Silent Hill Homecoming

Nurse

Rumblings of a fifth Silent Hill title (Origins was widely considered a spin-off at the time) on next-gen consoles date back to 2004, when the game was said to be a psychological horror title a la Silent Hill 2 using the idea of “fear in daylight”. For a long time the nascent fifth Silent Hill game took on a kind of mythical status among fans, who created a sort of platonic ideal in their heads that turned out to bear almost no resemblance to the finished product.

During E3 2007 a brief teaser trailer was shown to announce the existence of a game called Silent Hill V, to be developed by….. Double Helix Games (originally called The Collective and then renamed mid-production after merging with several other studios), a Western dev team who no one had heard of before and whose past productions included such high-profile hits as Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under PressureStar Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, Men In Black, a whole bunch of other movie and TV licensed games and something called Wrath Unleashed that nobody had ever heard of.

At some point during development Silent Hill V became Silent Hill Homecoming, by far the most controversial and widely-hated Silent Hill game ever made. Is it as bad as everyone says?FAMILYFIRSTshsg

The Story

Alex Shepherd is a soldier off on a tour of duty to Somewhere who has some disturbing dreams indicating that his younger brother Josh may be in danger. As seemingly irrational as this is, Alex takes off back to his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen, just across the lake from that nice Silent Hill place, to make sure everything is okay (spoiler: everything isn’t okay).

Upon arriving Alex finds that the town is covered in fog and eerily deserted. Most of the few people still left are acting weird and cagey, including Alex’s mother, who has slipped into a near-catatonic state and won’t tell Alex where Josh and his dad are. Also, monsters!

Before long it turns out that everything that’s happening is connected to Silent Hill and the founding of Shepherd’s Glen, which as you may have gathered from the name Alex’s family history is closely intertwined with. Without going too deep into spoilers, it turns out that Shepherd’s Glen was created by a cult who broke away from the Order several generations ago to do their own thing in exchange for a heavy and gruesome price to the God of the main Silent Hill organization. It seems that someone has been late with the payment, and now the whole town is being punished as a result. Alex, who like most of the younger people of Shepherd’s Glen had no idea about any of this, sets off to investigate while coming to grips with his lingering resentment toward his parents for neglecting him during his childhood while heaping attention and affection on Josh.

Basically the story of Homecoming is what you’d get if someone tried to combine the occult shenanigans of Silent Hill 1 and 3 with the more detailed character study of 2. Astute readers will notice that this is more or less the approach Climax took with Origins, only the two strands are woven together somewhat more deeply this time around as Alex’s personal demons tie directly into the larger plot.

In the Silent Hill 4 post I mentioned the pattern of abusive childhoods in Order-affiliated families; this time around we get a glimpse of this first-hand, although I don’t think Alex’s neglect and shunning by his parents is quite as bad as what was inflicted in Alessa, Claudia and Walter.

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Gameplay

One of Double Helix’s stated goals with Homecoming was to finally do something about the by-now archaic combat of the last five games. To that end the clunky old “hold down L1 and then press R1 to flail randomly at enemies” system was removed and replaced with something a bit more 21st century. Alex moves and strikes much faster and can dodge enemy attacks (ostensibly due to his training as a soldier). Light and heavy attacks can be chained together quickly and a lock-on feature is introduced. The game is played in a third-peson  Resident Evil 4 style view instead of using the fixed camera angles of previous games and you now aim guns in a more sensible over the shoulder perspective.

These are fairly major changes, but the core flow of Silent Hill gameplay isn’t altered. The Fog world/ Otherworld mechanic is still firmly in place, you still spend most of your time exploring and solving puzzles. At its core its the same old Silent Hill, just with a fresh coat of paint and some rad spoilers slapped on the back.

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The Horror

When it came to Homecoming’s approach to horror Double Helix took the bold and creative decision to…. just ape all of the previous Silent Hill games.

