Silent Hill: Book of Memories Review
Game: Silent Hill: Book of Memories
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Available on: PlayStation Vita only
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Silent Hill franchise has been labouring a little of late. This year’s Downpour, for example, was a sub-par slog whose likeable protagonist and interesting premise couldn’t counterbalance the flat atmosphere, dull combat and chronic lack of scares. In fact, as a result of Downpour’s lackluster turnout, I can’t tell whether Book of Memories is an attempt to breathe new life into the series, some kind of bizarre experiment on behalf of Konami, or just a bit of harmless fun.
There are some incredibly Silent Hill-ish elements in Book of Memories and, if nothing else, WayForward Technologies have worked hard to pay fan service with a handful of cameos, in-jokes and Easter Eggs, but is it enough to keep you interested in a game that is, essentially, an action-RPG in a Silent Hill skin? Yes, a bit, but mostly no.
STORY: One thing almost every Silent Hill title is praised for is its choice of protagonist. From Harry Mason’s determined father in the original to Alex Shephard, Homecoming’s embattled veteran, to Downpour’s escaped convict Murphy Pendleton; Silent Hill has always taken its greatest strength from its main characters, delighting in dropping the player into the blood-spattered shoes of a terrified-yet-resourceful everyman and forcing you to watch them come apart and heal again at the whim of the demonic town. The thirtysomething-white-maleness of Silent Hill’s usual stock of reluctant heroes may be a bone of contention to some, myself included, but you can’t fault the development of Silent Hill’s characters or the effort that goes into their backstories. The first problem with Book of Memories is that this concept of “strong lead character” is completely abandoned.
Your avatar here is a nondescript male or female teenager assembled, Frankenstein’s Monster-like, from a small selection of heads and outfits, equipped with the same 2D personality whether you choose to style them as goths, rockers or nerdy bookworms. The character creation is so superficial that it’s actually pointless, especially given that you lose the finer details when the action goes isometric on the Vita’s small screen, and the dialogue is almost identical whether male or female.
The plot begins when, on the night of your avatar’s birthday, they receive a parcel from Silent Hill (delivered by Howard, Downpour’s creepy mailman) containing the titular tome; unfortunately, this is also where the problems begin. Upon reading the book, your character realises that it contains all of their memories up to this point in graphic detail. Immediately curious, they rewrite a small passage before tossing the book onto the dresser and going to sleep, only to wake up in Silent Hill’s rust-shrouded, blood-stained Otherworld. After surviving the night, they realise that what they changed has come to be: History has shifted so that they received the recent promotion over co-worker Derek. The fact that Derek was accused of stealing from the till and subsequently fired is apparently irrelevant, as is the fact that to make these changes stick they have to survive the night in Silent Hill in the first place. This doesn’t bother them in the slightest.
In fact, the first arrival in the hellish town is such a non-event you’ll wonder what the fuss has been about for the last 12 years. Apparently, being dropped into a twisted nightmare world and forced to battle with faceless zombie nurses, two-headed dogs and giant female torsos that give birth to shapeless, carnivorous slugs in order to destroy the lives of people you know to secure your own selfish happiness is perfectly normal. Aside from once or twice murmuring “What is this place?”, your character seems to just accept the horrific violence of Silent Hill and get stuck in with the kitchen knives, dropping occasional lines of sub-Buffy sarcasm along the way. Yes, the premise of a Book of Memories that can change the past is interesting, but the execution in WayForward’s game is shallow and stupid, to the point that it’s almost insulting to the Silent Hill name.
There’s nothing considered here, and the charismatic lead – the one element that usually redeems even mediocre Silent Hill titles – is gone, replaced by a personality-deficient cypher who brings nothing to the franchise but the wise-ass mumblings of your average slasher movie brat. It’s a great shame and a huge let-down to fans of the series who may be hoping for another great protagonist.
GRAPHICS: Book of Memories is not an ugly game, but it’s no Megan Fox either. Textures are slightly muddy even on the Vita’s shiny HD screen, and character models, particularly the enemies, are soft, indistinct and lacking in detail. The environments are varied enough from zone to zone, but all are incredibly bland to look at and as lacking in personality as the main character.
The problem here is that WayForward Technologies have done well to capture the look and feel of the Silent Hill universe in their art direction, to the point that it’s unmistakably Silent Hill that you’re looking at, but the top-down view drags you up and out of the game area, removing any sense of immersion that might have existed were this a 3rd person title.
SOUND: Likewise, the sound direction is Silent Hill through and through, from the rather brilliant title screen music to the unsettling rattle and groan of distant monstrosities, but again the atmosphere falls flat. For instance, the buzz of static that has always been synonymous with an imminent face-chewing is redundant given Book of Memories’ room-corridor-room set-up and so has been removed completely, and once you realise that the same piece of music really is going to loop continuously for hours on end as you play you’ll make a bee-line for the sound options before the monotony forces you to commit sudden hara-kiri by beating yourself to death with your Vita.
The voice acting is surprisingly good, however, and not half as cheesy as it could have been, while the sounds of rusty steel tearing open rotten flesh and screeching abominations are present and correct, even if they are a little repetitive at times.
GAMEPLAY: As has already been alluded to, Book of Memories is a huge departure from anything in the series so far. Rather than go with the usual 3rd Person action game approach, WayForward have created an isometric dungeon-crawler complete with shops, loot, and character levelling. Book of Memories is presented as a series of zones, each representing one of the elements, for example the Wood zone is a forest and the Fire zone a creepy foundry. Each zone is a collection of rooms joined by empty, and safe, pathways.
