February 17, 2009

Silent Hill: Homecoming

Sleebs Says: The Silent Hill predecessors always share and explore a common message. With Homecoming, such a traditional narrative stays strong. The series itself is riddled with themes and psychological meanings that the protagonist is meant to unravel. Much akin to its counterpart, Silent Hill 2, there’s a morbid underlying motif of expedition that the main character is inevitably called to the city of Silent Hill with a specific reason just below the visible surface. And as dumbfounded as we are, we know just as much or as little as our main character.

In Homecoming, you take control of Alex Shephard, a soldier who comes back from the recent war. Quickly, you’re sent right into the hospital, strapped into a bed, with a screaming Alex, who has no recollection what he’s just gone through. We soon discover that Alex’s primary objective throughout this game is his concern over his missing younger brother, Josh. Chaos starts nearly right away, and you’re forced to defend yourself seconds into the game. Much unlike the previous games, Homecoming starts with an impending attack; whereas, in previous titles, the game creepishly descends into a hellish nightmare that does little to nothing and yet still messes with your nerves. It’s that foreboding feeling that something will happen, and you experience the worst. Homecoming catapults you right into the nightmare. It doesn’t punish the player all too early with frightening action, but takes a moment to heighten your fears, which is a nod to prior build-ups.

This is the first time that a Silent Hill game was made on the Western front, so the Japanese developers took a back seat on this one. It’s an obvious attempt to recreate the Eastern makers’ intentions and has an honorable salute to the ideas of the other games, but the thing that is quite noticeable and stands out is that a lot of the game is actually inspired from the recent Silent Hill film made back a few years. The Silent Hill film nurses reprise their role in Homecoming as the awkwardly sexy nurses who are forever bound to clutching knives. Even when the world changes to the alternate, bloody and rustic world of Silent Hill, it incorporates the exact transformation of worlds from the film. Another worthy note is that such a transformation is no longer held in the constraints of a cut-scene. When the real world transforms, it does so in real time game-play, where the earlier games would automatically turn into cut-scenes to show such a change. Walls and floors melt into disgusting flesh, butchered in rusty metal. Ahh, Silent Hill, we missed you most distastefully.

Nevertheless, Homecoming never lowers its standards for what it is, and that is an adventure into the psyche of Alex Shephard. With the rest of the series, Alex, too, is called to Silent Hill during various sequences apart from visiting his hometown of Shephard’s Glen, a town not too far from Silent Hill. And now the weirdness is happening with Alex’s hometown, and he’s got many questions that need to be answered. However, upon visiting his own home and his mother, he soon understands that Josh, his younger brother, has disappeared, and Alex begins his unrelenting journey for answers.

Oddly enough, the only other inhabitants Alex meets up with is Judge Halloway, who is found at the City Hall, a childhood friend named Elle, and a few others. When having conversations with other persons, the developers behind the latest game decided to spice it up a little and have alternate, optional conversation queues, similar to Bioware’s Mass Effect. Although while this does leave you wondering what if you chose the opposite statement, it only leads to one conclusion of the conversation and feels unnecessary to its narrative if the conversation always ends the same. It’s a ploy to add more curiosity for the player, but never as deep as conversational strategies like in Mass Effect or Fahrenheit; therefore, feeling uselessly tacked on.

What I found even more odd from my own personal opinion is that when Alex has the liberty to speak with other people occasionally, he seems to be asking a lot of the wrong questions. While he is on a hunt for his missing sibling, that seems to be the only thing on his mind, rarely does he ask about what’s going on around him, nor does he demand much answers about why things exist the way they do. What I found the most disturbing of all is that while I had Alex search his home, I found the basement filled with water and I was attacked from this creature inhabiting the water. Mind you, Alex’s mother is sitting upstairs in her rocking chair apparently having no clue what’s down in the basement. After my fight with the creature, Alex makes no mention to his mother about what he just fought down in the basement. It’s not rocket science, but wouldn’t you ask what the hell that was in your own home?

