Much like an encounter I once had with an anonymous Filipino whore, the original Silent Hill did something to me when I was younger—something that I didn’t know was possible, and to which nothing since has ever come close. And since then, every time a new Silent Hill game is released (and every time I have a business trip to the Philippines) I let myself get just a little excited by the prospect that maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to replicate even half of that original experience. That said, considering the recent hacking away at the franchise’s good name at the hands of barbaric westerners (not that SH4 was particularly encouraging either), the thought of the next proper current-gen console installment being farmed out to Double Helix, a mutant child of some series of mergers of developers largely responsible for jack shit worth noting, had said excitement at an all-time low. Going into Silent Hill: Homecoming with my expectations lowered as such, I was actually not terribly disappointed. I expected it to suck ass and rape the corpse of my most beloved series of games, and instead it only sucked balls and posed next to the ice-packed cadaver giving the “thumbs up” gesture.
In Homecoming, you start the game off strapped to a gurney being wheeled down the halls of a hospital, blatantly ripping off Jacob’s Ladder, right down to protagonist and army vet Alex talking like he’s from the 70s. Your first task is to mash a button as prompted in the corner of the screen, which, in addition to being probably the stupidest gameplay mechanic known to man, totally ruins the mood for the first time of many throughout the game. The first thing you’ll probably notice once you gain control is that the beloved 3D “tank” controls from SH 1-3 are gone, but not replaced with the 2D “Mario” style optional in 2-3 and mandatory in 4. No, the game instead takes the oxymoronic “third-person FPS” approach, delegating forward/back/strafing to the left stick and turning/looking to the right (no quick-turn, by the way). There may not be anything inherently wrong with this control style per se, but it should be immediately apparent that this makes the disorienting and suspenseful camera angles—a hallmark of the series and one of its most effective tools—a thing of the past.
The gunplay takes a cue from Resident Evil 4 and its zoom-in-over-the-shoulder aiming style, with the notable difference that you can walk while aiming. Melee weapons behave similarly, sans the view zoom. There is a neat little “dodge” button that you can use to duck or roll out of the way, but it’s so picky that unless you actually take the time to study it and meticulously memorize the attack patterns of the enemies, it comes off as being just plain broken. Since there are probably no more than 20 of even the most commonly occurring enemy, a regular play-through won’t afford you this opportunity. And since when using guns this ability becomes largely superfluous, you have even fewer chances both to figure it out and to need to.
Speaking of gunplay vs. melee fighting, survival horror veteran compulsive ammo-hoarders like myself will find themselves compelled—for better or worse—to play a significantly more projectile-heavy game due to the surprisingly low caps on ammo. The first time I was told that “I can’t carry any more” bullets and stopped trying to kill everything with the fucking axe and the finicky dodging, the frustratingly hard game became—and remained—a cakewalk. Healing items, on the other hand, have no inventory limit, and while they aren’t as overwhelmingly abundant as in the previous games, I still ended up with so many by the end that I could basically just stand there and let the final boss hit me until I hacked it to death.
The sloppy, rushed and glitch-ridden nature of the game also deserves mention. Take the save point and checkpoint system for example. Sometimes you’ll have no checkpoints for a 20 minute stretch of monotony culminating in a tough battle with multiple enemies; die, and you have to do it all again, and again and again. Right after that you’ll find a 5 minute stretch of uneventful hall-strolling with 3 save points AND a checkpoint! Or how about the skipability of the cutscenes, which seems to have been determined based on coin-flips? In order to get all the endings, you’ll have to sit through about 20 minutes of mind-numbing exposition near the end of the game 5 times (or go take care of various household chores if you’re smart like I was). Apparently on the PS3 version, skipping the longest of these crashes the game. On the PC, they “fixed” that issue by just not letting you skip it at all.
In other news, one of the bosses has a one-hit-kill grapple move that’s near-impossible to avoid, and when it grabs you that most retarded of retarded devices, the button-mash prompt, flashes on the screen. But it quite simply doesn’t work, no matter how fast you mash. So you fucking die. And they just left it broken in the final game. On my machine some of the buttons randomly stop working each time you start a new game, and stay that way, “following” your save file. It took me nearly two hours of creatively working around this via joy2key hacks, and in the end I had to sacrifice the walk and weapon inventory buttons just to play the game.
