Picture the scene, if you will. You’re walking down a deserted, fog-bound street in the middle of summer, flakes of snow falling to the ground all around you. The sidewalk is littered with abandoned vehicles and boarded up shops; the whole town is conspicuously devoid of life. Then, all of a sudden, you spot something lurching through the fog. Or so you think.
Wrecked with panic, your state of mind teeters precariously as you wrestle with your conscious, assessing the situation in a series of blurred, incoherent musings. By then, however, it is too late. Before you can even collect your thoughts, the skinless canine lurches, fangs bared as it rips at your flesh, howling for blood.
Welcome to Silent Hill.
It’s no surprise that a lot of fans were slightly miffed about Homecoming upon its initial announcement; it is, after all, the second title in the franchise that hasn’t been developed exclusively by Team Silent. Instead, the reigns have been placed firmly in the hands of Double Helix Games, an amalgamation of former Foundation 9 studios, Shiny Entertainment and The Collective. Despite the shift in gears, Homecoming manages to do an admirable job at maintaining the series trademark psychological thrills and spills, as well as introducing a few tweaks of its own.
Homecoming stars protagonist Alex Shepherd, a soldier returning home from an overseas tour of duty following a series of disturbing nightmares concerning his younger sibling, Josh. Upon arriving in his hometown of Shepherds Glen, Alex – in typical Silent Hill fashion – discovers that all is not right, with his brother and father missing, and his mother reduced to a rambling, catatonic wreck. The town appears to be all but deserted, with the entire area coated in a thick, ominous fog. Seeking clues as to the whereabouts of his family, Shepherd ventures out into the mist in an attempt to discover what evil has befallen the town.
Double Helix hasn’t deviated a great deal from the basic Silent Hill formula in this latest installment, though Homecoming clearly feels like a logical extension of its predecessor’s decidedly more combat-heavy take on the franchise. Fundamentally, however, the basic gist remains the same. Playing as the young Mr. Shepherd, you’ll venture to a series of locations both throughout Shepherd’s Glen and Silent Hill, solving various riddles and battling against a variety of warped, grotesque creatures. All the usual refinements are here – flashlight, radio (to warn you of approaching enemies) and an array of deadly melee weapons and firearms.
As mentioned previously, Homecoming draws much of its design philosophy from Silent Hill 4: The Room, which offered a slightly more refined combat system compared to previous installments. As such, Double Helix has taken a shambling, bloody step forward and applied its own tweaks to this system in order to accommodate Shepherd’s extensive army training. Players can now perform both light and heavy attacks by hitting either X or Square, the latter of which is able to stun opponents, allowing you to finish them off with a single blow. Furthermore, Shepherd can string together various combos by mixing up light and heavy attacks with a few button presses to keep your enemies at bay. More significant, however, is the revised dodge mechanic, which allows you to quickly evade your foes by hitting the Circle button in conjunction with a direction on the analogue stick. This also forms the basis for counterattacks, where a successful dodge will allow Shepherd to strike back with a powerful blow while his enemy is recovering. Meanwhile, firearms are used in a Resident Evil 4 style over-the-shoulder perspective, allowing you to target specific body parts to deal out major damage to enemies.
Still, don’t be under false impressions that Shepherd’s army training gives him a distinct advantage over his foes. The creatures that stalk the streets are also adept at combat, and will pummel you into submission if given the opportunity. As a result, you’ll have to work to exploit their weaknesses and strike when they’re most vulnerable – simply equipping a steel pipe and hammering away at the attack button won’t cut it with these foes, and you’ll likely end up in a bloody heap on the floor. Ironically enough, Shepherd’s fancy acrobatics and physical prowess can sometimes do more harm than good. Dodging in particular is sometimes hit and miss, and there have been many instances where I’ve attempted to leap to the side, only for Shepherd to dive head first into the business end of a demon nurse’s razor sharp scalpel. Group encounters can cause many headaches, and unless you’ve got a shed-load of ammo tucked away, melee attacks are likely to leave you bruised and battered no matter how cautious you are. It’s disappointing, as in all seriousness the combat system had the potential to become the best in the series thus far.
As mentioned, you’ll come across plenty of riddles to solve during your adventure, although they are decidedly hit and miss affairs. A substantial chunk of the game’s puzzles are almost insultingly unambiguous, and lack the intricate (some would argue twisted) design found in earlier installments. Still, there are a few standout moments that will have you stumped, though they’re still pretty generic by nature. Fortunately, the game doesn’t skimp on boss encounters, and you’ll find yourself up against an array of warped, hulking beasts to batter about the head with a heavy object. The pacing doesn’t drag either, with numerous cutscenes stepping in to heighten your interest every now and then before things get a tad too stale. Shepherd will meet a fairly troubled family of characters on his journey, and will even be lumbered with babysitting duties from time to time, keeping you on your toes as you trudge through numerous locations including a spooky cemetery, city streets, a dilapidated hospital and many more. Along the way, you’ll pick up numerous Silent Hill staples such as health drinks, first-aid kits and a plethora of weaponry including shotguns, handguns, fire axes and other such items to supplement your attack power. What’s more, all your possessions can be accessed by opening your inventory screen, which has been mapped to L1 and R1 for regular items and weapons respectively.
While Homecoming isn’t quite the sumptuous visual fest you’d expect of a next-gen Silent Hill outing, it doesn’t skimp on atmosphere. The art direction still exudes that twisted, malevolent streak that the series has become renowned for over the past decade, from the design of the creatures to the rotting, filth-encrusted areas you’ll explore. Furthermore, the game’s use of light and shadow is put to some pant-wettlingly good use, and although the textures and character models aren’t the sharpest, they don’t detract from the experience in the least. Much of the atmospheric values can be attributed to the game’s hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, composed once again by long time Silent Hill contributor, Akira Yamaoka. Whether it be the gut wrenching ambiance that invades your system as you traverse a fog-shrouded Rose Heights Cemetery or the mellow, reflective tones pulling your heart strings you explore the deserted streets of Shepherd’s Glen, Yamaoka’s stellar compositions are guaranteed to send shivers down your spine on several occasions.
The developers also appear to have drawn a lot of their influence from Christophe Gans’ 2006 movie adaptation, as much of the games design – from the transition of the regular world to the hellish ‘Otherworld’ to the fidgety, sexual overtones of the demon Nurses – have all been meticulously recreated for your interactive pleasure. Oddly enough, this combined with the tenuous link between Homecoming’s narrative and past titles almost makes it feel as if you are playing an outing based on Gans’ visual interpretation of events, rather than an actual sequel. Nonetheless, the movie’s influence on Homecoming shouldn’t really prove too much of a thorn in the side for players, though a more cohesive effort to link the game with previous titles in the series wouldn’t have gone unappreciated.
Overall, Silent Hill: Homecoming is a solid outing in the franchise and should please the majority of horror fanatics and long time followers alike. While it has its flaws and lacks the polish of its predecessors, Homecoming simply oozes atmosphere and is guaranteed to grip you with intrigue in blood-soaked hands until the end. Just remember – if you think you saw something in the fog, you probably did.