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Silent Hill: Homecoming

Familiarity and New-Fangled Influence Scare Up the 'Hill'
Purists, heed caution; Silent Hill: Homecoming isn't a carbon copy of the rest of the series. Similar to the shift in the Resident Evil universe that occurred when RE4 surprised the horror-survival gaming niche, Silent Hill has experienced a re-engineering of sorts. Gone are the gripes of unpolished and narrative-serviceable controls, while newer gripes of actual, tangible difficulty arise. Come at it with an open mind, and you might just find the strongest gameplay experience of the lot. However, Konami's highly-anticipated new installment in their long-standing film-like horror series unquestionably departs from the conventions that you've grown accustomed to.

The Game:

Silent Hill: Homecoming comes from development house Double Helix (aka The Collective and Shiny Entertainment), a major change from the Japanese-based Team Silent that has worked on all the previous console Silent Hill games. If there's one thing that'll raise a hair or two on the necks of horror survival enthusiasts, it's the idea of replacing writers and production teams with a new house that holds little experience in the universe. Thankfully, composer and producer Akira Yamaoka has tagged along to make sure Silent Hill has been done its duly-deserved justice. Because of his participation and Double Helix's appreciation for the series, this sixth entry into the universe succeeds in the same vein as the rest of its sequels -- as a darkly gorgeous mystery / horror hybrid that takes you into the depths of dream-like torment and hellish chaos.

In Homecoming's convincing family-based story, our core hero is Alex Shepherd -- a weathered soldier returning to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen after a traumatizing tour of duty. Of course, when he arrives, everything seems very, very different: a thick cloud has been draped over its outlines, frightening sounds echo in the darkness, and several people have gone missing. One of those people who have disappeared is Alex's brother Joshua, which happens to be an image that Alex has been playing over and over in his dreams. He navigates through the nightmarish town, fueled by the disgruntled pressure coming from his mother, in a frantic search to locate him before he's lost in the darkness.

Along the way in this trip through typical Silent Hill territory, we're lead through a blend of subconscious ponderings and fears in Alex's mind -- some of which center on the violent actions of his disturbed father, a man who believed Alex to be deranged and bizarre -- with the monster-swarmed environment of this new Shepherd's Glen. Surprisingly, it opts away from many opportunities to be thematically deep, opting instead to run-and-gun with visceral shocks instead of relentlessly cause skin to crawl with melancholy ideologies. Eventually, though it takes a little too long, Alex finds his way to Silent Hill. As he gets closer and closer, more of the monstrous "rejects of evolution" (read: baddies) begin to close in on him. To be honest, and this might be hard to believe, but Silent Hill: Homecoming had me more physically edgy at several points than I've probably ever been across the rest of the series. There's an especially robust blend of traditional popcorn-horror effects and those typically-smooth discomforting grotesqueries present in Homecoming. Yamaoka's haunting score works almost as a plot device in itself as it connects visceral exercises in terror with his melodically ominous style.

Part of the eerie storytelling prowess in the Silent Hill universe relies on visual mood and illustration, something Homecoming undoubtedly tackles with vigor. As to be expected, movement comes from the normal usage of the analog stick, though the running and side-strutting mechanics have been tinkered to allow further ease of movement. When it comes to navigating through its customary roster of labyrinthine structures, such as hospitals and hotels, Homecoming slams the nail on the head with a giant sledgehammer. Close-quartered hallways, rickety floorboards, and empty chasms to the pits of the earth adorn the hazy atmosphere. It's an atmosphere that Silent Hill fans can see more of, since Homecoming has become the first entry into the universe to incorporate a complete 360-degree camera angle. Just expect some slow-down and infuriating environmental blocks in this engrossing process once you've got a fairly-useless tagalong trotting along. (Ashley, anyone?)

However, the visual style also has a darker and colder palette than previous entries; at several points in Homecoming's darker landscapes, it was downright impossible to discern what was going on in our limited range of vision. Sure, that adds to the series' claustrophobic appeal, but it also becomes agitating when, even with Alex's flashlight in the "on" position, objects right before his eyesight can't really be outlined. This occurs on a negligible basis, though, and actually works more to the advantage of the game's atmosphere than as a gear-stopping hindrance. In contrast, the usage of shadows and silhouette here left a complete opposite impression, outlining far-away movement and shadows with creepy effectiveness.

Control Nuts and Bolts:

This darker aesthetic adds a dash of attitude to the game's close-quartered combat, which, as a testament to the true departure of Silent Hill: Homecoming from the rest of the series, has been retooled for much more physical involvement. One negative that all lovers of the Silent Hill series -- me being one of the bigger ones -- can attest to is the rickety, unresponsive fumbling battle mechanics. It made the process of beating the tar out of crawling "squawking creatures and fumbling-drunken zombie nurses singular fun: shift into combat mode, fire / wield weapon, repeat until object has stopped moving. Homecoming, in an effort to further engross gamers, has provided a combat style that's creative, thoughtful, and a lot more difficult than before. When you lock into combat stance, still using the L2 trigger button, you're taken to a catty-cornered camera angle. Combined with great depth-of-field rendering, this closeness brings this entry's fantastic usage of bizarre monster models -- both using fresh concepts and tailored oldies-but-goodies -- to a tighter proximity that lend them an almost realistic property.

