Silent Hill: Shattered Memories coincides with the tenth anniversary of the series launch, and while it’s being pegged as a reimagining of the original PlayStation game, developer Climax has crafted something completely new that is to the Silent Hill experience what Resident Evil 4 was to its own struggling series, namely a complete rewrite of the formula from the ground-up. The change extends into the very DNA of the game itself, with nearly every aspect rethought and altered significantly. Gone are the unnerving and constantly changing camera angles, the excessive gore, and much of the tireless retreading of levels and item collection. The game even removes practically all traces of combat altogether, instead focusing on delivering a psychologically disturbing and emotionally challenging shock to the senses.
The game introduces us to Harry Mason, a newly-divorced professional writer and proud father of seven-year old daughter Cheryl. While driving home one snowy evening Harry veers off the road, crashing his car into a snow bank before blacking out. Upon awakening he notices that Cheryl is missing and sets out into the darkening night, with only his trusty flashlight to guide him. Bad weather and dizzying effects from the crash aren’t making things easy, and it isn’t long before the paralyzing fear that he’s completely alone begins to set in. As he explores the surrounding area he begins to realize that something isn’t right with the town of Silent Hill, and that something isn’t quite right with Harry.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an experience unlike any other, as the gameplay occurs on two entirely different planes, with both physical and mental decisions having significant effect to how your experience will take place. The game maintains an ongoing psychological profile of you as things proceed, often with direct interaction with an actual therapist who will give you tasks to complete and access your behaviors. Your answers to these moments can change the way the game looks and interacts with you, as main characters will approach you with different motives (and clothing), to even the way background details are represented during play. Stare too long as the varying instances of open cleavage and you might find some characters portrayed a bit more seductively, or maybe the charging monsters shapes will begin to represent your concept of carnal desire. The series has always made sexuality part of itself, although never quite like this.
The use and implementation of the Wii’s control set-up is outstanding, with Harry’s movements handled by the Nunchuk’s analog stick and the flashlight by the Wii remote. Guiding the light itself is extremely fluid and responsive, and there are plenty of moments that require motion-controls that replicate real actions (such as opening doors, unzipping clothes, and even dissecting a frog) that are both fun and help the feeling of being immersed in this dark world. Some objects can be picked up and examined by simply rotating the remote, and there was never a moment when interacting with items felt out of place or the controls tacked-on. The results are some of the most intuitive and accurate controls yet on the platform, and one of the most confident reminders that the way we play videogames is changing…for the better.
The game also completely eschews an onscreen HUD display, instead relying entirely on the interactions between Harry’s cell phone and the Wii remote itself. Again, even this is tied directly into the significant modifications Climax has made to the overall structure and feeling of the game, meaning you’ll need to pay attention to your surroundings and look for clues to keep moving forward. As nearly all your interactions occurs in-game, pay special attention to what’s written everywhere, or to the voices coming out of your controller. The cell phone can be used to take digital pictures, dial numbers, receive messages, or navigate the various locations. I’d advise cranking up the Wii remote’s speaker and grabbing a notepad for some of the game’s more challenging puzzles, because you’ll probably need it.
There may not be any actual combat, but that doesn’t make the moments with Harry evading the charging monsters during the icy, dreamlike scenes any less intense. While there’s no direct way to combat the demons offensively, Harry is given several defensive options to keep from being captured. Shaking the Wii remote and Nunchuk in the proper direction can throw off a latched creature, and there are often marked areas to hide in – at least temporarily. Flares can also be picked up and used to fend them off, or placed on the ground if you need a moment. But the purpose here is to escape, and the more they catch up with and grab on, the slower you’ll be able to run.
While some combination of the cell phone map and trailing system is possible, it’s probably best to just keep running and find your way out through trial and error. The relief you’ll feel when things morph back to normal will be palatable, and relief knowing the terror is over – for now.
The lack of aggressive combat was a brave design choice, but given the outlining adventure and hypnotic story progression, a completely appropriate one. Not every game need be filled with blasting monsters and excessive button-mashing action sequences, and the decision to concentrate almost entirely on making Shattered Memories a more cerebral and thoughtful experience was the best possible addition ever made to the series.
The game is also mercifully short, and you’ll probably spend less than 8 hours shifting through it on the first go. The series trademark multiple-endings are also back, and while I wouldn’t give away the game’s “core” ending for the world, each is specifically dependent upon psychological choices and answers given while playing. The ever-changing nature of the way the game interacts with your answers can lead to multiple plays to gain the ‘whole’ story, and while some are sure to criticize what they feel is shortened experience, given the surprising and very real emotional payoff that most observant players will likely enjoy, I’d say the pacing is just about perfect.
Eventually we’re going to get to a point when exclaiming surprise with the visual quality of a Wii title is going to lose its shock-value, but for now it’s still completely appropriate. The game looks outstanding and moves with such startling fluidity that some might mistake it for an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 title. No, I really do mean that, as few games on the platform have really wowed me like the dark and utterly disturbing new vision for Silent Hill has.
The game employs the most effective and frightening use of a flashlight I’ve ever seen, casting realistic shadows across spooky and hellishly abandoned locales and landscapes. Everything is heavily detailed, with specific nods to the story’s unfolding psychological changes sprinkled throughout and just waiting to be discovered. At times the design borders on photorealism, especially with real-time placards and the various text samples that adorn billboards, posters, and even bathroom stalls. Human characters have great detail and animation, particularly in their facial animations and realistic expressions during the few cinematic moments throughout. Backgrounds will often distort and morph into nightmare-inducing alternatives of themselves, and you’ll certainly appreciate the attention to detail and clean designs when trying to escape through them. Just keep running.
Series composer Akira Yamaoka returns with one of his most satisfying and restrained efforts yet, using his considerable talents to produce a soundtrack that compliments the visual mental distortions taking place on the screen. Haunting piano keys and grinding electronic noise filter through every crevice and situation you’ll encounter, expertly timed to help keep pace with the disparate feelings throughout. The sound effects and voice-acting are equally inspired, which is surprising given how laughably bad they’ve been in previous entries in the series. The screams of the pink naked monsters are chilling, as is the simulated ‘cell phone’ audio that plays through the Wii remote itself.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is both a triumph of psychological terror and interactive narrative, breaking new ground in what we consider survival horror. It also completely reinvents the franchise in brave new ways, and longtime fans will likely be joined by several new ones before long. The lack of combat is a non-issue, as the game mines deeper into the subconscious for a richer, more disorienting experience into the unknown. The audio/visual package is superb on the Wii, with some of the best and most welcome inclusions of motion-control yet. Observant players will enjoy watching the story play itself out, picking up clues and hints that add considerably to the shocking finale that won’t soon be forgotten. All this and more help make this new Silent Hill one of the most surprising and satisfying games of the year.