the forefront of developer Climax's collective mind when working on Silent Hill Origins, the PSP's first serious horror title. Indeed, the game's opening warns that some scenes may be disturbing and those easily unsettled should probably go and play Animal Crossing or Manhunt 2 instead. Then, the text advises that this is an experience best enjoyed with the lights out and the headphones turned up.
Well, suffice to say that we played through the game on a series of train journeys, in broad daylight, sharing seats with old grannies and small dogs and we still found it actually terrifying. A prequel to the equally frightening 1999 PlayStation game with which it shares two thirds of its title, you're cast as one Travis Grady, a trucker who stumbles into the tumbleweed-filled American town of Silent Hill on a stormy night.
The game's opening has Travis leaving the relative safety of his truck's cabin and heading off into town following the apparition of a ghostly little girl in the distance (something he absolutely wouldn't have done if he'd read the introduction to this review). The graphics and sounds are immediately impressive with solid, pop-up free environments and the eerie, trip-hop vocals of a discordant dirge soundtracking your entry to the town.
Once in town, you come across a burning house, do the manly thing and rush in to find the source of some deathly screaming, and emerge ten minutes later with a badly charred (but breathing) body of a kid. From here the game boots you into various creepy locations around town, piecing together the identity of the child you rescued and working through the game's ubiquitous puzzles.
The puzzles require perseverance and a keen eye for detail, gathering clues from the main world and an alternate dimension to Silent Hill (which is accessed by touching mirrors). The otherworld is basically horrible, with faeces- and blood-encrusted walls and all the paraphernalia of the darkest psychological horrorscape.
Of course, monsters roam these streets too and you'll have to dispose of the zombie-like antagonists with knives, pipes, televisions and whatever else is to hand. The combat is terribly simple, with monotonous, plodding hits spiced up only by the occasional hit-this-button-now Quick Time Event routine or finishing move. By contrast, the boss battles are both engaging and interesting, and, as you have limited ammo in the game, it's usually best to save it all up for these monstrosities anyway.
As solid as they start, the sound design and visuals continue to be thoroughly impressive and if played with a set of headphones (is there any other way of playing handheld games?) you'll be amazed at quite how effective bangs, scrapes and wheezes can be in setting your teeth on edge. All of which conspires to make the game far more of a success than you might have been expecting.
If you've never played a Silent Hill game before, then this is undoubtedly a good place to start. Some elements of the game feel a little tired in 2007, but the quality dialogue, voice acting combined with strong aesthetics and puzzle design make this a very worthwhile investment for those of you who won't mind the subsequent sleepless nights you'll suffer.
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