Review: Silent Hill: Homecoming

SilentHillHomecoming.jpg Silent Hill: Homecoming is my favorite game in the series yet. Call me crazy if you want to, but it really is one hell of a survival-horror experience, easily topping the series’ second and third installments in my book. It may not be the most original work of horror ever produced, but that sure doesn’t hinder it from being deeply compelling and rich with spine-tingling scares.

With Homecoming placed in the care of California-based dev studio Double Helix, the core fundamentals of the plot have been westernized, and I think that’s where some gamers – hardcore Silent Hill purists in particular – may be left feeling a bit cold. Homecoming is a scary game, but it’s not so much psychologically terrifying like past Silent Hills. It’s more of an Americanized brand of horror with creatures popping up out of nowhere to spook the piss out of you and at times almost a torture-porn level of gore and violence (like this one scene involving a drill gun late in the game).

Alex Shepherd is the new leading man for this sixth Silent Hill, a soldier returning to his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen to find that virtually everyone has gone missing, including his brother Josh, and the town has pretty much gone to hell in a hand basket. That’s where you take over, venturing out into the fog-covered town to find Alex’s brother and figure out what’s going on.

The plot is fairly predictable throughout, but overall it ties into the Silent Hill mythos well and has at least a few genuinely surprising twists. Your dialogue choices later on in the game also determine which of the five different endings you’ll see, so there is some good storytelling depth at work (and a good amount of replay value on top of the 8-12 hour initial playthrough).

Strong voice acting performances — especially that of Alex Shepherd – and music from Silent Hill veteran Akira Yamaoka really power home a cinematic feel, and the atmosphere and ambiance is dark, brooding, and disturbing just like it should be thanks to fantastic environmental lighting, stunning special effects (including that amazing “peel away” effect made famous by the movie), and some of the creepiest creature and boss designs yet. This game really needs to be played in surround-sound to be fully appreciated, though. If you aren’t able to immerse yourself in the environment and hear every little bump, creak, groan, drip and scream subtly laced throughout the background you won’t find the game nearly as frightening, I don’t think.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Homecoming does bring noticeable improvement to the series. Yes, the combat still has a clunky feel about it, and with certain enemies it’s far too easy to exploit their looping AI-controlled evasion animations, but in general I was pleased with the improved combo attacks, gruesome finishing moves and the new evasion mechanics that challenge you to watch and listen for movement and audio cues from your enemies to avoid attack and land stunning counter blows.

It’s FAR from perfect – trying to evade in tight hallways, for example, can easily get you trapped into a corner or cause the camera to swing out of whack (or both) – but all in all it works. It may sound weird, but I almost sort of like combat in my survival-horror games to be just a little wonky. It’s a fine line, but if balanced properly it lends realism to the experience. You’re not playing as some powerful hero or super soldier, but an everyday Joe Blow (no, not “Joe the Plumber”, everyone shut up about him already!!!) type of person. It wouldn’t make sense if you could effortlessly slash through monsters.

With Double Helix’s focused efforts on updating the combat system, however, this game does take the series in more of an action-heavy direction. This is both good and bad. On the good side, more action equates to better gameplay pacing and less tedious item-hunting. But on the bad side, more combat also means that puzzles are less of a factor this time around. Personally, this doesn’t bum me out too much because I’ve often found Silent Hill puzzles a bit too derivative, but I still would like to have seen maybe a few more puzzles to bring the combat-to-puzzle ratio more into balance.

Despite this slight change in focus, Silent Hill: Homecoming is still very much Silent Hill, and that’s definitely a good thing. Double Helix’s first crack at the series isn’t without fault, but overall I couldn’t be happier with the new spirit and intensity they’ve brought to a franchise that was beginning to wane after its last two lackluster installments (The Room and Origins).

If you don’t have anything planned for Halloween tonight, go pick up a copy of Silent Hill: Homecoming, turn the lights down low, crank up the surround sound and settle in for a night of hair-raising terror.

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Pros:
+ Gripping story brought to life by stellar voice acting and rich audiovisual atmosphere
+ Fantastically creepy bosses and creature designs
+ Excellent pacing and perfect balance of health and ammo pick-ups
+ While still not perfected, combat mechanics are much improved over past games
+ Good length at around 8-12 hours, complimented by bonus content like multiple endings, hidden items and unlockables

Cons:
– Though improved, combat is still pretty clunky by today’s standards
– Westernized horror style may disappoint Silent Hill purists
– More combat-heavy gameplay means less puzzles

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3 and coming soon to PC
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Double Helix
Release Date: 9/30/08
Genre: Survival Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!