Silent Hill: Homecoming (Video Game)
Reviewed by Plagiarize
Available for the Xbox 360 (reviewed here) and the Playstation 3
Distributed by Konami
Despite Climax UK putting in a solid showing with Silent Hill 0rigins (review), there was still a lot of concern about Silent Hill: Homecoming. Most of the worries of 0rigins had been the feeling of a lot of Silent Hill fans that a western developer wouldn’t "get" the series and would transform it into something else.
In 0rigins’ case, the first version of the game from Climax USA was looking to have confirmed all those fears, so I didn’t find it hard to see where the concerned fans were coming from. But with 0rigins clearing the bad taste left in the mouth of many by Silent Hill 4 (review) I felt there’d be a lot more optimism going into Silent Hill 5.
Sure the developers hadn’t had a great game, but they’d shown real promise with the Xbox Buffy title which was so much better than it had any right to be. They’d won Konami’s respect with a demo they put together to make their case for handling the title, and hadn’t it been Konami that had canned Climax USA’s take on 0rigins?
But the skepticism remained and I can’t say that I wasn’t drawn into it. I was optimistic at first, but then Konami released a horrible batch of screenshots and I began to wonder where my optimism was coming from. Sure the Buffy game had been good, but aside from it being horror based, there was nothing in there to show that Double Helix had a good grasp of what makes a Silent Hill game special.
Well I’ve just finished the game for the first time, and while there are certainly a few niggles and annoyances in there, I don’t think anyone can hand on heart say that that isn’t true of the best of the series, and Homecoming is right up there alongside them, believe me. Team Silent had started to lose interest in the series, and you need look no further than Silent Hill 4 to see that. They wanted to make something else, and were dragged back to Silent Hill kicking and screaming. It wasn’t a question of talent, but passion, and despite a good story SH4 was totally lacking in just about every department.
Normally I talk about sound and music as afterthought. Near the end of the review, I’ll suddenly remember I didn’t mention the sound and throw something in there. "The music was good and the sound effects fitting" blah blah blah ... but with Homecoming I’m going to start with the music.
The one person from Team Silent that did carry over to Homecoming, was the only one that absolutely needed to: Akira Yamaoka. Yamaoka is the only person to have worked on every game in the series, and is unquestionably more responsible for the feel of Silent Hill than any other single person. Hell, when they made the film they were adamant about using his music and every piece of music you hear apart from "Ring of Fire" was drawn from the games.
Without his music, the games would be sorely lacking, and going into Homecoming the one thought in my mind was "well no matter how good it is, at least we get another bunch of Yamaoka’s compositions". He’s genuinely that important to the franchise, and I dread the day when a Silent Hill game comes out missing his talents.
Whether it’s the haunting themes, the industrial tension pieces or the mournful songs (sung as ever by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) Akira is on rare form, keeping up his ever important part of the mood and tension you expect from Silent Hill. I’m happy to say that Double Helix have surpassed expectations in providing the rest of game that does Akira’s music justice.
Homecoming tells the tell of one Alex Shepherd, just back from war, coming back to his home town of Shepherd’s Glen. A small town on shores of Toluca Lake not that far from Silent Hill. He gets home to find the town drenched in thick swirling fog and mostly deserted. His mother is barely coherent, but she tells Alex that his brother Joshua went missing and that his dad went looking for him but never came back. Alex picks up the trail, but there’s something out there in the fog ... something that causes static to start coming from the walkie talkie his old sweetheart gives him.
Silent Hill games have never been about their gameplay. They’ve always been about providing a psychological audio visual horror experience, drenched in atmosphere, with an engaging story to keep you pushing on.
Homecoming sets out to fix a lot of the problems with the gameplay in previous games, using an over the shoulder camera and a fairly traditional set up of left stick moves, right stick turns the camera. Aiming a gun is now done by holding down the left trigger much like you’d expect from something more along the lines of Gears of War.
This was part of where those fears were coming from. Would Alex as a trained soldier be an excuse to turn the game into an action centric title much as Resident Evil 4 had done?
The answer is an emphatic "no". While Alex is much more adept at using his weapons than any previous character in the series and much more agile when it comes to dodging and traversing the environments, what Double Helix has done is used this to ramp up how threatening it’s monsters and enemies can be.
Previously, combat usually amounted to repeatedly jamming the attack button to bludgeon something with a pipe. This limited what the enemies could do, which limited how threatening they were. No such problems here. You’re going to have to get good at dodging and countering the enemies attacks to stand any chance of staying alive. Different weapons are actually more effective against certain enemies.
Combat has gone from being almost passive to being much more engrossing. Some enemies are almost impossible to defeat unscathed without some firepower and you’ll find the standard trio here of pistol, shotgun and rifle. Weapons can’t be upgraded, but you will find better versions (melee weapons included) as you duck and weave from room to room.
