This Homecoming Ain't No Celebration
A nurse -- sinister in appearance is hovering over you. The sound of wheels can be heard below your motionless body. You wake up strapped to a bed in what appears to be a grotesque hospital. The male nurse carts you into a room that looks more like an interrogation chamber than the room of a patient; then he leaves into the impenetrable darkness that lies beyond your room. Soon thereafter, you hear a crunching sound and a scream. Not willing to risk the nurse's fate, you bust out of your shackles in the hopes of escaping the monstrosity lurking in the darkness.
Once you've broken free of the source of your entanglement, you witness your younger brother behind the door of what appears to be a jail cell. But strangely enough, he's not screaming; instead, he's coloring in an illuminated room that is solely responsible for piercing the darkness. Confused about his behavior, you search for a way to free him from his prison.
After breaking through glass windows, examining x-rays, and solving other puzzles, you discover a key code that'll release your tiny sibling from his cell. You open the cell, thinking Jason would embrace you with a warm hug, when instead, he bolts; going further into the depths of the hospital. Frustrated with his behavior, you solve a number of other puzzles, trying desperately to gain his attention, but it seems like he doesn't want you. When you've finally caught up to him -- separated only by a narrow chasm, you leap towards him, only to miss your landing.
Hanging on desperately with one arm, you call to your brother -- but your efforts are in vain. Jason leaves you hanging, and you fall to your doom...or actually, your awakening.
While riding in a buddy's truck, you realize you were having a horrible nightmare. You're not some disturbed hospital patient -- you're a soldier, named Alex Shepherd, who'd just been discharged. After you've come to that realization, your pal drops you off in your hometown of Shepherd's Glen.
You soon realize that Alex's return would be no ordinary homecoming. Instead of being greeted by a throng of individuals, Alex was welcomed with a dense, dark fog -- much like the fog perpetually surrounding Silent Hill. Also similar to that horrific town was the lack of residents and vehicles on the streets. Was this town deserted as well?
Alex soon realized that it wasn't after encountering a local judge. She seemed surprised by Alex's return, and spoke of a change that had forever altered Shepherd's Glen. Alex was clueless to the identity of this change, but it was clear that most villagers had vanished. Before becoming too comfortable with his surroundings, Alex returned home to greet his parents.
Much to Alex's surprise, his childhood home was completely empty. He searched for his father, Jason, and his mother, but none of them were to be found -- until he returned downstairs. There, Alex encountered his pale mother who was clearly frightened, but failed to mention what happened to her favorite son Jason and her beloved husband. Alex knew he wouldn't get any answers, so he commenced his search.
Over the course of his journey, Alex explores cemeteries, town halls, and even his own home in the hopes of finding his brother. He also has a secondary objective: discovering what happened to the people of Shepherd's Glen.
Alex's journey brings him into contact with a number of bizarre individuals including a gung-ho sheriff, a deranged doctor, a crazed gun owner, and even a childhood girlfriend -- all who seem cold towards him. Some of these characters fight alongside Alex on occasion, while others simply serve as characters to forward the story. They're an eclectic cast, but these characters play an important role in creating Silent Hill: Homecoming's intriguing storyline.
While traveling through Shepherd's Glen, Alex will also counter numerous horrific beasts. Some of these creatures are Silent Hill staples such as the seductive, knife wielding nurses, but there are also some clever new additions such as the blade-legged spiders. My favorite enemy additions to Homecoming, however, are the game's ferocious bosses that dwarf the puny beasts of previous Silent Hills. These behemoths aren't always fun to fight, but they're scary enough to make a man's greatest pride shrink.
As usual, monsters play an important role in heightening the player's fears, but Homecoming's environments aren't so shabby in that regard either. Unlike in previous Silent Hill titles, the camera is fully rotatable, so Homecoming's development team needed to induce fear in a manner that didn't involve static environments.
To remedy that problem, Homecoming's development team, Double Helix focused on improving lighting and shadowing effects, and brought more color into the mix. In Homecoming's environments, you'll notice more fluorescent lighting and an improved shadowing and physics system. These effects allow for a more believable, colorful world, and accentuate the meticulously designed character models.
