The Silent Hill franchise is a perfect example of failing to evolve with the times. Some may not believe it now, but up until part four, the series was a big deal. With both critical acclaim and retail success aplenty, Silent Hill seemed unstoppable.
But things began to go wrong and fast. Its meteoric fall from grace occurred for various reasons. A lack of gameplay progression, the disbandment of original developers Team Silent, the genre evolving Resident Evil 4, and finally, Konami’s decision to outsource the franchise to western developers, all contributed to this decline. Shattered Memories, which is by no means a disaster, does not return the once standard setting horror series to its former glory.
For those unaware, Shattered Memories is a re-imagining of the first game. Aside from the characters, setting, and basic plot (Harry Mason is looking for his lost daughter Cheryl in the spooky town of Silent Hill after she goes missing following a car crash), everything else is radically different from the original PSX version.
Gone are the crappy controls, the equally poor camera and the awful, convoluted mess of a story. In their place are a modern over the shoulder perspective and a fantastic plot, easily one the strengths of this re-imagining.
Much has been made of the story, or more accurately, the way that the story can be shaped by your actions. The psychological profiling, or as the warning screen at the start likes to remind you, the way that “this game plays you as much as you play it” proves to be artificial at best with the only meaningful consequence of these interactions being which one of the five short endings you unlock.
At the start of the game, you find yourself completing a short questionnaire, and as you progress throughout your adventure,, the little things that you do such as staring at certain, items, images, the numbers you dial on your phone etc. change the world around you. For example, the first time that you encounter policewoman Cybil Bennett. If she’s fully clothed, she basically thinks you’re a drunk. If however she’s dressed like a lady cop in a porn film, you’re basically assumed to be a pervert, probably because you’ve spent too long looking at this distraction.
There are other changes as well, such as the hair colour of and the clothes that both Harry and Silent Hill’s inhabitants don, but these changes are purely cosmetic. There’s no real difference as a result of these alterations on how you play the game, nor on the behaviours or attitudes of those that you encounter. The world doesn’t alter, nor are you forced to face your own personal fears. It’s a brilliant idea in theory, but with a little bit more thought and time, it could have turned into something truly meaningful.
Another big talking point was the complete removal of any form of combat. As the western developed prequel and the HD sequel deteriorated into a sort of survival horror beat ’em up, Climax, like the rest of us, realized that combat has always been Silent Hill‘s weak point. Instead of fighting then, all you can do is run. At critical story junctures, the game world and its inhabitants freeze over as opposed to being wrapped in the series trademark, thick fog. The world distorts, bends, and twists into a hellish version of what once was.
At these points, severely disfigured creatures pursue you relentlessly until you can reach a safe point, thus returning the world to normality. Should one or usually more of these creatures grab onto you, your only hope for survival is to throw them off or scare them away with the rare flares that you find, which also don’t burn very long.
These events seem to have split opinion down the middle. Some feel that they are terrifying, while others find them infuriating, I find myself agreeing with the latter. The labyrinth like level design only serves to confuse and elongate the nightmare, meaning that you’ll be running around in circles with very little help in the way of directions. Eventually, you’ll be outnumbered and basically humped to death, and trust me, there will be a lot of humping.
Harry loses energy far too quickly, and it takes far too long for him to recover. These nightmare sequences seem so disconnected to the main game and its narrative that they really disrupt the flow of proceedings. Thankfully, checkpoints are generously placed, however, that also removes any sense of fear that these sequences were meant to create, knowing full well that punishment for failing to escape ultimately just means a reset.
Critically though, once you’ve figured out the routine, exploration and the psychological mini–games, the games biggest downfall kills any atmosphere remaining: predictability. Harry can’t be attacked when he’s just wandering around, knowing this you’ll find yourself running about the place, storming through doors, and making a racket safe in the knowledge that there’s no consequences for your recklessness.
The removal of combat leaves Climax with very little choice, but for a horror game to chill, it must make you soil your pants at the thought of entering a new room.
Disappointingly you’ll encounter only one form of monster, a monster which in terms of art design falls way short of series standards. They don’t scare, nor disturb. They do evolve ever so slightly over time, but unquestionably, these are the weakest creatures ever seen in a Silent Hill game.
But being on the PSP poses its own problems. Whereas the Wii version boasted excellent use of the motion controls and speaker to solve the clever (but clearly built around the Wiimote) puzzles, here most have been lost in translation, killing off a lot of the interaction. Shaking off enemies is a simple button press, whereas on the Wii, it felt like a genuine struggle. This problem can’t be blamed on the console nor can the sluggish and compromised control layout. However, the feeling of inadequacy that it creates is too strong to forgive.
While the Wii version was also a visual delight, the PSP cannot hope to replicate its console brethren. Visuals are integral to the horror genre, but the blocky, scruffy look here does it no favours. The lack of a terrifying atmosphere (due in large part to predictability) makes this feel like Silent Hill-lite.
However, the main reason that you’ll want to play this game is for the story. Silent Hill has always dealt with the darker nature of mankind. The downward spiral that Harry falls into, the struggles that he faces to please the women in his life, the vices that he indulges in when the women he cares for most reject him can be understood by any man who loses the woman closest to him. Yet, his sheer determination to do what’s right speaks of what many would do for their child.
The emphasis of the story is on the often muffled pleas for help that come from the most vulnerable victims of divorce and family break ups, the children. Never has a game so painfully depicted the hurt, the misunderstanding, and the silent suffering that children go through or the guilt, the sense of injustice and helplessness that a father feels when his child has been taken from him.
Ultimately as a game, Shattered Memories fails to rectify years of misuse by Konami and their partners, but this is still the best Silent Hill game in years. Faint praise but maybe it’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully in the future, whoever develops the next entrant on whatever format gives the series the kick up the backside it needs because it would be a shame to lose the world of Silent Hill. Furthermore, it would be a great loss to gaming should one of the few games today that seems capable of telling a story that’s not about killing aliens but instead explores the real life hardships and suffering that we all encounter disappear.