Sunday, March 29, 2009

Silent Hill: Homecoming -- My Review

I see those wheels a-turnin' as you sit there at your computer. "What is Mike writing about now? Is this a message about the very real, very serious issue that is global warming? Maybe it's his opinion concerning the upcoming election." To this I say "nay". It is something far more important: I beat Silent Hill: Homecoming!

The aptly titled--for it really was something of a homecoming--new game in the cult series hit the shelves on Wednesday and, as you can probably guess, a good chunk of my spare time has devoted to it. Now, seeing as I've got a bit more free time on my hands due to my recent victory, I've decided to fill in the gaps left over from my previous entry. No, seriously, this one's gonna be a doosie!
First, a bit of background on Silent Hill for those of you not in the know--The first game was released back in 1999 on the original PlayStation. Although it was a bit lacking in the graphics and voice-over department, it was a solid game. Focusing less on action and more on story and atmosphere, Silent Hill has been called the scariest game/series ever created. Sadly, the survival horror genre was all about Resident Evil (also a damn fine series) and Silent Hill was, for the most part, overlooked. Still, it had its following and those who did discover it usually became die-hards (guilty).

In 2001, Silent Hill 2 was released for the PlayStation 2. With improved graphics, a new (for the most part) host of monsters, and an as-yet-unsurpassed plot, it is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series.

Silent Hill 3 came out in 2003 and, instead of being a stand-alone sequel like Silent Hill 2, is something of a continuation of the story started in the original game.

Fans of the franchise received their first serious blow with the release of Silent Hill 4 in 2004. It wasn't that it was a bad game so much as it didn't really follow the rhythm set by the previous 3. Developed as a completely original game, the higher-ups didn't think it would sell on its own merits. This caused them to revamp the game, changing some of the details and attaching the name of Silent Hill.

Developed for the PSP (2007) before being ported over to the PS2 (2008), Silent Hill: Origins is a prequel to the original title. Because of its PSP roots, Origins is considered something of an inferior game. Still, as a part of the Silent Hill series, it isn't something to be passed up.

Although many have had their doubts, fans anxiously awaited the next installment in the series. Now, under a new, American developer, Silent Hill: Homecoming has finally hit the shelves. Does it hold up to the high standards set by the first 3 games or did the new developers drop the ball? More on that later.

Beyond the games, Silent Hill has invaded both the graphic novel and the movie industries. IDW has published a series of graphic novels based in the Silent Hill universe and, in 2006, French director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) stepped behind the camera to bring Silent Hill to the silver screen; a sequel is in talks.

Now that we have a history of Silent Hill the games, I want to delve into Silent Hill the town. Located in either New England or California, depending on who you ask, Silent Hill is a town shrouded in mystery (and a perpetual blanket of fog). Bordering Toluca Lake, the town exists in different realities or dimensions. There is the normal, abandoned version; there's a fog encased version that comes equipped with its very own creepy-crawlies; and there's a Hellworld/Otherworld version, also equipped with creepy-crawlies and sporting a nice rusted-out industrial makeover. The town shifts from foggy to Otherworld as the evil takes hold; the transformation is preceded by a ultra-creepy air-raid siren.

The monsters in the Silent Hill series are unlike anything you've seen before. They are, for the most part, beyond my ability to [succinctly] describe. Suffice it to say that they truly are the stuff of nightmares. Grotesque and twisted things, they are abominations, mocking all that is natural. The creatures' movements are twitchy and stunted, like an exaggeration of the claymation in an old Ray Harryhausen film. This jerkiness creates thrusting, gyrating forms that are intentionally sexual in nature, adding to the disturbing qualities.

Since the story relates heavily to the human condition, it deals with issues like sex, death, love, sin, sacrifice, and redemption. There is a depravity to some of the characters while others are the poster children of innocence. This implementation of very real human emotions into a Hellish environment is deeply unsettling. In fact, so many of the characters encountered throughout Silent Hill are there to be judged and punished. This inevitably leads one to think that, perhaps, this town really is a manifestation of Hell on earth.

