The last time I reviewed a Silent Hill game, I was playing through SH:Origins, a PSP original developed by an American team with a greater focus on combat than previous games in the series. At the time, I made two points which I thought encapsulated the nature of Silent Hill games. Firstly, I asserted that reliance on locked doors, constant map checking, and finicky combat are an easy way to make your game feel tedious, repetitive, and full of cheap parlor tricks. True they can help create a frightening and oppressive tone when used correctly, but I would argue that no one has been able to do that since the very first game. Secondly, I stated Silent Hill games benefit from their tendency to shape enemies and environments around the mental projections of their protagonist. In the end, the experience left me pessimistic about the future of the franchise.
My return to the franchise finds me playing Silent Hill: Homecoming, which once again is American made, and focuses on combat. This time around, I feel the same way about the series’ basic game design, but I have changed my stance in regards to my second point. My enjoyment of any given Silent Hill game is inversely related to how much psychological mumbo jumbo is present. Whereas Origins tried its best to emulate previous games in this department, Homecoming leaves it as an option to the player, while delivering a main plot that is easy to understand and digest. To be sure, Homecoming is a buggy game, and its combat has a lot of room for improvement. But for the first time since the original, I feel like I have found a Silent Hill game that clicks with my vision of what this series should be. Considering the still hostile reaction from many fans, I won’t go so far as to say I am now filled with optimism, but the potential is definitely there.
Before Silent Hill became obsessed with metaphor and heroes with mental disorders, it was an unconfident horror game released in the wake of Resident Evil, with the goal of putting an everyday guy into Hell on Earth. This meant that he was barely capable of defending himself, and at times we saw him react to his situation with despair and confusion. This is contrasted with later protagonists who meander through foggy, monster filled streets as if there were nothing to it. Homecoming returns to the original approach, featuring a young soldier named Alex Shepard returning from war, only to find his hometown in shambles and his brother missing. Despite all the pre-release hoopla about the implications of playing as a soldier, this change is far less dramatic than it was made out to be. While Shepard’s occupation grants him better combat abilities, he is not a meathead. Like many young enlisted men, he is a normal person during civilian life; he reacts to the horrors around him with shock and fear, and he constantly demands answers. He ends up being one of the most relatable protagonists in the series.
Likewise, the story itself echoes the simple setup of Silent Hill 1. Our everyman’s family is threatened by an order of cultists whose god is responsible for the town’s evil nature. A master plan is uncovered, truths are revealed, and our hero will face his fate based on what ending you receive. As is typical with Silent Hill games, most of the twists are left to the very end, though once discovered they are easy to understand. I realize that this goes against what many consider to be the series’ strength, but it is nice for once to have a Silent Hill game which does not require endless points and counter points about what it really means. That being said, there are still metaphors to interpret and hidden symbols which link and reinforce the game’s major themes.
Meanwhile, Alex has some troubled history which shapes the course of the story. The difference is that in Homecoming, the hidden stuff is never required, and Alex’s past is only partially hidden. These elements exist to please the most attentive fans, and indicate that the developer was more thoughtful than they were being pegged for, but you can safely ignore the extra elements should you choose to. I think that is a compromise we should all get behind.
Graphically, the environments in Homecoming are nothing to write home about, but the lighting system does exactly what it needs to. Most areas are plunged into oppressive darkness, which allows your flashlight to dance realistically on the walls, showing you horrors you might not have wanted to see, while outside your flashlight is barely able to illuminate the path in front of you. This helps to create an overall feeling of dread, in which you are fearful to move anywhere or do anything, since you can never be sure what might be around the corner.
Feelings of dread can quickly subside, however, if the combat is not up to par. This is why SH1 affected me more than 2 (where enemies are hardly aggressive). Due to the new combat engine, the enemies in Homecoming are the most deadly of all. Their attacks are fast and strong, and they can and will dodge your moves. Thankfully, Alex has his own arsenal of strikes and defensive maneuvers to help him out. The playing field is even, at least until the matter of intelligence comes into play. The AI behaves in such a manner that if they land an attack, they will follow up with several more. If you immediately respond with an attack of your own, it will almost always be interrupted by something faster from your foe, followed by yet another combo. The only way out of this situation is to dodge and counter attack, which ends up taking so long that you may easily make a mistake and find yourself being drained of health all over again.
The AI’s cheapness gives enemies an unfair edge, which can only be countered by the human brain’s ability to learn. After enough fights, you will discover that with the right timing, you can land a fully charged heavy attack on an approaching enemy, and follow up with several more heavy attacks as they get up off the ground. This method prevents them from ever laying a finger on you, and completely neutralizes certain enemies. Others are just as easily felled by repeating the same combo until they die. While not all of the monsters in Homecoming are this easy to dispatch, I found myself with an abundance of healing items by the end.
I mentioned bugs at the start of this review, and I haven’t forgotten about them. I just wish they were easy to classify. They range from having your character being stuck on an object, to permanently disabiling your flashlight. While I never lost more than half an hour of progress to a glitch, I have heard of others quitting in frustration. How much they affect your experience will hinge on a variety of factors.
By the time I had finished Silent Hill: Homecoming, I could not think of any instances in which I was genuinely frightened. This is partly due to being desensitized to horror games, and partly due to the game’s flaws. However, I can also acknowledge that it was certainly trying. After all the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this series after Silent Hill 2, Homecoming finally tries to get everything back on track. It doesn’t quite get there, but I hope that future installments take some cues and keep it on a simple, creepy path, fans be damned.