And all you Silent Hill PC fans will no doubt be expecting what has become a bona fide feature of the PC ports—broken sound—and Homecoming doesn’t disappoint here either. All of the cutscenes are slightly out of sync, and although I can’t confirm if that is only on the PC version, it is broken in another exclusive way! Get this—the custscene audio only comes out of one speaker or the other! And I confirmed that this is how it is for everyone, not just me, as baffling and infuriating as it is. So, PC gamers, if you haven’t gotten used to it over the last few years, enjoy paying full price for your shabby, mangled version and no hope of any support in the future. And now you get all that plus no box, no manual, and no disc, and no choice not to install some crap software you don’t want!
OK, so the mediocre Western action game I’ve attempted to describe is just that—mediocre. It’s not particularly good or bad, and neither were the other Silent Hills as mediocre Japanese action games. The horror and mythos are what made them spectacular. And by the way these aspects are casually tossed aside and bits and pieces of them crudely and thoughtlessly transplanted into Homecoming, one might suspect that the developers’ only experience with the previous installments was occasionally glancing over the shoulder of someone else who was playing the games while furiously masturbating to the nurse scene in the equally insipid movie. Within the first 10 minutes of the game, long-time fans will no doubt be hungry for answers to why Pyramid-head (who is now called “Bogeyman”) and the aforementioned sexy nurses from SH2 have been manifested in Alex’s nightmare world. These answers are nowhere to be found, and the pervasive lack of any significant cohesion with the overall SH universe, though at first disconcerting, amounts to an unlikely act of mercy; since the connection to the other stories is limited to a few sparse references, perhaps fans can just disown this as a failed gaiden and pray that the next one doesn’t make this bastardization into a trend.
The one thing that is nice and refreshing about the story, however, is the actual dialogue. Other than a few minor-though-embarrassing text typos, the writing is a breath of fresh air. Instead of the story filtered through some room of careless hack translators who probably did one line each and had no idea what they were writing about, we actually get characters speaking real English, the way English-speaking people would. No more Japanese-style non sequitur back-and-forths and idiom-bereft, enigmatic one-liners, but honest-to-god believable dialogue. Who’d have thought?
Homecoming’s attempt at “scary” misses the point just as badly. Of course it has the benefit of a head start in this department, with literal license to incorporate what it sees fit from some of the scariest games ever made. Unfortunately only the most obvious and superficial elements make the trip over, proving that there’s much more to Silent Hill’s magic than alternate worlds of rusty metal and grotesque, suggestive body horror. In addition to the lack of effective camera angles, the overpowering sense of hopeless isolation that kept you anxiously begging for the respite of the next cutscene in Silent Hills gone by has been marred by two of the most pointless, annoying and cliché sidekicks in modern gaming history.
First there’s a dumb blonde who does nothing but literally cower and force you to repeat the same lame “hold the door open for each other” “puzzle” about 10 times throughout the game. She doesn’t fight, and she can’t die. On the opposite extreme is the standard non-white stereotype who is basically a living cutscene, killing all the monsters for you. He can’t die either. And even when you’re alone for a few minutes, the game rarely invests the time or the effort necessary to build atmosphere. It’s just linear 3D shooting spotted with a failed shock-scare here and a fetch-quest there, and the odd boss battle with a boss who’s trying way too hard, preceded by a boss cutscene and taking place in a boss arena. Remember when Pyramid-head was just fucking standing there looking at you? Or when you suddenly bumped into him in the middle of a regular level without even realizing that was possible and shit your pants? Yeah, there’s nothing like that to be found here.
The visuals are a mixed bag to say the least. The good stuff lifted from or inspired by the games and movie is, well, good, but most of the wholly original content leaves something to be desired. The human faces, especially, are just plain laughable when put up against the visual masterpiece that was Silent Hill 3. Still, the wealth of riches that is modern hardware makes the lighting and environments more believable than ever, and makes you wonder what an effort like 3 could have produced on such a high-end machine, considering what it managed on the meager PS2. The audio design pulls its weight (although some of the sounds are taken from the same stock CD as another recent big-name title, which is kinda jarring if you notice it) and the soundtrack by Mr. Yamaoka, the last vestige of the original Team Silent, is excellent. However, the implementation of the music is often haphazard, switching back and forth between “sad for no reason” and “suddenly heavy industrial because there’s an enemy,” and many of the tracks feel phoned-in or rehashed.
At one point in the game, I saw a character walk over the corpse of a member of their immediate family who—unbeknownst to them until that point—had been killed in a gruesome fashion. The game couldn’t be bothered to have this character produce any reaction whatsoever. Then I got the joke ending on my first play-through, without even doing anything to trigger it. Oh well—it’s just an action game, after all.