There’s a hoary old saying (and I do love me some hoary old sayings) about it being a bad idea to switch horses midstream. When Konami announced that they were switching horses and that the fifth installment of their survival horror franchise Silent Hill was being created by American developers Double Helix, fans were uneasy, which is understandable after the stunning mediocrity that was Silent Hill: Origins.
However, the unthinkable happened: Double Helix managed to make a bizarre tribute to Silent Hill 2 and 3 that almost feels like Silent Hill 4 never happened (Prediction: at least one of you just muttered “I wish.”) while still progressing enough in key areas to feel like a fresh experience.
The game’s story this time around concerns Alex Shepherd, home from war to his namesake hometown of Shepherd’s Glen. Once home, he finds out that his little brother Josh has gone missing, and Shepherd’s Glen isn’t quite what it used to be, with yawning chasms surrounding the burg, and with strange creatures lurking around every corner, in traditional Silent Hill fashion.
In fact, the game is so eerily traditional, it’s scary. Double Helix has created a near perfect clone of the second and third Silent Hill games, while adding just enough of their own flair to make it unique. While using some familiar faces in the bestiary (including Pyramid Head), they also tweaked some other monster designs to further reflect Alex’s own psychological trauma. Silent Hill 2’s Lying Figure, for example, has been given a festooning of glowing pustules and the ability to belch smoke, thus creating the Smog monster. The nurses also make a return, this time bearing a stronger resemblance to the movie’s version of the creature. In fact, Homecoming takes a lot of its visual cues from Christophe Gans’ adaptation, from Pyramid Head’s more industrial look to the real time “burn” that the environment undergoes as it shifts into the nightmarish Otherworld.
In addition to the bestiary redesign, Double Helix also retooled Silent Hill’s notoriously clunky combat system to better reflect Alex’s military training. Using a combination of dodges and blows, Alex feels like a stronger, more capable character physically than previous installments.
In spite of these new trappings, Homecoming gets trapped in some of the old failings of the series. In one early puzzle, Alex needs to unbolt a lock that is underwater in a flooded basement. In order to do this, he must retrieve a gas can from the garage, walk halfway across town to an abandoned truck, siphon the truck’s gas, then return to the basement to power on a pump to drain the water and unlock the door. While certainly true to the puzzle design of Silent Hills past, this sort of design feels antiquated and out of place in 2008. Also, the plot development doesn’t have quite the same impact as previous games. The story’s final revelation, while quite heavy, is spelled out for the player over the course of the game, thus reducing its impact dramatically.
However, these complaints are minor when held up against the fact that this is easily the best Silent Hill in years, right up there with 2 and 3. I guess switching horses worked out just fine.