Silent Hill Addendum: Alex Shepherd

This entire feature is going to be a bit of a bitch fest. Spoiler alert.

The short version: Silent Hill: Homecoming is a good game. It suffers mainly from being called Silent Hill. It does not even vaguely live up to the standards set by the first four games in the series, in any area. But my main thoughts can be summed up by saying:

It’s not Scary.

Sure, the atmosphere is still there, but in a paint-by-numbers way. The main thing that made the other games unsettling was a perpetual sense of unease. The world around you was really fucked up, and you had no idea what was around the next corner. The developers went out of their way to make this the case. The town was covered in fog, or just plain dark, and you had a radio that blared static when a monster was nearby, first at a low volume, then getting louder as you got closer to it. Something was out there, but what?. And where? If one of them found you, or you it, you were a normal human being, and your only recourse was to flail about with whatever weapons you had or try to shoot it with your notoriously bad aim.

Silent Hill: Homecoming breaks all of this. The radio is the first problem. It’s completely pointless in Homecoming, put there only to make it feel like a Silent Hill game. Oh radio, how are you broken? Let me count the ways.

The most glaring issue is that the game insists on popping enemies right on top of you. There are several instances where you’re in a (verified) empty room, an event triggers, and suddenly the radio is blasting static and there’s a giant gas-bag thing tapping you on the shoulder. This is fine in, say, Resident Evil, where this kind of shock horror is expected. It has no place in Silent Hill, where it is against the established character of the series. Worse yet, it happens all the time. It’s not scary, it’s tedious, all the more so because they ruined the combat, as I’ll discuss later.

The environments in the game are all enclosed or limited. In previous games the radio was useful partially because it allowed you to avoid certain enemies. You only had a certain amount of ammunition, after all, and you were a normal guy or gal trying to stay alive. I have distinct (and fond) memories of the radio crying out in the dead of night in the original Silent Hill as I ran along its streets with my flashlight off trying to desperately to avoid screaming horrors from the skies. In contrast, the streets of Shepherd’s Glen feel claustrophobic. Instead of feeling dread wondering if you’re going to have to go to wherever that thing in the darkness is, you know for a fact it’s right in the middle of the alley that you’re about to walk down. More tedious combat is in your future.

Since it keeps coming up, let’s talk about the combat in the game. Some idiots somewhere, perhaps thinking they were buying Devil May Cry instead of a good game (idiots), complained about the (idiots) combat in the older Silent Hill games. And it’s true, the games were not focused on combat. This was intentional, and all part of setting the atmosphere for the game. The combat was fun for what it was: a small part of a larger adventure game. No, it was not as full featured as an action game. Do you know why? Silent Hill is not an action game, idiots. Yes, you were flailing at crawling chaos wildly with a pipe somewhat vaguely, but this is because Harry, Heather, James, and others were just normal people. Most people don’t grow up trained in Pipe-Fu. The first game even spelled this out explicitly in the manual: you, the player, are a normal person. Don’t try to be badass.

For Homecoming someone decided to take the “worst” (idiots) part of the series and focus an entire game around it. The result makes the game less fun AND less scary. If James walked into a room filled with nurses what followed would best be described as “frantic flailing with a blunt object” until they were all dead; essentially just pressing the X button a lot. It fit the series, it added to the environment, and it was fun. Would an entire game focused around that combat system have been endlessly entertaining? Probably not, but Silent Hill was a story/puzzle game first and a combat game second, so it worked. In Homecoming this is reversed. There are so few puzzles in the game that those that are there resemble nothing so much as an afterthought, tacit recognition from the developers that the game was supposed to have puzzles but they just couldn’t be bothered. Instead of complex puzzles requiring knowledge of Shakespearean literature or actual deductive reasoning, Homecoming has a Lights Out variant that my cat could do.

This might be acceptable if the combat system in Homecoming was fun. After all, Resident Evil 4 basically reinvented its series by replacing the horror with boatloads of pure awesome. But the combat system in Homecoming is actually worse than what it replaces. First, the developers made all of the enemies way more durable. At first this doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all: it’s a horror game, after all, and monsters that are harder to kill are scarier, right? Not at all. All the increased hardiness of the various creatures in the game does is make combat take longer. Much, much, much longer. Heather, a 17-year-old girl who might never have even been told what food was, could dispatch the exact same enemies Alex would later face in about a fourth of the time using about an eight of the effort. On my scale Alex thus comes in at -5 on melee weapons, firearms, and special abilities. He’s essentially walking around a town full of impossible horrors smacking them with pillow cases stuffed with marshmallows. It’s that bad.

