Discussion Review: Silent Hill: Book of Memories

Review written by Matt Litten & Aaron R. Conklin

SilentHillBookOfMemories

Aaron: Back in the 1960s, legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock, who’d already cemented his legacy as one of the world’s greatest film directors, lent his considerable name to a TV show called “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” While the series generally rocked—Time Magazine once named it one of the best 100 TV shows ever—Hitchcock himself only created/directed a small handful of the more than 250 episodes.

Silent Hill: Book of Memories reminds me of that once-removed phenomenon. It feels like it should have the words “Presents” in front of the colon in the title.

For starters, this isn’t a traditional Silent Hill game at all, where your badly overmatched protagonist is trapped in a deserted/haunted locale, dodging and cowering in first-person view from faceless, twitching monstrosities in sexy nurse outfits. Instead, it’s more like Diablo with a Silent Hill skin stretched bloodily over the top of it, the way Hannibal Lecter might stretch a victim’s skin over his own to try to escape a jam. There’s nothing wrong with a third-person isometric view, other than that it kills most of the horror vibe we’re used to seeing from Silent Hill. Two-headed zombie dogs and squiggly rat things just aren’t that scary when they’re viewed from a teeny remove.

The plot isn’t especially scary either, and in fact it’s actually kinda silly, another big departure from the Silent Hills we’ve known and loved of old. Say your mailman delivered a Necronomicon-esque book that contained depictions/descriptions of everything that had ever happened to you, and told you had the power to change a few lines here and there. Would your first edit involve getting back at the unqualified coworker who’d swiped your promotion? In this world it would. As Ellen Page’s character tells her mom in Juno, dream big.

Effecting changes in the book really means becoming an errand boy for a demon in your nightmares, marching through rooms filled with monsters in search of puzzle pieces and boss beasts to slay. There are a handful of series hallmarks here, from the whatever’s-at-hand weapons (shovels, pipes, revolvers, etc.) that accumulate damage until they eventually break, to the shambling and spiderriific monsters that seek to turn you into a puddle of blood on the stained wooden floor. There are also a handful of elements clumsily copped from other scary games that aren’t Diablo—most notably the TV broadcasts from Alan Wake. In that game, these were miniature and very spooky episodes of a Twilight Zone clone. Here, they’r e just sound clips snippets of boring conversations that neither creep you out or advance your understanding of the story at all.

Can’t say I care for the hidden spike-traps that pop up to sap your life at exactly the wrong moments. Or the random-room generation that might stick the save-book room and the store at the very end of your journey. (Hint: Find them first, then retrace your route to activate the challenge room battles.) The puzzles that mark the end of each section are both painfully obvious and shockingly repetitive.

But here’s the weird thing, Matt. Despite this rather sizable list of shortcomings, there was never a point at which I found myself wanting to unplug and toss the game aside. I think it has everything to do with the inherent addictiveness of the isometric hack-and-slash crawler; just like Diablo and Torchlight, the “just one more level” formula is unstoppable. Even when every room ends up looking exactly the same.

What did you think of the touch-screen karma powers? Useful, or lot of work for little payoff?

Matt: Well, well, well. It looks like we’re simpatico on another game here, Aaron!

On paper, WayForward’s attempt to spin Silent Hill off from pure psychological horror to isometric dungeon crawler that isn’t scary at all sounds like it should be a train wreck, and in certain areas it kind of is. As you say, the story is an absolute mess of characters you won’t care about and silly book revisions that never materialize into meaningful or interesting outcomes, despite an underlying karma system that tries—and fails—to make your choices matter.

Worse, the map layouts do everything possible to make your horrifying crawls through dream hell as tedious as possible. From zone 1 through 21 and well beyond, every level flows in exactly the same way: open door, clear room of monsters, collect a puzzle piece or note, move to next room, do the same thing, and that’s it. Then once you’ve gathered all puzzle pieces and reached the level exit, you have to complete a final puzzle to move on. It’s too bad that these puzzles are literally the same thing every time, just with a different theme. There is never any variation on the template of rearranging little figurines in the correct order on a puzzle board based on a clue poem collected during the level. Even the clues repeat, so by the time you figure out the meaning of one clue you never have to think through a puzzle again.

The save system aggravates as well. As you pointed out, in certain levels the lone checkpoint will be placed close to the end of your journey, so if you should die any where along the way, it’s all the way back to the beginning to restart from scratch. Eventually you will learn to skip past as many rooms as you can until you find the save spot before backtracking through to clear out the monsters and collect the puzzle pieces to escape. Then again, many doors require keys to open, which means you will have to search containers and battle your way through certain areas. And even once you find the save point, any time you want to save after that requires slogging back to the checkpoint room, and then slogging all the way back to where you were last. Clearing out half or more of a map, only to walk over a trap that instantly drops your health to 1 and be killed by a nearby demon or subsequent spike trap, and then have to start all over again many times made me want to throw my Vita across the room and never play the game again.

But like you, something about Book of Memories continues to lure me back in for more chase-and-chop torture. True to Silent Hill tradition, combat is a little clumsy, particularly the wonky manual dodge mechanic that always seems to do a whole lot of nothing. But once you get a feel for it, the timing-based combo and execution system has a certain flow that makes chopping up Pyramid Heads, Needlers, Bogeymen, Nurses, and Schisms satisfyingly addictive.

The wide array of weapons helps as well. The usual meat cleavers, crowbars, baseball bats and pistols get the job done, but once you start dual-wielding stunguns with toxic aerosol spray cans or mutilating baddies with two-handed power tools like circular saws and rock drills, the satisfaction only builds. What’s more, any time a weapon is used, your skill with that individual instrument increases. Every single weapon has its own level of progression, so you can either experiment with lots of different tools or specialize in a specific range of weapons to tailor a combat approach to your play style.

