The franchise of Silent Hill has generally fallen under the responsibility of Konami's Japanese development team, Team Silent. This team was actually split up between Silent Hills 1 and 3, and Silent Hills 2 and 4. If you're knowledgeable about the SH universe, the first and third titles tell an ongoing story about the town, Alessa, and the lineage of Harry Mason. The second and fourth were more abstract concepts, the second game exploring what exactly the town of Silent Hill is and the fourth was just a bit more wild in ideas, loosely connected to Silent Hill by the villain: Walter Sullivan. The fourth title wasn't originally a Silent Hill game, but that's moot. Now the US team Climax has taken the effort to bring the Silent Hill universe to the PSP with Origins, a tale preceding Harry's quest in the first game and meant to tie together the stories of the games and the story of the movie -- that is, focusing on Alessa once more.
With that giant narrative introducing you into the land of Silent Hill, how does Origins stack up in the franchise? It's regrettable, but it finds its way near the bottom of the pile. However, don't dismiss the game -- it's a really good Silent Hill game, but Climax approached it the way American film generally approaches sequels (Saw): more of the same, with little innovation or thought outside of the box. If you're a fan of SH, you'll enjoy the game for its familiarity but will sigh at the lack of much new. If you're new to the series, you'll probably really dig the game. Let's go a little further into this and help you decide.
As I previously mentioned, SHO strings together the story and characters introduced in the first and third games in the series. You play Travis Grady, a trucker who is driving by the town of Silent Hill, almost hits a mysterious girl (a trick used at least three times by the franchise), then decides to saunter into town after said girl. That's the first issue -- unlike Henry Townshend from SH4: The Room, Travis entered Silent Hill on his own. He wasn't drawn like the characters in the first, second, and third games and he wasn't forced into town by an inhabitant (Henry was forced in due to Walter Sullivan). He has no real reason for going there except to confront his past through Alessa.
Even without a reason for initially entering the town, Travis does rediscover bits of his past in Silent Hill -- culminating in ... well, I'd rather not spoil it for you. The story doesn't deliver any dramatic twists or thrills aside from an occasional nod in bemused surprise, but it does successfully tie together four games that were otherwise connected loosely through a common theme and similar character names. So kudos for doing that.
Speaking of common themes, Climax nailed the atmosphere pretty well. A fog-riddled town and a rusted chain-link hell are both faithfully replicated to mimic the other titles in the series. The lighting effects in the game are spectacularly rendered on the PSP and bring a great sense of suspense to the game along with fairly detailed environments and character designs. Even when you start the game up, you're told that in order to fully enjoy the game, to turn your lights off and stick some headphones on. I fully recommend doing that, as I tried to play it on the bus one day and it was ... well ... it sucked. Help the game scare you, guys!
Two more notes about the atmosphere. First, when walking around the town, sometimes sound effects would just cut out on me. It sort of took me out of the moment. Second, and this is just a nitpicky personal detail, but I'm not sure how well games like this can travel from a console to a portable. Portable gaming is meant to be pick-up-and-go, but Silent Hill Origins demands you to get sucked into the game. This is tough to do outside of laying in bed at night. As I said, it's just a nitpicky thing, but if you try to get the most out of your games, you do need to set aside chunks of time instead of a quick five or ten minute progression. It's your call.
Silent Hill has never been a strong contender for excellent gameplay. Climax continued to mimic the previous entries by keeping the battle mechanics simple and blah. Mostly taken from the fourth title, your melee weapons eventually break, you can charge up for a powerful attack, and that's really it. It's nothing special, but in all honesty, you aren't really supposed to fight in these games much aside from boss battles. It is neat that you can pick up a ton of random things for weapons -- bits of wood, hospital drip stands, screwdrivers, portable TVs, etc. However, it would've been nice to have a limited inventory. I finished up the game with over twenty melee weapons in my inventory. Wouldn't it have made the game more challenging and more frightening if you could only hold one melee weapon at a time, since they eventually break? I guess eight would've been a nice number, but still.
Battle does take a more active role in this game than before. Enemies respawn practically every time you leave and re-enter a room, forcing you to use a lot of those items you pick up. An interesting note about the enemy design: each enemy type does have an attack strategy attached to it. That is, sometimes you need to toss a portable TV at an enemy (or use a firearm, which you ought to save for the well-designed and executed boss battles), or sometimes rushing them with a shovel is the smartest method. The sooner you catch on to these strategies, the better.
Aside from battle, the other half of gameplay in Silent Hill games are the puzzles. They return in SHO and until the last two areas of the game, they are very, very simple. If you played Silent Hill 3 on the PS2 with "hard" puzzle mode activated, you'll know that puzzles can be confusing and vague. These ones aren't, though the later puzzles do require some thought. With an excellent atmosphere, mediocre battles and puzzles, you've basically got a hybrid Silent Hill game that draws on the strengths of each previous title, but by mixing them together, end up somewhere in the middle on all aspects. What was sorely missed was the camera system from the first and second games (I can't remember if it was in the third) where the camera would swivel when the shoulder button to reset it was pressed. In this game and the fourth game, the camera suddenly shifts to behind you. It's a small detail, but it can be disorienting.
Ever hear of "fanfiction"? It's where fans of a movie, book, or game write up scenarios with their favorite characters and stick 'em on the web (there are a surprising amount of Sora/Riku fanfictions floating around from Kingdom Hearts ... sort of weird). If you gave a group of programmers (Climax) who were huge fans of the Silent Hill franchise permission to make a game, they'd probably make this one. It draws on everything introduced from the previous games without delivering anything new. This doesn't make it a bad game, it just makes it sort of formulaic, which we really didn't want. Hopefully The Collective will do something a little more fresh with the PS3 and 360 Silent Hill 5, but if you've just wanted to dive back into the town of Silent Hill with a new face and different story, Origins will give you a pretty good ride for about five hours. It's your choice -- the game's all right, but not a high point in the series.
PSP Fanboy score: 7.5