Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Silent Hill: Homecoming (Xbox 360)

Close to the release of Silent Hill 4: The Room (SH4) in 2004, a Eurogamer interview with Masashi Tsuboyama confirmed the existence of a sequel while debunking a rumor that it had the subtitle Shadows of the Past. Following this interview, fans wouldn’t hear any additional information until series composer Akira Yamaoka confirmed in 2006 that the development team planned on returning to the series’ psychological roots a la Silent Hill 2 (SH2) and that they were playing with a “fear of the light” concept. At E3 2007, Konami would later formally announce the fifth entry as Silent Hill V, later titled Silent Hill: Homecoming (Homecoming), for release on the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles. However, Konami would also reveal that instead of Team Silent, Homecoming would go the route of Silent Hill: Origins (Origins) and be handled by an American developer, The Collective, later named Double Helix Games after a series of mergers. Information released afterwards also revealed that many of the original ideas didn’t make it into the finished product, but that the team wanted to stay true to the essence of the series while improving combat.

Homecoming’s full release would come in 2008, to mixed reception from critics, but would never see a Japanese release for unknown reasons. Fan reception also proved divisive, with some more receptive of the Americanization of the series while others viewed it as the worst entry in the series. Like Origins, Homecoming is also pretty easy to come by and is perhaps the cheapest one on the market, with my physical Xbox 360 copy only setting me back about $20 (I went for this platform since I could actually find it in the wild). Having no nostalgia for the series, I went into Homecoming with an open mind and played on an Xbox One to eliminate the possibility of dealing with the infamous perfect circle scratch. After completing two full playthroughs and viewing all five endings, I feel a little torn. While certainly very American in its approach, and pretty flawed, it’s also not as bad as I was led to believe.

Alex Shepherd returns home from a tour of duty in the US Army Special Forces to find that his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen is nothing like how he left it. A thick fog now covers the abandoned streets and buildings are in disrepair. He soon discovers that his father, Adam, and younger brother, Joshua, are missing while his mother, Lillian, is in a catatonic state. As Alex quickly encounters the horrors lurking within the town, he presses on in search of his brother and the answers to the mysteries that lay ahead of him.

Shepherd's Glen isn't quite the same anymore.

Much like Origins before it, Homecoming tackles both the personal demons and cult aspects of the series, though arguably more effectively. Where Travis Grady’s past is explained but still feels a little vague, Alex’s past is more thoroughly explored and has a more direct connection to the town’s history with a sect of The Order. For most of the game, the story actually takes on some intriguing twists and turns as it drops hints about what might have really happened, even questioning Alex’s grip on reality, while having some emotionally compelling moments of its own, such as the fate of Joshua. Towards the end, however, it starts falling apart the more you think about it. For Silent Hill veterans, the explanations revolving around The Order can feel convoluted, particularly how the cult’s involvement is justified by explaining the history of one of their sects and how their practices seem to differ, but have just as real consequences as the main branch. There’s also one major twist that can come off weird in the context of Silent Hill, but it fits in fine within the vacuum of Homecoming’s narrative.

While Alex’s family has some interesting baggage that the game spends a majority of its time unpacking, the supporting cast leans more into one-note characterization. This makes sense for the minor characters who also end up victims of the cult’s will, though this also extends to the two characters with more screentime, Elle Holloway and Deputy Wheeler. They’re certainly more fleshed out than other characters, but the player still doesn’t learn much more about them apart from a glimpse of their own personal history with the town and the neighboring Silent Hill. Elle doesn’t even react in certain situations you would expect her to and doesn’t help out Alex much during gameplay, leaning more into the damsel in distress role compared to previous Silent Hill characters Heather Mason and Eileen Galvin.

