For those just now sitting down and playing any of the first four Silent Hill games, you will find a deeply atmospheric offering, surrounding a rich yet simple storyline that centers on the evil lying deep within the bowels of the town they take place in. The characters change, the enemies change, the bosses change, but the ever present fog which clouds the horizon does not. The small beam of your flashlight serves as a guide through the darkness, and adds to the claustrophobic feeling of the unknown closing in on you from all sides. Survival Horror the way it is supposed to be.
And then there’s Silent Hill: Homecoming.
Many of the issues largely have to do with how this game measures up to its forebears. Underneath all these issues, however, there is still a game worth playing. Where the first games were a mish-mash of crazy camera angles, off-screen danger, and frail by design protagonists, making their trouble swinging a huge pipe all the more believable and also the more frightening, Silent Hill: Homecoming abandoned these things in favor of a strict 3rd Person Shooter, and by doing so, missed the point entirely.
For experienced gamers I say this, Silent Hill: Homecoming is merely Resident Evil 4 with a Pyramid Head facelift. Lemme explain…
The controls are standard for a 3rd person shooter: Right stick controls the camera, which immediately sent up a red flag for me because the danger lurking off a fixed camera is far more palpable than that of any enemy that can be seen by a player-controlled flick of the stick. Quicktime Events are ever present throughout the game, most of them segueing into grindy-fetchy land, where the player needs to find the object du jour in order to open the door du jour. Most of the time though it seemed the designers couldn’t decide whether to make the character jump and compromised on “mash button at every obstacle to do something.”
In between key quests, enemies clumsily jump out of various dark enclaves, garages, etc, and combat ensues. Combat can be boiled down to strict use of the dodge and counter buttons until you locate a gun, and then continue to use dodge/counter until you get the chance to empty your entire armory into an eager to please boss fight. Serviceable is the best way to describe the boss fights. Not terribly easy, but lacking the overall sense of panic that you’re supposed to get out of really any boss fight present in most of the games you play.
As I said above, in all of the original games the main focus of evil is the town itself, Silent Hill, but for some reason the designers decided to throw us a curve ball by changing the locale. Shepherd’s Glen, so-named in an attempt at Lovecraftian foreshadowing indicated by the protagonist’s name, Shepherd. Specifically, Alex Shepherd, a recently discharged soldier who returns home to search for his little brother, Josh, the focus of all this dodge/counter, key search, and button mashing.
First, however, you are thrown into a “learn by doing” nightmarish tutorial that’s more eager to disturb than teach. You, as Alex, are ominously strapped to a gurney which a masked nurse is wheeling through a dimly lit hallway. Making your way past rooms where unspeakable acts are being committed, impending doom begins to sink in with all the subtlety of a carnie barker bellowing under a neon sign reading “Abandon All Hope!” Finally wheeled into your torture suite, the nurse parks you under the surgical lamps and leaves. Series mainstay Pyramid Head then appears, zaniness ensues, you seem to be next on the “To Stab” list, and finally the frantic flashing of the ubiquitous arrow-over-button ushers in your escape. Then the game both emasculates itself and renders its QTE power useless by not following through with the painful death promised by failing-to-mash-buttons. You just lie there on the gurney, awaiting a disembowelment that never comes.
Fans of Silent Hill (particularly Pyramid Head) may find the beginning misleading. Again, the implication of the scene is that not freeing yourself will arouse the interest of ole’ P-Head, and he will cleave you in two with his ridiculously large sword. Instead, he leaves, only making two more cameos that mean nothing to the story. The next time you see him, he’s dragging his sword down a hallway while you hide behind a pile of rubble. He looks sad, sullen, like the former star of the school football team, who’s been reduced to equipment manager after having suffered one self-inflicted skull piercing too many; a shadow of his former glory. He looks at you, a tear rolls down his face as he turns away and continues down his path to impending mediocrity. I’ve never felt that sorry for a guy with a knife that big.
The storyline is filled with characters that don’t seem to understand what’s happening around them, and in a disturbing twist, don’t seem to mind. In one scene, Alex’s love interest is standing by the town bulletin board putting up the thousandth missing person sign of the day. Alex approaches, a little witty banter, and then off again to battle a monster around the corner. I would think that any good and decent person in that situation would return to the girl at the sign and warn her of the impending danger at the hand of the gross and disturbing, but no. There are other such occasions in the game, sewn together with Zelda-esque dungeon progression guiding you to the next “Silent Hill Approved!” location. The other characters’ personalities range from helpful to reprehensible, but they all possess the same quality of irritating and clingy. Previous games in the series made it a point to make the player feel abandoned by reality. Regardless if there were others stomping through the demonic fog, they were themselves figuratively not of this world. In Silent Hill: Homecoming, a half-hearted attempt is made to emulate that feeling of being alone, yet it only serves to make the other characters come off as irritated or distracted and not suffering from the deep-seeded psychosis that previous NPCs had been.
Broken into its individual parts, much of this game can be shredded, but we’re not playing these parts individually. The graphics are good, and the music was mostly recovered from the first games soundtrack (one of the best game soundtracks ever). On the whole, Silent Hill: Homecoming is a good enough game. It’s not going to turn heads or be a shining example of anything, but if you’ve never played a Survival Horror game, this is a pretty good intro for the easily spooked. If you’re a fan like me, you will note the glaring differences and will likely weigh these issues against the previous installments, and you’ll be right to do so. Changes under the guise of improvements should not be made unless none of the essential elements, even the tiny negatives, are de-valued in the attempt. Regardless, it’s a part of a series I have always loved, and I would recommend any gamer give it a fair chance.
Bottom Line: A bland and somewhat timid continuation of a hitherto highly enjoyable and darkly atmospheric game series, presented almost entirely as a Resident Evil 4 clone.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of the series, new to the survival horror genre, and/or are looking for a quick sense of accomplishment, Silent Hill: Homecoming is not a bad addition to your collection…for about $25, no more.
Sam Henry can’t wait for Pyramid Heads cameo on Degrassi: The Next Generation.