Silent Hill: Homecoming
First posted on 12 February 2009. Last updated on 01 March 2013.
The game is available at Steam.
In the subgenre of survival horror, the Silent Hill series has long stood amongst the scariest. By putting the focus on suspense and a slow build of dread rather than armies of monsters on the attack, the series provides a welcome change and a fresh perspective on what makes a scary game scary. To many fans of survival horror games, Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams stands as the pinnacle for the series. It is also among my favorite games of all time, and I still have to take frequent breaks while playing it in order to catch my breath. Silent Hill: Homecoming is the sixth (fourth on the PC) game in the long running series and breaks some of the traditions of its predecessors. This is largely due to the fact that it is the first Silent Hill game to be developed in the US instead of Japan. It is also the first Silent Hill game for the PC to be released via digital distribution. None of these departures have a negative impact on the game, per se, but together they have managed to shift the overall gaming experience. The result is a game that reminds fans of the atmosphere from previous Silent Hill games but ultimately feels more like a close combat clone of Resident Evil.
The story begins with a veteran soldier, Alex Shepherd, returning to his home town of Shepherd's Glen. While Shepherd's Glen is not Silent Hill, it certainly feels similar. There seems to be a permanent layer of fog, most of the residents do not seem to be around, and whole chunks of street have collapsed into nothingness. Alex seems to take this all in stride as he returns to his family's house. There, he gets the strange feeling that his younger sibling, Joshua, is in danger and takes it upon himself to find and help his brother. Exploring the town, Alex finds that all sorts of twisted monsters have taken up residence. While he continually sees Joshua, his brother seems inexplicably to be running away from him, always a step ahead.
At first glance, the production values of the game appear to be excellent. The graphics are a huge step up from the previous games in the series. Alex's traditional flashlight (a signature effect of the Silent Hill series) causes every person, monster, and set piece to cast dynamic and accurate shadows which greatly enhances the world's believability. Successful strikes against monsters leave visible wounds and gashes on their bodies. The character expressions are varied and believable, and the lip synching, while not perfect, is well above par. The real standout, however, is the game's music. The music is composed by longtime series composer Akira Yamaoka, and I find this to be his best Silent Hill soundtrack yet. The main menu theme alone is a brilliantly haunting melody that perfectly sets the mood for the game.
Where the production values fail is in the terrible execution of the PC port (unlike the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 ports). I encountered numerous sound and graphical errors, along with random crashes and general instability. The glitches were so severe that nearly half of the cut scenes, many of which carried the game's more dramatic moments, were almost unwatchable. While this did not make the game unplayable for me, the resulting experience was more than a little bit frustrating, even when the game was played on a system that exceeded the recommended system requirements.
Silent Hill has always focused on mood and pacing more than combat and puzzles. Fighting the monsters has never been the draw so much as the creepy feeling of knowing a creature is nearby but not quite seeing it. Silent Hill: Homecoming shifts away this paradigm completely. Among the major changes is a complete revamp of the combat system. In previous Silent Hill games, the character you play is an everyman (or everywoman), with no weapons training whatsoever. This premise makes the monsters that much scarier, as your best defense is awkwardly swinging a rusty pipe at the various monstrosities you encounter. Alex, by contrast, is a soldier, and he acts like it. A well timed move allows you to smoothly dodge or block enemy attacks. You can string weak and strong attacks together to create devastating combos. Aiming a firearm now puts you into a first-person view rather than the third-person view of the enemy. Overall, the changes are good (dodging is an especially welcome addition), since the series has long needed a more fluid combat system. On the other hand, Alex's skill with weapons makes the monsters a lot less frightening, given they can now be easily dispatched. At first, the new combat system appears to be difficult and unintuitive (especially dodging). After some practice, however, on how to do combos with the knife, the balance shifts and combat becomes far too easy. The knife is so quick that, if you are able to get most enemies off balance, you can combo them over and over again, not giving them a chance to strike back. This nullifies any challenge in these fights, as only the initial blow requires timing and skill. Boss fights are more challenging, but infrequent, and the best fighting strategies still involve the same trivial mechanic while equipped with the knife.
As with most survival horror games, Silent Hill has long had a tradition of breaking up the action with puzzles that are disguised in the form of locks on doors or containers. As much as I love puzzles, I feel that the series has transformed itself to the extent that these puzzles do not really belong anymore. It is somewhat jarring to hack and slash your way through twisted creatures and dark hallways for hours, only to find your way forward barred by a sliding block puzzle. Perhaps if the puzzles occur more frequently, they may feel like they are a key part of the gameplay rather than tacked on challenges. That being said, the puzzles in the game are varied and well crafted. There are a few sliding block puzzles, the second of which is much more challenging than the first to solve. There is even a rather creative riddle puzzle, though the riddles are given as a multiple-choice, which makes them a bit of a breeze.
The defining appeal of a Silent Hill game is its mood and story. For Silent Hill: Homecoming, the quality of this appeal is somewhat mixed. The game begins on a high note early on when Alex explores his family's home. The missing pictures of him, the beautiful music, and the disturbing dialog between him and his apathetic mother all set for an unsettling scene. While the rest of the story is not bad by any means, it never seems to match this initial setup. Alex explores many places, but none of them seem to have any personal meaning to him, other than the fact that his brother is seen heading in their direction. He meets other characters, but few of them are developed enough to make them interesting. Along the way, a romantic interest is explored so briefly that it almost feels tacked on rather arbitrarily. This all leads up to a predictable revelation towards the end, followed by a handful of brief endings depending on the choices you make towards the end of the game.
Overall, Silent Hill: Homecoming is a satisfying survival horror game that finds itself being more exciting than scary. The game feels like more it is paying homage to the previous Silent Hills games than a part of them. The sirens and dark world of the past games still exists, though limited. Pyramid Head also returns, but more as a cameo, and poses no danger to your character even once. If you are unfamiliar with the Silent Hill series and are expecting only a well paced game with a decent story and a few good scares, you will likely enjoy this game. However, if you are expecting the usual psychological terror that the Silent Hill series is known for bringing, you may be somewhat disappointed. The game has its moments, but it is a far cry from the creeping dread that the earlier games are known for inducing. Silent Hill: Homecoming may be a fun game, but no matter how fun the game may be, gamers will be disappointed by survival horror games that simply are not that scary.