Monday, September 14, 2009

Your Personal Nightmare

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

As promised, here is the follow-up to my previous post on Silent Hill Origins. This post discusses game completion, so if you'd rather discover some of the game's secrets on your own, you might want to skip this entry until after you've played the game.

Let's start by looking at the stats for my second play-through:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 188
Total enemies killed using firearms: 1
Total enemies killed using fists: 58
Total items collected: 330
Number of map views: 7
Number of times saved: 13
Distance walked: 21.97
Total game time: 4:26:50
Total flashlight use time: 0:23:48
Number of game completions: 2

Total game time was cut in half from my first time, down to just 4.5 hours. Saves were reduced to almost a third of the previous number - showing my increasing confidence and knowledge of the game. I made a conscious effort not to view the map (although I still instinctively picked the maps up, and doing so results in an automatic view - that counts six (Town, Hospital, Sanitarium, Theater, Motel, Othertown) plus one extra view when I accidentally pressed the wrong button), and to keep my flashlight off as much as possible. You can walk right past most demons with the flashlight off (if the room is dark), and they won't attack you, but of course, it can be hard to see things lying around (and some rooms are just really really dark). I also focused on just using melee weapons/fists (I was kind of undecided/confused about which to choose) - however, that one firearm kill is none other than The Butcher, whom I was too afraid to fight up close, considering his lethal Great Cleaver.

As you may have suspected, all of these special conditions I fulfilled for the express purpose of earning accolades, which I briefly mentioned in the previous post. Extras in Silent Hill Origins are separated individually, such that you can earn them one (or more) at a time, and you get to keep the bounty on successive play-throughs (instead of just the next play-through). Previous Silent Hills gave rewards for high star rankings (abolished in this game), the best reward reserved for the nigh impossible ten star ranking. In Origins, you can work on the different accolades independently, instead of having to satisfy all the right conditions in a single play-through.

For example, there is a Sprinter Accolade, for beating the game in under two hours, and a Daredevil Accolade for beating the game without a single save. Previous games would require a minimum number of saves *and* a low completion time (along with myriad other requirements) for the ten star ranking, but this way, you can play the game through once, focusing on speed, saving as much as you want in order to perfect your timing, and then play it again, taking as much time as you need to beat it, but without saving your progress. Afterwards, you'll have both rewards in the subsequent play-through!

Well, that's exactly what I was planning on doing, but I started my sprinter run and I just thought to myself, "I don't feel particularly threatened", so I just didn't save and made it my daredevil run as well! Here are the stats for that run:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 4
Total enemies killed using firearms: 0
Total enemies killed using fists: 23
Total items collected: 88
Number of map views: 21
Number of times saved: 0
Distance walked: 6.66 Km
Total game time: 0:57:52
Total flashlight use time: 0:03:04
Number of game completions: 3

Zero saves, and completion in less than an hour (taking the shortcut joke ending). That 6.66 Km walking distance did not go unnoticed. Flashlight time under 5 minutes(!). Focused on killing with my fists (albeit with the help of the powerful Moon Gauntlets - although you have to be careful to only knock the enemy down and not kill it with the gauntlets so that you can stomp it and get a "fist" kill, since the gauntlets count as a melee weapon).

My overall conclusion for this game in comparison to previous Silent Hills is that it's fairly short (although I remember the original Silent Hill being relatively short as well), and, as much of a sting this is, not quite as scary as the other games. Still scary, just not as. Now let's talk about some of the cooler Extras:

Each accolade earns you an alternate costume, and some of them get you an additional special item. I'd say the majority of the costumes are kind of boring, but there are some cool ones.

Acquiring the "good" ending gets you the Savior Accolade, which comes with a nifty leather outfit, and the previously mentioned Moon Gauntlets, which are quite powerful - I was surprised when the final boss of the game took three whole punches to defeat!

The "bad" ending nets you The Butcher costume, which is pretty cool (bloody clothing), and The Butcher's Great Cleaver.

The UFO Ending (a joke, and a Silent Hill tradition), gets you the Tesla Rifle, which is a gun that shoots lightning. It's not super-powerful, but as it's supposedly powered by moonbeams, it never runs out of energy, and is quite cool to use. The "spacesuit" costume is unremarkable.