During my research for this review, I learned that prior to the game’s release, Konami had released diary entries on the official Homecoming website, each written from the perspectives of Alex Shepherd, Elle Holloway and Deputy Wheeler and covering what happened to them before the events of the game. After reading these diary entries myself, they help flesh out these three characters to the point where I wish the game had incorporated more of it into the story so that Elle and Wheeler didn’t feel so flat. At the same time, I also felt more strongly that the concept of Alex as a shellshocked war veteran could have easily supplied enough material for an entire game. As it stands, these diaries are almost necessary reading and, as of the time of this writing, are documented on the Silent Hill Wiki.

Alex Shepherd is an interesting character, even if the game
doesn't fully capitalize on his potential.

Some of the story’s issues may also have to do with the presence of five different endings, which the in-story hints can all potentially justify as the true ending. How well they work depends on the player, as the story clues that can justify each of them can end up only muddying the plot. These endings are also based on a combination of three specific choices Alex can make, which also means that for the first time, the UFO Ending isn’t restricted to a second playthrough and can throw off first-time players who had just gone through a serious and emotional narrative (ironically, getting this first is desirable for completionists because it unlocks the best weapon in the game).

My one big gripe, however, comes from the use of the monster Bogeyman. Not only is Bogeyman literally Pyramid Head just with the design from the first Silent Hill movie, it serves a very similar purpose to the SH2 incarnation and doesn’t even have a proper payoff unless you go for the one ending that features it. Interestingly, producer Tomm Hulett fought against the inclusion of Pyramid Head in this game, feeling that it was designed for James Sunderland's story and arguing that its inclusion in Homecoming felt unoriginal. While he did lose the debate against the rest of the development team, it’s interesting how his own thoughts on the matter mirrored what I would have written here myself.


I also noticed that Homecoming generally had more cutscenes than previous Silent Hill games, all of varying length, While I didn’t mind this much, I didn’t enjoy that some of them were unskippable no matter how many times you might have seen them, which can get mildly annoying if you’re trying to speedrun the game or hit all five endings as quickly as possible.

Perhaps due to the change in developers, Homecoming still uses many of the same elements veterans would expect from a Silent Hill game, but executed differently and sometimes for the better. Items and weapons are now split between two different menus, each quickly accessible through one of the bumpers and with the option to easily swap between both menus. Accessing the menu pauses the ongoing action, allowing players an opportunity to heal themselves or quickly grab whatever weapon they might need without manually scrolling through them with the D-pad. This is especially helpful considering how many different weapons Alex can obtain throughout the game. Holding down the respective button during this process and then releasing will automatically close the menu, reducing the number of button presses required. As an added bonus, Health Drinks and First Aid Kits have their own dedicated buttons in the Item menu. Some series veterans may also like the increase in the number of puzzles compared to previous games, most of which the player can more easily figure out on their own.

Combat also feels greatly improved and less clunky compared to the original Team Silent games and Origins. Alex can freely aim his gun at the various monsters he encounters and melee attacks feel more natural, though weapons still have their own strengths and weaknesses. While it may sound counterintuitive, the knife can actually get the player through most combat encounters, though getting a hang of the dodge mechanic and weapon combos greatly help. Some enemies are better dealt with using firearms, though ammunition is limited in the game and for whatever reason, Alex can only carry so much ammo at a time (compared to previous games where the player character can hold any and all ammo they come across). As such, players have to manage resources and can fortunately run past a good number of encounters altogether. Like in Origins, Alex can also perform different finishing moves to make sure that monsters stay down.

Most of the time, the knife is your best friend.

If you obtain the UFO Ending, you’ll also unlock the Laser Pistol, a powerful weapon with infinite ammo and range. This weapon trivializes just about all combat and can down bosses in only two to four hits, making it a must-have for those tackling Hard difficulty. However, players will still need a good grasp of melee combat, as one boss still requires a clean hit from a melee weapon before Alex can finish it off and the final chapter of the game deprives Alex of all of his weapons until he reaches a room shortly before the final boss.

