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SummarySilent Hill goes to Hollywood
The GoodI used to have this long lasting dream that the Silent Hill series would one day go back to what made Silent Hill 2 its undisputed highest point so far. Homecoming, then, comes to be the third game with which I get burned.
However, this third time was somewhat of a charm, as along with the burn I had an epiphany: There's no "going back" to Silent Hill 2. And not because Silent Hill 2 is this beacon, this unreachable zenith in the series, but because Silent Hill 2 is actually not a part of the series. I mean, it is a part of the series, of course, but us fans tend to see it as the norm, as an example to be followed, when it's actually an exception. Sure enough, it's an exception that outshines any of the other game in the franchise in virtually every aspect, but it's an exception nonetheless. And, as such, it can never happen again.
Contrary to what that might sound like, this realization was something good. For one thing, I sort of made my peace with the two previous chapters, to the point I'm going to replay them soon because I expect to enjoy them more than I ever could under this new light.
But more importantly, it allowed me to approach Homecoming with as clear, uncontaminated a mind as I never had for its predecessors. With that, and following the lesson I had recently taught myself through Prince of Persia 2008, I decided to try not to judge Homecoming as another chapter in the Silent Hill series, but instead to focus mainly on the fact it is the first American-developed one, to not compare, and instead to judge it by its own merits --in short, to not demand it to be Silent Hill 2, as I did with the others.
The first few minutes of the game are surprisingly good. In fact, this might very well be the best intro sequence in any chapter of the series. It starts with a dream, which as a storytelling device reminds a little too much of the first and third chapters and, to complicate matters even more, the entire thing is a flat-out rip-off of the movie Jacob's Ladder; but hey, we didn't call out Silent Hill 2 on that same thing, so it's only fair that we give this one the benefit of the doubt too. In any case, call it a respectful tribute or a shameless plagiarism, the scene is fantastic, so there.
Following the tradition, the dream reaches a certain level of creepiness and then --BAM!, our protagonist, this time one Alex Shepherd, is violently jolted awake, just in time to give himself the welcome to Shepherd's Glen -his hometown, from which he's been long absent.
The town appears to be completely deserted. Cold. Silent. Shrouded in a thick mist. Hey, does this place begin to look any familiar? There are an alarming number of signs all over the billboards with pictures of missing people.
Once at home, Alex finds his mother sitting on a chair, absent-mindedly staring through a window. She tells him his little brother is missing, and that he should go look for him, in a tone that sounds like she's blaming him for something. Alex notices a gun in her hands. Her dress is soaking wet, and a watery trail leads to the basement door. Tactfully, Alex takes the gun from her hands and sets to investigate the basement, discovering, well, that it's flooded. And something appears to be moving under the water...
Now, there's plenty not to like about Homecoming, but in general terms I have to admit that it's not as bad as I foresaw. In a way. If it didn't have the "Silent Hill" name all over it, I would've probably gone much easier on the bad parts. But we'll get on that soon enough.
I already said the intro dream sequence is awesome. In the same vein, the "Dark Silent Hill", the trademark crazy otherworld every Silent Hill protagonist slips into periodically by contract, looks as good as it hasn't in a long time. Seriously. It's definitely better than the one in The Room, it's way better than the one in Silent Hill 2, and it might actually be better than the one in Silent Hill 3, which would be quite a feat.
Some people celebrated the fact that Homecoming imports the special effects of the transition between worlds from the Silent Hill movie and so you get to see the transformation in real time, which does look nice, but it's not just that. It's not the graphics themselves either (in fact, for a 2009 game Homecoming look very crappy), but there's something about the visuals that is simply... right. Somehow, they just nailed the spirit of Dark Silent Hill. In fact, some areas reminded me of the original Silent Hill in a way that (only now I realize this) no other chapter in the series ever did.
Personally, I haven't found any especially scary moment, but I do have to mention how viciously violent this game can get. I'm more of the oldish school, "psychological horror" kind of type, so scenes of mutilations and showers of blood that are so commonplace nowadays don't do much for me; but nevertheless I have to admit it: Homecoming didn't scare me, but it did make me feel uneasy quite a few times; and that's most likely what the designers were looking for, so there. It's not my kind of horror, but in its own style it works wonderfully.
