Review: Silent Hill: Homecoming (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Silent Hill: Homecoming
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Double Helix Games
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 09/30/08


I used to be a big fan of Silent Hill. I mean, the games play like crap across the board, let’s not kid ourselves, but they’ve often been absolutely fantastic at basically giving players the ability to play through an exceptionally horrific and surreal story and world, almost as if someone jumped into my head and found out that what I REALLY wanted was to spend my time playing a game based off of Jacob’s Ladder (memo to any game developers out there looking for the next big horror property: PLEASE DON’T MAKE THIS, IT WOULD BE BAD). So, we get games that generally play badly, but are often so easy to make it through that it doesn’t matter, because often, all we REALLY want is to pick our way through the storyline, and the gameplay is secondary to that desire.

And then, somewhere in there, we got Silent Hill Origins, a game that didn’t particularly play well, wasn’t a lot of fun, and generally didn’t do a lot of the things the prior games had done. Now, players can point at the third game and note that it wasn’t as impressive as the second, or they can point at the fourth game and note that for a game called Silent Hill, it really didn’t have as much to do with the titular town as one might expect, but make no mistake: Silent Hill Origins was basically the point where the franchise basically put off a lot of players. Whether or not the story was good wasn’t the issue; rather, the issue was that many gamers who had no difficulty progressing in the prior four games simply COULD NOT fight their way through the game, which was somehow worse than the four preceding it on a gameplay front. But, hey, fine, it’s only one game, right? Konami just made a mistake handing off the game to Climax, right? Well, by all indications, Konami simply has no interest in developing the franchise anymore (which, in the case of Konami, wouldn’t be the first time; see also the PS1 Contra games for another big example of this practice at work), as they handed off the newest game, originally titled Silent Hill 5, to what was formerly known as The Collective but has since become Double Helix Games, so said because the company is a merger of The Collective (who are best known for the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mark Ecko’s Getting Up) and Shiny (who is best known for Earthworm Jim and a bunch of games that either nobody played or nobody liked). Surprisingly, it’s a better game than Silent Hill Origins. Unsurprisingly, it’s still not what Silent Hill fans were really expecting.

The story of Silent Hill: Homecoming follows one Alex Shepherd, a young man who has just returned home from the Army to the sleepy little town of Shepherd’s Glen. It seems that his hometown has been having significant problems in his absence, and that he’s apparently been having some terrible nightmares on top of it. Upon returning home, Alex finds out that his brother, Josh, has gone missing, and since Alex’s bad dreams concern his brother, he sets out to look for Josh, both to save his brother and to hopefully understand what’s going on with his town, which just happens to border Toluca Lake, which Silent Hill fans will realize pretty fast is the same lake that borders the town of Silent Hill. So, as you might expect, it’s not long before Alex ends up poking around in both his own town and the town of Silent Hill, looking for answers that won’t come easy to questions he probably shouldn’t be asking. In general, the story comes off okay, and a lot of the plot developments and concepts presented in the story work well enough that the player can understand them and fit them into the mythology of the series easily enough. I mean, hey, it makes sense that an evil town wouldn’t be content to just remain evil to its own townspeople, so why wouldn’t it expand its influence to other towns in the surrounding area, right?

That said, there are two significant plot hiccups, and both of them can be attributed to adaptation decay. The first significant problem is that the town of Silent Hill, being a malicious entity as it is, was never a RANDOM malicious entity, and the fact that it seems to be acting as such in this game is bizarre. In the first and third games, and in Origins, the town largely restricted its activities to terrorizing those who had some sort of influence on the birth of Samael, while the second game focused on the town tormenting people who seemed to deserve it and the fourth game was based around the town empowering a malicious entity to do bad things. Again, all of these specific acts had some sort of purpose to them, a method to their madness if you will, but this is the first game where the town simply seemed to want to torment EVERYONE, and the fact that something like half of the town has gone missing indicates that Silent Hill has apparently decided to say “The hell with it” and menace anyone it can get around to menacing. Now, the game DOES try to make sense of it to a point, what with making sacrifices to demons and whatnot, and that’s… fine, but it isn’t really Silent Hill as players know it, and while the franchise certainly has a malleable plot, there’s a difference between shaping a concept and completely re-writing it to suit your needs, and the latter is on display here. The other problem is with Alex himself, in that the writer was trying really hard to basically model Alex after James Sunderland (which is arguably an accusation one can lay at the feet of Travis Grady as well). Now, again, many people consider Silent Hill 2 to be the best game in the series, so it makes sense that if one were given the reigns to the franchise, one would want to make a tortured protagonist like Sunderland, since that’s part of the appeal of the game in the first place, but Alex Shepherd fails in one basic respect: much like Travis Grady, and completely unlike James Sunderland, Alex’s plot twist in the game revolves around what is wrong with him, not what he has done wrong. James’ plot revelation made him a complex character, and was (at the time) shocking, because it was something we could empathize with because he tortured himself over it (hence finding his way to Silent Hill in the first place); Alex’s plot revelation simply makes him look like a sad, pathetic man, and doesn’t make us empathize with him so much as pity him, which isn’t even remotely close to the same thing. It isn’t so much that Alex is even a bad character as it is that he’s not a terribly compelling one, and in a franchise that lives and dies, in large part, by its writing, this is not a good start.

