Silent Hill: Homecoming Review
The survival/horror aficionados will always clash in the ongoing debate over which established franchise is scarier: Capcom’s Resident Evil or Konami’s Silent Hill. It seems as if those who appreciate the underlying theories behind fear, and what causes us to actually feel frightened, frequently choose the latter. While RE is always good for a jump, SH provides an enduring, creepy sensation throughout the course of the adventure; playing those games at about 2 a.m. with all the lights off is an appropriately nerve-rattling experience. What lurks in the shadows; what we hear but can’t pinpoint; how the atmosphere plays with our senses and minds; all of this factors into the concept of fear. Now, Silent Hill: Homecoming embraces said concept as all previous entries have, and in that way, it’s an easy winner. But the reason why the RE games typically score higher is because the gameplay is typically more polished and more accessible, and the controls are an issue in Homecoming.
But we’ll start with the graphics, which aren’t exactly mind-blowing, but they serve their purpose nicely. As you view this game, you’ll get the feeling you’re watching the events play out through one of those old-film filters; everything is grainy and somewhat out-of-focus, which is most certainly intentional. It works extremely well, and the downright horrific enemy designs are excellent as usual. The characters – who aren’t transformed into a nightmarish being – also seem to have this dark, unsettling look about the eyes. The first time you lay eyes on Alex’s mother, you’ll understand what we mean. There’s a good amount of variety in the environments, although the permeating darkness tends to get tiresome; even when it’s supposed to be light outside, that trademark Silent Hill fog still makes everything appear mysterious and subdued. We just wish they didn’t sacrifice so much in the way of clarity, and sometimes, we just didn’t see something we were supposed to due to a lack of vision. That’s more of a camera issue, though, so we won’t harp on it too much.
As most fans of the series will tell you, it’s the sound that makes these games what they are. It’s the subtlety of the effects that take center stage, not the soundtrack or the voice acting, and that’s exactly the way it should be, right? During an early portion of the game, an old metal chair comes sliding down a set of stairs to our left, and because we weren’t sure what it was, it was super freaky. It’s the groaning, the scraping, the shuffling, or just an object that shifts or falls off in the distance that's crucial to Silent Hill’s presentation. The battle effects are great, too, and we were surprised at the quality level of the voice acting. All of it comes together in one of the best-sounding games of the generation, but it can’t entirely save the overall production from gameplay that lacks in certain critical areas. For now, let’s just say you won’t be disappointed with the sound, although we always have the same complaint with this series: the soundtrack really needs to have more of an impact; its low-key style works, but it’s just not enough in the long run.
As we’ve already said, it’s the gameplay that sometimes trips and stumbles when it comes to Konami’s survival/horror franchise. Of course, we’re not implying that Resident Evil has always had stellar controls; quite the opposite, in fact, as Capcom only recently overhauled the archaic “direct first than move” system in RE4. But for some reason, the SH games have always felt a little loose. Homecoming is no different, even though the developers tried to go that extra mile by giving Alex – the main character – a few new action moves. The good news is that everything does move just a little faster than it used to: when running, you actually cover some ground, Alex can roll and dodge when fighting, and he can even string together light and heavy attacks with different weapons. The enemies are slightly more challenging as well, so it’s not like you’re looking at the same ol’ same ol’ with this newest entry. But at the same time, there are a few issues that will continually pop up to annoy you throughout the game.
The most significant issue revolves around the troublesome camera. Even when you have it right where you’d like it, it still sits too close to Alex (which absolutely drove us nuts several times), and moving it around isn’t so easy. It seems to lag even when you’re trying to move the camera quickly, and for our part, we couldn’t stand the fact that we couldn’t change the controls. We could change the aiming controls to an inverted Y-axis, which we prefer, but we couldn’t change the default camera to that option. That’s more of a personal problem, though, so we won’t start taking off points for that. However, we doubt even the biggest fans of this series will say the camera is “fine,” because it most certainly is not fine. Most of the time, the only reason we were in trouble in battles was due to the camera; we were either zoomed in too close, too high, or just off-center. In many ways, after fighting the camera for a few hours, we were actually wondering if a fixed camera wouldn’t have been a better idea…heck, it almost felt as if we spent more time controlling the camera than we spent controlling our character! That’s probably not true, but it felt like it, and that’s no good.
The other serious issue centers on Alex’s movements. There’s no doubt he’s the most active and athletic character of all the Silent Hill protagonists, but everything seems just a tad bit slow. For example, if you’re going to dodge away from an enemy attack, you really need to hit the dodge button at almost the same time the enemy goes to strike. Any later, and the enemy will land the hit because Alex is still in the process of dodging. Oddly enough, though, he’s plenty fast when he actually attacks; again, faster than any previous SH character we’ve seen. The light attacks are executed quickly, and if you string them together with a few heavy attacks, you can be pretty deadly. The fighting stance allows you to face the enemy at all times, and Alex is smart enough to lash out and attack a foe to his left or right when surrounded by nasties. This is all good, but you just really have to be on the ball when it comes to dodging. If you’re coming off a fast-paced action game like Devil May Cry 4 or something, it’ll take a while to get used to it.
But thankfully, most of these drawbacks, while certainly significant and irritating, don’t completely cripple the action. You can get used to them, and pretty soon, you’ll start treating them as frustrating eccentricities that aren’t quite bad enough to stop you from playing. After all, the designers do such a fantastic job creating a freaky and engaging atmosphere, you’re almost always on the edge of your seat, wondering what’s around the next corner. This is exactly what good survival/horror games do, and to be honest, nobody does it better than Silent Hill. Sure, there are your standard retrieve-and-use tasks, but they’re typically very well done, and at any given moment, you know a huge shock can await you. And even when the shock doesn’t come, you’re always anticipating it, which is exactly what makes the experience enjoyable. The streamlined menu interface works beautifully as well; you simple press the R1 button to access your weapon/special item/equipment inventory and the L1 button to use health items. Simply by selecting the object in question with the right analog is easy as pie and immediately goes into effect as soon as you let go of the R1/L1 button.
The story is another big bonus, which is well written and even captivating in some places. Add in the good voice acting and top-notch presentation, and there’s absolutely no reason survival/horror fans should shun Silent Hill: Homecoming just because of some wonky controls. We do have to say, though, that the camera is really a problem very often, and all in all, the action takes some getting used to. Once you’ve grown accustomed to the gameplay, you will be able to revel in the other positive aspects of this title, but if you encounter too many technical and control issues before the reveling begins…well, you might not make it through the whole thing. For some reason, they just can’t solidify the controls and camera; it’s really just a consistency and stability issue, which is unfortunately quite significant. But everything else is just fine. The game encourages you to explore, the maps are useful and easily found, and yeah, there are a few secrets here and there, too. Homecoming might not be a technical marvel, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Despite its flaws, it has the desired impact, and that’s the best that can be said about this particular game.
10/9/2008 Ben Dutka