With its fog-ensconced settings, brilliantly deranged creature designs and use of allegory to probe characters’ psyches, 1999′s “Silent Hill” was the first survival horror game to explore true psychological terror. Many fans worried this newest entry in the series, the first developed outside Japan, would favor a more American emphasis on action at the expense of mood. But “Silent Hill: Homecoming” is a true heir, lovingly crafted with the same psychological intensity as its predescessors while improving on their weak combat controls. All but the most closed-minded afficionados are sure to embrace it and savvy marketing by Konami could expand the fan base.“Homecoming” follows in the series’ tradition of casting an emotionally unsettled protagonist into a disturbing wasteland that suggests allegories to the personal Hell in his mind. Developer Double Helix’s steepest challenge — and therefore its greatest achievement — is the game’s thematic consistency, drawing identifiable relationships to the four previous “Silent Hill” console titles and even the regrettable (if visually correct) film — though fans will be glad to know it doesn’t take very many cues from the latter. This time, players follow traumatized war veteran Alex Shepherd, who returns after a long hospital stay to his family homestead in the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glen, where he discovers his younger brother Joshua has disappeared. But all is not as he remembers. Shepherd’s Glen is visualized in stunning decay, shrouded in the unsettling white fog that is the series’ hallmark and overrun by horrifying creatures, and Alex soon learns Joshua is far from the only person who has gone missing. His search for his brother and the truth leads him through decrepit locales and nightmarish hallucinations where Joshua — who flees from Alex with haunted, sullen eyes — is always just a step out of reach. This homecoming of a prodigal son to the poignant, painful family history he left behind quickly reveals itself to be about deeper things than a supernatural horror mystery. “Silent Hill” has always been rich with subtext, but never has it been so subtly yet satisfyingly knit as it is here. Though the game never surrenders the sprawling surrealism loyalists expect from the franchise, it’s admirably well-paced, leading the player through a strong storyline that ends with a stunningly unpredictable conclusion. All of the game’s gore-laced environments — especially the hallucinatory, gruesome Hell-world that parallels them — are stunningly realized, hauntingly lived-in, and so dense with subtle details that players will find themselves looking closely, with horrified fascination. The hyper-sexualized, faceless and stilted nurses who are a “Silent Hill” mainstay are back, along with ashen-skinned, split-headed horrors and red-glistening, skinless hellhounds. “Homecoming” does place a greater emphasis on fights with weapons like a pipe or crowbar than in prior games. The controls are cumbersome at times, but they add a welcome layer of complexity to the traditional focus on environmental exploration. A generous “continue” option is sure to please those less apt at melee fighting who will often die in the game’s more challenging second half.
Rated M. $60
A Konami presentation of a game developed by Double Helix for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Reviewed on Xbox 360.