Adventure Gamers Awards
Silent Hill and I go way back. In 1999, I was 12 years old and a total wuss. I couldn’t handle scary movies or games, and gore sent me fleeing from the room – I couldn’t even handle the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seriously. So when Konami launched its new horror series debut, I don’t know what possessed me to consider renting it, or what possessed the video store to let me rent it. Yet I did, and I had never been so terrified by a game... or movie or book, for that matter. But I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t. I had to see what the game would throw at me next. Demon children, relentless industrial clanging and grinding noises, corpses hanging from meathooks in cages just barely outside the range of my flashlight. It got under my skin in a way that nothing else ever had – and it was exhilarating. That night, an obsession with horror games was born, and after a decade of hunting down scary games and trying to freak myself out, still nothing has come close to the Silent Hill series.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the Silent Hill games are a series of third-person survival horror games that center around the mysterious and horrifying occurrences in the titular quaint resort town. Each game involves a (seemingly) normal, everyday person being drawn to the town, only to find the city nearly devoid of life and shrouded in thick, gloomy fog. What begins as a trek through the eerily empty streets and buildings soon turns into a gut-wrenching, hand-trembling exploration of the Otherworld, a nightmarish doppelganger of the town, drenched in darkness, rusted metal, and blood. In both worlds, twisted and unnatural creatures hunt you down wherever you go. The first four games in the series remain among the top examples of disturbing atmosphere and unsettling, fractured narratives about madness, grief, and torment.
After those titles, the franchise switched from Japanese to American development teams, and while the first two American-developed Silent Hill games were passable, they were ultimately uninspired retreads of the usual formula. Now, Climax (developer of the PSP prequel Silent Hill: Origins) has released Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii (and the PlayStation 2 and PSP, though this review focuses solely on the Nintendo version). This game is a reimagining of the original Silent Hill, though in actuality the two titles share little more than the basic setup and some names and locations. Climax seems to have gathered some courage in the years between Origins and Shattered Memories, as this game is a major departure from the series formula, for better and for worse.
Like its source material, this game open with a fateful car ride down the highway toward Silent Hill. In the car is Harry Mason, writer and everyman, and his seven year-old daughter Cheryl. The roads are slick as snow begins to fall and soon their car swerves out of control and crashes into a ditch at the side of the road. Harry awakes to find Cheryl missing, and heads into town to search for her. As he searches, he meets some of the town’s off-kilter residents, fends off surreal, horrific creatures, and explores nightmarish mirror-versions of the town. It soon becomes clear that Cheryl’s disappearance is more than it seems, and that something is seriously wrong with Silent Hill.
Just about everything else in Shattered Memories has been completely rebuilt from the ground up, and for perhaps the first time, the result is something particularly worth checking out for adventure fans. The franchise has always been set comfortably in the survival horror genre, combining exploration and puzzle-solving with the constant threat of danger from powerful forces. This has effectively cut it off from gamers who loathe action in their adventure and prefer games like Dark Fall, which scare without actually causing the player any harm. Though Shattered Memories does still pose a real danger to Harry, it drastically alters the pacing and structure of the series, bringing it more into line with “pure” adventures. For those who have so far ignored the series because of its combat, now might be the time to take a second look.
Shattered Memories has two distinct styles of play, and it switches between them every so often. About 85% of the time is spent in the “normal” town, wherein Harry explores various locations – a school, a mall, a hospital – finding his way around obstacles and solving puzzles. There is no real danger here. No monsters. These segments are pure adventure gaming, despite the action-style analog control. Exploration is mostly linear, but you are free to move at your own pace, taking in the atmosphere and solving puzzles without feeling threatened. Generally you will not be able to advance until you have solved the puzzle in a given room, and then you explore until you find the next locked door with the next puzzle. The level design does a great job of hiding the game’s linearity, though, making progress feel natural even though you’re often being herded down a certain path.
The puzzles – which almost all involve piecing together a code from nearby clues or simply searching a room for a key – are simple but satisfying in context. Only a few will tax your brain, but they are logical and often very clever. Most are very easy, though even these are fun to solve, as many make great use of the Wiimote. You use the remote to manipulate objects – opening cabinets, turning wheels, etc. from a first-person perspective. These interactions, for the most part, add a satisfying tangibility to the game world.