Visually, Homecoming looks quite good; the character models are generally interesting, both for humans and monsters, and are well animated across the board. The monsters are appropriately disgusting and horrific, as we’ve come to expect from the franchise, though the human characters, while nice looking, don’t look entirely right (partly because they don’t look as, well, sickly as characters in past games, and partly because their faces look odd at certain times). The towns of Shepherds Glen and Silent Hill both look appropriately disheveled and hard luck, and the mirror versions look as rotted and bleak as ever, though the game has an odd tendency to repeat random decorative items for no apparent reason (why is there laundry in the hidden room in Alex’s house, for instance). Aurally, the game is spot-on: the voice acting is pretty much strong across the board and the various sound effects and environmental audio snippets are as good as one could possibly imagine them to be, which once again brings the experience to life. Best of all, however, is that Akira Yamaoka has once again contributed the score for Homecoming, as he has for the prior franchise titles, and once again, it is EASILY the very best thing about the entire game.

The Silent Hill franchise has certainly never been known for its gameplay, so it might be a little astonishing to know that the gameplay in Homecoming is surprisingly good. Movement and looking around are assigned to the left and right sticks, respectively, and Alex can search his environment, look through his weapon and item inventories and check his map at the press of a button. Holding the left trigger enters into combat mode, and its here that the game goes into completely new territory. For one thing, Alex has two melee attacks, one light and one heavy, which you can use in succession to create combos. You can also hold the heavy attack down to charge up an attack, which will deal significant damage to an enemy if it lands. For another thing, Alex can now dodge, dive, and weave into and out of battles at the press of a button, meaning he can dodge and counter enemy attacks, dive out of the way or assaults, and dip into and out of an enemy’s attack range, making combat more involved and more controllable than in prior games. For a third, while gun combat is still set up as normal control-wise, you can now aim at the enemies, which allows you to target specific parts of their anatomy, giving you further control over your ranged battles than ever before in the Silent Hill franchise. In short: combat is no longer a sloppy mess, and fighting monsters is now a streamlined, easy-to-control affair. This is good, because monsters are now more resilient to damage and are more complex to fight than ever before. Even early in the game, some monsters can take several hits to kill, making combat a fairly more involved part of your experience that can also involve the expected Active Time Events we’ve come to expect from games today. Boss monsters are also significantly more involved than they were in prior games; in earlier titles most bosses could simply be killed by hitting them a lot, but in Homecoming you’ll see more than a few situations where pattern recognition and careful attacking/dodging will be more vital than any amount of damage you can do. The combat and control mechanics feel more like something from Resident Evil 4 than prior franchise titles, which is by no means a bad thing (as RE4 played fine), but it will take some adjusting for fans of the prior games to get used to.

Aside from the combat, most of the rest of the game will feel like old hat to veterans of the series. Puzzle solving is back and as interesting as ever, with most puzzles either involving fetch quests, actual puzzle solving, or a combination of the two, so fans should be able to acclimate to this easily enough. You still have your flashlight and radio, as always, with the former lighting up darkened hallways (but also making you a visible target to monsters) and the latter making noise to indicate when monsters are in your vicinity; using both to your advantage will be crucial, as always, and fans and newcomers alike will find this to be a tricky proposition, as always. In another interesting twist, however, environmental navigation has changed in two ways. For one, you will now frequently come across obstacles that cannot be passed by conventional means, and will often require you to bypass them by using one of your weapons, IE cutting open a sheet with your knife, hacking open wooden barriers with an axe, and so on. These not only serve as puzzling deterrents, but also serve to show you areas you cannot yet access, giving you reason to return to locations later, when you have the needed items to open the locations you’ve missed. Further, while in prior games you would often load from one section to the next by opening doors (which would mean escaping monsters by loading into a new area), in Homecoming most areas are massive and feature no loading… meaning going into a room may not save you if the monster you’re running from follows you in, which makes running a more risky proposition than it ever was. Again, these are simple changes, but they help to make the experience more tense and harrowing than ever.

