Never has a game been more appropriately titled that Silent Hill: Homecoming. Not only does this latest chapter in the series finally bring the dreary fog-infested town of Silent Hill to the new console for the first time, but it is also a return to the original formula found in the first two games. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t come with some improvements though. Konami has handed the reigns of their beloved franchise to western developer Double Helix (Buffy, Indiana Jones) and in the process they have stayed true to the roots of the series while also upgrading the combat system. Whether or not you enjoy this latest entry into the world of Silent Hill is entirely dependant on how much you enjoyed the series in its infancy.
This time around you are thrown into the shoes (or perhaps military boots would be more appropriate) of Alex Shepherd, a recently discharged soldier. The game starts off in one of Alex’s many dream sequences that tend to focus on his little brother Joshua. Alex awakens just in time to realize that his ride is over, he is finally home. Shortly after he arrives he begins to notice that the town of Shepherd’s Glen is not the way he remembers it. His brother and father have mysteriously gone missing and he discovers his mother sitting in the living room of their house with a gun in her lap and signs that she has gone truly insane.
All of this is pretty standard fare for the series and for the most part the story plays out rather nicely. You get to see some familiar faces and learn about some of the towns surrounding Toluca Lake. You will discover the connection between Shepherd’s Glen and Silent Hill, but for the most part your story is self-contained. This is both disappointing and refreshing at the same time. Refreshing in the sense that the developers have decided to introduce new characters and plotlines and disappointing that we don’t see or hear from quite as many previous characters. Granted we do get a few brief glimpses of Pyramid Head, some references to the Silent Hill movie and even one cameo that fans will likely be pleased with, but on a whole Homecoming is a brand new chapter in the Silent Hill lore.
Even though the story is mostly self-contained it still captures the feeling of a Silent Hill narrative, much like everything else. From the minute you pick up the controller you will realize that Homecoming is the equivalent of Tomb Raider Legend to the Silent Hill series. Gone are the appalling tank controls and clunky combat and instead the developers have focused on giving Alex a wide array of attacks and evade moves to mimic his combat training as a soldier. You have a heavy and light attack as well as a dodge button and you can lock onto enemies. In previous games you would find yourself wailing away at air a large portion of the time and encounters became frustrating far too often. In Homecoming running into an enemy is not instant death anymore, which does tend to eradicate that sense of threat the previous games offered.
While the combat has been refined the puzzles feel evocative of past games with inscrutable puzzles designed with trial and error in mind more often than logic. For instance there is a puzzle early on in the game that requires you to re-wire a fuse box. There are lights to let you know how many wires are correctly connected but never is there any indication of which ones are wrong. Finally after fooling around tediously with the puzzle I decided to randomly press buttons and move the analog sticks and magically it worked. Not really the sense of accomplishment that I wanted, but I digress.
Outside of the puzzles there are also a number of photos to collect as well as series of drawings that Alex keeps locked away in his journal. This is a nice way to give more detail into the story. The map system is excellent in a way that most games fail this day and age. When you reach a door that is blocked it actually marks the blocked spot on the map. A small nuance that goes a long way in preventing back tracking found in other game to artificially extend the play time. My biggest gripe though is the return to the archaic save system found in most survival horror games: save points. Scattered around the levels are red markers that are used for saving your progress. Granted you don’t need an ink ribbon to use them, but the further you get into the game the farther apart they become. It is also worth noting that the game only allows you five save slots and in a game with multiple endings this is downright criminal.
Visually the game is easily the best looking title to date and takes advantage of the hardware to create the creepiest selection of monsters the series has ever seen. The key to making everything flow is the new animation which makes some of these gruesome creations spring to life on the screen. Enemies will also show damage as Alex beats them into submission and the frame rate very rarely dips into critical territories. The creature designs are also fantastic in that dysfunctional kind of way. From the slightly sexual nurses with no face to the twisted anomalies that roam the streets of Silent Hill and blow clouds of death in your face. The environments are equally impressive taking a cue from the feature film. When the world transforms from reality to the Otherworld the paint begins to peel back in an effect that is truly incredible to see each and every time it happens.
To compliment the solid visual package composer Akira Yamaoka returns to reprise his role. The atmospheric and somber tones continue to add tension to the game. In fact the music is about the best part of the audio package as the in-game dialogue is simply tolerable at best. The writing is typical Silent Hill with an over-emphasis on miniscule things (read William Shatner) and some of the characters are so unlikable (I am looking at you Josh) that you will really care less if they live or die by the end of the game. On a whole the game delivers a solid audio/visual punch that is true to the series, but with a lack of tension due to the expanded combat arsenal it is almost lost.
Fans of the original game will likely be pleased with the latest effort in the series. While it does change a lot as far as combat is concerned it feels more like a traditional Silent Hill title than the last few efforts. Unfortunately this includes some of the hang-ups that caused frustration in the earlier games including sporadic save points and a lack of ammo. However, for what it is Silent Hill: Homecoming truly does fit its namesake in bringing the franchise back to its roots. If you have ever been a fan of the series then this latest entry is worth checking out and if you are a fan of survival horror perhaps it is time to get familiarized with one of the originals.