Shattered Memories: A Spectacle for the Wii
In its own idiosyncratic ways, I see Silent Hill: Shattered Memories as doing something similar for its respective series like what Resident Evil 4 did nearly six years ago as well. I'm doubtful that it'll trigger as widespread of a revolution outside its franchise as the GameCube action-horror game managed, but just look at a screenshot or watch a video and it becomes pretty apparent that it's taking the series in a direction that's certainly new for it, but not without also being prone to trigger some controversy. That's more or less an inevitability, especially with a series that was perceivably staying truer to its roots, for better or for worse, compared to Capcom's last couple of outings with their own games. But if you're looking for a Silent Hill game with a different take on the formula, one that actually seems to make a very good first push towards redefining survival horror, then Shattered Memories is certainly worth your time. It has a few marring flaws to its name, but by and large, it's an intriguing and scarily fun joy to play through all the way up to its surprising finale.
The game, in turn, takes your responses to these exercises and tailors the actual levels accordingly. Sometimes the effects are subtle and sometimes they're blatant, going so far as to outright alter character personalities, level layouts, and puzzles, but you often get the impression that the larger forces at work in Silent Hill are at least partially because of your responses, which constantly keeps you on the lookout for what sort of resulting curve ball the game will throw at you. Usually you can't guess it right and that's a good thing on its part; as a survival horror game, its job is to make sure you never know what to expect from the unexpected.
In fact, that's the general philosophy of Shattered Memories' story in general, a job it succeeds at very, very well. This is because the game is as much one about its characters as it is the very town of Silent Hill itself. The snowy little hamlet is really another character you get to know throughout your entire journey. With combat completely nonexistent, Shattered Memories instead prioritizes exploration and uses this to great effect. As you walk around and solve the occasional puzzle, you'll likely be very compelled to check out a lot of the odds and ends of the different environments. The game motivates you to do this primarily in the form of messages both disturbing and innocent you receive on your cell phone as you find objects and places that have deep emotional attachments to them. Checking out these messages is a very enlightening exercise on the lives of the ordinary people living there and while they usually don't directly help you find Harry's daughter, they do help make the place feel real and alive. It's a place with history and the game makes sure you never stop feeling that. You'll also encounter a large number of phone numbers on things like posters that Harry can call and get actual responses from and there's also a camera to unearth even more secrets, both of which further enhance the atmosphere of a place once brimming with life. It's hard to really define the atmosphere the game creates from all this, but it's nothing short of sensational on various levels.
The portions of the plot where you actually interact with other characters are still really well-done, though. Harry meets a couple of other people on the path to finding his daughter who also happen to be in Silent Hill as well. They're a deliberately ambiguous bunch, with Shattered Memories giving you just enough details to get to know them a bit, but they're all well done and play a role in helping Harry figure out his situation and the resolution it needs. Save for a scant few instances where he's actually following someone, though, these meetings are confined to somewhat occasional cutscenes, giving the game time a plenty to nevertheless instill a due sense of isolation as you go wandering around Silent Hill.
Shattered Memories' gameplay is largely executed very well and the self-motivated exploration sequences are so well done that they make the package very worthwhile, but if there is one area that can be a source of frustration, it's in the game's chase sequences. In these portions, Harry encounters iconic, but seemingly hallucinatory monsters and has to run away from them while heading towards a specific check point. The only real line of defense Harry has at his disposal is a well-executed shoving maneuver done with the Wii remote that affect objects he can use to obstruct paths, as well as any monsters that may have latched onto him. Beyond that, since Harry has no other way of fighting back now, the idea is to just make it alive in one piece.
On paper, this all works brilliantly since it creates a constant sense of tension and sheer survival. It works well the first couple of times when the level layouts are fairly linear and conclude at a quick pace, but once things start getting very curvy and spacious, they can quickly become very tedious and anger-inducing. Harry's phone has a map function that also lets you draw a path to the checkpoint, but since you can't bring it up without slowing him down to a very slow walking pace, what often ends up happening is that you become lost and if you don't find the exit by sheer chance, you'll probably get to restart the sequence multiple times once you're unable to fend off the monsters any longer. Things get even worse upon reaching areas with repeating corridors that end up making that map function useless even when you do find time to get a breather. It's unfortunate, since the chase sequences are an idea that has a lot of really wonderful potential in the Silent Hill universe, but thankfully they don't appear often enough to completely dominate and overwhelm the otherwise very positive experiences Shattered Memories has in store.
On a technical level, Shattered Memories is typically a very great Wii game. The graphics are among the best the system has on offer, offering really good models and high resolution textures, both of which do a really, really good job at making the exploration really enjoyable. The environments in particular tend to be so well detailed that it's hard to not naturally explore every nook and cranny just to see what's lying around, both hidden and in plain sight. The frame rate is also very steady, not giving way even during the intense chases. The shadows that objects cast do, unfortunately, often look awkward upon close inspection, as the power of Harry's trusty flashlight seems to make them render in really weird ways. They seem to often appear to be duplicate models of the objects that the game tries to distort, instead of operating as something more akin to a texture changing in real-time. This is an issue that only applies to light coming from your flashlight, though; the ambient lighting and shadows from the environments themselves are thankfully pristine and are never problematic. Beyond that blemish, though, Shattered Memories is one of the best-looking Wii games produced yet and the shadows aren't awkward enough to constantly distract you away from the haunting beauty the game otherwise has to display.
The other areas of Shattered Memories are also well-produced, too. The sound direction naturally does its job of creating fear in even the tamest gameplay situations and the soundtrack, while subdued, constantly sets the right tone for the game's various levels. The game's voice acting also does a good job at making the characters fit right into the story and no lines stick out like sore thumbs. The psychiatrist is particularly well-done, as the vocal talents behind him go very far to create an eccentric man who's ultimately there to help you, but not without being devilish along the way, too. Likewise, the motion controls, while a bit touchy, overall work really well and make the puzzle-solving a tactile experience. Additionally, being able to use it to control the flashlight makes the exploration even more compelling. You have to train yourself not to make sweeping gestures that throw off the Wii's sensor bar, but other than that, the motion controls always work and feel like a natural part of the game. It's ironically best done in the chase sequences, as shaking monsters off of you never ceases to be a visceral experience even amidst the other issues present during those times. It should also be noted that outside of transitions to indoors or outdoors, the game has almost nothing in the way of load times at all. The times where they do show up are so brief that they're virtually over already before you see them, ensuring that Shattered Memories' pacing is never sabotaged.
Let's not beat around the bush about it; Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does have problems. The chase sequences don't work as well as they should and for a game that emphasizes its graphics so much to create the right aura, it's sad to see that shadows cast from your flashlight are pretty wonky to see. But at its core, Shattered Memories is a really great game that's hopefully the start of a series of reboots that make further refinements. Plus, while the game itself may be short and clocks in at around six to eight hours, it has one of the best stories in recent memory, containing multiple mind-screwing endings that will probably make you want to do a few runs through the game again to change up the experiences along the way. It may very well be 2009's last real hurrah, but this is a reboot that's well worth supporting, flaws and all, since it takes many, many steps in the right direction towards redefining the survival-horror genre for the better.