One of the most disquieting things about the Silent Hill series at the moment is that they aren't being made in-house anymore. Silent Hill 5 is in the questionably capable hands of the Collective, and Silent Hill Origins was produced by Climax, the studio that gave the world many licensed titles and Sudeki. I have no idea what in either developer's resume convinced Konami to hand over the reins, or why "Team Silent" has apparently broken up.
Last year, in San Francisco, I saw a version of Origins that looked like an unenthusiastic total conversion mod for Resident Evil 4, which was said to help tie together the universes of the first game and the Silent Hill movie. After the Konami press event where it was shown, that rev was never seen again, and Origins itself wasn't so much as mentioned for the next eight months.
In that time, Climax fired its US-based development team, moved Origins to the UK, and completely overhauled it in time for this year's revamped E3. Origins went from being nothing like the original games to being exactly like the original games, from an uninspired rip-off of a completely different series to a faithful reproduction of much of what was done right in the original Silent Hill. Fortunately, this also includes a full soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka, whose music has always been one of the series's greatest strengths.
Set about six years before Silent Hill, Origins begins just outside Silent Hill, when Travis Grady nearly runs a girl over with his truck. He goes looking for her to make sure she's all right, only to find a house on fire. Travis enters the house and walks out with a badly burned girl who's nonetheless somehow still alive, then passes out on the doorstep.
When he wakes up, he's in the infamously deserted and foggy streets of Silent Hill. Originally, he just wants to find the girl, but eventually this turns into a quest to figure out who the girl was, what happened the night of the fire, and what Travis's own history is with Silent Hill. The girl, as Silent Hill fans already know, is Alessa Gillespie, and Travis saving her has put him in direct conflict with the members of Silent Hill's homegrown cult. Hilarity ensues.
The problem with Origins's plot, inasmuch as it is a problem, is that Origins is mired in continuity. It's a game for fans of the series, and doesn't represent an amazing jumping-on point; it's difficult to imagine anyone starting the series with Origins, particularly when it leads directly into Silent Hill, which has aged badly and has become hard to find. It's a good prequel, though, and actually manages to clear up a couple of plot points from the original game without further confusing the issue.
(Origins also neatly sidesteps one of the biggest fears fans had about the game, and doesn't deal at all with any of the unique characters or themes that Christophe Gans's film introduced. While a couple of characters look a bit more like they did in the movie, particularly Dahlia, that's the extent of the game's involvement with the film. If you hated the Silent Hill movie as much as I did, and all right-thinking people do, this is probably the cleverest thing Climax did.)
If you're already a fan of the series, there's a lot to like and respect about Origins. From the moment you take control of Travis, you'll be on comfortable and familiar ground. Like the characters in the first three games, Travis will journey back and forth from the foggy "normal" Silent Hill to the considerably more dangerous Otherworld; unlike them, though, Travis can make the trip voluntarily any time he finds an intact mirror. This forms the basis of Origins's puzzle system; you can often reach areas or items on one side of the mirror that are inaccessible on the other.
Climax has taken the updated melee combat system from Silent Hill 4 and added it to the original games' formula; Travis isn't a supersoldier, but he can break a two-by-four over a zombie nurse's head with the best of them, and can charge up his swing to do extra damage.
Your melee weapons can and will break if used too much, and many will only last you through one or two fights. Other improvised weaponry, such as toasters, crates, or portable televisions, will break after one hit, but inflict heavy damage on the target. You can find many, many more weapons than you'll ever actually need, especially if you turn your flashlight off and sneak by enemies in the dark.
On the one hand, that means you're never unarmed (and even if you were, Travis can punch enemies), but on the other, it means your inventory screen often looks like the back shelf at a pawn shop. At one point, I was carrying three katanas, five wrenches, four pool cues, three kitchen knives, five televisions, three toolboxes, and a couple of scalpels, as well as a bunch of guns, health drinks, first aid kits, and plot items. I can only assume Travis has a weapon caddy standing just offscreen.
That's a nitpick, though, and shouldn't be taken as an actual criticism. Origins, in general, is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the formula adopted by the first three Silent Hill games, and manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of PSP development. The camera's more or less top-notch, the difficulty level is fairly solid as long as you remember to explore everywhere (the game often hides powerful ammo in out-of-the-way areas, particularly out on the city streets), the voice acting is decent, the graphics are good, and the writing is surprisingly adept. It's particularly noteworthy that Travis strikes an odd balance between the heavily sedated non-reactions of Harry Mason and Henry Townshend and how you'd actually expect someone to react in his situation; just when I was getting irritated at Travis's mute and unblinking acceptance of everything around him, he'd get visibly annoyed or despairing or frightened.
As a fan of the Silent Hill series, though, my biggest complaint about Origins is that it feels like a particularly thorough fan production, more than a genuine entry into the series. It hits all the points you'd expect a Silent Hill game to hit--journeying into the Otherworld, beating monsters to death with whatever improvised weapons you can find, hoarding ammunition, exploring as much as possible, cursing the developers and all their families every time they make you go into basements or sewers--but it does so in an oddly perfunctory fashion, like they're self-consciously aware that this is a Silent Hill game and thus this is what you do.
While Yamaoka's soundtrack is as good as you'd expect it to be, if not better, the overall sound design is generally under par for the series. One of the Silent Hill games' biggest strengths is its sound, and how it uses that and random moments of surreality to keep you on edge at all times. Silent Hill, in fact, pioneered one of the greatest mind tricks in horror gaming; it handed you all the weapons and ammo you'd need to overcome almost any challenge you'd face, and then worked overtime to convince you that you were actually doomed. Yes, you had enough shotgun shells to invade Guam, but the game did a good job of convincing you otherwise. Individual victories meant nothing against the kind of thing you were fighting.
Origins doesn't do much in the way of those random scares, of those bumps in the night that characterized all the other Silent Hill games, and it's a poorer game for it. It lacks that and a host of other small touches that Team Silent would've been sure to add. It's not as scary as those past games, and too often forgets the cardinal rule of horror: what you don't see is what's scary. A giant monster the size of a Buick is, once you get an eyeful of it, just a giant monster; it's initially frightening but eventually just that thing you fill with bullets or avoid. Silent Hill as a series is successful because it uses darkness and sound to remove the player's ability to take a monster for granted, and Origins doesn't use that as well as the other games do.
It's also very short, but it's a portable game, so that's not a deal-breaker. Origins is better than it has any right to be, considering the PSP's history, its troubled development, and its new team. It's not perfect, but it does make me want to see what Climax would do with another game in the series, which is far, far more than I ever expected.