Despite lighting effects being more conspicuous, there's actually more darkness in Homecoming than light, and that's somewhat of a problem. In Homecoming, you'll enjoy creeping through silent graveyards and creaky, wooden homes, but when you're in dark environments, it's nearly impossible to see -- thanks to Alex's underpowered flashlight. This makes the game's map a necessity and enemy encounters a frightening experience -- for the wrong reason.
When used appropriately, darkness is great for heightening fear, but when you can't tell what's going on, you feel like a girl putting on make-up in the dark, hoping she'll look good for prom. As a result, you'll find yourself trying to escape the dark confines of sewers and similar areas as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only issue that will detract from your Homecoming experience. Combat is also a chore, due to a number of design flaws. Double Helix got the fundamentals right -- it's easy to attack with a variety of melee attacks, and ranged weapons function adequately, but it can be Hell fighting multiple enemies in a crowded corridor. If you find yourself surrounded by a few nurses in a crowded hotel room, it's easy to get overwhelmed -- which shouldn't be the case since you're given a decent repertoire.
Your basic melee attacks and dodge moves work fine against a single enemy, but when cornered, enemies can pound you into submission. If this occurs, your only hope is to get a strike in whenever you have the opportunity while depleting your stock of healing items. I nearly jeopardized my entire gameplay experience from one similar instance where I used up my entire item stock, but fortunately, I was able to bounce back by being extremely careful in subsequent sections (and by retrying continuously).
It's important to note, however, that Double Helix actually made some useful changes to the combat system. For starters, movement is now completely analog, so an archaic run button is no longer needed. Also, the right stick is used to control the camera, so you have a greater sense of your environs. Besides these changes, the melee and ranged weapons were completely revamped.
Melee attacks are now performed in two ways: through strong and weak attacks. Strong attacks are performed by holding down a button, and as you would guess, they're quite powerful when charged fully. Weak attacks on the other hand are quick movements that enable you to land a number of blows and dodge with ease.
There are a number of different melee weapons including the knife, crowbar, and axe that all function differently. Besides having different attack powers and movement speeds, these weapons can also be used to destroy environmental obstacles; crowbars can be used to pry open doors, axes can chop through boards blocking a door, and knives can be used to cut through cloth.
Homecoming's ranged weapons have different strengths and weaknesses as well, but they're used strictly for combat. Unlike in previous Silent Hill adventures, guns in Homecoming are aimed manually. When aiming, a targeting reticule will appear on-screen, and the player will move the target with the right analog stick. While in this mode, the player can shoot with the right trigger and reload at any time by pressing a button -- you know, standard shooter fare.
In some ways, this system is an improvement, because it gives the player more control over her character, but it also feels a bit clumsy. If you've played a number of first-person shooters on a console, Homecoming's aiming system will feel slow and imprecise. It's not horrible by any means -- it just induces a sense of panic when targeting multiple enemies (which may have been the developers' intent).
If the player wants to switch weapons, it's easy to do so without entering a menu by tapping a direction on the d-pad. However, when the player is in mortal danger, it's probably a better option to go to the menu by tapping a shoulder button where you can switch weapons while the action is paused. While in the menu, you can also use items by tapping the buttons they're assigned to. This system isn't hard to adapt to, but it's also easier to accidently waste an item with this one-click approach.
Silent Hill: Homecoming's combat may be clumsy in certain situations, but the game does a number of things well. It has an intriguing storyline full of twists and turns, solid voice acting, and a dramatic, piano-filled musical score. Homecoming also has a number of impressive visual effects (some inspired by the Silent Hill movie) such as the environment breaking into pieces before transforming into the 'Other World'. The developers could have left the lights on and improved multi-person combat, but overall, Homecoming is worthy of the Silent Hill name.
· Gorgeous visuals with improved color, lighting, and shadowing effects
· Solid voice acting and beautiful piano pieces add emotion to the experience
· Features an interesting storyline enhanced by a set of great endings
· The camera is now fully player-controlled
· Melee weapons finally feel distinct
· The developers should take Motel 6's advice, and leave the lights on
· Multi-person combat is not only awkward -- it's dangerous!. Aiming with ranged weapons is slow and a bit unwieldy