To be fair Climax did this as well with Origins, but their pastiche of the glory days was a lot closer to the real deal. Homecoming is like a version of the Silent Hill aesthetic made by someone who doesn’t quite “get” what people find appealing about it. The town is dark and covered in fog but doesn’t have the same eerie atmosphere as in previous games (although to be fair there’s only so many times you can give players the exact same environment and expect it to still be scary) and the Otherworld hits the same rusty metal vibe as in previous games without ever really showing an understanding of what made the Otherworlds from the previous games so simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.

For reasons I’ve never understood Double Helix borrowed very heavily from the visual style of the Silent Hill movie, which had come out in 2006, to the point of essentially recreating an entire scene from the film almost shot for shot. I have no proof of this but I’ve always suspected that Konami might have pushed more of a connection with the film, as the movie wasn’t exactly hugely popular with fans and it’s hard to imagine anyone with the reins of the franchise making the decision to look to it for inspiration on their own.

In terms of the monster designs, Homecoming is where the series’ long standing reputation for having excellent enemies starts to seriously fall apart. Some of the massive bossess are cool and have a fairly subtle rationale behind their design, and one recurring mini-boss enemy type looks like it could have been designed by Ito himself, but for the most part we get a dissonant mish-mash of unimaginative monsters. The symbolism aspect also breaks down more or less entirely here. The game features the overly-sexualized nurses from the movie, who were in turn heavily borrowed from Silent Hill 2, where they actually made sense in terms of the main character’s psyche. Presented out of context they come across as mildly skeevy fan service. The Ito-calibre creature I mentioned above consists of a female figure attached, seemingly against her will, to a hulking male, which could be a really cool metaphor for all sorts of themes, none of which are actually present in the game.

Of note is that Alex fights quite a lot of human enemies- soldiers of the Order wearing mining outfits right out of the movie- some of whom are armed with guns. A lot of people balked at this even though every single previous game except Origins had featured either human enemies, enemies with guns, or both, although admittedly not in quite the same quantity as they’re seen here.

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Development

After the disbanding of Team Silent Konami apparently received quite a bit of interest from Western developers keen to work on the franchise. I don’t know who else was in the running for the job, but it may seem odd that the little-known Double Helix was selected. What actually happened is that they slapped together a quick prototype demo to show what kind of direction they wanted to take the game in, which is what impressed Konami enough to hand them the license. Curiously, Climax apparently had their own very basic prototype for a PS3 Silent Hill game as well. I find it kind of weird that Konami wouldn’t stick with the developers with a proven track record of working with the series, but I guess they saw something in Double Helix that Climax lacked.

So. It’s time to look at another important Silent Hill person.

Tomm Hulett

Tomm Hulett worked on Homecoming and the next two Silent Hill games (plus the PS Vita spin-off that’s actually the most recent entry in the series) as a producer and is widely held up by fanboys as the guy who “ruined Silent Hill”. His reputation among a certain kind of gamer is kind of analogous to how Obama is viewed by fanatical right-wingers. Everything that was perceived to have gone wrong with Homecoming and the games that followed it is commonly asserted to be Hulett’s fault, from the broad structure of the plot all the way down to bugs and animation glitches.

This is patently ridiculous, but I feel like I need to clear Hulett’s name a bit in term of the wider accusations leveled against him. Firstly, games are massively collaborative projects where dozens of people can push and pull the direction of the final project, so heaping the blame for everything that went wrong on one person usually makes little sense (and as I’ll talk about at the end of this post, the real culprit behind Silent Hill’s downfall may lie outside the development process entirely). There’s also the fact that Hulett may very well be the only reason Homecoming didn’t turn into an utter train wreck.

Last year Hulett gave a fascinating interview with the Silent Hill Historical Society fansite, which you can listen to here, in which he details some of the mindbogglingly awful directions that Double Helix had originally planned on taking, as well as the fact that Homecoming was originally planned as a trilogy. I doubt that was ever actually likely to happen- video game trilogies have a strong tendency to die after the first installment- but the rest of it paints the developers as a group of over-eager Silent Hill enthusiasts essentially writing fanfiction.

