"Anxious" does not even begin to describe my feelings when I discover that there is a new survival horror game coming out. As you've no doubt figured out by now if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, horror games are something I simply cannot get enough of. And while there are a number of franchises that compete for my attention, none is more apt to receive my gamer girl bucks than the perversely fascinating titles in the Silent Hill series. Having played through every entry in the series that has thusfar been released in the States (and even that little Play Novel adventure on the GBA), I have seen the highest and lowest points the series has to offer. When I heard that Climax Group was being given the reigns again, I have to admit I was a little worried. While I do not count myself among the legion of haters who believe that Silent Hill Origins should never have been made, one has to admit that it feels vastly different from the ones actually made by Konami and Origins did little to update the formula that Konami had been using for eight years previously. In addition, not only was this new title being made by Climax but it was also going to be a reworking of the very first game; cause for concern no matter how you look at it. As if that wasn't enough, the game was also being developed primarily for the Wii and ported to the PSP and PS2, so how it would stand up on the comparably weaker systems was up in the air. What was Konami thinking?
As far as I am concerned, though, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a brilliant reinterpretation of the original story, one that can stand on its own without tarnishing the great story that the original Playstation version delivered ten years ago. This is "Silent Hill" as though it happened in the twenty-first century; while the original Harry Mason of 1999 stumbled through the dark armed with a pocket light and a static-prone radio, collecting maps off the walls to chart his progress and requiring his guide (you) to write down significant clues in order to solve puzzles, the Harry Mason of 2010 comes fully armed with a flashlight and a handy swiss army cellular phone that includes a built-in camera, voice-mail recording device, txt reader, GPS unit and mapping functionality. Today's Harry relies on the interference to his phone, generated by nearby enemies, to keep track of when trouble is rearing its head. And, in the most radical departure from the original, today's Harry really is a complete wimp. No knives, no 2x4s, and no guns for this would-be writer. All that Harry has to face the demons of the town are his legs, his stamina, and hopefully a really good sense of direction and a little luck. Oh yes, and a little help from the man who is helping him to work through all of these memories, a psychologist named Dr. K...K...well, it's probably not that important what his name is, now, is it?
Shattered Memories takes an entirely different track when it comes to gameplay than those who came before it. With the element of combat completely removed, the game is now almost completely story-driven. A plethora of (mostly easy) puzzles force you to stay on your toes and really use your flashlight to examine your surroundings and pick out the important things you need to find. Initially this may seem like a shock to players more used to the old way of doing things: when Harry is exploring Silent Hill, and getting thwarted by all the severe weather that has moved in, he's actually not in any danger. Bizarre, flesh-covered creatures or strange flying imps do not appear to harass our hero, and the most menacing thing he'll have to encounter is the occasional ghost who leaves behind a fleeting impression of why the energy containing it has been trapped there. An air of menace and abandonment follows and preceeds Harry wherever he goes in this town, but surely it's just because the blizzard-like conditions outside have shut everything down, right?
Sometimes, though, the forces of darkness gather sufficient power. And that's when the Nightmares start to intrude, when Harry Mason discovers that Hell is not hot, but rather very, very cold. The world freezes over, blocking off exits, cutting off paths, and transforming the very terrain before your eyes, casting everything into a pale-blue haze of dementia populated with hordes of creatures intent on doing you terrible harm. It is now that Harry must run, jump, crawl and occasionally hide from his dogged pursuers in order to reach safety. Navigating the nightmares is often akin to running in a maze, with passages that double-back on one another, and multiple routes to get to the same place - the trick is to remember where you came from and try to avoid winding up there again. If grabbed, Harry has only a few seconds to hit a button (or two, or more depending on just how overwhelmed you've gotten) to toss the demon off his arm or leg or shoulder before he gets dragged down and killed. The Nightmares are an adrenaline rush like nothing you've ever really experienced before in a horror game, and truly bring home the notion of helplessness. You thought it was bad in Fatal Frame when you were given nothing more than a camera to defend yourself? Harry gets exactly one saving grace: the occasional emergency flare which he can light and use to keep his would-be attackers at bay for a limited time. Being creatures of cold and darkness, they dislike the light and heat given off by the flare, which can be dropped to keep them from taking a certain path, or held tightly to keep them from grabbing on to you. Flares don't last forever, though, and it's best to use them to put a serious amount of distance between you and them.