The Sprinter Accolade, achieved by beating the game in under two hours, gets you a costume which looks unappealing (sweats), but allows you to run nonstop without running out of breath - thus quite useful for running down those long streets of Silent Hill.

The Stalker Accolade, for playing in the dark with the flashlight off, is perhaps one of the coolest. The costume is a "black ops" uniform, and the accolade also includes a pair of night vision goggles, which are quite useful indoors. Get used to the characteristic green vision, and you'll be able to hunt demons in pitch black, knocking them out before they know what hit them. Particularly good for sneaking past demons without getting attacked, in order to save time and ammo.

The Fireman Accolade is also pretty cool. At the beginning of the game, there's a sequence where you come upon a burning house, and have to save the girl (none other than Alessa) inside. If you do it really quickly, you'll earn the accolade, which gets you a neat fireman costume and a powerful Fire Axe.

Take your choice, do you want to play through Silent Hill as a Fireman, a black ops agent, or a bloodied serial killer? The dog costume (Daredevil Accolade) and the Mexican wrestling outfit (Brawler Accolade) are amusing, but ridiculous. The latter is earned by defeating most enemies with your fists. As alluded to, there are also accolades for defeating most enemies with melee weapons, and with firearms. And there are a couple others.

WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead!

And now let's talk psychology. If you don't want to read major plot spoilers (for this game, as well as Silent Hill 2), then don't read any further. One of the coolest things about Silent Hill is the concept of the town personalizing your inner demons, and manifesting them into a[n apparently] physical form, to h[a]unt you down, until you uncover whatever deep revelation the town intends for you, or come to terms with a certain traumatic event in your past. For example, it is said that Alessa is afraid of dogs, thus explaining the dog monsters in the first (and third) game. Also, the schoolhouse boss in the first game was a monster from a scary story found in the school's library (The Monster Lurks). In Silent Hill 2, James is pursued by the assassin Pyramid Head, which can be said to be a literal embodiment of his [repressed] guilt about putting his wife out of her misery. Similarly, in Silent Hill Origins, it is revealed that Travis Grady may have a split personality - unknown to the side of him that we control in the game - as a result of the trauma of his parent's deaths in childhood, that manifests in the form of a brutal serial killer (The Butcher). Travis' unexpected layover in Silent Hill, in addition to his interactions with Alessa, serve to dredge up the childhood trauma he's repressed, and force him to confront his alter-ego. In a very real sense, it is a healing journey - although success (and survival) is far from guaranteed. This is what I love about Silent Hill.

Two recurring species of nightmare in the Silent Hill games are the demonic nurses, and the "straitjackets". The former represent a not uncommon fear for many people of doctors (and it's no coincidence that much time in Silent Hill is spent in a number of different hospitals). The straitjackets - lumbering figures with limited capabilities for aggression (though that doesn't hamper their intent) - can be said to represent personal feelings of self-imprisonment, and feelings of weakness and inability to cope with one's problems. The enemies that show up in Silent Hill Origins take forms that represent Travis' fears and insecurities, and in some cases Alessa's also. The "carrion" demon - an oversized, disfigured, stumbling half-roadkill beast - represents Travis' guilt over animals killed during his career as a truck driver. The "twoback" beast that stalks the motel mocks Travis' sexual insecurities, which are suggested in dialogue elsewhere. And of course, the malformed figures of Travis' parents, whose deaths traumatized him as a child, constitute two of the bosses/obstacles on Travis' journey of healing.

End spoilers! It is safe to read below:

You have to admire a game that inspires psychoanalysis on this order. But what tickles my inspiration bone, is the idea of personalized nightmares. What if you - yes, you - were to visit Silent Hill? Is there a monster lurking in your subconscious, waiting to be recognized? What kind of nightmares haunt you, and what form would they take as you cautiously, nervously wander the foggy streets of Silent Hill? I ask this question, and I think the answer would be most intriguing, however it's not only an incredibly personal question (and revealing your fears and insecurities always comes with the risk that others could take advantage of that information - then again, all the better for you to confront them, right?), but it's also asking you to shed light on something that may well be hiding in the darkest corridors of your mind; perhaps a place you'd rather not go. But Silent Hill has a way of calling you, of pulling you into a trap which forces you to do just that, if you would survive.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

10 Iconic Horror Films

Note: This feature was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Now that I've got my mind on Halloween, I simply can't get it off. Not that that's a bad thing - Halloween being my favorite holiday of the year and all. Have I told you yet the story of how I got into being a horror film fan? Well, today's agenda isn't to discuss my favorite horror films, but to discuss 10 (because 10 is a nice round number, and perfect for a list) of the most classic-est most iconic-est horror movies of the past half-century. If you're a horror fan, you've probably seen these movies so many times that you're either absolutely sick of them, or completely fanatic about them. And if you're not a horror fan, this might just be a good place to start...

