Review: Escaping the Nightmares in Silent Hill – The Short Message

Silent Hill’s return to consoles after 12 years away falls flat thanks to a script lacking even an ounce of subtlety.

By Mark Delaney on February 1, 2024 at 3:07PM PST

Content warning: This review discusses Silent Hill: The Short Message’s story, which includes references to self-harm.

As a lifelong horror fan and longtime horror critic, I didn’t expect to review a free Silent Hill game that launched, PT-style, just a few minutes after it was revealed. And I certainly didn’t expect it to be as forgettable as it is. After more than a decade away from consoles, Silent Hill: The Short Message revives the series as the first of several games over the next few years. I sincerely hope future installments in the franchise can rekindle the long-absent magic because The Short Message doesn’t do that. In more ways than one, it’s not the playable teaser Silent Hill fans hoped for.

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Now Playing: Silent Hill: The Short Message Full Playthrough Gameplay

Silent Hill: The Short Message is a first-person horror game built on the idea of a time loop in which its tormented main character is trapped. If that sounds familiar, wait until you play it. The game is blatantly inspired by PT (or “Playable Teaser”), Hideo Kojima’s guerrilla demo for the never-released Silent Hill title he was once working on. The Short Message is not Konami running back PT’s story without its director. It’s a brand-new entry into the series meant to be something of a jumping-on point for players uninitiated with the previously hibernating horror series. It’s neither tied to any past entry, nor a teaser for a future installment.

Clocking in at about 90 minutes, its time commitment is brief, its financial commitment is non-existent, and yet I still can’t recommend it because it winds up feeling like a caricature of itself and may only sour–or sour further–one’s memories of what was, for a time, the genre’s best series.

The Short Message, while not situated in Silent Hill, offers an explanation. It attempts to weave a narrative satisfying standard expectations of any Silent Hill game. The plot has an unpredictable protagonist, an intensification of horror that escalates with the protagonist’s engagement with the supernatural Otherworld and an unexpected twist that adds a new dimension to all preceding events. These elements were unique and fresh in Silent Hill 2, enjoyable in Silent Hill Homecoming and evident yet not detrimental in Silent Hill Downpour. However, in The Short Message, these aspects seem to be overdone, as if trying to retell the Silent Hill story in a hurried, stripped down way.

In a rather awkward addition to the game lore, the game describes a global event titled “The Silent Hill Phenomenon” which encapsulates areas of despair in fog before things fall apart further. The game hints at the possibility of a Silent Hill existing anywhere, even in an obscure German town full of Japanese teenagers, where most of the game unfolds. This new addition feels blatantly incongruous, given that in the past, Silent Hill was less about location and more of an atmosphere. The Short Message adds an unnecessary layer to this, or perhaps takes a deliberate attempt to worsen it.

The narrative is further undermined by a lack of intuitiveness and delicacy in the script. Characters are strikingly forthcoming, leaving no room for speculation. They express their thoughts with such clarity that there is no space for player interpretation or analysis of character motivations. The game’s attempt at misdirection is unconvincing, making the outcome obvious within a few minutes of gameplay.

Though, The Short Message does strive to add depth to its story. It narrates a grim tale about self-harm, bullying, and repeated episodes of young girls committing suicide in a dilapidated building. There is potential for an impactful narration here, but it requires careful execution. But instead of carefully painting a powerful picture to simultaneously scare the audience and successfully convey its message, the game seems to oscillate between cliches and gibberish.

With frequent frame-rate drops that see the game endlessly floating between 40 and 60 frames per second, the game also feels suboptimal on a technical level. Given the strictly linear approach and the limited environments or effects, it strikes me as odd that the game can’t maintain consistent performance.

But playing it isn’t just a technical eyesore. It’s an all-too-familiar haunted house story that takes the seeds of PT but bears only rotten fruit. In fact, The Short Message is indistinguishable from the decade of PT-likes that have crowded Steam and other platforms since Kojima’s top-secret demo hit PS4. It’s actually worse than some of the many others I’ve played given how it retreads so much familiar territory but to a less impressive degree.

For example, environments can morph in the instant you turn away from them, meant to provide the game with a sense of disorientation a la Layers of Fear. But whereas that game enhanced this feature with phantasmagoric Dorian Gray-inspired displays, where up was down and its setting virtually came to life around the player, The Short Message tends to merely swap one hallway for another. Virtually the entire portion of the game that takes place outside of the Otherworld exists in decrepit hallways full of graffiti where every corridor looks the same. Occasional live-action scenes only re-color the monotony due to how every scene staged with real people unfolds in the same featureless white space.

The Short Message also uses disembodied voices to recall memories you’ll unlock by picking up notes and other clues during the story. Though this is pretty standard video game fare, I still think it can be done well, such as with the Amnesia series. But the quality of both the writing and acting can sometimes make these moments in The Short Message inadvertently comical, such as when I interacted with a pizza and was scolded by the memory of a frustrated mother.

PT-inspired games often prefer to embrace their roots rather than hide them, attempting to harness the same spark that PT ignited. However, in the instance of The Short Message, the narrative and gameplay places it a few steps back compared to other PT appropriations. While it attempts to adopt the core elements of PT – an infinite time loop, a terrifying foresight, claustrophobic corridors, and the impending doom of an infant — it fails to deliver the spine-chilling fear PT is famed for.

Similar to misconstruing the unique magic of PT, and what makes many games attempting to replace PT unremarkable, The Short Message seemingly overlooks the celebrated accomplishments of Silent Hill. In the once emblematic Otherworld, the player is tasked with escaping an immortal beast, with their only defense being their sprinting ability. This modern horror game cliché is ineffectively applied to a series that used to take pride in inventing the groundwork for numerous games to follow. Consequently, it expediently rushes players through what is typically regarded as the series’ finest feature. The opportunity to explore the Otherworld is extremely limited, which has traditionally been instrumental in setting an appropriate ominous atmosphere. The ceaseless pursuit of the monster is relentless, only halting once an unseen boundary has been crossed, triggering the subsequent cutscene.

Despite this, I am not yet weary of the horror genre’s monster chases, provided they are well-executed. However, The Short Message fails in this aspect. These chase scenes, which occur frequently within the game, quickly become tedious due to the repetitive pattern of one correct pathway, and several misleading ones. This often results in unsuccessful trial-and-error attempts accompanied by checkpoints that return players to the beginning.

Initially, these elements did induce a certain level of anxiety in me, a trait of a well-executed horror game, but it wasn’t long before these incidences began to irritate me. The moment the corridors transformed into the charred-orange Otherworld, I would anticipate the upcoming guessing game and harsh consequences. The only saving grace during these otherwise exasperating segments is the harsh industrial soundtrack by series’ stalwart Akira Yamaoka and the eerie cherry blossom decorated monster created by the equally respected Masahiro Ito. They provide the only memorable moments in the game.

Still, a new Silent Hill needs to be more than a soundtrack and a cool monster. The series’ best efforts come with unforgettable stories that feel as though they operate on mystifying dream logic that lead players to question what they’re seeing at every turn. The Short Message is desperate to be understood and devoid of novelty, leaving no room for interpretation, no sense of lingering mystery, and no strong impression for anyone who may be playing a Silent Hill game for the first time. Its unintended short message ends up feeling unfortunately obvious: Do not download.

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