Written for http://www.xboxgamezone.co.uk April 2009.
I sometimes think my life can be a bit rubbish at times, not always quite as great as I’d like it to be, as I’m sure many of us do. However maybe on those occasions we should think of those poor souls that end up wrapped up in the world of Silent Hill, because their lives just end up a total mess and presumably in the aftermath of the games, they must end up in some pretty heavy duty therapy sessions.
Who cares about their post traumatic stress disorder though, we just love the disturbing nature of Silent Hill. I’m not really sure why the sensationalist media has never caught onto the fact that Silent Hill is much more disturbing than any Grand Theft Auto game has ever been, but I guess it is best not to question the logic of such people as your brain would only explode through excessive stupidity. Anyway, rant over and time to focus on the latest installment of Silent Hill. For those who have yet to play a Silent Hill game (in which case, where have you been?!), they are much the same in terms of gameplay. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way at all, but they do follow a similar path. They all use a third person perspective (think Tomb Raider) with most sections of the game being indoors, and very dark! When you are actually outdoors, it tends to be extremely foggy and difficult to see. All the kind of features that instantly put you off balance especially when you throw in the various monsters that appear from nowhere. The unique thing about Silent Hill, however, is it’s not the monsters that are the scary part. It’s the fact that everything around you is so down right disturbing and generally very weird. Being taken out of your element instantly puts you at unease and immediately makes things that bit more unnerving. All the games involve some puzzle sequences and combat isn’t really the centrepiece of the game. Finally, there are always multiple endings to encourage you to finish the game numerous times. So far, so good. In fact Silent Hill Homecoming matches with all of these vital Silent Hill features, which you would think would be a good thing and it very nearly is.
Silent Hill Homecoming starts out in classic Silent Hill style…..a flashy FMV sequence explaining roughly what’s going on with some great music playing (One More Soul to the Call for those intrigued). I felt instantly comfortable as if I was spending time with an old friend, assuming the old friend was a disturbing and creepy person that is. The storyline unfolds quite slowly but it’s all very typical Silent Hill stuff. You play Alex Shepherd, an American soldier, recently discharged from hospital (presumably from an unknown war), who is returning home. The opening level of the game is a nightmare that Alex has about his younger brother, Josh, and provides a helpful introduction to both the controls and the general theme of the game if you’ve not played a Silent Hill game before. Shortly after, you return to your hometown of Shepherd’s Glen and things take a sinister turn from therein. Although I can’t divulge the story too much without spoiling things, it does all get rather interesting. It’s a shame I felt a lack of empathy to the characters though, too many of them felt like cardboard cut out personalities rather than people I could really feel for.
For much of the early part of the game, it continued to feel like classic Silent Hill to me. Plenty of creepiness, especially, if like me, you find little children wandering around in dark corridors creepy, and generally extremely surreal and disturbing. It is also immediately quite impressive just how many doors in this game have broken locks! This town certainly needs a good locksmith. Everywhere in the game is extremely dark, it starts out quite atmospheric but can get pretty irritating in places. In one level set in a hotel, in places it was quite difficult to actually see what was going on. Sure you can turn the brightness up on your TV but then it all looks wrong as the game is designed to be so dark. It’s all a bit of a catch 22 situation really which could have been so easily solved by Alex’s flashlight actually working properly and illuminating the way! Finding the map for each area is definitely crucial to help you along your way; it’s unfortunate though that even with a map some areas (such as the crypts you have to explore in the first third of the game) are extremely confusing to navigate! The game is admittedly extremely linear in terms of progression but I didn’t find that to be a problem, any single player game with a strong storyline can pull off a linear level structure and Silent Hill Homecoming does this well. With five different endings it’s not too linear but it does admittedly feel a bit of an afterthought, as the only things that affect what ending you get are a few decisions you make in the latter stages of the game. There were also a few places where backtracking actually produced bugs and stopped me from progressing so Double Helix has certainly designed this game with a very set routine in mind. It was pretty infuriating to be stuck because of something that game testing managed to miss!
I felt it initially very refreshing compared to other recently released horror games, that there weren’t hundreds of monsters around to try to kill me. Unfortunately it didn’t last for very long as in later stages; there are perhaps a few too many monsters for my liking. I enjoyed the exploration element of Homecoming much more than the combat, this is in part due to the combat being temperamental to say the least. It all just feels far too clunky compared to the likes of Gears of War and Dead Space. I appreciate that Silent Hill Homecoming isn’t meant to be a third person shooter, but surely a better combat system could have been implemented? It felt slow and cumbersome to do anything and dodging was particularly awkward to achieve successfully. I did get to grips with it eventually but it just didn’t feel as polished as it could have been. Having said that I had no problems defeating any monsters until I came across the fearsome Schisms who were just plain nasty! Especially as the first time I encountered one, I had very little ammo on me. However other than that, I didn’t actually find anything a huge challenge on normal mode. On a second playthrough on hard mode, you can quickly acquire a laser pistol which makes things even simpler. It’s all a matter of finding the right method to quickly kill your enemy. For example, use a knife to kill the feral dogs as it is quick enough to stop them fighting back. More fearsome looking enemies such as Smogs (they spit toxic fog at you) simply involve shooting at their glowing lungs at an appropriate moment a couple of times. Needlers involve a little more thought as you have to dodge their attacks frequently but it’s still fairly simple to defeat. Even the bosses follow a set pattern that doesn’t take much thought from an experienced gamer to traverse. It’s annoying as it makes fighting anything feel a bit tedious, I felt myself just wanting to get past the enemies so I could get on with unraveling the story instead.
Really the problem with Silent Hill Homecoming is it is just all too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt as some would say. This isn’t quite the case with Silent Hill Homecoming. It’s a perfectly respectable game; it just feels like it could have been so much more. It’s as if Double Helix played it safe as it’s their first Silent Hill game, so they stuck to the tried and tested formula and made the game adequate, but nothing more. It’s hugely subjective but to me, the crucial thing that Homecoming lacks is passion, and like everything in life, a bit of passion can make things so much more exciting and more memorable. Really, it all depends on what you spend on this game. Full price and you’ll be a little disappointed but buy it at a budget price, and Silent Hill Homecoming is a perfectly respectable way of spending a few days gaming. And don’t forget, there may be no multiplayer mode (which would look very out of place!) but there are five endings to see which is surely worth a few replays! Give it a shot, just don’t expect too much of it.