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock is rightly regarded as a master filmmaker, and Psycho is one of his most popular (and iconic) films. While it may be dated by today's standards, it's one of the classic examples of a suspense thriller, featuring a disturbed psychotic as the antagonist. You don't even have to have seen the film to recognize the gory (for its time) shower scene (and accompanying score) - that's how iconic it is!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Before George Romero, zombism was a voodoo curse that wealthy white imperialists contracted warlocks to cast on deceased (or soon to be) sharecroppers in order to acquire cheap slave labor (and you probably think I'm kidding!). Romero resurrected the "ghouls" as brainless rotting re-animated corpses, slave only to their hunger for living flesh, whose prodding slowness is made up for in sheer numbers. This film is a dark, paranoid, survival horror (and still surprisingly good for its age) that (re)defined the subgenre.

The Exorcist (1973)

An intense, draining experience of a movie about an innocent little girl suffering from demonic possession, The Exorcist is the end-all be-all (the alpha and the omega, if you will) of religious horror. I was first exposed to this film while still in the single digits (presented to me by my mother of all people!), and back then, its effect on me was more of disgust than impression - though you could say it had its effect. Interestingly, I recently re-watched it, and, being disavowed of religious superstition, yet still quite frightened of hospitals, the part of the film that made me most uncomfortable was the extensive medical testing our little possessee has to endure. If I might make a recommendation, don't bother watching this film on cable TV, as it's guaranteed to have its teeth removed - and for a film of this caliber, that's akin to blasphemy!

Alien (1979)

I've said it before, and I will say it again - Ridley Scott's Alien is the epitome of sci-fi/horror. The construction of the film is, in a sense, Poeific, in that all the elements, from setting and filmography, to score, to characters and character relations, to creature design - everything works together to create a truly frightening atmosphere. The horror is genuine: at once terrifyingly familiar (primitive body horror), and mysteriously alien. And speaking of which, H.R. Giger's design for the titular xenomorph has become a true horror icon (its frightfulness only mildly diminished by the recent crop of crappy cross-over cash-ins).

Poltergeist (1982)

Paranormal ("ghost") movies tend to be hit-or-miss. Despite its connection to Steven Spielberg (burn), Poltergeist manages to scare, helped in no small part by a big special fx budget - possibly in contrast to the idea that ghosts, being largely invisible, don't require much in the way of elaborate fx (although that's probably just a cop-out). Poltergeist and its sequels managed to plant quite a few specific scenes of terror into my young head which had a habit of haunting me from time to time. And ever since this movie came out, the world has been awakened to the very real supernatural peril of building on top of ancient Indian burial grounds. Don't believe me? I dare you to try it. Yeah, that's what I thought.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should need no introduction. And I probably say that because despite hearing about it again and again, I'm still not sure I've actually seen the original version (although I do recall watching a modern take on it). But who can forget the stories of how the movie was so scary, people would vomit in disgust and flee the theaters? These days the cannibalistic country folk plot has been beaten to death (and then eaten?), but Leatherface and his chainsaw remains an icon of horror.

Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter accomplished greatness with his take on the holiday of horror - Halloween - inspiring an entire industry of slasher flicks featuring teenagers being picked off one by one at the hands of an unnamed killer. But Halloween remains excitingly fresh, even as the emotionless masked killer repeatedly satisfies his unquenchable bloodlust. In a truly terrifying scene, our heroine runs screaming, from house to house in a calm suburban neighborhood, with the very Bogeyman himself on her heels, and the neighbors ignore her cries, likely thinking it some prank. The filming of the scene is so normal - no ultra-panicky camera chasing after the heroine, or crashing orchestral cues - that it just feels so very real, and thus that much scarier. Ironically, modern horror could learn a few things from one of the most imitated horror movies of all time.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Continuing in the slasher vein, Friday the 13th locates itself in a cozy (but deadly) summer camp, and actually provides some meaning behind the oft-recurring theme of the slutty teenagers being the most in danger of getting slashed. Certain elements which I am hesitant to mention here - despite this being the sort of movie that you know all the secrets from, even if you've never seen it - keep this title relatively fresh and exciting. Interestingly, Jason doesn't don his ultra-iconic hockey mask until the third film in the series! And while we're speaking of icons, trust me, you know the soundtrack to this film. ch-ch-ch, ah-ah-ah