I’m not saying I don’t have problems with the later Silent Hill games or with Tomm Hulett’s stewardship specifically, but he’s not the incompetent prequel-era George Lucas figure that people like to paint him as. I’ve followed interviews of his ever since Homecoming came out and have interacted with the guy personally on fansites, and he strikes me as someone with a lot of good ideas for the franchise that were never properly realized. As a producer part of the blame for that rests on his shoulders, but I think a big factor may have been out of Hulett’s hands entirely. I’ll go into this in greater detail at the end of the last game retrospective, where I’ll explain why I think the franchise actually lost its way and what can be done to get it back on track.

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Inspirations

Hostel.

No really, Hostel. It turns out the Order in this game (who may or may not be the exact sect that was featured prominently in the previous games- as I’ve said before, there’s a lot of ambiguity around them) have a huge underground complex in Silent Hill where they kidnap people and violently torture them to death because of reasons. It’s exactly as stupid and out of left field as it sounds, even if it does admittedly make the Order seem way more threatening than they’ve been before.

Beyond that Homecoming echos the usual inspirations that have been knocking around since the series started, although it is worth noting that Double Helix include some elements of Americana that the Japanese-developed games never went near. There’s just a slight whiff of critique of small-town conservative attitudes around Shepherd’s Glen- Alex’s family are big into the military, “where family comes first” is the town’s hilariously hypocritical motto, the town leaders are motivated by a desire to return to a more pure interpretation of their religious doctrines that they believe they’ve drifted away from, the whole place looks wholesome and peaceful but is actually a seething theocratic nightmare where empathy and compassion are thrown out the window in favour of a profoundly broken system of morality that views the suffering of a small handful of individuals as acceptable collateral to preserve the social order at any cost….. you know, just like in real life.

What was I talking about?

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The Music

The game itself may have been a bit wobbly, but good ol’ Akira Yamaoka was firing on all cylinders for his soundtrack. To compliment a game that’s less subtle and more action-packed than before he delivers more mainstream sounding, rock-influenced music. The strange industrial tones are there, but it’s all a bit less opaque and more directly emotionally engaging than before.

First I want to give a shout out to the game’s main theme, “One More Soul To The Call”, which is one of my favourite Silent Hill tracks ever:

The end credits song is pretty great too:

Also this rather haunting boss music, which plays during a battle against the game’s best enemy:

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Review

So this is where things get a little tricky.

First off, let me say that I completely understand why Homecoming has the poor reputation that it does. It is by far the least intelligent and subtle Silent Hill game ever made. It’s not scary, the production values are distinctly iffy a lot of the time, and the gameplay has some serious flaws.

Double Helix’s attempt to revitalize the combat has hamstrung by the fact that in addition to making Alex more formidable the enemies were also given a combat upgrade. They’re much faster and more aggressive than in previous Silent Hill games and will chase the player instead of being fairly easy to avoid as in previous games, not helped by the fact that the game is no longer made up of discreet areas that load in separately so some enemies can now follow you through doors. All enemies can block attacks; some of them can block shotgun blasts. All of this adds up to the fact that combat is even more frustrating than before because fighting monsters feels like a grueling slog most of the time…. unless you randomly figure out which of the melee weapons in your arsenal is super effective against a particular enemy type, in which case combat becomes far too easy.

Levels are long and often confusingly laid out, with seriously unbalanced distribution of ammo and health items that can make parts of the first half nearly impossible to beat if you waste too many resources early on. The puzzles tend toward either fairly unimaginative and and very challenging “put the thing in the thing” item hunts or motherfucking sliding block puzzles god damn it to fucking hell although to be fair Homecoming would not be the last Silent Hill game to inflict this on players. There are some neat areas, but for the most part the game’s art style is murky and bland.

I fully agree with all of these complaints. I do understand why people view Homecoming as a betrayal of the series’ principles and the beginning of the franchise’s fall from grace as the premier horror game franchise on the market. And yet.

