My brother’s keeper.
Silent Hill: Homecoming started spooking gamers long before its official release date this week… and not for the kind of wobbling-faceless-nurses and subconciously-uncategorizable-abominations reasons you might understandably associate with the cherished Konami franchise.
[image1]Silent Hill fans have become quite vocally protective of the series over the years, despite the oft-murky game-world cosmology, long-standing trademark gameplay imperfections, and all. And there was apparently one thing that scared the collective stuffing out of all of them, way more than some fog-shrouded streets and creepy-ass monsters: the idea that an exclusively-Western design team would take the formerly-Japanese, expertly-nuanced, eerily-disturbing series… and thoughtlessly dumb it all down to the ground with the hollow thud of emotionless, mindless, Hollywood McStyle.
I’ll come clean, too. I personally harbored the exact same sorts of misgivings, and they scared the crap out of me. We’re talking visions of "Resident Evil 6" directed by Michael Bay and starring Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, Queen Latifah, and Drew Barrymore. Brrrr.
Silent Hill fans, please relax. While the Double Helix folks certainly made some changes, they very clearly know and love their subject matter, and have appointed themselves the faithful, Stateside brother’s-keeper of the Silent Hill franchise. They’ve walked an admirably fine line between maintaining the series’ integrity and leaving their own unique stylistic mark. Lest any series vets get too uneasy, Yamaoka Akira’s top-shelf audio is back in full force (by this point, I think it’s actually a felony in Japan if Yamaoka-san ever tries to quit).
Homecoming’s newest protagonist is Alex Shepherd, returning to his hometown after a stint of military service. In a nice touch, he hooks his ride into town with the cameo-appearance help of a previous protagonist—a previous protagonist looking somewhat worse for wear. Things on the home front have not gone well in Alex’s absence; in fact, things have gone figuratively and almost literally to hell: streets filled with unnatural fog (and inexplicably, surreally sheared off at the ends), townspeople missing left and right (particularly his brother Josh and, in short order, his father), his mother almost catatonically detached, and of course, monsters everywhere.
[image2]As was the case with Silent Hill 3 and the somewhat fan-divisive Silent Hill 4: The Room, this new game starts out in a non-namesake town—Shepherd’s Glen, in this case—before moving on to Silent Hill proper. (A few years ago in Japan, I once directly asked a Team Silent member if this kind of thing could or should be read as an implied, gradual increase and expansion of the Silent Hill blight to other, increasingly-distant locales on or near Toluca Lake. I’ve gotta hand it him—he successfully dodged the blunt question as artfully and politely as only the skilled Japanese can).
Western dev team or not, the menace, tone, and sheer visual wonk that have come to epitomize Silent Hill are all intact, from monsters that each look like shambling ideas you don’t want to think about too much. Among them are a mashup of thrashing male and female body parts cinched together by bondage gear, a creature whose ‘head’ seems to consists of a fleshy scythe-blade that splits in two in the wrongest way, and a ‘Needler’ who clanks along floors, up walls, and even on ceilings with four-bladed appendages where limbs would be in any sane, godly Christian universe.
And of course, there are the old what-we-shall-call-for-lack-of-a-better-word ‘favorites’—the freaky, wobbling, faceless Nurses; the skinless dogs; and Pyramid Head himself, who has a solid lock for the Most Disturbing Major Video Game Boss for the Least Concretely-Understood Reasons Award.
In addition, there are some definite influences from the Silent Hill motion picture as well—particularly the (now real-time) transformation from the normal world to the hellish otherworld. Just imagine a nightmarish, anime-influenced, negative-gravity dissolution of the environments into peeling, floating flakes of rust and ash, as well as the appearance of the toxin-spewing ‘Smog’ abomination. [Or as I like to call him, "Pus Vagina". ~Ed.]
[image3]Finally, the seminal stylistic influence of Adrian Lyne’s film Jacob’s Ladder is perhaps more blatantly evident than it’s ever been, right from the game’s outset. With any other game franchise, it’d be time to call “ripoff!”, but with Silent Hill, the proper word is homage… and thank Samael for the results.
Mechanically, Homecoming is a substantially new ballgame on several fronts. The two-stick, 3D look/move scheme makes for a more fluid experience, in terms of both navigation and combat. While he’s no superhuman warrior, Alex is by far the most capable fighter in the history of the series. Origins’ Travis Grady was no sissy, of course, but with dodge, counterattack, and light and heavy attack options, Alex Shepherd can give at least as good as he gets when going toe-to-whatever against Silent Hill’s abominations. And given his military background, it even makes perfect narrative sense, too.
