The Silent Hill series has seen some rough times over the past few years. After the disappointing Silent Hill 4: The Room, and Team Silent's departure from the series leaving Climax UK to create the solid, yet uninspired prequel Silent Hill: Origins, it's quite easy for any longstanding fan of the series to be skeptical. With the reins being handed to yet another developer for the fifth game, the question on everyone's mind remains the same: Does the absence of Team Silent mean yet another uninspired Silent Hill game?
The answer would be yes…and no. While new developer Double Helix definitely does play it very safe by retaining (and reusing) staples of the series, Silent Hill: Homecoming also happens to be a very worthy follow up to the SH legacy.
SH: Homecoming tells the story of Alex Shepherd, a soldier who after a series of bad dreams returns to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen only to find it in disarray. A thick fog covers the streets, unspeakable monsters are prowling about, and nearly everyone in the town, including his brother Joshua, has gone missing. Finding him becomes the top priority, as well as discovering exactly what's happened to his home, and how it's connected to a similar situation at a town across the lake called–you guessed it–Silent Hill.
While the basic premise is the same as previous games, the story in Homecoming is actually more straightforward and less mazelike than its predecessors. There are certainly less questions by the time the credits roll, and the second playthrough is definitely viewed in a different light thanks to a twist more than halfway through the game that I dare not divulge here. The seemingly ubiquitous Pyramid Head also makes his appearance, and it isn't likely to disappoint either.
The gameplay however, has received a bit of an overhaul on its trip to the next gen, with more of a focus on combat, and less on puzzles. This however, isn't entirely a bad thing, with the puzzle solutions being much less obscure and combat being robust and visceral, yet not as over the top as some would have you believe. Melee combat takes up a considerable part of your enemy encounters, with two types of attacks and an evasive roll/block button, and weapons are handled with a Resident Evil 4 style over the shoulder aiming perspective. While it's true that Alex is an ex-soldier, his combat experience doesn't spill over in a manner that would have a passerby confusing this for an
action game. Even though he doesn't quite share the awkwardness of previous protagonists, his gestures and movements still give you the impression that he's fighting to survive. It may not sound like much on paper, but it's something that goes a long way on screen. Whether or not his competence in battle translates into more or less fright though, is entirely up to the player. The game is still creepy, and there are plenty of jump-out-of-the-seat- moments to be had.
Another improvement made to the core game has to do with the stages themselves. Previously, a loading screen of some sort separated every section. Here, the loading screens are few, and moving from room to room is seamless, with extra actions such as ducking underneath objects and vaulting over others. The fact that the enemies also share
this ability heightens the tension since you can no longer escape into rooms due to their ability to follow you around.
Sound wise, the game maintains its excellence, with generally good voice acting from all characters, along with Akira Yamaoka's signature industrial music and hauntingly realistic sound effects losing nothing in the shift between creators. Visually, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The developers decided to take many audio and visual cues from the 2006 movie, and it works quite well. From the environments to the creature design, whether you're in the foggy, deserted streets of Shepherd's Glen and Silent Hill, or the dingy, rusted caverns of the Otherworld, each locale is guaranteed to unsettle or awe over the course of this 10 hour game. I've had very few stages in a game stick in my mind, but the images presented during the Hell Descent, or the lumbering gait of the Siam won't be leaving me anytime soon.
That being said, the actual in-game graphics are a bit on the disappointing side. Even though the lighting is excellent (occasionally, the game can be a bit TOO dark, even on the highest brightness setting) and the textures are detailed, the game just isn't the visual powerhouse previous games in the series have been. Silent Hill has always had a tradition of visual excellence, but this game doesn't stand out as much as say, Silent Hill 3 did at the time of its release.
A curious omission however, was the decision to remove the rankings and stats from the game. One of the more enjoyable aspects of playing a Silent Hill game was seeing just how well you could do in a single playthrough, giving way to all sorts of fun unlockables and Easter eggs. Its omission severely undercuts the game's replay value, even though the game does still have several endings and secret weapons to discover. The game is also a host to a number of game breaking glitches that hamper the experience. I've had the game freeze on me after a cutscene, the collision detection is a spot off, occasionally causing my attacks to pass through enemies, and on one occasion, a scripted event failed to occur, leaving me with no options other than quitting and starting the sequence over. These don't happen often, in fact they happened over the course of several playthroughs, but the fact that they exist certainly cost the game a few points, and the only reason they were tolerated has to do with me being a huge fan of the series.
The bottom line would be, is the game worth it? If you are a fan of the Silent Hill series, a purchase goes without saying. Double Helix has given it a sorely needed overhaul while retaining what's made it great, and even though newcomers to the series may not love it as much as the regulars (for them, I would recommend try before you buy), there's still a frightful time to be had for all.