IGN Review of Silent Hill: Homecoming
The Silent Hill franchise has always been known for its ability to trip the player's psychological levers, instilling a significant amount of unease, fear and even dread at the situations that they find themselves in. Whether it was wandering the fog enshrouded streets of Silent Hill or the rusty, industrialized hallways of the Otherworld, the characters were normal people -- not fighters -- stranded in a situation that was completely out of their control, forced to survive any way they could against unnatural monsters. That, in turn, imparted a sense of panic and concern in the player because they weren't guaranteed to emerge from a fight unscathed. Unfortunately for the series, the latest installment from Konami and Double Helix, Silent Hill: Homecoming, manages to drain the emotional and psychological elements from the game. While the monsters and strange environments of the game return, the overall experience just isn't scary, which is a major letdown for a title with such a great horror pedigree.
Homecoming is the story of Alex Shepherd, a recently discharged soldier who has disturbing dreams that seem to plague him during his waking moments, many revolving around his younger brother Joshua. Once he eventually gets back to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen (thanks to a quick cameo of a previous Silent Hill character), he discovers that things are truly bad at home and only getting worse. People have been disappearing in increasing numbers, including Alex's father and little brother, the streets are shattered and in disarray and strange creatures roam the town. As Alex investigates his family's disappearance and the incidents going on, he eventually discovers the dark secret of Shepherd's Glen, its connection to Silent Hill, and how his family plays a significant role in these events. The tale itself is a decent one -- players that have gone through a number of Silent Hill stories before will gain a new perspective on the communities bordering Toluca Lake.
Homecoming doesn't radically attempt to revamp the established universe that's existed for almost a decade, but tries to tie the plot of Alex's adventure to pre-established canon. There are a number of nods to both the Silent Hill film from a few years ago as well as the movie Jacob's Ladder, which adds a couple of layers to the development of the characters as well as the situations they find themselves in. However, even with all of that going on, the main twist related to the game can easily be figured out before it happens, leaving a rather bland taste when it's finally revealed. Homecoming eventually feels more like a subplot to a larger, unfinished tale with tenuous connections to the rest of the series. Apart from the aforementioned cameo and a brief mention of Cybil, many of the other story regulars have been excluded. Alessa and Dahlia don't show up, and even the few sequences where Pyramid Head pops up are more like brief guest appearances for fans, although he does have a great scene towards the end of the game.
To a degree, this "straying away" from the well known characters or elements from the previous games would be fine if the title maintained the frightening aspects of the franchise, but that just doesn't happen. The placement of jump moments are extremely predictable, so you never feel like you're put on the edge of your seat because of something that'll suddenly attack you seemingly out of nowhere. Instead, you frequently come off as bored or unsurprised that a creature comes through a door or a gate, primarily because you won't have been attacked in so long that you'll start to expect something to step out of a shadow or a hallway up ahead.
Even worse are the sections where the title continually triggers a number of respawning monsters until you move to a certain portion of the environment and trigger a cutscene. This doesn't create or contribute to the claustrophobic sense of dread a player should feel going through these games in any way. On top of this, it's blatantly obvious that the designers attempted to ratchet up the scares by making it impossible to see where you're going with a flashlight that barely illuminates anything. Even if you are in a darkened area with the flashlight on and the brightness option cranked up all the way, you'll have trouble seeing in front of you, which doesn't make the game scary at all. In fact, you'll frequently need to run up on something to notice that the flashlight is on. This simply cheapens the experience with poor design choices, making the fear that you experience tamer than that which you'd find at an amusement park's haunted house.
Further reducing the terror is the fact that Alex is completely capable in combat. Unlike Heather, James or Harry from the previous games, Alex is a trained soldier that has some significant skills in battle. He has the ability to perform quick or heavy strikes, charge up his attacks to perform powerful lunges or string them together to create a number of combos. He's also able to switch his targets with a quick flick of the right analog stick, which helps you keep creatures at bay that attempt to swarm and attack you from behind. However, you're not simply a whipping boy for monsters; Alex can dodge incoming attacks and even retaliate with a counterattack once an enemy misses their strike. You're not restricted solely to hand-to-hand items, either; Alex will get his hands on pistols, rifles and shotguns along the course of his adventure, and will even be able to "upgrade" these weapons with stronger versions at a later point in the game.