Once in this battle mode, you have two options with melee weapons: strong attacks and quick attacks. Using the right rhythm of swift shots and hardcore blows on enemies becomes both fun and necessary, especially since the monsters range in quickness and strength. For example, using a slower, more powerful axe on a slower creature like the customary acid-shooters renders an effective result, while trying to tackle the ridiculously quick nurses with anything but a bowie knife becomes an exercise in futility. And, trust me, the enemies are a lot more difficult to hit this time around; between blade-tipped crab / spider like creatures, beasts with razor pendulums swinging from their faces, and the oft-mentioned iconic nurses, Homecoming might have you cursing in fits over difficulty -- while also marveling at the fantastically morbid artistry in their design. It also introduces a rickety duck-and-roll dodge mechanic that, to be honest, adds more frustration than practical implementation. Most of the time, Alex rolls a little far away for manual counter attacks. Now, these programmed counter-attacks can be a lot of fun to use -- however, they're inconsistently integrated into the control scheme.

Once you grab a hold of a gun, however, Silent Hill: Homecoming's going to feel like a completely different ballgame. Whether Alex is using a shotgun, pistol, or other assorted ammunition-based weaponry, you'll be surprised at this new serviceable implementation. The overwhelmingly clumsy firing controls from the previous games has been completely scraped for a behind-the-shoulder point of view. Aiming feels strongly akin to the multitude of other third-person shooter games, such as Dark Sector, in that Alex will be concentrating his burst with a spiffy little intelligent crosshair pointer. Once a firearm has been equipped and the "combat" trigger has been held, view is taken behind the shoulder as simple as that. Then, you fire -- though, when you use the same trigger button that the melee attacks use, it feels a little different than other third-person shooter games and might take a little adjustment. The crosshair registers proximity to degrees, as well as a "lock-on" sort of mechanism. Reloading is as simple as pushing a button, though it takes a bit of time to get the new clip / shells armed. Long story short: forget about the dusty old rickety shooting controls from previous Silent Hill games and make way for this new easy to pick up cookie-cutter aiming scheme -- and, trust me, that's really not a bad thing.

Items become more than just combat tools as the game progresses, which adds an atmospheric but rudimentary advancement. At several points, doors are walled off by locked gates, nailed boards, etc. To combat this, your weapons come into use in very utilitarian ways -- hatchet can be used for boarded-up doors, crowbar for prying open doors, and the like. It integrates into Homecoming's new push-button mechanism, strangely evocative of Resident Evil 4's repetition of button-mashing rapidity and timing. Prompts at the front of the door tell Alex what can be done with the barrier, which much line up with the weapons in your inventory. He's got to equip the right weapon, which actually works well with the inventory scrolling menus. Hitting L1 toggles your assorted item menu -- distributing health drinks and first-aid kits via push buttons, as well as selecting other non-playable tools -- while L2 works with fully usable items like toggling weapons, flipping on the flashlight / radio, etc. The new layout shows a lot of maturity over the previous installments, but still works with familiarity to its precedents. And don't worry; unlike the headscratch-worthy infiniteness of Silent Hill: Origin's inventory system, there's definitely a taut cap on the amount of stuff you can lug around on your persons -- no more lugging around seven television and nine filing cabinets in your back pocket.

As you're getting slashed and bloodied up to a pulp, which actually might happen quite a few times due to the shifting enemy difficulties, there's a nicely-integrated and subtle "crescent moon" health meter to the left of the screen for monitoring the right time for a health boost. As a departure from the "feel heartbeat, pause, check status, use vial / first-aid" rhythm of the older games, Homecoming keeps you fairly up-to-snuff on your status at all physically-demanding points. It adds a certain awareness about your health, however, that doesn't align with the series' touch-and-go intuitive feel that gives it a mildly more realistic property.

Added into this "realism" is a new conversation mechanic that arises once you meet one of several key outlandish entities in the universe. Instead of finding support characters, clicking on them, and getting their stock answers (especially annoying in SH2), you're given the option to ask several questions that'll potentially push buttons and affect rapport -- though, they don't seem to change the outcome of preceding events too much with different answers. They're more the difference between "elaborate" and "cut to the chase" options, ones that'll either give you more history or stop the conversation abruptly. But, surely, these answers play some bearings on the tally sheet that leads up to the series' signature multiple-endings. It grew to four, I believe, with The Room, and is certain to have just as many here.

On a whole, Double Helix's new mechanics and influences integrated into Silent Hill: Homecoming's gameplay make for a richer gaming experience. Their influences for the game's alterations can be clearly seen, yet these decisions to incorporate other more-refined control ideas are also some of the smartest moves that the series could've rustled up for itself. Are these efforts flawless, or even original? Not at all, but the experience in soaking in this new Silent Hill world stands as an original-enough experience that warranted a little boost from other influences to re-mold its operational attributes. Silent Hill fans should be pleased with the alterations, while hardcore gamers will probably walk away feeling a little dissatisfied and cheated if soaking in the potency of the "big picture" narrative isn't their primary goal.

