Where's...my...BROTHER!? (Silent Hill: Homecoming Review)
Of all of the video games I have played, the Silent Hill series has always been my personal favorite, most specifically the second game. It blended atmosphere and great story with suspense and fears that hit so deep it was ... well, terrifying. I have never played a game as mentally disturbing as any of the first three games in the Silent Hill franchise, and after playing Silent Hill 4: The Room I was almost convinced that the series was finally beginning to lose its touch. It had an interesting storyline and some improvements on the combat system, but overall the game felt broken. It lacked that Silent Hill touch. Then I saw the movie and decided that, while it was a great video game based movie, it got a few things wrong. Finally, I played Origins, and that was the game that convinced me for sure that Silent Hill was over, with a terrible fan-written story and characters that lacked compassion and likability.
Still, when I heard about Silent Hill: Homecoming, I followed up on it and became excited. I was a bit nervous, seeing as an American developer took over the franchise and would probably mess everything up, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to play a brand new Silent Hill game. The day the game came out I went to the nearest game store to buy it, and here we are. While I don't think the game is as good as it could've been, it has shown me that Silent Hill may still have some life after all.
You play as Alex Shepherd, a discharged soldier sent home for reasons I couldn't quite figure out after being haunted by terrible nightmares, convincing him that his younger brother, Josh, is in danger. When he arrives home, he finds that the town is almost completely deserted. People are disappearing left and right, and Alex's mother informs him that Josh is missing as well. So, like the Silent Hill protagonist he is, Alex of course sets out to find him.
Overall the story is a bit off but interesting enough to keep the players going. It is certainly better than the story in Origins, and the characters are likable and intriguing. The plot itself will keep you guessing, as the secrets of Alex's past and the town he grew up in unfolds. Unfortunately, the story also seems to take more bits from the movie than the games (a church strewn with barbed wire, for instance, hints that the ending of the movie was retconned into the series somehow, as well as smoke and heat rising from beneath Silent Hill to represent the coal fire from below, even though the games never mention any such incident) and thus will be a turnoff for longtime fans of the series.
An interesting addition to the series is the ability to control what Alex says during a conversation. This is usually summed up into two different responses: Alex can either be a complete jerk and dismiss anyone else's problems, or he can be an understanding, thoughtful guy who wants to help everyone. Or he can be a little of both. Three decisions in the game will ultimately decide your ending. As for me, I decided to play it as I would if I were in Alex's situation, and I ended up getting the good ending. The game still has four endings as well as the bonus "joke" ending--longtime fans will enjoy the new UFO ending--and each can be achieved by saving before the first big decision of the game.
There is a completely unnecessary love story thrown into the plot, as to be on par with most western horror, but thankfully it's kept to a minimum and doesn't give you too much of a headache with corny dialogue. You're also given a wise-cracking black cop sidekick at several points in the game, who follows every black stereotype imaginable but is at least more likable than Alex's love interest. Finally, there is of course a plot twist, and it actually was somewhat surprising, although easy to see coming around the midway point of the game.
Of course, the most important thing about any Silent Hill game is the atmosphere (which is why this is by far the longest part of the review). The music, thankfully still done by the amazing Akira Yamaoka, is just as atmospheric and unsettling as it was in the previous titles. The music intertwines almost perfectly with the spooky setting of the game, and may be the game's biggest achievement. Overall, the atmosphere is pretty good. The feeling of isolation is lessened only a bit by the fact that you're occasionally given an escort mission, but for the most part the feeling is still strong: you are stranded in the middle of someone's nightmare and someone you love is in mortal danger.
There is, of course, still the alternate world of Silent Hill. The transitions are mostly taken directly from the movie, with the walls peeling and burning away to reveal the dark world beneath, but there are also some original transitions that reminded me of the more unsettling ones from the first game.
As with previous titles, you are given a flashlight and radio to make your way through the darkness. The flashlight still attracts enemies (although the radio appears to have no effect anymore) and will lure them to you, so turning the flashlight off and sneaking around can help you avoid a lot of confrontations. Thankfully, this mechanic is not obnoxiously broken like it was in Origins, wherein you could turn your flashlight off and literally walk directly in front of enemies and have them not see you. In addition to the flashlight attracting enemies, you can also get their attention by bumping into tables and knocking things off of them, hence the need to sneak around. This mechanic is new to the series and is a nice touch to the overall atmosphere of the game, although each table in Silent Hill apparently weighs next to nothing, as bumping into them even slightly will send things toppling to the floor.
The atmosphere is a bit tinted, however, by the fact that everyone else in town seems to be having the same experience as you. In previous titles, it was hinted that only the protagonist could experience certain events, including the nightmare-inducing Alternate World. Indeed, there were even instances in the previous games that suggested you were the only one seeing monsters. This has led to a lot of theories about Silent Hill that I won't go into here. If you are interested there are dozens of wikis on the internet that can provide you with information.
