Playing this game, my expectations were moulded by bias. I had been informed reliably that this was the “worst Silent hill game ever” largely because of the developer shift. Many believed that American developers wouldn’t be able to replicate the subtle, transient nature of Japanese horror. Well, they were right, but does that mean that Homecoming is a bad game?
No, it just makes it different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game does sell itself short with its god-awful beginning. The protagonist, homecoming soldier Alex Shepherd, wakes up in a hospital that looks like the inside of a lasagna and within ten minutes he’s stabbing zombie nurses in high-heels and push up bras. I almost took out the disc and flung it Frisbee-style out of the window right there and then.
Luckily, I continued and it turned out to be a dream! However, the point of wasting the audience’s time with ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense is never revealed. After the bewilderingly terrible opening, the game slows down and consequently improves ten-fold. Alex Shepherd finds his home town of Shepherd’s Glen (no, not Silent Hill) in disarray with the loss of some of its citizens; in particular, his younger brother Joshua. His father is missing, his mother is practically catatonic and the town is draped in fog. What follows is a gruesome but familiar tale spanning two American towns (yes, including Silent Hill) steeped in a vengeful and sinister past.
The story is certainly above average for video games, which usually don’t evolve past ‘girlfriend kidnapped/dead, rescue/avenge her’. Still, if you’ve seen the first Silent Hill movie then it will seem rather familiar to you. The game probably excels most in presentation. The environments are incredibly well realised, with abandoned parks and churches filling the player with dread as organs drone in the background. The levels are far more linear than previous titles though, making the trademark maps irrelevant, but the game makes up for it with its fantastic aesthetics.
The monster design is a little hit and miss. There’s your standard zombie nurse and zombie dog, which at this stage are about as scary as seeing someone’s drink right at the edge of a table. There are ‘smogs’, which are certainly grotesque and are made all the more intimidating by their difficulty to dispatch, particularly with melee weapons. There are ‘schisms’, which look like they’ve had their heads split into four, and it can be quite disconcerting having one of those bound towards you. But then there’s ‘siams’, which are supposed to be the most devastating creatures the game has to offer, but they bound towards you; legs flailing about like ten-week old puppies, bouncing into nearby terrain and such, and the effect is lost somewhat. If being attacked by one of those things is scary, then being attacked by a giant baby bulldog is scary. It might be bewildering, and you might occasionally have to wipe dribble off of your shirt, but it’s hardly the stuff of nightmares.
The boss fights are interesting but severely over-done. There’s three main boss fights, and both involve the typical ‘multi-stage’ affair in which you have to learn a sequence to defeat them, whether that be knocking down the sacks of flesh that holds them up or dodging attacks and destroying the porcelain that protects their legs. The boss fights can be extremely challenging and consequently extremely satisfying, even if the difficulty curve is a little odd. The second boss, which is fought just over half way into the game, is by far the most difficult challenge that Homecoming throws up, whereas the last boss can be beaten without too much intense difficulty if you’ve become acquainted with the dodge mechanic.
Homecoming makes two devastating mistakes: an occasional A.I. partner and a love interest. The A.I. partner is Wheeler, a cop who has no idea what’s going on his town and the love interest is a woman called Elle, whose sibling is also missing. Having NPCs with Alex, seeing the monsters he sees and shouting ‘what the hell!’ considerably mars any effect they might have had. In intelligent psychological horror games, the monsters and the solidity of their existence is always left ambiguous, so the player is never quite sure if the protagonist is an unfortunate victim or a severely ill human being. In Homecoming, any intrigue the creatures might have had is forfeited, and as a result, the trademark sense of isolation, disorientation and confusion that Silent Hill games normally revel in is lost. However, as I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with a developer changing a series and trying something different (accidental or otherwise). Consequently, Homecoming is just a straight-up horror game with a decent story, and not a psychological horror game. There’s no psychological tom-foolery involved in watching a story unfold around a protagonist we feel little for. On the other hand, the love interest is almost the nail in the coffin. There was a moment minutes after Alex had been desperately fighting off encroaching monstrosities with a pipe that almost made me dive out of the window in place of the disc. Alex and co. are sat on a boat on their way to Silent Hill, laughing and flirting when realistically, they’d be rocking backwards and forwards crying buckets after the things they’d seen. It makes the characters seem like preposterous stock characters rather than human beings with any real depth.
Despite its many glaring flaws, Homecoming did manage to scare me. It’s imagery, as unsubtle as it is, is so brutal that I couldn’t help but turn away in disgust. Watching someone get tortured to death, complete with dull crunching noises, will always have an effect. The combat adds to the scare factor in the sense that it does survival horror properly. Ammo and health supplies are scarce and precious, and if you’re not careful, any enemy you come across could potentially be your killer. There were several occasions where I went prolonged periods of time with little health, no ammo and no med kits. I had to sprint from every potential threat like I was being chased by a cloud of wasps, and on the occasion that I couldn’t run, I’d reluctantly fight as carefully as I could, heart beating furiously in my chest with tension as I willed myself not to die. Homecoming definitely has the best combat of any Silent Hill game, but with a dodge roll and combination attacks, it all feels too ‘action-ey’. However, it does work and the mobility of the character is also vastly improved so Homecoming does win a star on that front.
Don’t believe the negative press; Homecoming is worth your time. There’s no doubting its many flaws, but if you manage to get past the awful beginning you’ll find yourself playing a good survival horror game with an intriguing story. Not a great horror game, but a good one, and one that will scare you, which is more than can be said for most modern survival horror games. The voice acting is still shit though.
P.S. if you’re reading this developers, sliding-tile puzzles are never, ever fun.
I’m a huge horror fan and I want to cover as many terrifying games as possible. If you have any recommendations for games that I could include in my Horror Show feature, please get in touch. Either leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter (@thisisajoe) or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. I'll happily play most genres on a range of consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I also study Public Relations at Leeds Met and I sell sea shells on the sea shore.