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

What A Nightmare on Elm Street adds to the slasher formula is moving the killing field into the realm of dreams. A scary thought, is it not? Sleep - that period in which you are most defenseless, and when your dreaming mind is most open to suggestion. And noone can go very long without needing to enter that realm, despite the risks. The iconic antagonist, Freddie Krueger, also adds a macabre sense of style to the slasher's wardrobe, with his striped sweater, hat, and fingerknives. Don't miss a very young Johnny Depp finding himself the source of an impressive fountain of gore (you have to see it to believe it) - and speaking of gore, this is another film I'd recommend not watching on cable TV, as the gore fx are quite impressive (oh, don't be one of those people), and thus not to be missed.

Hellraiser (1987)

I feel like Pinhead is infinitely more iconic than Hellraiser itself, but no matter, it's an excellent film. Based on a Clive Barker story which I have yet to read (but I've read others of his penning), the subject matter alone is enough to make you squirm. Picture, if you will, an occult puzzle box which, when properly solved (think of it as the devil's Rubik's Cube), summons the cenobytes - sadomasochistic demons (or angels, depending on your persuasion) intent on giving the puzzle solver the gift of ultimate pleasure (by way of ultimate pain, of course). Pinhead, the unofficial leader of the cenobytes (I'm rather fond of Chatterer, myself) has been known to get fanmail from rabid fangirls who want him to father their children. And you thought I was kidding about the "angels" part.

There's your start, now get to it. There's a whole world of horror out there - with every conceivable flavor of nightmare on offer. Apologies to vampire and werewolf fans. Also to puppet fans - puppets have never been very scary (or very funny either, for that matter) to me. Sorry. And also the oldies monster fans - Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Mummy, Boo Berry, etc. - that era is outside the scope of my primary interest. In spite of these deliberate omissions, keep in mind that this list is about iconic horror films, and not personal favorites. And hey, don't be ~afraid~ to start your Shocktober early this year!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Silent Hill: Origins (PS2)

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

It's a little bit early yet to be celebrating Halloween (Samhain for my Pagan readers :D), but I recently decided to finally pop in Silent Hill: Origins and give it a playthrough (or two or three). It's officially the fifth game in the franchise, following the spin-off-turned-canon SH4: The Room, and acting as a prequel to the original game. As such, the plot ties into the details of the cult's original experiment which resulted in the transformation of Silent Hill into the nightmare town that it is, and offers a little bit more detail about said cult and said experiment which was mercilessly obscure in the exposition of the first game.

The game's plot is split between the primary protagonist's own psychological problems, and his incidental encounter and subsequent meetings with Alessa Gillespie, cultleader Dahlia's daughter - the girl whose sacrifice turns hell loose on the tranquil lake resort town, and whose nightmares form the basis of the town's endless terrors ("when do we get to see into your sick little mind?" - be careful what you ask for...). The protagonist, Travis Grady, is a truck driver who happens to be driving by Silent Hill at entirely the wrong time (although you can be sure it's no coincidence). Travis has blocked out a particularly gruesome event in his childhood, involving his parents, which unsurprisingly, the haunted town is insistent upon dredging up for him.

Gameplay-wise, Origins plays much like a traditional Silent Hill game. The part of the town you get to explore is a little section just barely overlapping with that of the first game - with the familiar Alchemilla Hospital making another appearance (along with fan-favorite character Lisa the nurse). Other locations include a suitably creepy sanitarium, a cozy theatre (like for plays, not movies), and a motel.

