Review: Silent Hill – Homecoming
The worst thing to happen to Silent Hill since Sean Bean’s American accent.
Once again it’s time to grab your flashlight and radio and head into the realm of psychological horror (six months later than Japan and the US, natch) with another entry in Konami’s Silent Hill series famed for it’s creepy atmosphere, deep storylines and Freudian protagonists. Unlike the first four games in the Silent Hill series this new entry (like the 2007 PSP game Silent Hill: Origins) was developed outside Japan by a western developer; Double Helix Games. So can Double Helix reenergize a franchise that’s been on a downwards spiral ever since the series’ high point of Silent Hill 2 and bring the franchise back to its unsettling and disturbing roots or further dilute the already weak formula?
The game begins In Medias Res with your character being trapped in a nightmarish hospital that will quickly have you covering old ground with you using the ever present flashlight for illumination and hand held radio that’ll crackle with static whenever monsters are near by which can be handy as the camera controls are pure torture, but more on that laterâ€¦ Sure enough just as things start to get really interesting you wake up and the game begins anew, well that is after a gratuitous cameo from Travis Grady the lead character from Silent Hill: Origins.
This time you take the roll of Alex Shepard a military veteran returning his hometown of Shepard’s Glen after recently being discharged from hospital when he was wounded. Alex quickly finds that Shepard’s Glen has changed a lot since his last visit. Most of the buildings are boarded up and abandoned, the town’s streets are filled with cracks and ravines, everything is shrouded in a thick caustic fog and what few people remain seem withdrawn and distant, or in the case of Alex’s mother outright catatonic.
Finding his home in a similar dilapidated state Alex beings to search for his little brother Joshua who he glimpses through the fog around the town but he quickly becomes trapped within a hellish alternate version of Shepard’s Glen. Here the foggy exteriors and grey interiors are replaced with a rusted; blood caked metal girders swathed in darkness only illuminated by flickering firelight or the crimson glow of bubbling magma underfoot. Here a perfectly normal residential setting like a bedroom or basement is transformed into a literal hell of both mind and body as it manifests the inner torment of its inhabitants.
The transformation between the two versions of Shepard’s Glen is handled just like in the Silent Hill motion picture with the current reality you’re in pealing away from the walls and floors to expose the new one which looks very nice but fells a bit too showy for a game that tries so hard to create a tense atmosphere. As graphical effects go it is impressive the first time you see it but it will quickly wear thin like many features in the game. Overall the visuals of the game are well above average standards for this generation of hardware with the various filer effects used being particularly effective with the ‘scratched celluloid’ effect of the hell sections evoking a truly nightmarish quality when employed.
The audio fares less well than the graphics despite Akira Yamaoka returning once again to handle music duties. The various music queues and themes are all perfectly good, but just like pretty much everything in this game pales in comparison to previous Silent Hill games and what there is won’t linger in your memory unlike say the Theme of Laura or the various ambient tracks like Silent Heaven. The various sounds effects are also aural wallpaper and the voice work is uninspired and unmotivated making it even harder to care about Alex, his friends or his tormented family. Right that’s enough dancing around and trying to find positive or at least neutral comments I can make about Homecoming it’s time to say why this game is not only flawed but possibly broken depending on how much love you have of the Silent Hill series.
As mentioned before the game’s camera controls are hellishly bad, why? Well you have the standard left stick for movement and right stick for camera control but you can’t alter the configuration of the Y-axis (up and down) so if like me you’ve spent the last decade pushing down to pan the camera up you’ll quickly become frustrated as you find yourself looking where you don’t want to. There’s no option to change this anywhere in the game yet you can invert the Y-axis in the options for aiming any firearms you use. What in the name of Chtulhu where Double Helix thinking? Is it meant to deliberately annoy, tease or is it just sheer incompetence that they ONLY let you change it for aiming? Sure a super simple patch could fix this but why was it done in the first place? Next there are the quick time events.
When was the last time you had a QTE in a game that actually increased your tension levels? I’d wager it was Resident Evil 4 and that was four years ago, ever since then every half arsed developer who’s needed an extra page on their design document or bullet point for the press release has crammed them into their game’s and this time it’s just too much for me to stomach. Why spend all this time and effort trying to make your (adamantly piss poor) boss fights so atmospheric and creepy if you go and deflate it in a second flat by forcing the player to mash a button to administer the coup de grace? Even simple actions like entering a room or smashing a barrier requires you to hammer a button like Daley Thompson (ask your parents) once again ruining what little tension was left. What few bits of tension remain are then ground into a fine powder and blown into the winds by the most heinous part of Silent Hill: Homecoming – the combat.
Although this game fits well within what you expect of Silent Hill there are some small changes which alter the experience quite noticeably. The biggest change here is the more prominent combat and the fact that you now feel stronger and less vulnerable, playing an ex-soldier as opposed to a normal family man or teenage girl. Also the way in which all of the enemies are introduced has generally forgone the more measured and unsettling psychological horror which is so effective and instead gone for the shlock horror of your Resi Evils and subsequently feels lessened by it.
As in the other Silent Hill games the audio is still fantastic. Play this game in a darkened room with a surround sound set up and it becomes tremendously frightening with bumps and groans coming from the least expected direction. This intense soundscape is complemented by fantastic lighting and use of shadow and when it all gets added together the game is horrifically beautiful. It’s not all good news though, as the game suffers from occasional slowdown and also seems to rely too much on the new combat side of things at the expense of building up the tension. But as a way of frightening yourself witless this game excels and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Secondary Score: 7/10
The firearms are perfectly serviceable despite the whole Y-axis debacle I’ve already mentioned but Silent Hill has always had its focus on melee combat and this time out it’s been totally ruined. In previous games timing your blows and moving at the right time would have been the key but all that is gone now and replaced with a ‘dodge’ button that effectively fractures the whole game. What would have been anxious, adrenaline fuelled combat before has been replaced with a tedious grind of attack-dodge-wait-dodge-counterattack-dodge-attack-repeat with every creature and boss telegraphing their attacks so much you could win most of the fights blindfolded assuming you didn’t run out of patience and just blaze away with the guns.
This along with all the other changes to what was (once) a deep and rewarding series to play has not only weakened it but brought it to its knees. It’s funny but all the while I was playing Homecoming I wasn’t thinking much of previous Silent Hill games despite cameos from the nurses and everyone’s favourite Pyramid Head I was constantly reminded of Alone In The Dark, another great franchise that like Silent Hill was ruined just so the developers could chase a demographic that never even cared about the game to start with.
Sure the combat is terrible, as are the QTEs and counter productive camera controls, but if you’ve never played a Silent Hill game before and fancy playing one of the more accessible entries in the series give it a try as what’s on offer here is best described as Silent Hill lite. While lacking the depth of previous entries the attractive visuals and easy to follow storyline will help first time visitors to Silent Hill find their way around but long time residents used to the fog and mind games will find it a shallow and repetitive mess of clichÃ©s from previous games.