Silent Hill Goes Back to the Drawing Board, but Comes Up Short
The Silent Hill series has gone through a lot since the first installment on the original PlayStation. It has become known for weird creature designs, nightmarish alternate worlds, and plenty of disturbing psychological material to mess with the player. The newest game "Shattered Memories" arrives on the Wii and takes things back to the beginning in a re-imagining of the first game. But it's probably more accurate to describe it as a complete overhaul. The names are the same but the game and the tone has changed drastically. "Shattered Memories" focuses more on puzzles, story, and mind screws rather than combat and otherworldly monsters. This game takes a brave step with what it does and it's hard to say if long time fans will appreciate the change in direction. What is for sure, is that the final product is a luke-warm mix of fantastic ideas and moments of horribly frustrating gameplay.
The story is basically unchanged from the first game. You play as Harry Mason as he searches for his missing daughter in the town of Silent Hill. As you go about looking around you'll travel through streets, schools, hospitals and more and encounter all sorts of townspeople. From the get go something is off about Harry, the town and pretty much everyone you meet- which is what you'd expect from a Silent Hill game. What's different is the fact that the adventure is altered by choices made by the player at certain points in the game. Right when you start up the disc you'll get a big red warning that the game uses psychological content to spice things up. "The game plays you as much as you play it". It's unnecessary and almost laughable. After all, what game doesn't react to the player? However, it does make for some interesting influences on the story and replay value for those who want to see just how much they can change.
"Shattered Memories" is split up into three alternating sections. Interacting with a doctor, exploring the town, and escaping the nightmare world of crawling ice and snow. The doctor's office is little more than answering questions so the majority of your time will be spent with the last two parts.
When you're running around the town you control Harry with the Nunchuck and direct a flashlash with the Wii Remote as you explore, look around, and interact with certain objects. The control pad is used to bring up a phone that holds maps and everything needed to get to the bottom of things. What also helps is that motion controls are used in contexts that make sense. Pulling pins, rolling down windows, placing objects in order, and everything else works well without too many problems. A few times objects got caught on things and jumped around awkwardly but everything is spaced out so it's not overused. That said, exploring the town is the greatest part of this game. The story is well done and the puzzles are interesting enough that the action sequences end up bringing things down.
The last and worst part of this game is the ice bound nightmare world where Harry has to escape jittery monsters that want to chase him down. Unlike the other games in the series, your only choice is to run for your life. You cannot fight these monsters and the only defense you have is flare you may or may not pick up while you run. Not being able to fight back is a brave move, and one that lends a little more credit to the term survival horror. However the Wii motion controls turn these sections into game crippling exercises in massive frustration. The first time a monster grabbed hold of me it killed me because no matter how I shook the remote, the game wouldn't recognize the "throwing off" motion. And this might not seem too bad except the monsters are faster than you and can pile on. Trying to shake four monsters off when the game hardly recognizes one is an instant game over. Shaking a monster loose was so inexact that I borrowed a friend's remote to make sure mine wasn't malfunctioning. But the problem lies solely with the motion controls and it doesn't help that the game suddenly stops prompting you how to shake them off, and leaves you to guess.
Things only get worse as you go on and get objectives in the nightmare world before escaping. Trying to take a picture of a key item while a monster jumps you from behind is almost enough to stop playing entirely. Silent Hill has always had an issue with combat and it seemed like sidestepping the whole fighting aspect might save the player some grief. But the failure of motion controls in this part makes it clearer than ever that "Shattered Memories" could get by without an 'action' part and be a better game for it. The story is compelling enough and the ending is satisfying that suffering through these nightmare areas is much tougher to swallow.
Graphics are solid. Character models look great, with an honorable mention of the psychiatrist you'll see again and again. Everyone emotes with the lines they're speaking and it's very cool to see in action. What does look a little on the ugly side is the town itself. The transition to the nightmare ice world isn't as impressive as the world of steel, chain link fences, and fire. And considering you'll spend most of your time running there's not a whole lot to look at except frost bitten walls and piles of glaciers. The pitch darkness and looming snow storm through the game might be clever cop outs for draw distance but it's nothing you'll sweat for too long.
Lastly, not since "The Room" has a Silent Hill game felt like it could have been a completely unrelated game and been perfectly fine. Nothing really nails it down to the brand. This is especially true considering there is more emphasis on the mind than mythology or the town itself. The new nightmare world could have fit in any game, and the series doesn't have a monopoly on crazy skinless creatures. In games past there was a reason why Silent Hill was messed up and you won't get that in "Shattered Memories". There's nothing wrong with it, but the game doesn't do a lot to earn it except "Hey, you're in a town called Silent Hill, crazy huh?". It's more likely a marketing move than anything else, but it's probably more fair to the game that people didn't have the idea of Samael or Pyramid Head in the back of their heads as they play.
There is a lot to like about "Shattered Memories" from the story, to the controls, to the use of simple questions to change how everything unfolds. It could have had some serious replay value with the way things change, but players might have to suffer through too much in order to see any of that. The attempts to spice up the game with intensity and action by running away ends up being a serious problem and maybe the next game might just focus on what Silent Hill does best- messing with the player.