I can foresee many a young lad sleeping with their lights on for years to come, after witnessing scenes like the introduction of the "doll" boss fight, or the father's punishment.
The story is definitely not on the level of Silent Hill 2, but it might be a good contender for The Room, which is not bad at all. You're very likely to see at least one of the two major plot twists coming from well early into the game, but still, the setup of the revelation moment is good enough that even if the twists themselves don't manage to shock you in their own right, the scene is so intense you'll remember it for a while.
There are four endings (plus the UFO one, of course), something that's been sorely missing lately, and especially considering that each ending is different enough from the rest as to be well worth a replay; like in the good old times, and unlike Silent Hill 3 with its sole ending, and The Room, which did have four endings but they were pretty much the same cutscene with a few small changes.
Finally, the controls, in general terms, have never been this good. For one thing we can move the camera around with the mouse for the first time ever, and that's quite a welcome feature. Also the static, cinematic, admittedly-nice-but-oh-so-troublesome classic survival/horror perspectives are gone for good, and now we look over the protagonist's shoulder at all times; with the camera getting especially Resident Evil 4-esque when aiming with a gun.
In short: The camera works the way it always should have.
The melee combat has never been this responsive either, and, when it works, it can be very fun. Not "ha-ha fun", mind you, but the kind of "fun" you'd expect in a game like this: The intensity of the tension built up when calculating the proper moment to dodge an attack can only be compared to the exhilarating experience of discharging one of the brutal finishing moves on the enemy. After successfully dodging a few attacks and immediately connecting a strong hit followed by a finishing move, I don't think it's humanly possible to resist letting out a loud, wild yell of celebration, the whole thing gets so intense.
The problem is that the "dodge" move, in which the combat relies heavily, isn't nearly as polished as it should; and, more often than not, a successful dodge has more to do with blind luck than with anything else. Pair that with the fights being unavoidable, most enemies being able to perform one-hit kills, and checkpoints standing a long, long distance from one another, and things start not looking so "fun" anymore...
OK, I tried to be as considerate and fair as possible so far, but I'm not gonna hide it: All good aspects notwithstanding, I hate this game. Homecoming killed what once was my favorite gaming series, and I can't forgive that.
I know this is something a lot of us say when a series (any series) take an unfortunate misstep, but this time is literal. The Silent Hill series is dead. There's no recovering from this one.
I could talk about the graphics, about how unforgivable it is that they look worse than those in any previous game of the series, being that Homecoming is one whole technological generation above. I could talk about the combat, about how stupid it is that the game forces you to fight and then gives you a broken interface with a "dodge" move that works only when it feels like it, so half the fights are won or lost pretty much by luck. I could talk about the lack of an in-game save option, which makes you replay painfully long sections, including lengthy cutscenes prior to boss fights. I could talk about the design of the enemies, even worse than those of Silent Hill 3, showing a complete lack of imagination, especially noticeable when you realize that the few ones that don't look like bland, generic, forgettable Class-B rejects are rip-offs of previous games. I could talk about how poorly optimized the PC version is, running like shit and having the framerate capped on this day and age, and not even having an option to turn off the shadows...
But none of that actually matters. The worst part of the game was actually the one some of us feared the most when we first heard about it: The outsourcing of the series to an American developer.
The first clue that something is not going well comes in the very intro of the game, right after the nightmare, the moment Alex arrives to his home town courtesy of a kind truck driver. This truck driver is none other than Travis-Whatever-His-Name-Is, the protagonist of Origins, and this fact holds a deep meaning: It's the only nod that this American-made game performs towards the series, and it happens to be a nod to the only other game developed by Americans; which is, incidentally, the worst game in the series.
I look at it in retrospect, and it's like right at the beginning they were already teaming up and pissing all over the place, marking their territory. It's like a subliminal way of saying: "Fuck ya, dude, the series is OURS now; you better start dealin' with it lol". And then they jam a cheeseburger in their mouths.
You see, I said the story is good, and it is. The intro is great; the basic premise is intriguing; there are three or four characters that are reasonably well written; and there are a few plot twists that, however predictable, are well presented.