A major issue with the game is its lighting. In other games, you had a flashlight with you for the entire game, which lit up the way for you rather easily showing you what was in front of you, and very well at that. Homecoming seems to actually suffer from this. With the flashlight on, and while you’re in a long corridor, you won’t be able to see anything visible in front of you unless you just keep walking forward. I found this a very horrible problem because when coming up against a wall and walking into it, the flashlight made apparent harsh reflections of light, just like how it would in real life when putting a flashlight up against a wall or carpet just inches away. However, when faced with a dark corridor, out in the open, with the light on, you can’t see a single thing. After manually adjusting the brightness of the game to max, there were still issues; an obvious flaw in the development of the game.

Although it does stamp the name Silent Hill on the front of the game with valor in many respects, there is a certain aesthetic to its history that does not deserve to be altered to become a contemporary gimmick with recent games on the market. For the first time, Silent Hill Homecoming introduces quick time events during game-play. While button mashing at key moments is a particular interest to many, it’s an unnecessary add-on to this game that serves little purpose, which in fact, takes me out of the game knowing that there’s a colorful button on my screen telling me to push, in contrast to the dark gray and brown palette of the environments that I’m supposed to be lost in.

The inventory system stays true with previous games, with a little change that turns out to be one major issue than a luxury. They implemented a hot key function to the inventory so once the inventory is opened with pushing the appropriate button, you move the cursor to highlight a certain item. If there is a highlighted item still on the inventory menu upon clicking the inventory button again to go back to the game, it automatically uses or equips what you just highlighted. This is an issue mostly for when you open your tab for healing items and you look at what you have. I’ve found myself accidentally using more health items when I didn’t need them than actually use them. What was wrong with the “Are you sure?” prompt in other and much older games that conveniently made me confirm my action before making it? It may be a hassle to constantly confirm your decisions in other games many times, but it’s definitely quite safer than accidentally using an item you didn’t want to – especially if it’s a limited first aid kit when I already had three-fourths health intact.

The game-play mechanics remain almost the same except now Alex is able to dodge attacks. I suppose it’s a feature that was implemented a little smarter than other ideas for the game. Understanding that Alex is a man of war, he’s capable of doing such moves as an alternate way of defending himself. And some of the moves that Alex can do are helpful in some situations when held up against multiple enemies at once, and after performing a roll to sidestep an attack, with appropriate strategy, he can counterattack quite devastatingly. There was one thing to notice during a fight with many enemies at once, is that it seems if you’re targeting a specific enemy, the remaining enemies don’t attempt to attack until you target them, which is a strange change. However, I suppose to keep it a little less overwhelming in combat, there had to be some balance to it. Another good game-play function is that not every weapon is most successful against the enemy. A slow, heavy axe may be the worst weapon you could use against a nurse because they’re fast with their daggers and leaving yourself completely vulnerable to repetitive attacks from them, which can seriously lower your health in a matter of seconds. Homecoming’s smart tactical fighting encounters are present much more abundantly than the other games. The player has to think about which weapon to use against the enemy. The idea was also used in past games, but not as transparent.

Akira Yamaoka, the Japanese composer for all the other Silent Hill games, comes back to the musical seat in Homecoming to bust out another album, which is top notch as for music. His unique attention to different styles and instruments mixed together reminds us of a perturbed, delicate mentality infused with sounds of the industrial and the fragile. The singer Mary Elizabeth McGlynn comes back for a fourth game, always bringing wonderful life with vocals from time to time.

The strongest area of this game is arguably its story, underneath its flaccid exterior. While on the surface, it may not be generally understood and well accepted, but it was admirable for its attempt to recreate a direction that Silent Hill 2 is so famous for. Homecoming’s important detail is about the strength and weaknesses of the foundations with the family. It was a favorable representation of elements with war, and explores the dysfunction of the family, that can ultimately mold a child into a problematic upbringing. It goes much deeper with the human emotions of love, fear, hatred, and compassion and the psychological impact between the bonds that each parent has with his son. All of which encircle the mentality of our protagonist Alex Shephard, which gives reason for the things he has to experience in order to understand the truth. In the end, however, while the strength of it was to build a foundation of such elements, it was executed rather weakly throughout, leaving unappealing art direction, dimensional-less supporting characters, and lightly inspired principles that made Silent Hill 2 so strong.

Grade: C+