You move from room to room slaying whatever nasties lurk within, which is usually a random assortment of enemies with little regard for context or tactical challenge. Some rooms may contain a horde of treasure (the game uses a currency of “memory residue” for trading), a free equippable upgrade or, more likely, a blue challenge orb. Breaking the orb issues the challenge, often no more taxing than killing everything in 60 seconds or losing less than 80% health. Passing the test will reward you with a figurine, of which you’ll collect 5 or 6 per zone for use in the end-of-zone “puzzle”, a pointless, time-wasting gimmick with no variety whatsoever, which involves nothing more intricate than placing the figurines in their correct spots on a given board and collecting your monetary reward.
You can only save your progress in a specific room, and Howard’s shop is the only place to stock up on ammo and first aid kits or buy unnecessary hats and masks for your character. Looting is a question of shining your flashlight (which your character neither holds nor has about their person at all) on cabinets, boilers and chests and pressing X on the ones that glow red. Must be a magic flashlight…
The Karma element is actually quite good, though: Enemies come in two flavours, Blood and Light; killing Light enemies drops Light karma (and vice versa for Blood) and keeping your karma meter high in either element will afford you special skills like the ability to siphon health from monsters. There’s also a selection of “Karma Powers” that allow you to, for instance, force push groups of enemies back or perform a 360-degree attack. Besides these attacks, standard combat is pretty decent. When dual wielding, Square controls the left hand, Triangle the right, and Circle blocks, and you can lock on with the left trigger to focus on one foe at a time. Weapons degrade with use and must be repaired with tool kits, and it’s quite cool when you run out of ammo for your guns and they become impromptu clubs. Picking up weapons can be fiddly, however, and the inventory system is hardly intuitive, but overall the combat and exploration elements work quite well, aided admirably by the integration of the touchscreen controls for opening menus and using or equipping items on-screen.
As you advance, a strange creature called Valtiel will give you optional challenges for each zone you enter, like killing the particularly-tough Butcher enemy or escorting an NPC to safety, and you’ll be rewarded for success at the end of the zone, usually with a magical weapon. Oh, and every zone has a towering, elemental boss monster demanding certain tactics to defeat. It’s nothing greatly original, especially as dungeon crawlers go, and the “three zones then a boss” repetition quickly becomes a grind, particularly as the action never changes pace.
Although you gain levels via the age-old method of XP-for-kills and each advancement gives you points to spend on your attributes, it seems to make very little difference to your character. Stats effect percentages like Chance to Evade or Chance to Spot Traps, and it’s very easy (and tempting) to disregard everything else and simply chuck all your points into strength every time so you can do more damage. Again, it seems like an obligatory shoe-in rather than a fully-developed mechanic.
MULTIPLAYER: The multiplayer element is no great revelation. Book of Memories can be played either online or ad-hoc, and while it does nothing new it does add a much-needed dose of fun to an otherwise fairly dreary experience. Boss fights never become truly tactical even with more players, but there is a certain appeal to surrounding a colossal monster and hammering at it like crazy until it drops.
If everyone else chooses to abandon your nightmare, the game will become solo again instead of forcing a restart, which is a nice touch. Like the main game, there’s very little that’s new, and where most co-op crawlers would have a mix of classes (melee, ranged, magic, dps, etc) this doesn’t, although I did find it effective to run around with a shotgun while my buddies went to town with a couple of meat cleavers and a very big hammer. It’s also fair to say that the repetitive nature of the game is less noticeable when playing with friends, even though some co-op-specific challenges would have been welcome.
LONGEVITY: Silent Hill: Book of Memories isn’t a huge game, but there are a few things for completionists to get stuck into. In each zone you’ll find scattered pages of the Book detailing the changes to your character’s history, often influenced by their karmic alignment. Finding them all is handy for filling in the story, and it also helps you make sense of what’s actually going on in the muddy plot.
You can replay earlier zones at any time to earn money and experience, or to level up your proficiency with each weapon but, to be honest, it’s already incredibly repetitive without re-treading old ground.
VERDICT: Silent Hill: Book of Memories is caught between two worlds: A once-great franchise already on the decline, and a brand new imagining that fails to stand firmly on its own fledgling feet.
As a Silent Hill game, Book of Memories hides behind fan service, presenting the Otherworld convincingly enough but ignoring the fog-shrouded streets, abandoned buildings and threatening, oppressive atmosphere that makes even the more-inferior titles in the series playable; there’s no pacing, no real ambience and very little tension. Breakable weapons and limited medkits does not a survival horror make. Equally, it’s not really an action RPG either: The character development is too shallow, the unlockable customisation items pointless and the combat – as well-implemented as it is – is repetitive in the extreme.
Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a disappointment, one magnified in its severity by the potential for WayForward to take something familiar but fading and reinvigorate it, to deliver something fresh and new and compelling. As it is, Book of Memories is a bit of a mess; a game that tries so hard to wear the Silent Hill skin that it struggles to find its own identity. It’s a shame, considering the interesting, even off-the-wall premise but, perhaps not all that surprisingly, Book of Memories isn’t even a definite hit among franchise fans. Don’t avoid it completely, but approach with caution.