When one mentions “survival horror,” two franchises come to mind: Resident Evil and Silent Hill. While the latter has been rebooted, shifting of late to more of an action shooter, the former has stayed true to its roots.
The latest in the canon of Silent Hill — subtitled Homecoming — should keep fans of the series happy and newcomers on the edges of their seats.
Although this is the sixth Silent Hill game, they have little to do with one another. One common link amongst the games is the title town — a mysterious, fog-soaked everytown that hides many dark secrets. “Atmosphere” is the key word when talking about Silent Hill, and Homecoming is no different.
You take on the role of Alex Shepherd, the eldest son in the Shepherd family, looking for his younger brother Joshua. Along the way, Alex will meet denizens of Shepherd’s Glen as he tries to unravel the mystery of his missing brother, his own past, and the town of Silent Hill.
Characterization is important in Homecoming, and the characters feel real — in no small part due to wonderful voice acting and life-like facial animations. From Alex’s clearly disturbed mother, to his overbearing father, to his love interest Elle, all the main characters have their memorable moments and are important to the narrative.
The majority of the scares in the game come not from the creatures (although they are grotesque), but from the many unsettling twists and turns in the plot. And the scares are aplenty. This is not “zombie dog jumps out from the window” à la Resident Evil or the “Imp pops out of a closet” technique of Doom 3. It’s more “holy crap, that is twisted” revelations when story elements start falling into place. They’re the types of scares that truly resonate.
Make no mistake, Homecoming is gory. Very gory. Enemies are bloody, human-like abominations, from the hulking conjoined twin Siam to the infamous Nurses. These enemies will make players’ skin crawl. Furthering the gore factor is the visceral combat.
Combat has always been a problem in Silent Hill titles. Created to be “intentionally difficult” for the purpose of further immersing you in an everyman role and heightening your sense of fear, the combat system has been tweaked to be more user-friendly. The left trigger enters combat mode, targeting the nearest threat with whatever weapon Alex has equipped. ‘A’ is a light attack and ‘X’ is a heavy attack, the two of which can be strung together for simple combos.
The real depth comes from the dodge and counter system. The ‘B’ button dodges and can be pressed along with any of the four directions. Timing is integral here, as a poorly timed dodge will result in the player getting knocked back or sliced up. If a successful dodge is executed, players can follow it up with a heavy attack that can stun enemies. After all of that, a devastating finishing move (unique with every weapon) will dispatch your foe.
The system is by no means easy, but is much more intuitive and complex than in the past. Late in the game, enemy attacks must be dodged, or you will find yourself burning through health drinks and constantly on your back. While the game focuses on melee combat (using knives, pipes and fire axes), there is an amount of controlled gunplay. Alex will get a few guns over the course of the game, but ammo is very limited and best saved for the more difficult creatures.
It would be uncouth to spoil anything too detailed about them, but the bosses in Homecoming are some of the most creative and disgusting monsters I’ve encountered in a video game. They’re difficult, require players to use all of their skills, and there is a true feeling of accomplishment that comes with beating them. Once you run into the first boss of the game, you’ll understand.
Still, there are some elements of Homecoming that left me scratching my head once the credits rolled. Button-mashing mini-games are an unwelcome addition. They occur if an enemy grasps you in its clutches from a certain attack, or if Alex has to pry open a door or slice through something with the knife. The one time this feature shines is near the end and involves a drill. This part alone made the sore wrists almost worth it.
There are also limited dialogue options, times when Alex can choose a response. These are half-baked and inconsequential, save for a handful of key choices. This is not Mass Effect and shouldn’t have tried to be.
Puzzles have always been a part of the survival horror genre, and really shouldn’t be anymore, at least not like this. The puzzles in Homecoming are simply awful. Many of them come down to random trial and error — such as fixing a fuse box by randomly moving wires around. There are a few where you have to use your brain and look for clues and these are rewarding, but the majority of them stunk and served to remove the player from the atmosphere.
Homecoming is a game that is more than the sum of its parts. If one were to dissect the game into graphics (above average), sound (great), game play (serviceable) and story (compelling), Homecoming would probably be an above average, but not great, title. The problem is, there are far too few titles like Homecoming being released now. Not survival horror titles per se, but games that create atmosphere and use story to drive the game. As the game neared its climax, I was (as corny as it sounds) on the edge of my seat, leaning toward my TV, anxious to see what would happen next.
If you want a change of pace from all the action/first-person shooter titles that are flooding the market at this time, go out and pick up Silent Hill: Homecoming. Just make sure to play it with all the lights out and the volume up.