Character customization doesn’t go any deeper than choosing from a selection of outfits, hair styles, skin tones and head types, but over the course of the game different accessories (masks, goggles, glasses, hats, etc.) can be purchased at shops for further personalization. A basic experience system also allows you to pump skill points into attributes like strength, mind, agility and dexterity at each level gain, with collectible artifacts available to further augment these stats. Even in its simplest form, there’s always something alluring about allotting skill points.

As for the karma powers, I guess you can count me in the too much work for little gain category. I tried using a power once, fumbled around on the touch screen trying to get it to work, but couldn’t and never bothered to use karma again. I admit that’s not a fair way to judge a gameplay mechanic, but the fact that I basically ignored it should speak volumes about its usefulness. On the flip side, I do like how the touch screen is used in other areas. Tapping to pick up weapons and notes, complete puzzles, and manage the inventory and menus works and is about all I need the touch screen to do in a game like this.

Moving on, what are your thoughts on playing single-player versus online in a co-op team? And what did you make of those dopey Forsaken Rooms? (Oops, I guess I already gave away my feelings…)

Aaron: Ah, the Forsaken Rooms. Perhaps the best example of how Book of Memories takes what could have been an intriguing idea and couches it in gameplay mechanics that make it confusing and mostly useless. The notion’s certainly interesting: Once in each level, your character enters a room with an unsettling tableau—maybe it’s a lineup of televisions broadcasting static, or a group of nightmare nurses huddling around a patient/victim. The first one features the ghost of a little child in a bedroom who evaporates if you try to interact with it. What you choose to do in each of these rooms—do you smash everything? Just stand there and listen?—yields a “blood,” “light” or “neutral” ranking. That rank influences your karma meter, which will shift slightly, affecting which types of monsters will attack or ignore you and which of the game’s multiple endings you’ll end up seeing.

It obviously takes some serious trial and error to get a particular response, but the game’s less-than-friendly save system isn’t set up to facilitate that kind of experimentation. You’ll have to retrace your steps , reload or create additional game files—and slog through the same set of repetitious rooms and battles—if you want to figure out what it takes to trigger a different karma result. At least you can say this puzzle is deeper and more interesting than the arrange-the-figurines things at the end of each zone.

As for the payoff that comes with your karmic choice, well, let’s just say it’s pretty negligible. Your actions in the game—specifically, killing certain types of monsters and scooping their goopy residue off the floor–tilt your meter toward blood (red) or light (white). When it reaches a certain point, you’re rewarded with destructive or healing powers. However, it takes an absolute eternity to move the meter in either direction, and that’s a lot of monster-smashing to get a few seconds of touch-screen awesomeness. Matt, you’ve already noted that you can effectively ignore the entire karma meter/powers system and just focus on killing whatever’s looking to rip your face off. Just know that if you do, you’re missing out on alternate endings.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a game like this to have four—four!—player co-op, but it does. It’s certainly useful to have three sets of shovels and a fiery sword assisting you as you try to bash The Butcher or Pyramid Head. That said, there’s not nearly enough combat or environmental variety here to lure your gaming group away from, say, the randomly generated dungeons of Diablo 3.

I’ll give Konami credit for steering the Silent Hill franchise down an entirely new alley, even if they have dented a bunch of trash cans and killed a few stray cats in the process. Book of Memories is far from a perfect game, but there are pieces here that could form the foundation of something interesting.

Aaron-TryIt

Pros:
+ Isometric dungeon-crawling in a Silent Hill skin
+ Forsaken Room concept has creepy promise
+ Good use of touch-screen controls

Cons:
– Storyline is bland and silly
– Collecting karma powers end up being arduous, unnecessary
– Annoying save-game system

Matt: Co-op in games like this is always the way to go, and having some help is particularly useful in Book of Memories. The backtracking grind is largely washed away when others are by your side, mainly because players can split up and explore different sides of the map, allowing you to clear zones much more quickly than playing solo. Death also isn’t so penalizing because players can rejoin the game as long as another player is still alive.

My only concern with co-op is the occasional lag that can delay the impact of your blows. Sometimes I would be chopping through enemies, but the damage on their health bar wouldn’t register until a second or two later. This definitely through off my timing with combos and made it tough to know if my attacks were actually connecting.

Load times are another downer, and it takes a lot to get me to bitch about loading times. Loading in and out of maps is so slow, and by the time you’ve died and had to reload a map a couple times you’ll have spent so much time starring at loading screens that a break from the monotony becomes almost mandatory.

If you can accept its myriad shortcomings and embrace the dungeon-crawler grind, Silent Hill: Book of Memories hits enough high points to seriously hook you in for hours of creepy monster slashing. Once–and if—you’re able to let it take hold, there’s a ton of game here to wrap your blood-caked hands around. Completing the game enough for the credits to roll will take you through 21 levels (plus boss stages every third zone), but after that the map selection keeps stretching on up to at least 100. On top of that, you’ve got six different endings to uncover, not to mention a character to continue building and customizing and all sorts of bestiary and journal checklists to 100%.

Book of Memories makes for a compelling video game read; you just have to dig through its many cluttered pages to reach the good stuff.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Solid combat with lots of stats and weapons to develop
+ Online co-op helps break the map-slogging monotony
+ Hours of gameplay to delve into, should the game sink its hooks in

Cons:
– Bland, repetitious maps and puzzles
– Storyline and karma choices fall flat
– Poor checkpoint system

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Konami
Developer: WayForward
Release Date: 10/16/2012
Genre: Isometric Dungeon-crawler
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!