Homecoming also introduces some good quality-of-life choices. Alex runs by default, removing the need to hold down a button or alter a menu setting, and doesn’t run out of breath or stamina doing so. There’s no loading between doors within the same building, though there is still loading between indoors and outdoors, so Alex actually opens the door and can even burst through it if the player doubletaps the appropriate button. Alex can also gradually replace his weapons with more powerful versions and can return to certain optional locations for worthwhile rewards. Unlike previous games, Alex’s different weapons also serve a greater purpose, as some doors or obstacles require different weapons to pass through (ex. cutting cloth with a knife or prying gates open with the steel pipe). This installment also introduces a limited number of Serums that not only fully heal Alex, but permanently increase his maximum health.

Then there are some more unique gameplay additions. Exploration grows a little more complex with opening between rooms that Alex can vault through, sometimes after breaking a window, for access to optional rewards or important interactions. Like previous games, Alex has a journal that tracks any puzzle clues that players find in case they get stuck, but also contains whatever children’s drawings and photographs he finds, which actually contain a lot of foreshadowing in hindsight. During conversations, Alex can choose a response to help figure out more of what’s going on in Shepherd’s Glen and, in three cases, determine which ending the player will receive. While this dialogue system feels simple, it does add some amount of depth to the conversations and I liked finding out what different responses led to in a second playthrough.

Robbie the Rabbit also returns for a puzzle.

As much enthusiasm as Double Helix had for Silent Hill, however, certain aspects of the design give Homecoming a distinctly American feel, for better or worse. Gone are the cinematic camera transitions in favor of a persistent over-the-shoulder POV with free camera control. While I didn’t mind this change too much, considering how Origins fumbled some of the camera transitions, I did find the camera speed a bit slow to my liking and wished the game had a quick turn function like the original Silent Hill. Where Origins introduced QTEs to the series, Homecoming certainly ran with it, with QTEs for avoiding damage from certain attacks as well as opening certain passages.

No matter how you look at the approach, however, certain issues affected my enjoyment to different extents. It starts small, with a lack of an Easy difficulty and instead only Normal and Hard at the start, as well as the presence of only five save slots, one for each ending. While Origins’ lack of difficulty levels had the excuse of its portable nature, it’s odd that a system one to two generations ahead of the Team Silent games would have fewer options and save slots (see also Kingdom Hearts III and its meager nine save slots). Alex also reads notes and solves puzzles in real time, which can potentially spell disaster if you’re trying to focus on something but a nearby enemy attacks.

Larger issues include how Alex must stand in the right spot in front of a door before the button prompt shows up and, even then, he properly aligns himself before actually opening the door. The same occurs when dropping down pits, adding a couple unnecessary seconds each time. When doors are already open, there’s a very real possibility of enemies ganging up on an unprepared Alex and blocking his path, forcing him into combat even if the player wanted to conserve resources. Actually, there’s a general issue with avoiding combat, as while it’s very possible in some areas, others place groups of enemies in narrow passages far too often and can make avoiding combat nearly impossible. Combat isn’t flawless either, since some enemies just wait for you while you’re out of range and, in the case of the final chapter, when Order members gang up on you, one will more likely politely let you kill their brethren before finally attacking you. In other words, the enemy AI is a bit inconsistent at times.

While I forgot to take my own screenshot, this one does show
that certain enemies have little room to avoid them.

One of the biggest issues, however, would be the lighting. The game itself is simply too dark to actually see anything and the flashlight doesn’t illuminate much of the space around Alex. Much like in previous games and the first film, the flashlight also attracts enemies, so there are moments where you’d ideally want to turn the flashlight off, but you’ll more likely leave it on because of how dark some environments are without it. Even the great idea of highlighting important items and certain enemies in the dark doesn’t alleviate this much. If you don’t want to do what I did on my first playthrough and play the game in a dark room the whole time, you’ll want to turn the brightness all the way up like I did in my second playthrough so you can more easily play in a well-lit room.

