Silent Hill: Homecoming
There comes a time when almost every videogame series needs a re-invention. It’s not surprising – the law of diminishing returns kicks in and developers find that not only are they lacking inspiration but their once-unshakable fans are becoming fatigued with the same thing each time. The Silent Hill series is one such example. After five sequels in ten years and the series arguably going downhill ever since the majestic second entry, Konami would be wise to take a close look at the kind of change of direction Capcom so successfully achieved with Resident Evil 4 and strive to do something similarly drastic here.
The game begins with a curious opening. As series newcomer Alex Shepherd you are injured and strapped to a bed in what appears to be a decrepit military hospital whilst being taken somewhere against your will by a mute orderly. Before long all Hell breaks loose, and making your escape you find your little brother Joshua in the hospital, acting strangely. Pursuing him through the dank building while battling the series’ trademark murderous nurses, Alex soon finds himself in a truck and that it was all a dream… From here on, things settle into the traditional Silent Hill groove – your home town of Shepherd’s Glen is shrouded in thick fog, the roads out of town have collapsed into impassable chasms and there are few people remaining, in various states of psychological breakdown.
Just some of the people missing from Shepherd’s Glen
You’ll journey into the darkest corners of the Shepherd family’s mind – Alex battling the demons and his brother trapped amongst them, deep in the recesses of the cursed town. While the set-up is no less interesting that the series’ other iterations, the pervading sense of familiarity suppresses interest levels from ever rising beyond ‘mild’, and there is the persistent feeling that we’ve been here and done this many times before. However, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong here, excepting the near-overbearing sense of familiarity. The gameplay generally features a well-judged balance between combat and puzzles, and you won’t get far without considerable exploration. At the very least the gameplay is passable, but it’s just a shame Konami and developers Double Helix (previously The Collective) were so comfortable to follow the template the series has generally always adhered to, rather than being a bit more brave with the game’s direction.
The controls are much smoother than previous entries in the series, but at the same time they can’t help but feel a bit dated when compared to current survival horror king Dead Space. Melee weapons such as an axe and a knife are your best friends here – you do get guns and the game drops into an over-the-shoulder viewpoint when aiming, but ammo is limited and so you’ll mostly need to rely on good old fashioned hand-to-hand weapons. Of considerable concern is that the camera does not cope well in small locations, and since much of the game is set in corridor-rife buildings (hotel, hospital) this leaves it generating far more problems than it should.
Get used to this; the game is pretty heavy-handed with its combat
The enemies you battle are various horrors, taking more than a little inspiration from the 2006 movie. The series’ eponymous nurses are here as ever, although their skimpy outfits and large cleavages feel a little out of place (one thing that shouldn’t really have been taken from the film). Other enemies include skinless ravenous dogs, serpentine humans with deadly sharp fingers and an assortment of monsters which are a mass of flesh and limbs in various disturbing shapes and forms. One of the more irritating foes (again taken from the film) are large bugs which grab on to you and wear down your health. Removing these requires a quick-time event of sorts, with pressing the dodge button repeatedly the pluck them off, then once more to kill them. In fact mentioning the dodge button in a way indicates the direction the game has taken with regard to combat: Alex is more adept at fighting than any other Silent Hill protagonist, and can both dodge attacks, counterattack and use combos. In a way this removes some of the fear of enemy encounters; whereas in previous instalments running away wherever possible was preferable, here you can take down most enemies without too much bother, particularly since you can carry a multitude of restorative items at any one time.
In fact, the game has adopted a couple of new ideas, including a revamped conversation system and quick-time events. When talking to one of the other inhabitants you can select what question you want to ask by pressing the corresponding button, in a feature borrowed from Mass Effect. It’s a nice idea to have a bit more control over the plot development and so on, but in reality these conversation trees are not really in-depth enough to warrant such a system, which leaves it feeling a little pointless. Further, there are a number of sequences where you have to hammer X to break down a wall or open a jammed gate and so on, which feel utterly needless. What’s wrong with simple, short animations these days?
All the nurses had a boob job before featuring in the game
Visually, this is unmistakeably Silent Hill. Fog and/or darkness envelopes the world without exception, the visuals are coated with a grainy filter and real-time shadows are cast from your flashlight. Character models are fairly detailed, but there is a notable lack of detail in the environments, which seems a bit of a shame when the constant fog/darkness must ensure processing power is held in reserve. Aurally, things are better than on the visual front. The series’ haunting, melancholic soundtrack is still in check, and the character voices are generally professionally-delivered. Also, the chilling static of the radio returns, this time in the form of a portable police radio you are given early on – and it still has the unique ability to unsettle you even before you see anything. In fact, given how frustratingly ineffective your flashlight is (which can be a problem to the extent where you easily overlook doors and so on), the radio arguably plays a bigger role than ever. On the whole the audiovisual presentation is good – but again, the bar has been raised in recent months by Dead Space, and Homecoming just can’t match these new impeccably high standards.
Silent Hill: Homecoming feels tired. The series is past its best and is in need of a complete re-work. While there’s nothing especially wrong here, anyone who has played any of the series’ previous entries will get a strong sense of déjà vu. If you are new to the series then this is an adequate horror game, albeit one that sticks a little too closely to some gameplay ideas which feel slightly archaic. However; for the rest of us this is, sadly, Silent Hill by numbers.