Overall, the scares are up to par but lacking. Since this is an American horror game, there are dozens of jump scares that will make your heart skip a few beats, but for the most part, the feel of Silent Hill seems missing. The previous titles were more psychological and deep. Most of the time, it wasn't the monsters that scared you but the environment itself, the heavy atmosphere falling on your shoulders and giving you the odd feeling that your strapped to a chair with a passive-aggressive enemy. The main character would go to Silent Hill to learn of his sins, to try to atone for them or, more than likely, be severely punished for them. Homecoming lacks many of these properties, and I was disappointed by this. The game has good scares otherwise, but they weren't Silent Hill scares.
Finally, the atmosphere is made almost perfect by sound effects. In the beginning hour or so of the game, things seem almost sane, and I was beginning to doubt the game's atmosphere. However, there are many occurrences later in the game that suggest the developers knew what they were doing. On par with the rest of the series, wandering around Silent Hill (when you finally get there that is) will warrant you hearing bizarre noises, and in the Alternate World you'll hear noises so close that you might even stop and look around before remembering that nothing is around unless your radio is going off.
The graphics in this game are beautiful. My only real complaint with the graphics is the facial expressions on the character models. They seem very unrealistic and broken, and it's a big disappointment because facial expressions were done so well on older, "obsolete" consoles, so why should they be worse on a next gen console? Overall, however, the graphics of the monsters and designs of the environment are done remarkably well. The monsters even get battle wounds based on where you hit them, and it's little attention to details like that in games that I really like.
Again, though, the game seems to borrow heavily from the movie. In previous titles, the monsters always represented some deep fear and paranoia within either the main character or Alessa herself in some way, and were manifested by the character's inner most fears, which were unleashed upon the protagonist. The bosses still seem to hold this connection, but most of the other monsters just seem to be there for the sake of being there. "A survival horror game? Well, we'll need monsters. Let's just throw some random bloody split-head thing in there. Split-heads are scary, right?" Well sure they are, but what do they have to do with anything?
Pyramid Head also makes a few cameo appearances, again just for the sake of being there. While I'm part of the crowd that thinks Pyramid Head was really only a manifestation of James (the second game's protagonist), there are many theories about him and I don't dismiss the fact that he could appear before Alex as well. He looks like he did in the movie, so if you've seen it you know what to expect, and he apparently stole the Great Knife back from James.
As mentioned before, the bosses look amazing to say the least. I'd have to say they are the scariest things in the game, as most of them are utterly disturbing to look at, and they can take you down pretty easily if you're not careful.
Finally, we get to the topic everyone's been waiting for: how does the game play? If I had to compare the control scheme to any other game, it would easily be Resident Evil 4. The game has abandoned tank controls and moved to an over-the-shoulder adventure, which allows you to get a better look at the environment. The game plays pretty smoothly, but fans of the series may be turned off by--or welcome--the new combat system.
In previous titles, you played an average Joe who had little to no experience fighting. As such, combat was clumsy and you had a much better chance of survival by running away all the time like a coward. Alex, however, is an ex-soldier. He knows how to fight, and he knows how to do it well. You can attack in light combos or give a nice, heavy swing to stun enemies. Stunned enemies can be instantly finished off with a heavy attack. Shooting plays like any over-the-shoulder shooter; aim, shoot. In addition to this, you can also dodge and counter enemies. The dodging system seems a bit broken sometimes and will not always cooperate with you, but for the most part you should be able to avoid enemy attacks with the right timing. Many fans are discouraged by this, but the developers make up for it by empowering the monsters as well.
Do you remember earlier when I mentioned that you can turn the flashlight off and sneak around to avoid confrontations? Not only do I recommend that, but I encourage it. You will rarely step away from an encounter unscathed; and they do a massive amount of damage. A zombie nurse can take you down in a single combo if you don't take the time to avoid her attacks.
Healing items and bullets are scarce, so you need to use them wisely. In addition to this fact, Alex can only carry up to three full reloads for any of his guns, so even the ammo you have on you at one time can seem limited. There are only a few enemies in the game that absolutely must be taken out with a gun of some kind; for the most part, you can use melee weapons on just about any monster and keep some of your health.
In addition to the huge change in controls and combat, the game also has quick time events. There are several instances in the game where an enemy will grapple you or attack you, and you'll need to press a button at just the right time (or mash it as fast as you can) to avoid being one-shotted. Most bosses have an instant kill attack that must be dodged this way. On the brighter side, these quick time events are at least somewhat reasonable. Most games will have you fail to pass them no matter what on your first go, but Homecoming gives a sufficient amount of time for you to press the button and get away in time.
Overall, the game is a blast to play. Longtime fans and newbies alike should be able to find some enjoyment out of playing this game, especially if they are fans of horror. Stomach aches aside, the game is pretty solid and plays well. While I don't think it has necessarily revived the series, I don't think it killed it either. It opens up a new world of possibilities to the franchise, and I hope to see more in the future--preferably from the original developers--so that I can dive into the horrors of Silent Hill once more.
Bear in mind, however, that this game is still nothing more than a fan game. Other than Akira Yamaoka, almost none of the original staff is involved with the making of this game. The original developers, Team Silent, have apparently abandoned the series entirely, but at least they're opening it up to other developers to try to make sequels to it. In the end, we don't get the best, but it's better than nothing. If the new developers decide to make another Silent Hill game, I will definitely be keeping my eye on it.