Silent Hill Homecoming

   22/04/2009 at 20:47       Jason       5 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
Alex, what's the matter?

And so the Silent Hill franchise descends on the new generation of consoles - sans its creators, Team Silent, and bereft of their eastern influence. As with the rather well received PSP iteration, Silent Hill: Origins, it falls to a western developer, Double Helix, to pony up the thrills and scares of this (some would argue) seminal game series. And, no, I don't count the fourth game as canon, either.

Alex Shepherd, a young soldier, returns to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen and finds all is far from right with the world. His little brother is missing, although lurks perpetually out of Alex' reach, with the young trouble-magnet pausing to goad and lead the player through a mystery that weaves together the lives of several of the town's inhabitants, and slips in and out of the curious folds of Satan's holiday home: the ephemeral town of Silent Hill.

"Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy!"

This game has had something of a rough trip, it seems, apparently isolating itself from the series' fans by moving to a new developer (an audacious US developer at that). Main criticisms of most reviews and - particularly - the disgruntled masses of the internet seem to be about its combat and story... which I guess covers everything in a game like this. The (raw) deal is: there's too much combat, and the story isn't as good as in Silent Hill 2.

But that's not how I see it. Nor is it, in all honesty, how some of the naysayers have seen it. Those two criticisms have dogged this release since the first screenshots, with many long-time series fans calling for a boycott on the title, claiming the required atmosphere and hysterical journey couldn't be crafted by the hands and minds of a western developer. Such petty xenophobia and elitism seems to be at the core of our beloved hobby these days... and is almost as tragic as the ridiculous bickering that has been affectionately labelled "console wars". You want to sound off like Alan Moore? Fine. Wave goodbye to your rattles, children. The rest of us will be taking to the fog-shrouded streets once more.

Yes, Silent Hill 2 is incredibly well regarded, and it's difficult to say too much about the story here, in case Homecoming is your first foray into the series. If it is, go play number two, on whatever format you can. Done? Sweet. Quite good, wasn't it? Clever even. Now have a root around online and look at some of the analysis that's been done over the years since the game debuted. It's startling. You could write a PhD thesis on that one game alone. I'm sure people have tried. Can the same be said for Alex Shepherd's journey? Maybe not... but that's not to say you shouldn't walk a mile in his shoes.

Drillbit Tailor

So, the basics: how does it look, how does it play? Well, graphics are an interesting mix. Some of the character models are a little lacking; many NPCs look a little indistinct - pudgy, even. Such things jar, and disappoint given the possible visual fidelity of these super-powered consoles. The SH games have always tested the hardware... this one doesn't. That said, the lighting in the game is beautifully done, and the fog is no longer a smokescreen to mask hardware limitations. Graphically, the cutscenes are often the weakest part of the game, rendered with the in game engine. Nothing here matches the horribly beautiful movies of the third game in the series. Light and dark and the use of shadows come to the forefront, and do a fair job of imbuing the occasionally poorly textured artwork with a rather swish visual penumbra. Sure, there's very little difference between HD and SD absolute darkness - which this game descends into several times - but the bleakness makes the experience.

How does it play? Alex trots along, dutifully, although the developer hasn't splurged too much on his animations. Everything is functional. Combat has been foregrounded in this game not because of the developer's over-indulgence in it, but because the game equips you with a reasonable and responsive engine to allow you to keep the hellspawn at bay. There really isn't much more combat than in the earlier iterations. You've pretty much got the same makeshift weapon load-out that James Sutherland or Heather were blessed with. Enemies are targeted with firearms using the now ubiquitous over-the-shoulder camera, while you ready up for melee by holding down the left trigger and swinging away with the right. Combat has always been a messy affair in the Silent Hill games. It's been flawed and frustrating. Various voices of the internet have claimed this has helped with the survival horror aspect in the earlier games - but if you can honestly delude yourself that poor programming/conceits work to the benefit of the product, then you're away with the fairies, much less the demonic nurses of the eponymous town. Whereas, before, you would mash buttons and bludgeon away at your enemies, our new protagonist comes equipped with a dodge button. You will fight, more effectively, using a well thought out system of dodging, countering and - ultimately - a finishing strike with the weapon of your choice.

Homecoming isn't any more of a brawler than any other game in the survival horror pantheon, and the combat does not come at the expense of the regular atmosphere and the drip-fed story which twists and turns and defies you to second-guess it. The horrors here may lack some of the subtlety of the Eastern counterparts (although not to the same measure as is witnessed in genre cinema) but the nastiness remains. In fact, there is an interactive cutscene quite late in the game that really surprised me with its brutality. And I played and loved Manhunt.

"It's coming home..."

So, should you give this a shot? I can't see why you wouldn't. I'm surprised by some of the negativity (and in fairness the scores are a pretty broad spectrum here, it certainly isn't all bad news), but believe that fans of survival horror, hell, fans of Silent Hill, have little to complain about here. Some very respectable tension, some genuine shocks and nastiness, and a story resolution that satisfies - and gives interesting context to much of what you have played through. I played it through to one of five endings in about nine hours, and found that this game gripped me in a way that Resident Evil 5, and a couple of other recent entries in the genre, failed to. Recommended.
User Comments:

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NewYork - on 22/04/2009 at 23:07 wrote:
Really enjoyed reading this and I don't even care about the Silent Hill series/own a 360.

And, yeah, down with elitist Japanophillia. Glad you touched on that. Seems the whiners who refuse to back the game purely because of where it wasn't made will be missing out on a solid game.

As long as we're still counting Resi as part of the genre, it's gone way more Western without even having to cross the Pacific.

Luv ur writing. Dugg, as others should also do.

peej - on 22/04/2009 at 23:25 wrote:
Sweet review. The opening to Silent Hill 3 still sends shivers up my spine. After the massive disappointment of "The Room" I was hoping this might be good and it sounds like it is.

Top work Jason. Also dugg and also liking what you're writing, keep it up!

Trip SkyWay - on 23/04/2009 at 04:49 wrote:
Great review, really enjoyed reading it.

Espad - on 23/04/2009 at 11:02 wrote:
Great review, gonna have to get this now arent I?

evilashchris - on 23/04/2009 at 11:23 wrote:
Smashing, I'll keep my eye out for it then! :D

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