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.Continued on the next page...