In fact, he may be a little too effective, depending on how you view these things. In melee combat against any one creature at a time, there’s a definite anticipate-dodge-counterattack rhythm which might strike SH veterans as disconcertingly ‘easy’. I’ve heard some players harp ad nauseum on this aspect, to the point that I’ve started to wonder just how much they bothered to play the game—or at what difficulty level they decided to play it.
My advice is to cease cursing the darkness, choose another difficulty level, and then see how much you still feel like bitching. When you have no ammunition left and you’re suddenly facing multiple, flanking Schisms per room—any one of which can literally, gruesomely rip you in twain, each half of your body pumping copious amounts of blood as the Fail screen comes up—yeah, come back to me then. At a hard difficulty level—with more of the goddamn things showing up should you try to shoulder open the nearest door and run away—well, if that somehow still isn’t enough grief for you, you really need to consider counseling.
If there’s a notable downside to the new scheme, it’s the glaring lack of a quick-turnaround function. In Homecoming’s surprisingly bullet-deprived environments, it is in many cases wise (and in some cases, desperately necessary) for Alex to bail out of combat and run for his life, but the lack of a quick-turnaround means that this will usually result in whatever-the-hell-It-is getting in at least one good parting shot.
[image4]Alex’s new moveset also includes the ability to duck under/hop over waist-high obstructions, squeeze through small gaps, and even chop down boarded-over spaces with an axe. But note that even if you can get Alex though a doorway, there’s a chance that the monstrosities that are chasing you can follow him through as well, real-time and right on his ass—so don’t rely on that shit anymore. (I’m not sayin’ good or bad, I’m just sayin’.)
Occasionally, the opposite is true: The Big Bad Thing that’s after you sometimes simply can’t think or force its monstrous girth through the gap to follow you (although it clearly wants to), affording you the golden opportunity to blow its head off through the bottleneck, or if you understandably don’t want to waste the already-scarce ammo, get in a few retaliation-free chances to clock it in what passes for its head. Don’t call it ‘cheap’—just thank your lucky stars, and move on—you’ve got enough to deal with as things are.
Homecoming's story is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the most ‘straightforward’ narrative the major-console Silent Hill games have ever seen (Origins, also a Western-dev product, could arguably make a similar claim, though not to this degree). Call it a nominally-racist observation if you like, but this is certainly the direct result of having a Western design team, as opposed to a Japanese one. We Americans simply aren’t as big fans of ambiguity and open-ended interpretations as are some other cultured peoples… and maybe just for this one time, it’s okay (and certainly something of a psychic relief) to get to the end of the game and have a by-God immediate, basic, more-or-less-correct understanding of what the hell just happened. Some players who enjoyed the relentless ambiguity of the previous games may not approve of this move—but I, for one, can finally finish a Silent Hill session and drift off to sleep with at least some sense of exactly why I’m now having such messed-up dreams, thank you very much.
On the one hand, Homecoming definitely feels like a subplot to the overarching Silent Hill mythos. It stands on its own, but it barely mentions certain characters which fairly dominate the backstory of previous SH games, and even Pyramid Head’s appearances feel more like fan service (albeit damned effectively-employed fan service). On the other hand, one could easily say the same thing about the roundly-hailed Silent Hill 2.
One final endnote that only long-time fans of the series will care about, or indeed properly recognize one way or the other: Voice acting. While never quite devolving to a ResEvil-worthy “Master of Unlocking” level of aural badness, Silent Hill has certainly seen its moments of presentational shame (even Silent Hill 2—still considered by many to represent the narrative/emotional pinnacle of the series—had some isolated moments of god-awful dialogue delivery). Homecoming makes up for considerable hurt feelings over the years, with a tough, justifiably-indignant hero who’s not afraid to drop some S- and F-bombs if the situation warrants.
[image5]There’s just one unfortunate exception: Josh—primary non-player character and primary driving force behind Alex’s descent into Silent Hill. Half of his dialogue delivery is just bad, and it’s just shocking that Double Helix somehow didn’t recognize the extent of its badness. It’s not a game-killer by any means, but it doesn’t jive with the rest of the game’s overall production values. Trust me—just do your best to save the little snot, anyway.
And while we’re talking audio, it MUST be reiterated. Yamaoka Akira’s ambient audio and music chops are here, and go a long way toward establishing the expected Silent Hill mood. If you’re a long-time series fan, you already know what I mean. If you’re a newcomer, you’ve just gotta trust us on this one. His audiowork is the invisible leg of the unholy-trinity tripod upon which Silent Hill works its dark magic.
Reviewing any Silent Hill game can be a killer, because it’s obviously not acceptable to give away plot points, key ‘moments’ or surprises… but kinda, you want to. Suffice it to say, American developer Double Helix has managed to stick its landing—right in the uneasy, dark parts of the mind that define the Silent Hill experience.