Version tested: Xbox 360
After the enduring majesty of the first three Silent Hill games, it's now more than five years since Konami's survival-horror lynchpin stood shoulder to shoulder with the most vital, relevant brands in gaming. With the slight disappointment of The Room, followed by the curious and controversial decision to farm out the development of the underwhelmingOrigins to UK studio Climax, expectations for Homecoming have been dampened for some time. Again farmed out, this time to the US-based Double Helix, fans were expecting another frustrating compromise. And so it proves.
In almost exactly the same way that Silent Hill Origins dared not stray from the formula, Homecoming is guilty of paying homage to the series to a restrictive degree. And while the game is mostly successful in its attempts to ape the cloying atmosphere and visual grime that made the originals so disgustingly alluring, its obsession with ageing gameplay mechanics and bygone design quirks means that it feels regressive and out of touch. Double Helix has - by its own admission - been tasked with making a solid, faithful continuation, rather than building on what's gone before in any meaningful way, and the familiarity often breeds contempt.
As ever, Homecoming's about a man haunted by his past. In this case it's Alex Shepherd, a 22-year-old returning to Shepherd's Glen after a spell in military hospital. Troubled by dreams of his younger brother Josh, he returns to discover his mother almost catatonic, and the town largely abandoned, save for a few frazzled individuals also on the hunt for loved ones. Typically for a Silent Hill game, the whole place is shrouded in fog, entire streets have been ripped apart by what looks like an earthquake, and crazed, disembodied creatures lurch out of the gloom with a peculiar desire to eat your face.
The gameplay, once again, is a fine balance between exploration, puzzle-solving and tense combat, and anyone vaguely familiar with past Silent Hill titles will note that the fundamentals are as they were eight or nine years ago. You pick up a map of your immediate vicinity, traipse to a designated location, mine it for objects, ammo and health items, and laboriously try every door until you find someone to talk to. Along the way you digest numerous passages of text, and, of course, you stumble across puzzles of varying levels of obscurity. Figuring them out will require the placement of objects in the correct order, or shifting puzzle pieces around. And so it goes.
There are a few concessions to modern action games, like the camera and control systems, both of which have been given a subtle overhaul. The most obvious change is the removal of static camera angles, replaced with a standard two-stick movement/camera system, although it's stiffer than it is in other, faster-paced action games. As with Origins, you can easily target-lock, and whack seven shades out of your hideous foes without any trouble.
That said, enemies are more vicious and unrelenting in Homecoming, and to compensate you're given a handy dodge/block manoeuvre, as well as a strong or fast attack. Rather than simply hacking away like before, combat is more skillful, and requires mastery of defensive timing and counter-blows. You also get a few rare opportunities to wield firearms, but in true survival-horror style, your ammo is so painfully limited that you save firing a shot in anger for when you absolutely need to: climactic boss battles, and when you're on your last sliver of health.
On the whole, though, while the combat infuses a suitable amount of tension, it's tension borne out of never feeling quite in control, rather than anything particularly clever. Once you adapt to the stiff aiming and predictable attack patterns, you realise most of the monsters are not only quite dim-witted, but not all that tough to beat. And whether or not you buy into the idea of controls deliberately crippled to amp up the fear factor, we can probably all agree that old-fashioned save systems that involve trudging around for ages should be locked in a cellar and left to die.
Another minor disappointment is how the game looks. When Silent Hill 2 shambled onto PS2 in 2001, it was one of the best-looking games ever, with incredible facial detail and an artistic style that set an impressive benchmark. Double Helix barely matches it, falling short in the same ways Origins did. The environments are alright, with richly detailed, disgusting grime and devastation at every turn, but when it comes to modelling human faces, Homecoming is so far off the techniques Team Silent developed that it's hard not to be disappointed. Instead of beautifully rendered avatars during narrative moments, we're served close-ups of characters rendered in-engine, who are nowhere near as striking. Lip-synching techniques and transitional animations could both be better, and overall it simply looks a bit rushed.
By contrast, most of the monsters in the game are obscenely excellent, with all manner of grim apparitions delighting in their hideousness. But for every positive, Homecoming harbours another slight disappointment. One of the most crucial elements of any Silent Hill game is the characterisation and narrative, and sadly it never finds its feet. Alex Shepherd's search for his brother has potential, but you never feel the same sense of bewilderment and intrigue that made previous Silent Hill titles so otherworldly. If anything, the main criticism of the story is that it plays it too safe. Before you've even got to know several characters, they're slain by hideous monsters before your eyes. It lacks the subtlety of old.
The resolutely linear nature of the gameplay, as well, is a throwback. There are so many possibilities for a Silent Hill game set in a more expansive environment with multiple threads running concurrently, with a more fleshed-out cast, but that's never the case here. Instead, Shepherd's Glen is not only smaller than previous Silent Hill environments, but less interesting. The number of locations feels reduced, and therefore the capacity for the game to surprise the player is lessened as well. It's too stripped-down for its own good.
Fortunately, the audio remains as resolutely excellent as ever. Akira Yamaoka contributes more than 70 minutes to the game, and retains an atmosphere as oppressive as you'll find. As well as his trademark guitar-lead pieces, some of the more mind-warping compositions create an almost unbearable ambience. Some top-quality voice-acting also carries Homecoming through sections where the game itself is treading water - or just retreading old ground.
Konami has taken a big risk in turning one of its most treasured series into a franchise property, and it's hard to be too critical of Double Helix for essentially doing what it was commissioned to do, because Homecoming respects the legacy and approximates the things fans want. But in the same way you wouldn't accept Metal Gear Solid or Pro Evolution Soccer taken from Kojima Productions or Konami TYO and given to a contractor with no background working on them, Silent Hill fans won't be thrilled about this. Maybe Team Silent is quietly beavering away on something new, which is going to blow us away again, but until then horror fans must make do with this fairly decent cover version.
6 / 10