October 22nd 2012
Silent Hill Homecoming - replaying in the spirit of Halloween.
I'm playing through silent hill homecoming for the first time in years. the basic idea is that i do generally love the silent hill series and have completed SH1 (seminal horror classic) SH2 (phenomenal psychological thriller) and SH3 (a violent return to the horror series roots of the original), though i did not manage to complete the room or subsequent games.
The reason I mention this is that i'm going back because i do remember enjoying the game but letting niggles over come me. So, before i review the actual game, here are my impressions of the game the first time round.
1. the noninverted y axis
For some reason you can invert the aiming Y axis but not the camera Y axis. so, yep, for the cross eyed, you can have one view inverted, then as soon as you aim, have it the other way round. why, i dont know. bottom line, its basically better to play both the other (wrong) way round, at least it is consistent. in a the first releasefor SH on the ps3, its a shame.
2. the plot is either slow developing or thin at best.
I remember the plot being very underdeveloped, with the first portion of the game having you do the point a to point b and slowly build up your supplies while meeting minor fairly random characters. I'm actually enjoying the slow burn this time round - it feels more like a game taking its time to introduce the plot than one keen to frighten you asap. That said, it does allow you to cut up a female nurse with a combat knife and smash a hideous monster in the face with a lead pipe. good times.
3. the game is just different.
The last SH game i completed was SH3, which was combat heavy, mostly with guns. However, it was also slower paced than in SH-H, it was more akin to the traditional survival horror game whereas here we get a game that actively encourages close encounters melee combat from the get go. I like it, mostly, but it is somehow less satisfying than in previous games. Taking down monsters always felt tough and threatening, where as here it seems more like the path you are meant to take, rather than avoid.
So thats my previous impression, mixed in with my current experience. I like the game, am enjoying it and sort of looking forward to seeing how the slow plot plays out, but i cant help but feel the games setting and design will look too different to what i love about the originals for it to feel like a great next step for the series.
I'll see though - will be completing it before Halloween is the plan.
I just completed SH Homecoming (SH-H) and I've quite a lot I want to say about the game, both good and bad. The interesting thing about SH-H is that its got some really fantastic components and the art design is absolutely first rate, but unfortunately each of the main components of the game have pretty glaring problems with it.
In fact,on occasions these are so frustrating that all sense of immersion with the game (crucial, in the SH series) is totally lost. I'm going to write about 2 things in particular -firstly the 3 different elements of the game play and secondly the part that holds them all together, the story and the setting.
1. The Combat
The first and most obvious game play element is the fact that this game plays a tremendous emphasis on combat - both melee and ranged. The game suggests, in the early stages at least, mastering combat will be critical to success. You are introduced to A LOT of different types of monsters that require you to not only switch between different weapons, but also learn how to use them effectively. The catch is that in the early stages the combat is rendered very difficult by two things - 1. your crappy weapons and 2. the crappy camera. Both points are closely linked.
The weapons themselves lack any sense of character - your guns are generic - handgun (quick but low power), shotgun (powerful but ammo limited) and then your range of melee weapons. While the early combat is tense as you are learning to use the weapons effectively, early exchanges are ruined by the ropey camera and the fact that it takes an age to dispatch even the most simple of monster. In fact, the combat suggests that it is deep and rewarding, with combos, heavy and quick attacks and execution moves. Combine this with the range of weapons you are given (axe / pipe / knife / axe) all have their own strengths and weaknesses. So far, so good.However, about 1hr into the game, problems rear their ugly head.
Additionally, it is rarely obvious what the most effective weapon to use is - the knife works incredibly well against the nurses in the first instance, then is totally useless about an hour later and you are forced to use a heavier (and slower) weapon to dispatch them. This of course led to me dying multiple times and having to replay the same area where, by process of elimination (i.e. fighting through the same area 5 times) to arrive at the right weapon. Frustrating, but not unforgivable. However, when you combine this with the dreadful camera that makes it basically impossible to see what you are doing in melee combat, the whole experience becomes a massive pain in the ass as you blindly button mash in the hope of killing a monster you had no problem killing in the first 5 minutes of the game.
If the combat was in anyway satisfying, you'd let it slide, but there is no reward what so ever in killing anything. Then, the last 2/3rds of the game generally contain environments that actually make it easier to run away than fight - so you suddenly end up with a very frustrating combat system that you could master, but the game design makes it so easy to run away that i ended up ignoring the closed combat, and just ignored most non critical enemies.
Other gripes? oh yes. firstly, the boss fights are for the most parts just like fighting normal enemies 1 on 1 that are slightly harder to kill - this removes any sense of accomplishment when you do defeat a boss. Secondly, the game rarely has more than 2 enemies at a time to deal with (in fact, i can only think of 3 occasions where you had 3 enemies on screen at any point in time, and all these were set pieces). This leaves the combat feeling very light weight and non essential when the game was clearly designed to be more combat focused than others. Compare this with RE5 - it went balls out on the action and forgot the suspense. SH-H tries for both but its combat is not tight enough or rewarding enough to feel core to the game and I was left with a sense of bemusement that a game that seemingly places such emphasis on combat in its early stages just lost interest in making it interesting or challenging as the game progresses.
Puzzle solving has long been a core part of SH gameplay and is generally present and correct here. The puzzles are generally good and indeed challenging. However, they do vary between interesting (work out how to rearrange a jigsaw) to cryptic (i dont know how you would solve some without a guide).
