Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Developer: Double Helix
Review Date: 5/1/10
Alex Shepherd is a war veteran returning home to Shepherd's Glen, a cozy little town on the shores of Toluca Lake. Unfortunately, the town is in ruins and enveloped in a thick fog, much like the neighboring town of Silent Hill. There's even a presence of ash, which weaves in some continuity from the film adaptation of the series. Alex visits his childhood home in search of his brother Josh, whom he fears is in grave danger. He finds his mother in a near catatonic state, and further exploration of the house reveals that Josh was the favored son and that Alex was an unloved child. It isn't long before the town is crawling with monsters and Alex has his hands full trying to stay alive. With even more references to the movie, it appears that The Order from Silent Hill has extended its influence to Shepherd's Glen, and Alex plays a pivotal role in their involvement. Unfortunately, the game becomes so ridiculously difficult after the first boss encounter that I was forced to give up. Perhaps even more sad is that the story and characters weren't engaging enough to bother trying to continue. Much like the previous "Silent Hill: Origins" (2008), without a way to cheat, there's little reason to bother with the punishing difficulty.
Ever since the superb "Silent Hill 2" (2001), the series has become more combat oriented and more physically demanding. While Alex is the most physically capable of the series' protagonists, the monsters are considerably more dangerous this time around. Even a nurse can kill you in a couple of strikes if you're not careful. One of the new combat mechanics is a dodge maneuver, but it's so slow to respond that it's rarely helpful. Alex also has strong and weak melee attacks, and ranged weapons have to be manually aimed. Again, the combat controls are extremely sluggish and you never know if and when any of your attacks will happen or if they'll even connect. Adding insult to injury, some monsters will even block your attacks. As with any survival horror game, inventory is a constant problem, and while Alex can carry numerous weapons, he can only carry eighteen bullets. Bullets are exceedingly scarce, and even the weak monsters take about eight rounds to drop, making the guns effectively worthless. Another change to the navigation controls is that Alex strafes on the main stick and you have to turn on the secondary stick. The benefit is that you can now walk backwards, but there's no way to quickly turn around. The controls never quite feel right, even after playing for six hours or more. Thankfully, Alex doesn't run out of breath like his predecessors, so he can easily outrun most monsters.
The inventory wheels are clumsy and poorly implemented, but the worst offender is the map controls. The "Silent Hill" games have always been praised for their ingenious and helpful maps, but "Homecoming" makes the map very hard to use. The default low-res version is almost useless, and zooming in defaults to the center of the map rather than your current position. The panning controls are jerky and there's no way to change maps when you're zoomed. The whole thing is an unfortunate mess. Another thing that's common in the "Silent Hill" games is lots of background reading material. Alex runs across all sorts of notes, records, and journals that shed light on the game, but he doesn't get to keep any of them. That makes it hard to analyze and correlate with other material that he finds. He also collects photos and drawings, and while those end up in Alex's journal, you can only view them as thumbnails, which makes them rather pointless.
Once again, Konami handed the development to an American team, and as a result "Homecoming" lacks the bizarre and sublime Japanese influences that made the earlier games so delightfully twisted. Alex is possibly the least likable protagonist of the series, and his story isn't very interesting - at least for the first 5-6 hours. I've heard that it gets much better if you can make it at least halfway through the game, but that's not going to happen for me, given how unreasonably difficult the first quarter was. And to make things even worse, save points are often spaced more than an hour apart, making incremental progress a hefty chore and requiring large chunks of dedicated time (which I rarely have).
Still, for all of my griping, what "Homecoming" does extremely well is nail the "Silent Hill" aesthetic. Everything looks gorgeous, and the environments convey an excellent sense of isolation and decay. The lighting and dynamic shadows are superb, unless you happen to be standing up against a wall. Then the entire room goes black. The flashlight is mostly useless, but there are several times when it comes in handy. Another interesting thing is that you can actually get lost in the fog if you wander off the map far enough, and it can be very tricky to find your way back. Perhaps the biggest improvement in presentation is the ability to look in every direction. The earlier games in the series had locked down camera angles, so being able to freely look at everything makes for a much more immersive and exploratory experience. Alex doesn't spend hardly any time in the Dark World, but when he does, the environment changes in real time, mirroring the transformation effects in the movie. SH2's Pyramid Head shows up for a couple of cameos which is quite delightful, but he fails to create a sense of dread and doom. Perhaps he has something special planned for Alex... He also gets renamed "Bogeyman" in this game for some reason, but to me he'll always be Pyramid Head. The various monsters look quite good and the iconic nurse creatures are modeled after their film counterparts. However, I personally prefer the SH2 renditions. One annoying aspect of the monsters is that their corpses disappear shortly after they are killed. While anything is fair game in Silent Hill, I've always found persistent bodies to be a great way to keep myself grounded and oriented in the environment. Having them disappear just adds unnecessary confusion.
Ultimately, I found "Silent Hill: Homecoming" to be disappointing because I couldn't immerse myself into the story and actually enjoy it. I had neither the skill or endurance to stand up to the game's numerous threats against Alex's life, and it eventually became too much of a chore to even try. This is unfortunate, because I really would have liked to see how things turned out in the end, and what sins Alex was being punished for.