Two aspects of the game that stand out are the mirrors and the melee weapons. Mirrors serve as the primary transportation module between Silent Hill and the "Otherworld", allowing you to choose when to move between the realms (although it's a pseudo-choice, since you have to go where the game leads you - but at least it gives you the feeling of controlling your passage; although not being in control is scary, knowing that you have to enter the Otherworld and that you have to be the one to take that step - willfully - is scary, too). The infamous siren that I so miss from the first game does return, but only to signal the end of each nightmare portion (after the boss battles, that is), and seems to correspond with Alessa waking up (hence the recession of nightmares); at least I think that's what's going on.

On to the melee weapons. As a truck driver, Travis (apparently) has the strength to grapple with his demons in generally closer quarters than protagonists of the past. Although there are a variety of firearms available for the claustrophobic, the game is littered with all sorts of handheld items that can be used as weapons - from knives, scalpels, and hammers, to wooden planks, typewriters, and even drip stands (those things you find beside hospital beds)! All of these weapons are breakable after a certain amount of use (which usually isn't a whole lot), although the sheer number of them available pretty much ensures you'll never run out. Actually working up the courage to get up close to the demons, to conserve your all-important firearm ammo, is your problem, though :p. Although, some of those items (like the typewriters and portable TVs) can be tossed at the enemy, and actually pack a decent punch. And speaking of punches, you can actually fight the demons barehanded if you've got the guts!

Well, for my first run-through of the game, I did fine. Took me some time to adapt to the fighting, learning the demons' maneuvers, what type of weapons to use against which species of nightmare, and whatnot. I ended up losing a lot of health throughout the game, prompting me to actually get a bit worried in a couple of places. What trouble I had with the regular demons was made up for, I guess, in the boss battles, which turned out to be relatively easy for me. To my surprise, the game apparently doesn't have difficulty levels, so it won't be getting any harder on subsequent run-throughs, as I had initially assumed, though. To my horror, two of the bosses returned later as regular run-of-the-mill demons! (Although, to be fair, the first "boss" was just a regular demon to begin with, if possibly a little stronger than average). The other bosses were pretty creepy, that's for sure. Especially "Daddy"...

Here are my summary stats for my first run-through:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 40
Total enemies killed using firearms: 56
Total enemies killed using fists: 83
Total items collected: 353
Number of map views: 486
Number of times saved: 37
Distance walked: 25.34
Total game time: 8:26:25
Total flashlight use time: 4:24:54
Number of game completions: 1

Eight and a half hours to beat it the first time. The "total enemies killed using fists" isn't as impressive as it sounds, when you take into account that only the final blow matters. When you hit a demon a few times, it falls to the ground. You can then "stomp" it to finish it off in a single hit, whether with a bullet, a melee weapon, or your boot (counts as "fists"). If you're too slow, it'll get back up and you'll have to hit it some more to knock it down again. So generally, I like to save ammo by shooting a demon down and then switching to fists to stomp on it.

Total items collected netted me a "Collector's Accolade" - I'm planning on earning some more accolades, then I'll probably come back and post an addendum discussing the "extras". 37 saves - as you can see, particularly the first time through a game, I'm a very cautious player. I'm also a very thorough player, which contributes to the number of items collected. I have to laugh that my highest rating is "number of map views". I'm surprised they even count that (there's an accolade related to it - so that's why). But yes, I check my map obsessive-compulsively. Practically every time I change rooms. And in the brief parts where I don't have a map (or when I enter a new area and before I pick up the map), I get stressed out because I can't visualize the overall architecture of the area I'm exploring. I actually said to myself at one point, "I feel nervous without a map". XD

I'm gonna end this on an interesting note. Origins has it's own Pyramid Head of sorts, in the form of The Butcher. He's basically a less distinctive Pyramid Head (i.e., without the signature pyramid head), who carries a huge butcher knife (though still considerably smaller than PH's Great Knife (though just as deadly)), and is rather more preoccupied with sadistically slicing through the flesh and bone of his victims than raping them (as PH is wont to do). So maybe not quite as distinctive a character as good ol' Pyramid Head, but still pretty intimidating. Although his presence in the game seems more secondary than primary, I understand he has some significance with regard to our protagonist's psychosis, but that's to be explored in the "bad" ending to the game, which I am currently pursuing. Ah, you gotta love Silent Hill, where the "bad" endings are often better than the "good" ones!

Hm, there was another issue I was going to address, but I guess I'll leave you hanging (on the meat hook?) until my followup. :p