So, all good with puzzles? Well, not really. Firstly, the puzzles generally are few and far between and when you do come across one, it feels more like an afterthought by the designers (i.e. we've gone 1hr without a puzzle - lets chuck one in) and by the end of the game you actually see the same type of puzzle recycled - there is a real lack of imagination and it does hurt the flow of the game.
Put simply, SH-H does a good job initially at making you feel like you are exploring an interesting world. However, its actually very limited. The first half of the game has you wandering around the same parts of shepherds glen (not even silent hill!) and retracing your steps through the same (graphically fantastic) areas. At no point did i feel like i was exploring the mystery of the town, more i was tracing the steps the game creators wanted me too. While its not massively linear, at the end of the day you still have to tick the boxes (ie visit certain areas) before the game progresses (many of the areas / houses are just blocked off or inaccessible).
On the upside, the areas you do get to visit are genearlly amazing looking. The designers put alot of effort into the grain effect that the camera has throughout the game and it always looks excellent - and very silent hill.
The plot is actually very good, but so underdeveloped in the early stages that it is incredibly tough to connect with the characters and setting. In fact, I'd say that except for the last 1hr of the game, i didnt care at all about the characters. It was only when the protagonist got to SH that it got interesting. For me, it was too little too late - by this point i wanted the game to be over. Even those scences that do have some interesting plot developments are either very short or convoluted that it i was left with a real sense of boredom in the first half and frustrationm by the end. For example, the last "boss" in the game is seemingly totally unconnected to the previous bosses and lacks any meaning or connection to the main character, despite all previous bosses having some relevance. I just played it and thought "right- thats that then".
There are some stand out moments, and I'll not spoil them, but needless to say, they are all around the family of the main character. This is the stand out point of the game - the influence of SH on not just one person, but an entire family raises interesting questions about morality, priority (family vs self) and actually empowers the player to make decisions about the fate of certain characters. This is fantastic - and what SH should be about, but then other characters exist to be killed or just die and again the game mis-steps horribly in some key moments (specifically, reintroducing a random character as a "boss" at the end of the game who can be killed with 6 pistol bullets - the design just made no sense.
So, there are good and bad points to the main game play elements, but i was left with the overriding feeling that the game wanted to be an action game but because it was a silent hill game, they couldn't go balls out and make it as exciting as they wanted. However, this actually hurts the game - it looks like a silent hill game but simply doesn't play like one due to the lack of exploration and emphasis on combat. All in all, it makes for a very frustrating experience - I was left feeling that it could have been so much more.
There are a number of other points that i need to mention as it would do the game a disservice if i didn't.
Firstly, the game definitely improves massively about half way through when you get the chance to not bother fighting. Frankly, combat became frustrating and hurts the pacing, tension and feel of the game and being able to ignore it really helps.
Secondly, there are some moments of genius - the plot definately has its moments and the settings are, as i say, always excellent looking and alot of effort has been made to ensure the game looks first rate. Also, the plot develops slowly, but the last 30 mins of the game are very interesting as the truth about the charcater and his family is revealed. Pure SH hokum, but nicely ambiguous and horrific in places (with one exception, mentioned below...)
My 3rd point is that the game makes one horrible mis step - the character does not even get to silent hill (the town) until the last 1/3rd of the game and you spend a very short time actually on the streets of SH - in fact you are only in 2 areas really, and one of them is small (power plant) and the other for the end of the game (prison). This really, really hurts it - shepherds glen is a nowhere town with no back story and no real emotional attachment for the players. While they do try and build up this attachment, all the big reveals about shepherds glen actually happen after you leave it and so, the whole 6 hrs i spent wandering around shepherds glen felt rather dull.
So, there are some big problems with the fundamental design of the game and the "ending" is laughable. After beating the final boss i got a 30 second finishing sequence that left me totally cold - sure the plot is understated, but as i got the "good ending", i expected a bit more in the way of explanation and round up than the 30 second feel good sequence i got.
There are lots of other things i could talk about - the lousy QTE's, the amazing soundtrack, the buggy nature of the game, the complete lack of terror / suspense at any point, the strange decision to pair you with NPC's for portions of the game that neither require you to defend or interact with them beyond opening doors together and the really interesting back story that is understated throughout. Honestly, there really is so much wrong and right with this game that it is a bit of an enigma.
However, for me at least, the frustrations outweighed the positives. Too often did i feel like i was playing on rails to get from a to b and this sucked all tension from the game.
There was one other design choice i wanted to call out, and it is a positive and negative both. The designers decided very early on that the story would built around the SH1 / SH3 / SH0 and SH movie guise. This works really well - the otherworld transitions are incredible, there are great nods to the previous games and, on occassions, the game really does feel like it falls in nicely with SH lore. I loved these moments, but they are few and far between.
The negative side of this is that the otherworld is criminally underused, usually only before you fight a boss. This has the double edged sword of racking up tension early on, but by the end of the game, the otherworld transitions make you automatically look for a save point as you know something nasty is coming - this completely saps all suspense from the transition and left me rather cold.
So there you have it - in downpour, there is a great game waiting to burst out. Unfortunately, though the design is excellent the game becomes less than the some of its parts through poor combat, a real lack of exploration and a lack of suspense. Its such a shame - I'm glad i completed it, but not so glad the way the game panned out as it felt like a pretty flimsy way to spend 10hrs of my life.
Lastly, the lack of trophies, weapon / character development and sense of dread mean that I'll not be returning to this anytime soon, whereas i'd be happy to go back and complete SH1 /2 / 3 anytime.
All in all, a solid 6 out of 10 game, but should have been so much more - the raw materials are there, but the game didn't manage to pull it off.