Finally, in a twist that is nothing short of brilliant, the story and gameplay adapt themselves to your habits and quirks as you progress. Characters (including Harry) are rendered differently depending on how Harry handles himself, both in Dr. K's office and in his own adventures, and the town itself changes in ways both overt and subtle depending on his behavior. A player who takes the time to check out sexy posters, call phone numbers written on walls and oggle the female characters of the game will find that other characters begin to take on overtly sexual tones themselves, by dressing provocatively or making off-colour comments. Players who are assholes to other characters will find themselves treated likewise by law enforcement. Ignore or pointedly lie to Dr. K in the sessions between "chapters" of gameplay, and the game will likewise reward you with complete nonsense and assume that you really don't want to be helped. At one point, the player will be called on to colour a picture of a "happy family" in the good Doctor's office. The picture includes a house, and whatever colours are used to render the house are instantly applied to a certain house in the game (colour the mailbox purple, and the in-game house has a purple mailbox; give it a brown porch and the in-game house's porch is constructed out of wood planks). The warning before the game starts says it all: the game plays you as much as you play it. The possiblities for replays are endless, and there are a huge variety of postures and mannerisms that Harry can adopt on his adventure.
The point of all this is that Shattered Memories actually manages to remain more true to the Silent Hill name than any of the games that have been released since Silent Hill 3 (my personal favorite in the series) by returning to the psychological horror elements in the story. Eschewing combat completely makes for a game that is both easier and more difficult at the same time, but once you've experienced it, you will never view the games the same way again and, in fact, might even find yourself wishing that Climax would remake (or reinterpret) a few other games in the series in such a way.
For all the good things I have to say about Shattered Memories, it is still far from a perfect game. While I've yet to complete it, friends who own it for the Wii tell me that it is very short; a guy with no experience with survival horror titles at all managed to complete it in eight hours, then managed a full replay in about another six. The good news is that on the PS2, Shattered Memories is only $30 brand new. The better news is that you'll get more out of that $30 game on an old system in seven hours than many $60 games for the PS2 or 360 will give you in twice or three times as much playtime. Being a Wii port, the controls work surprisingly well, with the left analog stick guiding your movements while the right stick serves to steer you from side to side and controls your flashlight. The interactive elements of some puzzles require you to move a hand-shaped cursor around on a screen and hold a button or rotate a stick in order to perform an action like opening a box or turning a radio dial.
However, being developed on the Wii means that it was toned down graphically for its ports to the PSP and PS2. Graphics tend to show a larger-than-usual degree of jaggies and pixelation when viewed up close, and the game often stutters briefly while it transitions between rooms as your character opens (or bursts down) doors as it dumps the old room from memory and loads the new one. Still, this is leaps and bounds more interesting than showing an animation of a loading symbol or hearing a few footsteps as one trots up a set of stairs. Don't get me wrong, the game is still quite functional as far as graphics go, but it still seems that the PS2 isn't being pushed as hard as it could be in some areas. Then again, I'm not a game developer, so it's hard to say how hard Climax is riding the GPU.
I guess the short-short way of saying it is that Shattered Memories completely blew away all my expectations in delivering a brand new style of survival horror game chock full of replayability with a storyline that manages to be just as menacing as the first without being so brain-numbingly convoluted as several of the past entries have been. Don't let the lack of combat mechanics bother you: after experiencing it, you'll wish that more games took this daring step instead of loading down their "non-fighter" protagonists with a Bag of Holding stuffed full of swords, knives, pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades and lasers. If the non-combat aspects especially intrigue you, then I would like to point you to the Clock Tower series of survival horror games that have been released on the SNES, the PS1, and the PS2 - all of these games cast you in the starring role of a horror-film-style victim and only give you the option to evade and hide from your pursuer(s).
So take it from someone who has been there since the start: Shattered Memories will redefine your perception of just what a survival horror title can be without completely screwing up your opinion of the original story that it is "retelling". Thank you, Climax, for making Silent Hill fresh again!