Graphic & Sound Operations, and Longevity:

Homecoming's 720p graphics on the Playstation 3 looks about the way you'd expect a high-definition Silent Hill experience to look, leaning more towards the aesthetics from Silent Hill 2 than others in the series. Actually, if I had to describe the lighting and texture effects to more detail, I'd probably say that they more closely mirror Christopher Gans' Silent Hill film more than they do the other games in the series. You end up steer into the colder, slate-colored atmosphere more often than the burnt oranges and browns -- which is a shame, because those scorching shades make the image absolutely pop. Shading work was well rendered across the board, save for a few flickering light shadows here and there. The signature noise effect actually looks quite nice here, especially once enemies start to approach and the image gets that gritty torn-up film feel about it. Normally, I turn the filter off in the "secret menu", but it adds some solid personality to the image in this case.

Alex's character movement and modeling seem influenced from the work on The Room, which was the strongest part of that entry. Body movement is handled well here, giving a natural flow about Alex's running and fighting motions. The reaction time in his attacks are a little stilted in spots, but not terribly. Alex's facial rendering, however, really didn't sell me. I kept asking myself "Where the hell are his eyebrows?" every time he had a close-up. Textures and facial structure looked fine, but his face always looks a little alien. Supporting characters handle facial differences better, but not by too much.

Two things about the graphical renderings: for one, there's some awful framerate slowdown at several points. Double Helix did great things in incorporating three-dimensionality into the rotating camera, but it didn't completely work through the technical aspects of it. Along with jagged aliasing on edges, jittering frames become a regular occurrence as you spin around in alternating circles with view changes. Not only is this unsightly, but it also affects combat reaction as well. It's all because of the great amount of detail placed in the graphics, which is the second not-so-strong point. A few scenes, like close-ups of the signature bosses all along the way and textures lining the scenery, really exemplify the usage of high-definition rendering. However, many times when you're just trotting around in the darkness, you're not experiencing much more awe-inspiring detail in Homecoming that you would by playing the other entries in the series. Contours and textures shine through the veiled darkness infrequently, creating a 50 / 50 level between next-gen sumptuousness and old-school meat-and-potatoes -- which, if we're being honest here, worked out just fine for the experience.

Audio wise, Silent Hill: Homecoming gets about every single thing just right. Sound has always been a major element in the series, providing cringe-worthy sound effects that gracefully flow with the rhythmic eeriness of Yamaoka's electronic scores. In Homecoming, you're treated to both of these aural pleasures -- yet, it also has a close focus on punchy standard scare tactics as well. If your system's set up for surround channels, all the better: Homecoming's usage of multi-directional effects -- from closing doors to growls in the distance -- add a audible depth of field that heavily enhances the experience. It took me a good three or so hours into the game to lose the unnerving feeling caused by the sound of a door slamming behind me in every room that I entered. It probably goes without saying, as I've referenced his efforts several times in the review, but Akira Yamaoka's score matches these tense scare tactics with his signature punch once again.

Each of the older Silent Hill games usually take between seven (7) to ten (10) hours to get through their narrative, and that's a suitable timeframe for each story. The type of erratic narrative that the Silent Hill series offers isn't made for drawn-out gaming experience that last 20-30+ hours, instead creating a cinematic experience made for repeat viewings that'll still give up a few jolts with the third or fourth time through. Homecoming is no exception, as the story follows a similar sort of timeline. However, you'll probably be able to squeeze an hour or two more in than you might with the others, just based on the entertainment value of the new combat system and the winding nature of the scenery. Plus, the creepy family storyline is intriguing enough to endure a few times over as several different endings wiggle into repeat trips into Shepherd's Glen and Silent Hill.

Final Thoughts:

But is Silent Hill: Homecoming the enlightening next-gen console addition that the game's fanbase have been yearning for since 2004's wishy-washy installment Silent Hill 4: The Room? As one of those enthusiasts, it's easy to say that the gameplay shifts, narrative concentration, and traditional scare tactics infused into an exceedingly familiar environment offered a fresh take on a weakening mechanic -- in droves. Gathering influences from the successes of other stock control schemes to enhance the playability may have been a smart move in keeping the brand's mainstay atmosphere afloat amid more intricate control mechanics and dramatic investment. Though it feels like Silent Hill in aesthetic rendering, those use to turning off gaming mechanics to soak in the creepy atmosphere) will find a different and, in ways, more heavily-invested experience with Double Helix's take on the universe. Just think of Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil 4 tossed in a blender, blended together, and etched onto the screen in high-definition goodness, and you'll have a pretty good grasp.

Quick and dirty word? Homecoming isn't pure Silent Hill, but it offers a Highly Recommended restructuring of the series that keeps up with the speed of a more inventive gaming universe while staying very true to the brand's core visual and thematic essence.