In fact, one of the greatest achievements of Shattered Memories is its brilliant use of the Wiimote. Many Wii games rely on cheap motion control gimmickry, and while there are a couple of scattered instances of that here, overall the controls are solid. Harry is moved with the nunchuck analog stick, while the flashlight and head movement are handled by aiming a cursor around the screen with the Wiimote. Manually controlling the flashlight is incredibly effective. The flashlight’s beam is often your sole source of light, and as you move the flashlight around the screen, shadows will grow and warp in real time convincingly. Jerking your flashlight over to the corner of the room because you thought you saw something move never gets old.
Another important feature is the use of Harry’s cell phone. This is a new addition to the series, and one that adds significantly to the atmosphere. Harry’s phone is something of a menu hub for the game. From the phone you can save your game, check your map, listen to old messages, and take pictures. As you progress, you’ll receive phone calls and voicemails from other characters in town that further the story and provide clues for puzzles. These calls are well acted and play through the Wiimote’s built-in speaker. The added immersion of having the messages come from the remote as if it were a phone is understated but incredibly effective, and contributes to many of the game’s noteworthy chills.
The remaining 15% of the game is spent in occasional “Nightmare” sequences, when the town transforms before your eyes into a frozen wasteland (rather than the rust and fire of the original). These maze-like nightmares are full of speedy, disturbing creatures who will chase you down and latch on to you. Here is the biggest difference between Shattered Memories and the previous Silent Hill games: There is absolutely no combat. Your only “weapons” are a limited supply of emergency flares that hold the creatures at bay for a minute at most. Your only option is to run for your life.
The fast pace of these Nightmare sequences means that some of the earlier slow-burning tension and dread have been lost, but in their place are moments of sheer panic. It’s rare that a game simultaneously frustrates and thrills you, and believe me, these segments will do both. Running from your relentless pursuers through the twisted corridors isn’t always intuitive. While you are often given a waypoint on the map to head toward, the map does not show the interior layout of the given building you are in. All you know is that you must head to the parking garage, but there may be dead-ends, blocked paths, and plenty of monsters in your way. There are also times when you have no idea where you are going, and other times where, despite every effort, you cannot shake off your pursuers. Occasionally you’ll curse the controls for failing to recognize your frantic sweeping motions as you try to throw off a creature that has clung to your back. Each time a creature latches on to Harry, he’ll begin to show signs of pain and exhaustion. Eventually, he’ll be limping his way through, grunting with each step. If another creature attacks, or if multiple creatures grab him at once, he dies, and you have to start over from the beginning of the Nightmare (except for the few that include half-way checkpoints).
Even with some periodic frustration that feels a bit deliberate, these sequences are uniformly intense. The crescendo of radio static emitted from the Wiimote speaker as enemies draw near will send a chill down your spine, followed by a rush of adrenaline as you try to out-maneuver your otherworldly enemies. Unfortunately for some people, there is no way to tone down or skip past these sections if so desired. For gamers with survival horror or action experience, the Nightmares are challenging but not insurmountable. For those who dislike action in their adventure at all (if, say, Fahrenheit or even Full Throttle were too much to handle), these Nightmare sequences might still be a deal-breaker.
The Silent Hill series has always been lauded for two things above all else: its chilling atmosphere and haunting soundscapes. Shattered Memories follows in that tradition. Walking around town at night with only your flashlight to light the way as unidentifiable noises clang and skitter in the distance will have you on the edge of your seat. The graphics are some of the best on the Wii: textures are crisp enough that you can simply walk up to a flyer on the wall and read the text, environments are filled with all manner of convincing clutter, and the lighting effects are top-notch. Of course, the look can’t compare to the visual fidelity of the previous PS3/Xbox 360-developed Silent Hill: Homecoming, but the developers clearly made the most of the hardware available.
