Welcome, dear readers, once more to Silent Hill,; small town America’s number one tourist trap, and a place where plastic pants, toilet paper and a helping of high calibre ammo may just help you survive, (but it probably won’t). Let’s give a big, welcome back hug to Konami’s long-running survival horror, as Silent Hill comes home.
I’m almost certain that anyone reading this will be familiar with Silent Hill, either from the game series or the, surprisingly good, movie. In stark contrast to Capcom’s mighty Resident Evil, Silent Hill isn’t really about standard, throw-a-monster-at-you-out-of-the-blue scares (although there’s plenty of them to be found), but far more about psychological terror. Instead of cheap shocks, Silent Hill plays with your mind, leaving you to ponder what may or may not be there.
So, while Resident Evil has taken the more action-oriented route all the way to the superlative Resi 4, and hopefully, just as excellent Resi 5 (review coming soon), Silent Hill has taken a slower, more, dare I say, adult route. Okay, so the series lost it a little with the lukewarm Silent Hill 4: The Room, but this was an exception to an otherwise classic series. The big question is does Homecoming bring the Hill back to form?
As new protagonist Alex Shepherd, a soldier who’s just been discharged following an injury, you arrive (after a brief prologue of sorts) at Shepherd’s Glen, Alex’s home town. The town is silent, eerie, covered in dense fog, and all’s clearly not right. Entering his family home, he finds his mother in a near catatonic state, and discovers that his little brother has gone missing. Being a good guy at heart, Alex decides to find said lost sibling, and begins a nightmarish journey to the truth, with predictably gruesome and downright disturbing revelations being served up.
This is the first Silent Hill to grace the current generation hardware, and while the game has been passed from Silent Hill‘s original Japanese developers to US-based Double Helix, the title hasn’t lost any of its feel, and right from the off, this is pure Silent Hill, right down to the rust-covered ‘otherworld’, and the ominous air raid siren that signifies the imminent arrival in the hellish alternate reality.
Graphically, Homecoming is great, and Double Helix has obviously taken plenty of inspiration from the series, specifically the first game. The use of lighting is handled well, with light sources, such as Alex’s torch, casting moving shadows, and the old-film grain filter makes the whole thing look suitably atmospheric.
I suspect the game may be far too dark for some people, and playing around with your TV’s settings may be required, but at the end of the day, this is supposed to be the case. Alex’s trusty torch is often your only light source, and it’s no floodlight, leaving much of your environment steeped in shadow. This could be annoying to some, but it only serves to heighten the suspense and fear. After all, nothing’s quite as scary as something in the room with you that you can’t see.
The game’s characters look great, and suitably ominous. Almost every person you meet exudes a kind of chilling indifference to the obvious horrific events, leaving you to wonder what’s really going on, and the story is helped along by the dialog, which, although not Oscar winning, fits in perfectly, and is a huge improvement over previous entries in the series.
Then there are the monsters… As ever, these are of the distorted, human meat bag variety, and all of them look sick, creepy and cool in equal doses. From the faceless, shuffling and lumbering nurses to the clawed, crawling lurkers, and bizarre, Smogs, seemingly racked by constant pain, each foe is excellently modelled, and behaves in different ways, requiring different tactics to defeat.
Following with Silent Hill‘s formula, the game features a lot of exploration and puzzle solving, as well as a fair bit of combat. Exploration is one of the high points, countless locked and broken doors aside (which does get a bit old after so many games guys!), and thanks to the constantly oppressive and creepy atmosphere, you’re always worrying what may be around the next corner, or in the next room. The tension is increased even more by the scarcity of save points throughout the world.
Depicted as red circles on walls, these points are few and far between, and while this may have been a design choice to heighten fear, a few more would have been welcome, if only so you could take a break and get to bed without losing an hour of progress due to the absence of a save point.
Puzzles are the usual survival horror fare, with the Silent Hill twist. Yes, many are simply disguised, find the key to a door-type puzzles, but others are more interesting, and even the basic problems are enjoyable, thanks to the thick atmosphere. Such elements as crafty slide puzzles, finding keypad codes and other tasks make for a more absorbing mental challenge than Resident Evil.
Combat is where Double Helix has really rung in the changes though. Much like the first Silent Hill, this is primarily melee-based, and for most of the time you’ll be using melee weapons like pipes and knives to fend off your foes. This is handled in a far more fluid manner than previous games, and Alex is far more manoeuvrable, able to quickly dodge incoming attacks, and move around his opponents. This is thanks to lock-on system which targets your nearest enemy. By dodging, you can then counter attack, and can also block attacks if you time your dodge correctly.
As for attacking, Alex has a weak and strong attack, with the former being fast, and the latter slow. The strong attack can be charged up for even more damage, and these heavy attacks can stun foes, leaving them open to your following flurry of hits. You can also string together combos if you use the right attacks, ensuring your foes don’t even get the chance to attack. Weapons are also used to bypass some barriers, such as using a knife to cut through material, or using the pipe to force open a locked door.
As good as this combat system is in relation to previous attempts, I can guarantee it won’t be to everyone’s liking though. While Alex is indeed more agile than previous SH protagonists, combat is far from easy, and the controls can be a little clunky and sluggish. In fact, even the ‘easiest’ opponents will usually take a chunk out of your health, and fighting more than one foe at a time will usually make for an early retirement. Some enemies are able to overwhelm you with flurries of attacks, others have downright cheap moves, and other foes verge on the unfair side of difficulty, requiring perfect timing when dodging. Frustration may well set in for some, but the system can be mastered with enough patience and practice. I suspect even the best players will need plenty of first aid supplies though.
Alex also gets to play with guns too, but ammo is scarce, and you’ll soon begin to tactically make use of it, saving ammo for the more dangerous fights. Guns use an over the shoulder free-aim, similar to Resident Evil 4.
Other new additions include the ability to select verbal responses to characters. While basic, this is a welcome feature. Alex will also help to find items, as he’ll always look towards anything of interest in a room.
Perhaps the best refinement is the camera, which is now fully controllable, with the left stick granting free control of the view. This makes exploring the world far more enjoyable than the archaic static camera of previous instalments, and makes for a smoother gameplay experience.
Special mention should also go to the sound design, which is superb, and is hugely responsible for the whole feel and atmosphere of the game, especially the range of weird noises that blanket the proceedings, making you second guess what may or may not be lying in wait for you.
The core story of the game may not be to everyone’s taste, and some may find it a little dull or even clichéd, but fans of Silent Hill and the horror genre should thoroughly enjoy the journey, which does involve trips to the titular town of Silent Hill, bringing with it the expected weirdness.
Silent Hill: Homecoming is a great addition to the series, and it more than makes up for the disappointing fourth release. It’s drowning in a tense, unnerving and foreboding atmosphere, looks great, and combat is satisfying, if frustratingly tricky. As with other games in the series, though, it’s still not as good as the, frankly, genre-defining original Silent Hill, but if Double Helix continues with this level of proficiency, I have high hopes for further Silent Hill releases.