I kind of like this game.

I like the story. Yes, it’s cheesy and goofy and as shallow as a puddle (in contrast to previous Silent Hill stories which were cheesy and goofy but had a lot of depth to them below the surface) but it’s an enjoyable horror romp, and I very much like Alex as a protagonist. His frustration and barely-concealed anger at his parents makes for some compelling dramatic moments. And part of me appreciates the fact that the game stops being coy and oblique with the whole “town controlled by an evil cult” thing and just goes balls-out over the top with it, turning the Order into cackling sociopaths who do evil things just for the hell of it. Yes, it’s dumb and it’s incongruous with the rest of the series, but I also thought it was a lot of fun.

When it comes to gameplay Homecoming is most definitely riddled with gigantic flaws, don’t get me wrong- a lot of the new ideas don’t work at all and it’s painfully obvious that Double Helix just aren’t nearly as good at making video games as Team Silent and Climax. But at the same time by the time Homecoming came out I had grown so frustrated with the clunky controls and camera angles of the older games I welcomed a change of pace, warts and all.

When it comes down to it Silent Hill Homecoming isn’t a very good Silent Hill game, and it’s by no means a great game viewed on its own merits, but I enjoyed it. It’s nowhere near the top of my personal Silent Hill list, but it’s not at the bottom either.

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Should you play it?

Hmmm.

I just said I liked it, but at the same time I can’t honestly give it an enthusiastic recommendation. If you played the earlier games and enjoyed them that’s no barometer of whether you’ll like Homecoming as well (and in fact if you’re looking for more of the same you probably won’t appreciate it) and I definitely wouldn’t hold it up as an entry point to the series, as it’s quite different from the earlier games and not as good as them.

I guess what I’ll say is that you can safely skip Homecoming, but if you get heavily into the series I’d recommend checking it out even if it’s just to contrast it with the earlier games. It takes place chronologically after Silent Hill 3 and could technically be seen as the culmination of the story-arc that began in the first game, but outside of a view references the direct story ties are almost non-existent so you don’t need any particular previous experience to understand the game.

If you decide to take the plunge then hurray! I can finally link you to a Steam page. Homecoming also came out on the PS3 and 360 and used copies should be easily obtainable. Now if only I could say that about the earlier games…..

Legacy

I think I’ve already hinted at what the reaction among fans was when Homecoming came out. It’s widely reviled as being the worst game in the series and the beginning of THE END OF SILENT HILL.

I guess the question is, what want wrong? Double Helix (or more specifically Tomm Hulett) are often blamed, but according to an artist involved with the game the blame may lie with Konami.

“From what I heard they were very happy with the games made by Double Helix and Climax. They were losing faith in the franchise for years. And to further prove what I am saying, they made an arcade style Silent Hill shoot’em’up gun game!! How Silent Hill is that?!”

I’m not sure if the Silent Hill arcade game (which does indeed exist, more on that in a future post) is necessarily a sign of bad faith by Konami, but the gist of what she’s saying here has been echoed by (admittedly anonymous) sources, who essentially claimed that Konami had never really been sure what to do with the franchise even as far back as the first game- Konami essentially let Team Silent do their own thing for years because they didn’t know what they wanted the franchise to be, but then for whatever reason became dissatisfied after Silent Hill 4. I’m not entirely sure I agree that Konami’s feelings toward the series are that hostile (the fact that they kept green-lighting new games even after the sales numbers dropped indicates that they must view Silent Hill as something of a prestige property) but I can agree that the franchise has been mis-handled.

How so? I’ll hold off on talking about that until we get to the current last main console entry, but first we’ve got to make an interesting detour. Remember those rumours about a Silent Hill 1 remake? In 2009 they finally came true, but not in anything like the way anyone expected.

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One thought on “Silent Hill Homecoming

  1. CJ Melendez

    Good research. Homecoming isn’t a monstrosity, but it’s not amazing either. It has its redeeming moments and it could have been far worse had Double Helix completely had their way.

    Reply

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