So once again we find ourselves in Silent Hill, a nightmare of a town we are compelled to return to, a town full of creatures crafted in a fit of psychosis, a town full of puzzles, and, most vitally, a town rooted deeply in the nostalgic part of every fan’s subconscious. The fifth in the series (omitting its PSP incarnation), Silent Hill: Homecoming was not developed by the original Japanese company Team Silent, but by American developers Double Helix, who have trodden a fine line between trying to gratify fan’s expectations and face the pressure to evolve a series that has remained so stubbornly traditional.
The result is a game that wavers somewhere in between, a game that flirts with evolution but eventually runs back into the arms of the tried-and-true. This should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing, for Homecoming is still a chilling experience, but what we have here is more of the same with an upped ante, perhaps a predictable shift as the series moves from East to West, from the last generation to the next.
As wholesome war veteran Alex Shepard, we experience the usual scenario, a confused everyman searching for a missing loved one (this time his younger brother, Joshua), only to find his old stomping ground has changed into a schizophrenic fantasyland, his brother doesn’t seem to want to be found, and his mother is in some kind of catatonic slumber. It’s all pure nonsense, and that’s exactly what we want from a series set so deep down the rabbit hole. Although Alex is not as psychologically complex as some of Silent Hill’s previous protagonists, the waffle suffices well enough and, for the willing gamer, is frequently gripping.
Straight-laced lead tossed aside, the star of any Silent Hill title should always be the town itself. Double Helix’s Silent Hill is pitch-perfectly creepy, although certainly not an original playground. Hospitals, schools and churches, the Silent Hill staples of work and industry, seem too familiar now, a predictably grumpy old grandparent with pockets full of poisonous candy.
When Alex is transported to the ‘Otherworld’ - Silent Hill’s hellish alternate reality - it too seems oddly comfortable, pulsating walls of skin and corrugated iron the perverted norm for the series. It’s still far from a pleasant place to be, and Double Helix have added some new gruesome touches here and there, but previous entries have numbed us to the majority of its tricks.
More problematic is the makeup of the enemy. Your average goon is a strangely erotic thing made from a mishmash of gore and female mannequin parts, a suggestion of Alex’s repressed subconscious perhaps, or just an excuse for Double Helix to render some whopping demon boobs.
There’s a bum note in the sexual nature of these creatures, to the point where one wonders, while being pursued by screeds of leather-bound flesh, if Double Helix have missed the point. The enemies in Silent Hill have always been directly related to the protagonists’ story, so Alex, who is searching for his little brother, does not need to deal with such overtly Freudian nasties. Maybe there’s a suggestion of something more disturbing going on, or maybe, once again, too much tribute has been paid to the previous developers’ oeuvre.
Familiar too is Silent Hill: Homecoming’s linear structure. These enemies are necessary obstacles to defeat in order to move to the next area, and there’s a distinct impression of being horded towards the next puzzle or boss. The occasional ‘optional’ room is refreshing, but most doors remain locked or conveniently ‘broken’, the sprawling town still closed off by dead ends and nonsensical cliff-faces. Tradition dictates a certain degree of linear gameplay, but considering this is the fifth in a series, we are warranted in the desire to see the world opened up a little more.
Where Silent Hill: Homecoming succeeds – and boy, does it succeed - is its wonderful grasp of the Survival Horror genre. The game is never a walk in the park; even on normal mode you will find it a challenge to stay alive. Combat has made great leaps from the near-impossible, clumsy exercise it was in previous titles, and Alex is a surprisingly competent warrior in the world he’s plunged into. A dodge roll has been introduced, vital when overwhelmed, as has an effective light or heavy melee attack that can be charged up for greater damage.
No longer are camera-angles rigidly fixed; you control Alex with one thumbstick and the camera with the other, making navigation and gunplay easier. This does indeed remove a certain sense of helplessness, but as soon as you start to fret that your puppet’s strings have been cut, that you are simply too badass, another score of monstrosities come along to remind you otherwise.
Homecoming’s anomalies are keenly accurate in their attacks – ironic really, considering most of them are blind – and utterly dedicated to Alex’s demise. They tend to attack in packs, overwhelming if you give them an inch, barely manageable if you’re armed with nothing but a crowbar. Cruelly, ammo has never been in such short supply, effectively closing the majority of those small windows of opportunity for a long distance kill; typically fights are an up close and personal affair.
At first glance this level of challenge presents its own issues – at times it seems the game wants you to repeatedly die – but to fight is to master a fine balance of attack and counter-attack, defense and dodge. Boss battles will leave you exhausted, trying to reach the next safe room even more so, but the eventual payoff to your patience is complete euphoria. Purists of the genre will love it; newcomers will get their first taste of true survival horror in this generation of gaming.
Meanwhile, a uniformly superb score (written by veteran composer Akira Yamaoka) adds much to the atmosphere, a gloomy, melancholic meditation at its most tame, a clanging drone when it really wants to rack up the tension. When the shocks do come, much of them are owed to the brilliant soundscape that plays like a dull knife on your nerves before suddenly plunging in deep. Couple this with the heightened level of challenge, and the strong foundations of the game reveal themselves.
It is a pity then that we can’t help but be retrospective. Viewed as a standalone title, Silent Hill: Homecoming is extremely competent, but as a sequel, it falls short of progressing the series in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, its familiar territory will always sit uneasily, and all we can do is hope that the inevitable number six will explode the peculiarly reserved world wide open into something more anarchic, and really give us something to talk to the psychologist about.