But wait! Surely all of this extra time is so you can enjoy the increased depth of the new combat system, what with the dodges and counters and combos and the like?

Fuck no. Let me tell you about combat system “depth” here. First, the developers have exaggerated the speeds of the weapons to the point that you’re essentially playing rock-paper-scissors with some enemies, which means constantly going into your inventory to switch weapons out. This makes a certain minuscule amount of sense, and it was present to some degree in the older games, but the degree to which you have to do it in Homecoming is just stupid. Every enemy has a weapon that works best against it, fine. Every enemy has a weapon that works best against it, and the others might get you killed? Stupid.

Second, the system itself results in pressing the exact same combination of buttons over and over again, like you’re stuck with a demo version of Dance Dance Revolution that only lets you play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on Beginner Mode. Each enemy has a rigorous pattern that can be exploited and thereafter never, ever deviated from.

A few examples. Let’s say you see a Feral, a sort of inside-out dog:

  1. Press B to dodge.
  2. Press A three times.
  3. Press X.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until the game finally lets you stop.

For every enemy in the game you simply have to swap out the weapon and your timing of the B button. Some enemies require following this exact combination of button presses four to six times, depending on if you’ve found the upgraded versions of your arsenal yet, before they finally, blissfully, stop bothering you. Except there’s probably two more behind you.

Of course, those are just the melee weapons. You also have a few firearms, which are aimed over the shoulder, take forever to fire, and deal just as little damage as anything else in the game does. Except for a few enemies that you’re obviously supposed to kill with firearms, they’re completely pointless. And the amount of ammunition the protagonist can carry is absolutely pathetic. For some reason Alex can carry a crowbar, axe, shotgun, rifle, pistol, and knife, but asking him to hold more than three magazines worth of bullets for the pistol is just too much. Someone played Silent Hill 4 and actually and honestly thought: “You know what would be awesome? If he could carry even LESS ammunition!”

No. Let me tell you the difference between what you’re doing, and what works in survival horror. Horror is when I’m hitting something three times my size with a piece of plumbing because I’m not sure when I’ll find ammunition again and I want to save my bullets for something even more horrifying. There is nothing scary at all about shooting something to death just so that I can pick up the bullets sitting on the table, since I know I’ll never be coming back to this room again. That’s stupid.

There is a bright side to this combat system, and that is that the boss fights, what few there are, are legitimately fun. If they’d stripped out all of the normal enemies completely and just added two or three more of those in the game would have been much better.

They (idiots) spent so long working on their new combat system that they forgot what Silent Hill is supposed to be about. It’s about so much suspense that you’re on the edge of your seat, so creeped out by your surroundings and what might be ahead that you’ve turned into a four year old girl.

Not scary: Instead of being worried about the possibility of what’s around the corner, I’m annoyed at fighting the same three dogs again.

Not scary: At points in the game there are even infinitely spawning enemies. Not in a “oh shit they’re everywhere!” way, but in an “I just killed you, and now your identical cousin crawled out of the exact same spot” way.

Rather than continue to rant about every little thing that’s wrong with the game (by the way: the flashlight is also completely fucking broken), I’m going to close this article out with a story. Once, long ago, my friend Samantha was watching me play Silent Hill 2. I was walking through Brookhaven. There were no enemies about. It was just James and the empty hospital. By the time a nurse finally appeared on screen Samantha was so creeped out that she jumped and grabbed me, something I had never seen her do before, nor have I seen her do it since. And this nurse didn’t come flying out the aether just because I triggered an event, nor did it pop up from behind a chair. It was just there, waiting.

Silent Hill 2 was the least scary of the original Silent Hill series, and it was still capable of having that effect on the player and any bystanders. Homecoming ruins this. There is nothing scary about walking the street killing lurkers just because they’re crawling out the sewers. The visual design is still there, and Akira Yamaoka’s music is still brilliant, but everything else is gone. Instead of wandering the city looting stores and looking for interesting things while dodging monsters Homecoming has a few streets, a couple of alleys, and nothing else. Instead of dread the player is given tedium.

I started this article saying Homecoming was a good game. Writing this has caused me to realize that this is not true. It might not even be average. It’s worth playing, once, but ultimately forgettable. Buy the soundtrack, rent the game, and pray for Team Silent to come back.

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