Series composer Akira Yamaoka returns with another of his one-of-a-kind soundtracks, effortlessly combining industrial, ambient, rock, and even lounge genres into something unique, disturbing, and often beautiful. While Shattered Memories features a rather more understated soundtrack than many of the past entries, it is still a masterpiece of mood, whether one of foreboding, reflection, or blind terror. The rest of the sound is equally incredible, from the creaking of doors to the scurrying of unearthly feet to the iconic radio squealing that signals nearby danger. Even the limitations of the Wiimote speaker lend an unsettling white noise to the phone calls you receive.
All of this fuels one of the most mature character studies I’ve ever seen in a game. The story is simply spectacular, and earns its “mature” rating without being juvenile. This is a game that deals frankly with death, sex, obsession, and perversion. Whereas the original Silent Hill concentrated on showing just how screwed up the town of Silent Hill was, demon-worshipping cults and all, this remake turns its gaze toward Harry himself. Harry has evolved from a bland everyman whose only flaw is caring too much into a nuanced, multi-faceted character, confused and scared to death by what he sees around him.
Much of the story is spent in the figurative dark – Harry struggles with what seems to be a gap in his memory. His driver’s license states that he lives in Silent Hill, but he doesn’t remember his house. He meets people who claim to know him, but who offer conflicting information. He receives calls from anonymous people talking about things that barely relate to his situation. He has no idea what is going on. Neither will you, but as you play, you’ll begin to form theories as the pieces start to fit together. The brilliance of the story is in how long it is able to keep you in the dark without distancing you from Harry’s immediate struggles. And of course, once you’ve figured it out and everything has fallen into place, the game practically demands to be replayed with your newfound knowledge.
Most of Harry’s interactions with other characters are over the phone, but he will occasionally stumble across other townspeople in person. While these encounters are non-interactive (except in a few memorable cases), the writing, voice acting, and animation for the characters are all excellent. If they act a little bit… well, off, that’s because they’re supposed to. The result is that these interactions are consistently unsettling and bizarre – which is just how they should be.
Shattered Memories wears its obsession with psychoanalysis on its sleeve, as the narrative is framed by a first-person therapy session. At the beginning of the game, and intermittently throughout, the story will cut back to this session as your psychiatrist poses various questions and tests that are intended to provide a sense of your (the player’s) own psyche. This, along with your play style and other in-game actions (such as where you’re staring when talking to a particular woman… pervert) form a psych profile that affects the way the game plays out for you. While the system is not as insightful as the developers might like to think – the game opens with a warning that it will be analyzing you in order to create the most disturbing game possible – it is certainly clever. The changes can be rather subtle and amusing, and there’s something eerie about knowing that the game is judging you based on whether you spend a little too long looking at a particularly “suggestive” poster on the wall. More so when you realize that the changes can be quite drastic. Characters will treat Harry differently and alternative areas will be visited, not to mention the various endings. One character will even take on a completely different appearance based on your answers to the initial questionnaire.
So the story and atmosphere are good, but is the game scary? Yes, definitely, but the concrete division between “safe” and “dangerous” sections of gameplay means that the game as a whole feels less threatening – it simply doesn’t scare as much as its predecessors. It’s hard to feel quite as much dread when you know that, even if something pops out at you or goes bump in the night, it isn’t there to kill you. Even when you are defenseless and being chased relentlessly, the frozen Nightmare world just isn’t as disturbing as Silent Hill’s chain-link, rust, and blood. The chase sequences are more frantic and intense than disturbing or frightening, and since you can’t slow down to take in the atmosphere, there’s no room for the tiny little details that the original used to really put your stomach in knots. However, it’s a testament to the quality of the story that this relative lack of scares doesn’t feel any less satisfying. The game is still incredibly moody, and will definitely get to you.
Overall, the game works brilliantly despite its gameplay issues: The Nightmare world can’t hold a candle to the original’s Otherworld, the puzzles are simplistic, and running from a horde of enemies can be frustrating and clunky. But you don’t play Silent Hill strictly for the gameplay – you play it to be entrenched in a world of darkness, anxiety, and terror. If that sounds like a good time to you, Shattered Memories delivers, whether you’re a veteran of the series or a complete newcomer. For those who can’t stand any action at all, the thrills may still come at too high a price, but for adventurers looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush mixed in, Shattered Memories comes wholeheartedly recommended. If you’re looking for the creepiest game of the year, you’ll likely find it here. Welcome to Silent Hill.