The sound design, headed by the amazing Akira Yamaoka, is some of the best I've ever experienced in a game. Because the game is either foggy, dark, or both, so much of the tension is derived from hearing something you can't see. With an array of disturbing sound effects and some of the most enchanting, forlorn, and ominous melodies I've ever (and I stress ever) heard, Akira strives to create a hodgepodge of emotions and, thus, immerse the player completely in the world that is Silent Hill.

Alright! Now that I've got everyone caught up on the phenomenon that is Silent Hill, let us jump right into the newest game: Homecoming.

The story follows Alex Shepherd, a recently discharged American soldier. After a series of disturbing nightmares concerning his little brother (and a dilapidated town), Alex returns to his hometown of Shepherd's Glen to make sure everything is alright. There he finds quite the opposite; his mother is in a near-catatonic state, people, including his brother, are missing, and monsters now roam the streets. Homecoming chronicles Alex's search for his missing brother and the cause behind the horror affecting Shepherd's Glen, ultimately leading him into the neighboring community of Silent Hill.

Famous for having twisting, winding plot-lines, the Silent Hill series takes a bit of a detour with Homecoming. Although it is still intricate, the story is ultimately more easily understood.

Since Homecoming is the first Silent Hill to be released on next-gen systems (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC), the graphics have went through a drastic makeover. The fog is thicker, more encapsulating; the monsters are more detailed, more demonic; the lighting and shadow effects add depth and realism to the world. Everything the fans have ever loved about the look of Silent Hill has been improved upon this time around. Even the 2006 movie makes an impact in the new game, influencing things like the creature designs and the Otherworld transition scenes.

Akira returns, once again, to develop the sounds of Silent Hill. As always, the depth of his musical talent is showcased beautifully here. The music takes a more subtle approach and yet is still amazingly effective; even when nothing is happening, the music creates unease. The monsters gurgle, groan, grunt, and moan, each type having its own unique sounds. Whether on carpet, wood, or steel, even something as simple as footsteps show variety.

The gameplay has also been revamped this time around. Up until now, the series' protagonists were inexperienced in combat, fumbling their way through the environments. Alex, on the other hand, has had military training; he knows how to fight. With the implementation of a 3D camera and a dodge command, Alex is more mobile then past heroes/heroines. The one main downfall of the new controls is the lack of a 180 degree turn command. Although a nice feature to have, players can still, nevertheless, make due.

Still, despite Alex's knowledge of combat, the monsters in this game are no pushovers. Double Helix (the development team) ratcheted up the enemy A.I., creating more intelligent, more aggressive adversaries. They surround, they overwhelm, they kick some Alex Shepherd ass (from time to time).
The monsters range from the ever-present faceless nurses to the dog-like Ferals (sans skin), from Lurkers (human-worm hybrids with scythe-like hands) to Smog (poison-belching demons) to Schism (hammerheaded creatures) and beyond, the monsters of Homecoming are a sight to see. Add in the return of a cult-favorite as well as four news bosses that are among some of the best in the series and this game becomes a major contender for best creature design. Ever.

Overall, the experience can only be described as "intense". There were more than a few instances that got my heart pounding. At 3 o'clock in the morning, sitting alone in my living room with only the television for illumination, I was scooted up to the edge of my couch, captivated--and horrified--by the images before me. Yes, Silent Hill: Homecoming has its flaws, but they are so minor when viewed in comparison to the game as a whole as to be rendered almost inconsequential.
If you're a fan of Silent Hill, survival horror, or just horror in general, I strongly, strongly recommend picking up this game. At least give it a rent. This is one title that really should be experienced. Double Helix has proven themselves more than capable of handling the beloved series of Silent Hill. Double Helix, on to the next game!

As a game: 8.5/10
As a Silent Hill game: 7/10

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