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Silent Hill: Shattered Memories Review

4
  • Wii

A laundry list of risky changes pays off in this great new beginning for the Silent Hill series.


It's a big, lonely town out there. 
It's a big, lonely town out there. 
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is that rare game that uses the unique aspects of the Wii so well, you immediately feel like its quality would be lessened on a more traditional platform. (It's a shame all Wii games aren't that way, but, let's face it, they aren't.) The game uses motion controls and the Wii remote's speaker to draw you into its mysterious, unsettling world more effectively than you might expect. But as good as the Wii integration is, it's the nuanced storyline and chilling atmosphere that will really stick with you. Despite a little repetition in the game's progression, this is one experience you aren't likely to forget soon.

Shattered Memories is one of those newfangled "reboots" that distills the Silent Hill series down to its core--psychological horror--and takes it in a new direction. The similarities to the series' original installment are few. You're again Harry Mason, looking for your young daughter Cheryl after a car crash strands you in the idyllic small town of Silent Hill, nearly deserted in the midst of a blizzard. There's still a weird fixation on radio static and analog video effects, used to enhance the tension. Uh, did I mention your daughter is named Cheryl?

The point is, the comparisons end there. No more hellish, industrial-looking otherworld, no more occult business... and no combat. Shattered Memories is, for all intents and purposes, an adventure game in which you play through a series of loosely connected vignettes depicting Harry's mostly fruitless search of the town. The places and events you encounter as you move through the narrative become increasingly weird and hard to process, but despite appearances, they are leading you somewhere specific and revelatory. Describing a list of example encounters in this review would really take away from the net effect of bafflement and tension you feel as you play them yourself. Since those feelings are largely what make this rendition of Silent Hill so memorable, let it suffice that this is an especially strange, moody game that's probably a little like what David Lynch would make if he were into video game development.

One of Shattered Memories' best aspects is Harry's iPhone-like cell phone, which sounds like a gimmick but actually makes you feel more connected to the game world. In addition to a map function, the phone has a camera in it that lets you reveal ghostly afterimages of past events when you take pictures of the right places (and the camera screen has a convincingly low-resolution stutter when you use it). The world is full of psychic artifacts like these that may seem like non-sequiturs at first, but they usually have some sort of subtle bearing on the plot. They're all honestly creepy in their own right, anyway. Imagine finding a lone sleeping bag out in the woods, then seeing blood stains spread across it as you approach, then getting a text message from a stranger about how maybe they shouldn't have slipped something into that girl's drink. It's pretty unsettling stuff.

The Wii controls are really nicely designed. 
The Wii controls are really nicely designed. 
Speaking of which, you'll also get occasional phone calls, text messages, and voice mails (some from familiar characters and some from... who knows?) that depict seemingly random, unsettling events in ways that subtly tie into the core storyline. The phone calls and voice mails come out of the Wii remote's speaker, which just happens to sound exactly like a cell phone. Holding it up to your ear, to hear things like a girl begging her mother to pick her up from the party where she has suddenly found herself amid some very bad people, has to be one of the most creative and affecting uses of that dinky speaker to date.

The flow of Shattered Memories gets down to a formula pretty quickly. Each episode is framed by a visit to a psychotherapist that's apparently taking place in the present day, as Harry and his shrink work their way through the trauma of the car crash and subsequent search. Then you flash back to the next leg of Harry's ordeal in Silent Hill. The first half of these vignettes consists of you searching the town and occasionally meeting up with the game's few supporting characters, looking for clues. As creepy as some of the events are during these segments, you come to realize pretty quickly that you aren't in any real danger during your search. You can't die here; there are no vicious beasts waiting to jump out and ambush you, nor even environmental hazards that can put an end to Harry. These sequences are more about absorbing the storyline and getting wrapped up in the unsettling atmosphere than fearing for your life.

But then, every time you feel like you're coming up on some sort of conclusion or breakthrough, the world ices over and you're suddenly beset by the sort of ugly, faceless monsters that would make Pyramid Head proud. But you can't fight them. In every episode, these repeated encounters really just amount to an extended chase sequence, as you run from the monstrosities and frantically try to reach whatever place it is that will let you escape. These chases are mostly successful at engendering a real sense of terror; the helplessness you feel at being unable to fight the monsters, only dodge them and shove them off, is palpable. At least at first. Knowing that another chase is always coming at the end of each episode makes them a little less scary, but the creatures are sufficiently unpleasant enough in sound and appearance that you sure don't want to spend more time around them than you have to.
 
Playing the game is mostly a pleasant experience. The Wii remote is used to great effect as a pointer for Harry's flashlight, which feels natural in your hand and lights up your surroundings with strikingly nice-looking lighting effects. Motion is also used in some clever ways in some puzzles, allowing you to manipulate cabinet doors, empty cans, and so forth as you look for keys and other objects. Even the motion controls during the chase sequences play into the action; you basically have to flail frantically in the direction of an attacking monster to shove it off of you. The relative imprecision of the Wii's controls can be vexing sometimes during the fast action of the chases, though, since you won't always knock an attacker off on the first try, and you'll sometimes make a wrong turn as you use the pointer to steer the camera.

Gross. 
Gross. 
One of the most interesting and yet least apparent aspects of Shattered Memories is the long list of ways it reacts to your play style. From the questions and psych tests your therapist throws at you to just about everything you do while exploring, the particulars of the storyline can change dramatically. The game determines which areas of the town you have access to, what supporting characters look like and how they act toward you, even the personality of Harry himself (right down to the comments he makes on the things he sees). The thing is, none of this is obvious the first time you play through the game; the story simply comes off as, well, the way it is. But there's real merit in playing through again, making significantly different choices and giving different answers to see what changes. A striking amount of it will. For what it's worth, I found that giving honest answers to the therapist's questions and playing according to my gut produced an outcome that was very much in line with my sensibilities. For once, your mileage will definitely vary.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories takes some bold, unpredictable risks with this venerated franchise, and the result is a heck of a lot more interesting than yet another survival horror game with motion-assisted aiming might have been. And thanks to the careful handling of the narrative, it's an indelible experience that proves you don't need endless shooting and buckets of blood to produce a mature, resonant horror experience, on the Wii or on any other platform.    
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