When a game is this uninspired and almost broken, you have to wonder if the Silent Hill series is now just a shattered husk of its former self.
Dark corridors and ghoulish monstrosities that are beyond comprehension, and nothing is at all as it seems; welcome to Silent Hill: a place that was devilishly horrifying, yet somehow dragged you in like a moth to flame. These now seem like memories of the beleaguered town, now the original residents have moved out and new inhabitants have increasingly turned it into a shallower place. Handheld developers WayForward Technologies, who were responsible for the surprisingly good Aliens: Infestation, have taken the mantle of the series for Silent Hill: Book of Memories. This action-RPG signals a huge departure for the series in both style and genre. Does it revive a series that has slowly decayed since its hay-day, or is it hammering the final nail in the coffin?
First impressions with the story are promising. You are a student who receives a mysterious package on your birthday; inside it contains an old book detailing every part of your life so far. Evidently not happy with your lot, you wonder if rewriting things in the book will change things for the better; so you trial it, only to find yourself in a monster-filled limbo, and this is where things take a downhill turn. Each level is done in sequence with very little context beyond handwritten notes found in the stages. There are occasions where you’d expect the interesting premise to really take off, but this never materialises.
Comprised of three zones for each of the six areas, each one is a hugely tedious slog through boring vistas. As a structural throwback to the linear 16-bit days, you emerge from portals with little to no fanfare. At the beginning of each stage you are greeted by Valtiel who tells you something is amiss in each zone and asks for you to complete the task. These can range from escorting a dog to the exit, killing a certain foe, or collecting a set amount of items – for which the reward is a specialist item to use. Usually at the end of each zone, you find a puzzle that while needlessly cryptic becomes a trifle once you figure out the pattern that only serves to reward you with some amount of currency. Boss battles tend to spice things up slightly, but are generally too easy.
It doesn’t help that the zones are separated into blocked rooms with interlinking corridors, meaning that the levels feel too familiar. Each themed landscape is merely cosmetic, meaning that as you constantly grind through each stage, looking at dull and uninspired interior rooms, the only visual difference is how things look in the equally dull looking backgrounds that supposedly grant these levels flavour. Character models are crude, especially considering the zoomed out isometric nature of the presentation, while the music and sound effects don’t really build up any atmosphere. This presents us with a dilemma: Has Silent Hill: Book of Memories killed off the horror?
In short, yes. The only difference between character classes is that they start with different boosts to initial stats, and that there is no explanation for the charm you pick at the very beginning of the game. Instead of the eerie survival horror with psychological traumas waiting around every corner, we are presented with a Diablo clone, and not a very good one. Fighting enemies in real-time with scavenged degradable items; while looting rooms for ammunition, first aid kits and repair kits, is a little mindless. Dodging and parrying rarely work as intended and while Magic is flavourful with Light and Blood types, using the back touch pad to target enemies is a lesson in futility.
As you slog through each room with increasing pessimism, it becomes clear that the enemies are numerous in quantity and limited in their variety. Each one fits the Blood, Light or the tougher neutral Steel Karma. They do fit the Silent Hill theme to a tee, but it seems WayForward have taken a leaf out of the lore and multiplied it. Case in point: Pyramid Head. I’ve seen a room with two of him in there, treating him as a mindless slasher as opposed to the imposing threat he was in Silent Hill 2. It’s certainly frustrating as a fan of the series when a developer misunderstands the purpose of characters, relegating them to mere puppets for the admittedly cool boss battles. Here we actually see depth in the combat, besides the trap tiles you find in each level. Traps do vary, but one or two later ones could potentially make 15 minutes of gameplay a complete waste of time due to cheap deaths. Your ultimate punishment, as if this wasn’t bad enough, is waiting an eternity for the game to load the zones. How is staring at a bland loading screen excusable for the most technically powerful handheld gaming system on sale?
Is there replay value here? Well if you count the multiple endings for each scenario, yes. Each zone can conclude in either with something tragic happening to the character in the level’s theme, or something nice. The way you get this is never explained by the game properly and I only found one source for how you do this, on the internet. It also doesn’t help the games cause that the only ways that the outcomes are presented to you are through notes that you pick up through the zones, or TV sets that switch on with voiceovers, which do little to showcase the true potential of the narrative hook. Heck, the only atmosphere you get in the game is in the Forsaken rooms which ask you to do something in rooms that present you with scenarios. You could play this with up to four friends on either Wireless Connections or Online, which certainly eases a lot of the pain; but seriously, why would you want to share the load?
Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a classic case of good, but misguided intentions. The narrative hook is one of the best in the Silent Hill series of late and the genre shift from survival horror to action-RPG is a brave choice. But while playing through the game though, I had a sudden and harrowing thought: this isn’t the same Silent Hill I once knew. Throwing the context of the series out of the window leaves us with a game that features very dull gameplay with borderline broken mechanics, uninspired dungeons that make up pretty much all of the gameplay and occasional instances where the game flat-out cheats to kill you in order to make you sit through loading screen after loading screen. When a game is this uninspired and almost broken, you have to wonder if the Silent Hill series is now just a shattered husk of its former self.