A number of reasons demoted Silent Hill: Homecoming from “Holy crap I can’t wait for this game to come out so I can buy it” to “Yeah I think it’ll go into my Gamefly queue right under X Blades.” My first feelings of trepidation came when its postfixed incremental number was fully replaced by an entire word. Early reports confirmed my fears – not that the game was bad per se, but unoriginal. After a lengthy wait (as Gamefly is wont), I’ve finally played the next iteration in what once was my favorite survival horror series. I find it poetic that in copying everything from previous iterations in the Silent Hill franchise, they’ve oddly lost what Silent Hill is all about. It’s sort of like being a nihilist – if you believe in nothing, then you still believe in something, don’t you?
Using that word reminded me how awesome this album is. Listen to it now.
Let me say up front that I empathize fully with Double Helix – moreover I respect what they did. I would never have suspected the game came from anyone but Konami until I finished it and had a chance to reflect. Double Helix did what anyone would do when they were granted stewardship of a wildly innovative and popular franchise; they emulated past entries as closely as possible. Everything in Homecoming is, well, a homecoming for Silent Hill fans. Enemies like sexy nurses and, most disappointingly of all, Pyramid Head, are inexplicably copied. While some of the enemies (the Siam most notably) do look awesome, all of the enemies are missing their symbolic ties to the main character’s conflict or themes.
Philosophic waxing aside (because let’s face it, that philosophy is shiny enough), Double Helix was most faithful to the Silent Hill progeny in terms of combat – which is to say the combat is a horrible, angering, and frustrating venture that should be skippable, but isn’t. God damnit. Being a consummate idiot with uncanny talent for making wrong decisions, I decided to play the game on hard. I enjoy survival horror games on hard for the most part – it amplifies the tension and stress of the game. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do when the developers don’t simply put a damage multiplier on all enemies and halve the number of healing items provided to the player.
I only mention my playing on hard because without the absurd amount of enemy-inflicted damage, the absolutely horrid combat mechanics may have escaped my attention. So what if the enemy hit me while I was trying to dodge? I’ll just down a health drink and be on my way. Incidents such as these become much more memorable when forced to stare at a game over screen, or when attempting the same boss for five hours. It’s quite easy to just say “the combat is crap,” and pontificate for three pages with witty analogies involving profanity and goats, but instead I’ll dissect exactly what makes the combat in this game bite that special brand of ass.
If you see this, IT’S ALREADY TOO LAAATE.
First, let me say a word or two on the dodge mechanic. Alex (the main character in the game) can do two kinds of dodges – a shuffle step and a giant lunging roll. The former is great for ducking swipes or punches from Silent Hill’s various hellspawn, while the latter is required for dodging boss attacks that involve pounding the ground and damaging everything. If the player has the misfortune of doing a shuffle step during a ground pound, they’ll eat the damage wholesale. For some reason tucking into a ball prevents damage incurred from floor shaking. After four hours spent fighting the game’s second boss, Scarlet, I still couldn’t figure out what caused either one to come out. I merely had to hack away and pray oh so hard that the ground pound wasn’t coming.
Timing is another issue with the dodge mechanic. Let’s do a bit of math – say that there is X amount of time after the player hits the dodge button that they can still be hurt by any given attack. On top of this, there is Y amount of time after a monster’s attack animation starts playing that it will actually hurt the player. X – Y = Z, or the amount of time the player has to react after seeing the animation and still dodge the attack. Frequently in Silent Hill this number is very close to zero, and sometimes negative, which means the player will have to start dodging before an attack is even visible. This is acceptable for bosses where patterns can be learned and a checkpoint is given right before the encounter. This is not acceptable for monsters you encounter every room, and I will stab you in the face with a spoon unacceptable when three of these monsters are thrown against the player in a mandatory battle.
Now, on to the other half of the combat. Depending on the weapon equipped and the monster, certain attacks in a combo will whiff entirely due to the angle Alex turns when he’s locked on. This is frustrating enough in its own right, but the game adds special insult to injury with monsters that capitalize on such situations by terribly raping the player when it happens. One solution would be to only hit up to that particular part in the combo then run away screaming. After two minutes bonking on a single enemy, this ceases to seem like a good idea.
Swing and a miss!
It isn’t my intention here to spell out all the ways combat should be fixed in the Silent Hill series, but prove that it should be removed entirely. I’ve long thought that combat is a rather unnecessary element in most games, most of all horror games. Being able to fight and kill anything threatening players makes them feel empowered and competent, two things that go a long way towards removing feelings of fear. If combat must be done, the folks at Monolith did it perfectly. In F.E.A.R., you shoot normal guys, but Alma is someone you can’t touch. She’s beyond your power — she can pull your skeleton out of your body at any moment and make it dance if she wanted to, and all you can do is hope that she doesn’t somehow think this is a good idea.
While taking a shower this morning, I went over in my head how radical I’d sound spelling out ideas for a game without combat. After all, gamers are very traditionally minded, and don’t react well to experimental approaches to challenge. I was halfway through mentally preparing my acceptance speech for the Most Daring and Edgy Editorial award when I happened across this preview for the Silent Hill remake for the Wii. Not only did someone else have this idea, but they are already making it. Combat has been entirely removed from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and just as my interest for the series began to fade, it has suddenly been perked again. Perhaps Konami will find some new and innovative way to frustrate and annoy players – but hey, at least it’s new.