But then the developers figured they needed to fill the rest of the game with something, and then the true horror took over: They had no better idea than to resort to The Hollywood Checklist (TM).
To put it in two words: Homecoming is one hot, steamy sex scene and a few car crashes short from a full-fledged Hollywood action flick. It complies with each and every basic point of The Hollywood Checklist (TM) with a precision that made me cringe. And with each check it gets further and further away from Silent Hill.
At some point you're in the Police Station and all hell breaks loose, so you join forces with deputy Wheeler to fend off the attack. Deputy Wheeler is black (of course) and he says things like: "You cuff him, I'll read him his rights!" Get it? Because he's a wacky black guy, you see? He's teh funey LOL! Anyway, the whole level is so NON-Silent Hill that the best way to describe it would be to quote fellow Mobygamer Michael Palin here, who dubbed it "Night of the Living Dead at the Police Station".
There's a girl, a childhood sweetheart of Alex, whose presence in the game is pointless beyond belief; she serves no other purpose than to get in trouble, Princess Peach-style, and thus force you to rescue her now and again; and to make possible the introduction, at a later point of the game, of a soap-opera scene that's so corny you'll want to stab yourself in the eyes to escape it, and then you'll realize you can still hear it, and now you can't see where you put the knife so you woun't be able to stab yourself in the ears so there's no escape, oh the horror!!!
And then there's Pyramid Head, but not the original, proper Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, the one who had a symbolic meaning and a documented backstory and went on to rape zombies and whatnot --No, this is the MTV-esque Pyramid Head Xtr3m3 from the movie, and not only he has absolutely no reason to be here, he's been given a new name! Because he's not Pyramid Head, sir! He's an entirely new character! He's called -ready for this?- He's called "The Boogeyman". I'm totally serious.
And then, when things looked like they couldn't get much worse... *drumroll* --enter "The Order". You know, the bad guys from the movie? That army of overall-clad morons with gas masks? Those are the ones. They come in guns blazing --and by "guns blazing" I mean literally guns blazing. So you're gonna fight them, and there will be shootouts -shootouts in a fucking Silent Hill!!!-, and they'll run up at you with their pistols and their shotguns and their lead pipes, and they'll yell: "That's the Shepherd kid!", "Hit him!","You're not gonna escape, buddy!", and such. OoooOOOooh, that's scary. I mean, I haven't been this scared since I played milestones of horror like, I don't know, Call of Duty. Or Far Cry.
Homecoming is not only bad for shitting all over itself with every single Hollywood cliche and their mother. That would've more or less ruined it, but at least the damage would be limited to this sole title. No, Homecoming is so bad it effectively ruins the entire series: By bringing in every single stupidity from the Silent Hill movie, Homecoming fucks up the very mythology of the series, assuring that any chapter to come out in the future will be at least as shitty as this.
If you've ever read one of my reviews you know how often I mention Capcom and how I consider their take on survival/horror is childish and silly, regardless of their status as pioneers in the genre or whatever.
Well, now I have to admit that even Capcom was clever enough to not take Hollywood's vision into consideration for their games' storylines. As stupid as the Resident Evil games are -and mind you, they are blatantly stupid, and they get stupider by the chapter-, at least they remain faithful to their roots. Something Silent Hill could not do.
The Bottom Line
If Homecoming wasn't called "Silent Hill", I might have liked it better. It has a lot of good aspects going for it: The vicious, bloody approach to horror, while not my cup of cake, definitely works; the controls are responsive; the combat is brutal and rewarding (at least it is when the "dodge" move decides to be a team player, which might or might not happen often); and the story, at its core, is frankly good.
Unfortunately, this game not only embraces enough Hollywood crap to piss all over itself and ruin several of its own good aspects; but also welcomes the particular stupidities of the Silent Hill movie, making all that garbage officially canon, and subsequently not only ruining itself, but fucking the entire mythology from now on, for good.
Simply put, there's no fixing Silent Hill now.
It's curtains, gentlemen.
So, if you dig the bloodbath sort of horror movies and you don't mind your stories going all Hollywood on you, and you can deal with the fact that it kills the franchise as we knew it, you might have a good time with Silent Hill: Homecoming.
I couldn't. But hey, I'm a fanboi...