Silent Hill: Homecoming
In the beginning, Silent Hill made me ask questions. Simple and poignant questions. The desire to have them answered was what made wading through the wounded alleys and hateful hallways so compelling. What made it possible to push forward in spite of perfunctory combat and the tedium of door-knob jiggling and dead-ends at the mouths of streets torn asunder. With each subsequent release in the franchise, the pertinent questions, the questions that matter, lose a little more of their potency.
And with this Homecoming, there is precious little remaining.
A friend of mine remarked that success of the original Silent Hill was an anomaly, and he was on to something. Its world was hell seen through the fragile veneer of normalcy; hell which you could touch and through which you could tread when the veneer thinned out completely in places. The Question that first game elicited would never again be so pure and resonant:
What the hell is this place?
By the second coming, we knew pretty much what ‘this place’ was, but the creators asked us to ponder on something else not clearly explained in the original — Question #2: Why us? And James Sunderland’s tragic lot furnished a wholly satisfying if melancholy answer.
Following James was little more than disappointment. I now knew what Silent Hill was, and I met the ‘plights’ of Heather and Henry (of subsequent entries) with indifference. Ironically, in coming home we are farthest away from a new path to the original waterfall. Rather than sate our thirst with some ingenious new angle to this business of Otherworldliness, new developers Double Helix serve up something that closely resembles the first game only in appearance, and not in spirit, choosing to ramp up the elementary combat and miss the point altogether.
Homecoming is a study in eliciting ambivalence: it wants so badly to stir emotions and instead taps Silent Hill’s last vestige of intrigue in order to give us the hollowest Silent Hill experience yet. The contrary trend doesn’t end there – the game does everything in its power to quell its own fanfare. Consider this, for starters: Homecoming boasts positively striking lighting effects, where shadows are cast realistically, rich with depth and mystery. And yet, the game is far too dark on the whole. You’ll miss items, miss door knobs (not fun when being chased by monsters), and miss monsters (not fun when being bludgeoned by monsters).
Our hero, Alex Shepherd, looks to have been designed with great care, from his facial expressions to his facial hair – this is the stuff that made us yearn to have our great series make the move to the next generation. The monsters too, are a meticulously detailed representation of the perverse macabre. But Double Helix didn’t seem to put as much care into the creation of the supporting cast. From Judge Holloway to the local gunsmith, Curtis – texture and refinement is disappointingly lacking.
The ups-and-downs continue with the combat, which is ramped up as advertised. Alex is a good deal more capable in a fight than previous protagonists. He can roll out of harm’s way, slip impending attacks with the new dodge button, counter coming out of the dodge, and string together combos with light and heavy attacks. The problem is, the aforementioned darkness, and the way the camera is sometimes fixed when you’re in ‘ready stance’ actually obscure the enemy ‘tells’ so that you’re often unable to properly evade the attacks as they come.
Which brings us to the next point: enemies are also a lot more capable in this game. In fact, they’ve come a lot farther along than Alex, with his rudimentary dodging and countering. The ever-present Nurses (who now look a great deal like they did in the Silent Hill movie) can put together some quick combos with their scalpels for considerable damage. The gargantuan Siam – a man mountain with a female form affixed to his back – breaks through concrete pillars and prison walls alike, and will pummel you with impunity. And both Needlers and Schisms can effect one-hit kills against Alex – highly irritating when you can’t see to dodge properly and the last save point is ten minutes back.
Yes, the save points are spaced too far apart, which only compounds the issue of difficult combat sequences. But what’s perhaps more damaging to the fun factor in Homecoming is the resource allotment. The game starts off promising and it’s actually fun to string together your first few combos against Feral (the skinless, plastic-looking dogs) and the Nurses. You’ll do okay. As you get into the heart of the game, Homecoming is bogged down by excessively dark areas like the Sewers, where the most annoying enemy of all, the Needlers (they like to block your attacks with their pincer-arms), are found in abundance, and health supplies and ammo are not. The greater portion of the middle of the game is decidedly un-fun.
Things get manageable and interesting again in the final stretch of Homecoming. And it’s no coincidence that all of a sudden, Health Drinks, First Aid kits and ammunition become very readily available. I had been hanging on for dear life, and all at once, it was raining resources. This made closing the game out moderately enjoyable, which begs the question: why didn’t they give us more resources earlier in the game? Sure, it’s not the truest sense of balance, but it’s a band-aid with merit: it would allow the casual gamer a chance to stay the course when monsters begin to overwhelm.
Because sadly, when that feeling of being overwhelmed comes, probably somewhere around the mid-way point, there’s really no reason to keep playing. Our salient Questions answered years ago, we loyally endure Silent Hill’s esoteric conventions of endlessly locked rooms, sickening enemies, and aberrant atmosphere expecting at least an interesting variation on the why us (question #2) of it all. And Homecoming actually has a decent story – the most straightforward and cohesive and easy to digest outside of Silent Hill 2 – but it only starts telling you its tale in the last quarter of the game.
So when you’re bummed out in the darkness with monsters swarming and with no ammo for your guns, struggling to dodge attacks you can barely see, wholly lacking any sort of intriguing, exotic artifact in your inventory or shred of compelling mystery to at least ponder on – you’ll wonder what the point of it all is. You’ll wonder if you’re actually having fun, or just soldiering on because you tell yourself you’re a fan. You’ll wonder if you’re hanging onto a formula that has long lost its efficacy. You’ll wonder if Konami is.
And yet, Homecoming isn’t a terrible game. Not terrible, but seriously flawed. And it’s a game whose flaws consistently work against its plusses. The atmosphere is brilliant as always, the scoring and sound effects magnificent (better than ever, perhaps) – but with this latest effort, which definitely falls short, I wonder if it isn’t time for Konami to consider an overhaul of Resident Evil 4 proportions.