Unfortunately, Homecoming also continues the odd design choice that most Silent Hill games have where the game will more than happily let you leave a room or reach a destination without a key item (especially if it’s an actual key). One segment in the final chapter contains the worst example so far, ending a cutscene so Alex is outside of the room where a necessary key is, forcing a quick detour before moving on in the right direction. On a stranger note, I ran into an oddly beneficial glitch near the end of the same chapter where an Order member who was supposed to charge at Alex simply didn’t spawn in his designated spawn point beyond a door. This glitch occurred on only one of my runs of the same chapter for one of the endings, so I can only guess that it doesn’t happen often.

Fittingly for a game designed for seventh-generation hardware, Homecoming continues an upward trend of graphical fidelity for the series. Silent Hill and Shepherd’s Glen look great for the technical standards of the time and monsters and environments have a previously impossible level of realism. I also actually liked how the Otherworld transitions took a cue from the original film, as they add to Homecoming’s atmosphere really well. Certain details also incorporate a theme of childbirth, which feels fitting for the story and opens the game up to interpretation of its symbolism. However, I did notice some minor clipping, some mistimed subtitles (that also call out certain sounds), primitive mouth movements during in-engine cutscenes and unintentionally hilarious ragdoll effects when killing certain enemies like Ferals with the Laser Pistol. For the sake of mechanics involving doors, it also seems that every door in Silent Hill and Shepherd’s Glen opens both ways. I also noticed that the collectable drawings looked pixelated in the Journal menu, though I wasn’t sure if that was a result of emulating 360 hardware through the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility or not.

Big shout out to the Hell Descent sequence.

On the upside, Akira Yamaoka’s score serves as a saving grace for Homecoming. It perfectly sets the mood of each scene and sells the atmosphere and the track “The Terminal Show” quickly became one of my favorite tracks from the series. Series veterans will also recognize the reuse of classic sound effects, though I also really liked the noise the Laser Pistol made when selected. While the voice acting isn’t perfect, it sounds far more professional than the Team Silent games, with generally more emotional and nuanced performances.

Before I end this review, I’ll admit that I entertained the thought that Homecoming fit in better with the continuity of the films more than the games. At first, it made sense. The monster designs and visual effects took more cues from the original film, the streets of Silent Hill have steam rising from the cracks (implying an underground coal fire that didn’t exist prior), certain details implied that the fog contained ash instead of snow and the layout of Silent Hill didn’t quite match what previous games had established. Pretty much every legacy character mentioned in the game had also appeared in the films, so everything lined up.

However, the more I thought about it, the more this idea fell apart. While Homecoming did come out in 2008, two years after the original film, Silent Hill: Revelation (Revelation) didn’t come out until 2012, four years later, so it wouldn’t have been written with that film in mind. Since the events of Revelation also contradict the events of Silent Hill 3, the game it adapted, the way Homecoming mentioned Douglas Cartland would also contradict his film interpretation. Additionally, despite Homecoming taking more influence from the film, it still makes a lot of references to the Team Silent games and Origins, including a cameo from the Origins interpretation of Travis Grady and the names of various Xbox 360 achievements.

The Smog enemies resemble the film's version of the Lying Figure.

Taking this into account, the safer conclusion is that Double Helix took influence from the film so they could attract a wider audience for whom the film was their first exposure. Any contradictions in the layout of Silent Hill could also come from development oversight, though Tomm Hulett would later state that the odd placement of Overlook Penitentiary came from the power of the Otherworld messing with its location. While the game doesn’t confirm this detail one way or the other, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched considering how the Otherworld could change entire building layouts in prior games.

While there are plenty of valid criticisms of Homecoming, it’s not the worst Silent Hill game you could play, especially considering the rather low barrier of entry. The gameplay is pretty solid and the story is also fairly strong, even if it doesn’t maintain its momentum by the end. It’s clearly a passion project, though perhaps one with misplaced enthusiasm. If you want a cheap Silent Hill game, consider giving it a try. Just make sure that you’re playing one of the console versions, as the PC port is reportedly riddled with issues.

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