I have always looked forward to becoming an adult, because the crown jewel of adulthood is the ability to stay up all night eating ice cream and playing video games. And that’s just what I did (along with three intrepid friends) to review Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Nintendo Wii.
Dec. 8, 2009
Like many gamers I hold the Silent Hill series in high regardâ€¦kinda. The games have clearly suffered from adaptation decay since the acclaimed Silent Hill 2, moving away from carefully plotted psychological horror and slowly turning into a series of lengthy Pyramidhead cameos. Hearing that the new one was supposed to be good was like hearing that someone had made a new Neverending Story worth seeing: so simultaneously implausible yet tempting that I had to see it.
You play as Harry Mason, a protagonist veteran players will find familiar. After crashing his car in a snowstorm in his hometown of Silent Hill, Harry wakes up to find his young daughter Cheryl missing from the wreckage. As he wanders through the eerily unpopulated town searching for her, it becomes clear that all is not wellâ€”especially clear when nightmare-fuel monsters start chasing you.
Now the most striking feature of the game (and the feature that gives it incredible replay value) is the personalized psychological tests you’re given throughout the game. They determine every aspect of your experience: how the monsters look, how the NPCs behave and treat you, what levels you’re given to explore…your whole game is literally customized to you. I had the good fortune of playing with a friend who had already completed one game, and a character who was polite and well-dressed for him was rude and dressed like a floozy for me. And this was only the beginning: we solved different puzzles, went into different rooms, and basically played a completely different game. The intricacy is astonishing, and although the options are somewhat limited, it makes the game completely compelling for multiple play-throughs.
In this installment, it’s the small things that packed the biggest terrifying punch. When your in-game psychiatrist hands you a coloring book image of a house and asks you to color it in, my friend Joe squiggled a pink house with a green car and a family dressed in red. When the action picks up again, Harry is standing in front of his house: pink, with a green car in the driveway. But when he rings the doorbell he finds not his daughter, but a happy couple dressed in red… A happy couple who’ve lived there for twenty years and have never heard of him.
Harry is a refreshing protagonist in his completely normal reaction to danger. When horrible shambling monsters slither out of the darkness and start running, screaming, toward him, he RUNS like HELL. Yep, this game has no weapons. No guns, no baseball bats, no fistsâ€¦Your choices are to run, hide, or die, and I strongly suggest running. I’ve overheard some griping about this feature, but when given the fight or flight options, gamers will always tend to pick a fight. Forcing them to run for their lives not only provides for a new challenge, but also enhances the feeling of complete helplessness and panic you should be feeling. (And besides, when was the last time you REALLY enjoyed a complex control system on the Wii? That’s what I thought.)
Speaking of controlsâ€¦Like most gamers, I can be easily frustrated by the Wii. Often the Wiimote would refuse to recognize this simple formula:
Frantic shaking = Oh god, oh god, get this monster off me
â€¦but overall the controls are very effective. One sequence in particular comes to mind: you’re trying to escape from a car that’s slowly sinking underwater. You need to jump into the front seat, roll down the windows to depressurize the cabin, lift the tab to unlock the door, then push it open. The game won’t give you any handy clues eitherâ€”like Harry, you’re on your own.
The functions of the game are so well integrated into the world that they are almost hidden. Your only real tool is your cell phone, which allows you to navigate using a GSP, take pictures to expose paranormal activity, and receive text messages and voice mails that will guide you to the game’s conclusion. Silent Hill the Video Game takes a backseat to Silent Hill the Emotional Journey, and the lack of showmanship is (in this case) a hallmark of an extremely well-designed game. The design team was intuitive enough to know when dungeons were getting repetitive, chase sequences getting dull, and they never pushed anything to the point of boredom. At about 6-8 hours, it’s a perfect length for a game designed to be replayed.
Blast Factor: I’m shocked; I’m amazed; Shattered Memories is a really great game! It may not be quite as scary as previous installments, and it fits very nebulously into the series’ continuity, but who cares? Ambiguity, atmosphere, character, and psychology are unique elements that need to be nurtured in the gaming industry. If you’re looking for style and action and guns, play Bayonetta; Shattered Memories shows a refreshing new approach and is a fantastic addition sure to breathe life into this decaying (but redeemable) franchise.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is available on the Wii, Playstation 2 and Playstation Portable, and retails for $49.99. A copy of this game was purchased for reviewing purposes.