Haunting as an Experience, Lacking as a Game
The Silent Hill franchise has consistently been one difficult to champion. The atmosphere and narrative of the games are second to none within the survival horror genre, and offer some of the most memorable and thought provoking stories to come out of console gaming, while the actual experience of playing of the games has been both tedious and unresponsive. With Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Climax clearly understands that titles strengths and tries to downplay the series' biggest weaknesses (unresponsive combat, obtuse puzzle solving) and emphasize its strengths. Unfortunately, what they ultimately offer falls firmly into the aforementioned trap of frustrating gameplay getting in the way of a fascinating and gripping horror story.
Shattered Memories' story models itself after the original game in the series, with mildly amnesiac Harry Mason searching for his lost daughter in the city of Silent Hill. The game is far from a remake, however, and feels more like a reboot for the series. No previous knowledge of the series is necessary, though there are several characters throughout that are variations on characters from earlier titles.
One tradition that does remain is the series' emphasis on questions of the psychological nature of reality. In this case, Climax shines, extending the theme out from just the character that you play and into your own psyche and how it effects what you experience. Throughout the game, the player will attend multiple therapy sessions which include Myers Briggs-style questionaires and dillemas. As they proceed, the answers they provide in these tests will determine certain outcomes in how the game unfolds. Characters will look and act differently depending on how they respond; certain locations and conversations will modify themselves to the personality of the player. As the credits roll, a psychological profile will roll; the findings are for the most part unnervingly accurate.
All of these pieces of Shattered Memories excel, especially once the game's ending reveals an attention to detail and narrative drive that impresses. Which is precisely why the game's short-comings are so frustrating, doubly so due to Climax's attempts to side-step the usual short-comings. Silent Hill has long suffered from sloppy and frustrating combat, so this title eshews combat all together. Instead, the pink-skinned enemies that you encounter (referred to officially as "Raw Shocks," a verbal pun on Rorschach) chase after you, arms flailing. Your only due course of action as Harry Mason is to run away for dear life, occasionally getting brief reprieves due to the flares that scare the monsters away. Initially, these nightmare sequences can be thrilling, but as the levels become more complicated and careful planning of your route is required, the fun factor is severely limited. Multiple times I found myself running around in circles with no time to orient myself to where I should go next. A map exists, but you need to access Harry's cell phone to examine it and the Raw Shocks have no intention of giving you the time, a frustration that resembles the frustration of looking for a necessary tool in the last Alone in the Dark game, only to be attacked while checking your coat. By the time the game begins to wind down, the Nightmare sequences become more and more of a burden than a treat, a roadblock that interrupts the fascinating world that I've enhabited.
There are other frustrating aspects of the game. When not running away from monsters, Shattered Memories most closely resembles an horror adventure game. True to form, this includes looking for keys in areas to open locked doors to the next section. And while the wide, obtuse searches for multiple combinations of keys are graciously eliminated, what replaces them are simple glances around for the nearest object to interact with near the door. Oftentimes this includes opening a closet or cabinet to find the key merely laying there to be picked up. Some sequences show real promise, including one scenario where you snoop around an office looking for clues to answer security questions for a computer password, but more often than not the puzzles feel like physics and interface demos for the games impressive tactile use of the Wiimote. They rarely feel challenging and don't offer any real sense of accomplishment or excitement.
Shattered Memories has haunted me (no pun intended) since I played it, especially the final moments of the game and their impact on the overall appreciation of the title. But it is also telling that I never completed the second play through, realizing after I hit the second Raw Shock chase sequence and realized I had no desire to continue. The shame is that there is so much that succeed with the overall experience that it should be lauded and held up, especially on a system wanting of significant mature releases. But in the process of delivering a spellbinding narrative and well-planned psychological horror, the parts where Shattered Memories is an actual game are unfortunately its weakest moments. Ultimately despite its failures, it raises my interest in the developers next project and certainly should be played at least once, with the understanding that is far from perfect.