Other little things make the game interesting and/or worth playing through, perhaps more than once, for fans of survival horror and Silent Hill alike. Little details, like Alex turning his head to look at interesting things, Alex keeping a journal that contains all sorts of useful and interesting data, and branching conversation paths with NPC’s make the game more interesting than it might seem at first glance. Your first playthrough will take about eight to ten hours, give or take, and will provide you with all sorts of interesting secrets to unlock and use (including upgraded weapons and such) which can also influence you to undertake a second playthrough, especially if you missed something cool the first time around. There are also a whopping FIVE endings, a bunch of unlockable costumes, and a couple neat weapons (including an old favorite) to unlock, and a bunch of Achievements to, uh, achieve, if you’re down for that sort of thing. You’ll have plenty of reason to replay Homecoming if you enjoyed the first go-round, and it’s good to see that this staple of the franchise has carried over to this most recent game.

However, even with the retained bonuses and upgraded combat mechanics, Homecoming still isn’t quite all it wants to be. The biggest problem is that the combat system, while fabulous in theory, isn’t so great in practice. Silent Hill has never been a game that focuses on combat primarily, and making a new game in the franchise where the combat is involved and relatively detailed was probably not the ideal direction to head in, but every franchise can certainly change to meet demands. The combat in Homecoming, however, is often frustrating and unenjoyable; even if you can appropriately master the mechanics and work with them effectively, fighting monsters is often a tedious process, because many monsters early in the game can take as many as ten or fifteen good, solid whacks to go down, or can block your attacks entirely. Aside from the tedious nature of spending several minutes fighting one monster, this sort of significant change to the combat is going to put off gamers who enjoyed the relative ease of the prior titles; it’s nice that a complex play mechanic has been installed, but many Silent Hill fans were casual gamers with limited skills who enjoyed the story and were fine with the game being easy to play, and with the change to a complex control mechanic, a lot of people are going to be left out in the cold. Further, running from battle is now a significant hassle, both because of the frequency of enemy appearances and the fact that most of the game takes place in cramped locations. As such, there will be many instances where you will HAVE to fight an enemy in front of you because you can’t squeeze past them, and again, this makes things more annoying than anything else. This is doubly depressing when one notes that there is no adjustable difficulty for the puzzles, something many Silent Hill games offered; as such, if you were the sort of person who enjoyed easy combat and brain-busting puzzles, you’re out of luck here.

Beyond that, however, there are other little annoyances to the game that pop up here and there. It’s interesting that the game has added in the “you need this weapon to move through this obstacle” mechanic from Condemned, but it seems stupid that you can’t simply interface with the obstacle and instead have to go to your inventory, equip the needed weapon, interface with the obstacle, then go back to your inventory and change to your original weapon in order to proceed. Also, it seems silly to have a tarp block the way through a location. It’s a TARP, kick it or something and it’ll give way eventually. Further, there are oddities here and there that disrupt the flow of the experience; aside from the Active Time Events (which, of all the franchises in the world that needed these, Silent Hill was ABSOLUTELY not one of them) and their disruptive and annoying nature, there are also occasional scenarios where tiny enemies come after you that can be killed in one hit, but are incredibly annoying to deal with, and these scenarios are all too frequent and all too annoying.

The bottom line is that Silent Hill: Homecoming is a perfectly fine game, though it’s not really a perfectly fine Silent Hill game, and people expecting the latter might well be put off by the fact that this isn’t what they were expecting at all. The game is presented well, plays perfectly fine, offers plenty of replay value, and is more or less a solid survival horror experience that fans of the genre will want to check out. Silent Hill fans, however, may be put off by the free and easy re-imagining of the franchise storyline, the heavy focus on combat over puzzle solving and storytelling, the difficulty of the combat, and the odd mechanical issues and Active Time Events. It’s not that the game is bad at all; it isn’t, and if you’re looking for a fun, solid horror game, Homecoming isn’t bad… but it really isn’t Silent Hill, and for fans, that’s probably going to be something of a significant problem.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Silent Hill: Homecoming is a solid attempt at trying to replicate the appeal of the franchise by a new developer, but while it’s generally a solid game, it’s not a game Silent Hill fans are going to be entirely thrilled about. The visual and aural presentation is solid, the gameplay is significantly stronger than it’s ever been, and there’s plenty of atmosphere and extras in the game to keep players interested for at least one, if not multiple, play sessions. However, the storyline doesn’t really work as well as it could in comparison to other games in the franchise, and the focus on (and increase of difficulty of) combat, smattering of Active Time Events, and downplaying of puzzle elements make the game feel less like Silent Hill and more like Resident Evil 4, which really doesn’t work properly with the atmosphere the games have cultivated. As a game it’s perfectly fine, but as an experience it’s not what fans have come to expect, and may well be something to rent before purchasing outright.

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