As the first Silent Hill title of this current generation, a lot of people wondered how the extra power of the current consoles would be put to use in such a game. Improved fog and lighting are an obvious and important improvement, though be forewarned that Double Helix have drenched the game in darkness to the point where at times you wonder what kind of crappy flashlight Alex is carrying when it can’t show him something mere feet in front of him.
That isn’t a criticism from me though. Impenetrable darkness definitely has its place in a Silent Hill title where the story takes place in a world where the laws of physics don’t exactly apply.
While some may be disappointed that Homecoming doesn’t especially push either the PS3 or 360 as SH3 pushed the PS2, it’s really the only complaint you can have about the graphics. A few framerate drops when using the flashlight in certain areas is about the only niggle I feel is worth pointing out.
Whatever the title does technically, it excels artistically. The new engine allows for each major area to be loaded all at once. No more load screens when moving from room to room, which has allowed Double Helix’s artists to attack the decay of the environments in a way that Team Silent couldn’t do on the PS2. The real time shifts to dark Silent Hill are definitely impressive, though not used nearly as much as you might expect. Most shifts still take place in cutscenes. "Hell Descent", an area that you’ll know when you see it, is probably the high point of otherworld Silent Hill design across all the games and a perfect example of something previous Silent Hill titles just couldn’t have done.
Double Helix have very evidently based their game on the art design of the film, even so much as duplicating a couple of areas that were new to the movie. There’s no question playing the game that this was a brilliant move. Christopher Gans and co had brought the Silent Hill world to life and built it for real. Using that as the template for a game that could come so much closer to looking real than the older titles gives the game a consistent and surprisingly artful look that at the same time fits in with the other games.
Otherworld Silent Hill is imbued with the fierce reds that my favourite games in the series have used, only Homecoming has added that glowing orange heat that the film used so effectively, and the kind of skeletal environments with surprising rusted structures beyond the grated boundaries keeping you fenced in.
I gave the music special praise earlier and the sound design deserves every bit as much praise. The voice work is hands down the best the series has seen. The distant shambling, the growls, the staccato dragging of a heavy metal blade somewhere in the distance, are as solid and unnerving as you could want. While the world can be a little barren looking at times, it sounds so full.
The early pacing of the game may be a little slow for some, but I loved the pace at which it builds. You need that time to adjust to the new controls and combat mechanics. The game never slows down once it gets going, and without those early moments that introduce the characters, the town of Shepherd’s Glen, and the gameplay mechanics it would be difficult for the title to reach the heady heights of later moments.
While this all sounds like glowing praise, and it is, I feel it important to clarify that Silent Hill Homecoming is not Resident Evil 4. It is not a place for people that had tired of the series to return. You are still going to spend a lot of time scribbling out locked doors on your map as you work where to go. You're still going to be faced with puzzles that don’t really make much sense within the world. Though they all seemed logical enough to me, there just isn’t a strong justification for them being there.
As improved as the boss fights are, their appearances are pretty predictable, and Homecoming is structured much like previous games. You’ll be facing the same bottomless chasms and fenced off streets funneling you to the next place you are supposed to go. It still isn’t a game to play for its gameplay.
But what it is, is one of the strongest entries in a beloved series. Perhaps the strongest. It perfectly captures everything that is good about the series. The enemies that reflect on the psychological horrors in character’s pasts. The story delves into the main character’s psyche as well as the depths of James’ in Silent Hill 2, while simultaneously telling a larger story about Silent Hill, finding a balance that no other game in the series has managed (though I feel 0rigins came close).
As ever the game has a number of endings, many dark and disturbing, and the extras you expect to keep you replaying the game if once just wasn’t enough.
Double Helix have finally been able to show us exactly why Konami trust them with the project in the first place. Homecoming definitely justifies that confidence, and for anyone that has enjoyed the better games in the series is almost mandatory visiting. If you liked the film and don’t know much of the games, Homecoming won’t leave you lost, as it goes out of its way to fit into the game lineage without contradicting the events of the movie. Just know going in that you’ll be playing the game for the overall experience rather than the moment to moment gameplay.
The story, visuals, music, and sound design along with gameplay that is certainly improved over previous titles add up to a scary and compelling journey through the nightmarish streets and buildings of Shepherd’s Glen and the eponymous Silent Hill which will leave you more affected than most other games you might play.
Homecoming might not bring anyone new to the fold beyond perhaps some that loved the work Christopher Gans did with the movie, but for anyone that ever enjoyed a trip to Silent Hill it is a great first entry for Double Helix and the freshest feeling return to those streets since Silent Hill 2. It may be playing to the same crowd, but Silent Hill is now every bit as good as you remember it being once again.
Let’s hope that Konami, Yamaoka and Double Helix all work together on the next entry. In the meantime, I have a few more endings to get ...
5 out of 5
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