The problem with this approach is that Alex is too good with the weapons he gains. For instance, the earlier protagonists were horrible shots because they didn't really have any experience with a gun, only gaining more comfort as the game went on. Alex's aim is rock solid and you can easily pick off monsters or aim for specific sections of the beasts. This doesn't make gunfire nearly as challenging, and if you focus more on the melee than the ranged combat, you'll have plenty of bullets saved for bosses.
What's more, the inclusion of the dodge will let you easily kill most beasts without suffering a single scratch. As long as you don't charge in blindly and hit the button as they attempt to strike, you'll have no problem landing a countering blow. That doesn't make you feel as helpless as you would in previous games, where battle is a tense struggle for survival, or worry that you'll have to hoard healing items because you'll constantly need to treat your wounds. What's more, the inclusion of Dr. Kaufmann's serum that increases your health meter makes it much easier to fight on against creatures, and acts almost like a third tier of healing items (outside of the drinks and first-aid kits). This more action-oriented focus on gameplay may turn off some longtime series fans, especially because monsters will just feel like obstacles in your way of exploring the rest of the title.
The game is much more than a string of fights, though. As you go through the various environments, you may be tasked with cutting your way through doorways with button press mechanics, or sliding through walls to access new rooms. On your way, you'll gather a number of photographs, drawings and other items that will go into Alex's journal. The journal helps keep a number of details of the plot together, and can be referred to at any time to help you piece together the story of the game as well as solve some of the puzzles scattered throughout. Some of the solutions are easy to find, such as tracking down keypad entries. On the other hand, you'll also find some quite tricky puzzles scattered throughout the game, such as sliding puzzles that don't get reset if you make mistakes with them, forcing you to reload your progress if you really mess it up (as a quick aside, what's with the limitation to only five save games? In this day and age of larger hard drives, was it that hard to just allow players to save as many games as they want?).
Visually, Homecoming is sharp, with a lot of nice details. Enemies will show off weapon damage, particularly when you slash at them with an axe or a knife, and Alex will perform different animations based on the various weapons that he has equipped. Speaking of the monsters, the creatures that roam through the streets of Shepherd's Glen, Silent Hill and the Otherworld look quite good, from the multiple-limbed amalgamation of the Siams to the jerky, snapping moves of the nurses and the slithering of the Lurkers. Even the bosses have their own unique and off-kilter appearances that change as Alex batters them into submission.
The transformation of the environments takes much of its cue from the movie, with the ripping and peeling ash-like shift from the "real" world into the Otherworld, which is a striking effect. All of this, of course, is countered by the previously mentioned problems with the flashlight, which makes it extremely hard to see in dark spaces. There are a few framerate dips here and there, and even though the camera is much better than previous Silent Hill games, you'll still find that your view can be obscured by the angle initially chosen by the title. Characters in cutscenes do have a tendency to perform their lines with poor lip synching, and although their faces may be rather expressive at times, their clothing looks flat and generically textured. Finally, the game does employ a scratched film filter for the Otherworld that looks rather good, but the fog filter that's applied for the "real" world can make character's skin look unnatural. This also seems to contribute to shadows that move unrealistically, with the shadows seeming to vibrate and become pixilated and in motion even when a character is standing still. The 360 has less instances of this, but clipping of objects and items like hair seems much more frequent in this version than the PS3.
The true star of the title, as it always has been within the franchise, is Akira Yamaoka's musical selections. Atmospheric, moody and beautifully presented, the music is as good as it's ever been. However, because the gameplay looses its psychological edge or the fear, the score feels somewhat misplaced with the title. It's way too good for many of the bland sections, and, after a while, you may exert too much of your energy even trying to get into the mood set by his music. It practically tries to beat you into feeling an emotional level that isn't supported by the rest of the game. Vocally, the dialogue is fine -- it's not horrible, but it's not fantastic either, and there are a number of delivered lines that you'll want to simply throttle characters for. In fact, you'll want to throttle Josh or leave him to whatever fate he'd suffer in the Otherworld because of his petulant delivery.
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