A scraping sound, like metal on metal, echoes down the hallway and into the grimy, dilapidated lounge in which you’re stood. You leap across the room to the closet and dive inside, forcing the doors closed just in time. Something huge lumbers through the front door a second later. It’s vaguely human, but for the pyramid-shaped helmet it bears on its muscular shoulders. The knife it drags is bigger than any sword you’ve ever seen, the blade streaked with rust-coloured blood. Things are looking grim. Maybe you shouldn’t have come to Silent Hill after all.
Despite being heralded as one of the greatest horror titles of all time, the original Silent Hill did not sell many copies upon its release on the original Playstation. Luckily, the sequel - which introduced the infamous Pyramid Head character - fared much better, ensuring that Silent Hill wouldn’t sink into the mist so soon. Since then there have been two further sequels, a portable instalment called Origins for the PSP, and even a big-screen adaptation starring Radha Mitchell and hard-man Sean Bean (who spends most of the film grimacing and scratching his head). Sadly, the third and fourth console sequels never managed to fully reproduce the sheer pant-filling terror of the first two, despite introducing yet more twisted creations into the Silent Hill menagerie. Dual-headed chicken babies? Hmm.
The fifth Silent Hill console game was announced in Summer 2007. It would be the first of the franchise to appear on Xbox 360 and PS3, and the first not to be developed by Japan-based Team Silent (aside from Origins, which was developed by UK-based Climax Group). American developers Double Helix stepped in instead, which led to much eyebrow-raising and quite a few flame posts on gaming forums across the globe. Take into account that this is Double Helix’s first ever game and there’s even more cause for concern. But some fans remained optimistic. After all, Double Helix had the experience of developers from Dave Perry’s Shiny team, who had worked on the likes of MDK. Further relief came with the announcement that series music veteran Akira Yamaoka would return to compose the soundtrack. No one can match Yamaoka-san when it comes to screechy scariness, and Double Helix clearly realised this from the start.
It eventually emerged that the game would be subtitled ‘Homecoming’, and would focus on a new character called Alex Shepherd. Unlike previous Silent Hill protagonists, Shepherd comes from a military background. The story sees him returning home, having only just recovered from injuries he sustained out on the battlefield. However, upon his arrival back in his home town of Shepherd’s Glen, he discovers that the whole place has been smothered by a thick fog and the townsfolk seem to have gone walkies. Sound familiar? This is where most sane people would say “the hell with this!” and leg it for somewhere altogether more pleasant - say, the beautiful beaches of California - but not Alex. No, he decides to do a little digging, even when disgusting creatures suddenly appear from nowhere and welcome him home by chewing his legs off.
Throughout production the developers insisted that they would remain faithful to the original games, while drawing inspiration from their own love of horror films and games. They are clearly fans of the Silent Hill movie, as the ‘ripping’ effect that signals the arrival of the dark world has been copied wholesale. Early impressions seemed positive, with impressive character models and hideously disfigured monsters emerging in screenshots. Despite this, the critics were not silenced. How could everyone forget that for the last few years, America had taken the best of Asian horror - films such as Eye and Ringu - and trampled them under their Nike trainers until not a solitary scare remained? With baited breath, fans of survival horror waited in hope.
Well, Homecoming finally hit US shelves at the end of last year and after more than a year of speculation, the reviews were sadly mixed. Most critics hailed the graphical advances and the dependably brilliant soundtrack, but other areas were argued over. Many did not think the plot tied in well with the Silent Hill mythos, and claimed that the apparent plot twist was far too predictable. The usual complaints over the controls and the camera were all present, but - much more concerning - a fair few reviewers stated that the game is simply not scary. For a Silent Hill game, where the whole point is to give you freaky dreams of evil nurses and sharp pointy things, this would be a catastrophe. Giving Shepherd a background with the military may have been Double Helix’s crucial mistake, one that takes all the tension out of combat. If he’s capable of blowing a monster’s head off from forty feet, where’s the fear?
Homecoming is currently marked for release at the end of February here in the UK. As a devoted fan I’ll be picking up a copy, but it will be with some trepidation that I switch off the lights and slip it into my PS3. Still, you can never tell until you actually play it. With any luck, I’ll soon be having those freaky nightmares once again.