The Silent Hill series has always been about the parallel existence of two dimensions: the real and the nightmare. While scares are plentiful in the real world, the true horrors begin in the bloody, hellish realm.
Similarly, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a game that enhances the split of the two worlds more so than any previous game in the series. So, does this dualism work in the game’s favor, or against it?
There’s no doubt that Shattered Memories takes a vastly different approach to the Silent Hill formula than what gamers have experienced previously. In fact, it seems to question the very nature of horror; what has the power to frighten and unsettle us? Gone are the desecrated corpses, blood-covered rooms, and, yes, even Pyramid Head.
Instead, the game provides glimpses into the ugliness of the world that we all inhabit, seeming to argue (unlike previous entries in the series) that truth is more frightening than fiction. For instance, a journey through the halls of a high school shows the unsettling events surrounding specific students–events that not only could happen, but do happen. Better yet, by the end of the game, you understand the true weight of each of these events, and it is here that you become truly unsettled. Hell, the game gets closer to true morality than any other gaming experience that I’ve had.
Much has been made of how the game changes based on your actions, including everything from your responses on psychological tests to the things you, as Harry Mason, choose to look at. In fact, the game begins with a psychology warning, stating that the game plays you as much as you play it. In the midst of your play-through, your actions will change a variety of things, including conversations, character appearances and behavior, and, like all Silent Hill games, the ending.
Yet many of these changes prove relatively inconsequential, and while the game attempts to get in your head, it doesn’t necessarily succeed. Instead, it places you into certain categories, and will present situations that it believes will affect you most deeply. But these categories are fairly limited, and on a second run, it’s easy to spot how the game is profiling you.
Speaking of a second run, you’ll definitely want to play through the game at least twice, not only because it will offer a different experience, but because it is very short. Even taking my time on my initial play-through, the game lasted only about seven hours. Rushing through a second run, I was able to finish in about three. This actually proves beneficial; you’ll want to experiment with all of the different decisions you can make in the game, and with five different endings to see, you’ll be glad that you don’t have to slog through a slow, more poorly-paced game.
The game is indeed well-paced, infused with some stellar storytelling that takes the story of the original Silent Hill in such a vastly different direction that it can hardly be called the same story at all. The plot proves far more compelling than the original, containing a surprising and thought-provoking ending that works perfectly with the events of the game. It is truly masterful storytelling.
However, things are a bit less masterful when we delve into the gameplay, which has many ups and downs. The vast majority of the game is spent in exploration, with Harry searching the town equipped with nothing but a flashlight and cell phone. While this may sound boring, it is anything but. Shattered Memories is a game that, despite being an entry into a popular monster horror series, is best when it isn’t trying to scare you with monsters.
But these monsters do pop up from time to time as the world around Harry becomes a frozen, nightmarish version of Silent Hill. Streets become encased in ice, and the gameplay shifts drastically from slow but tense exploration to an all out flight for your life. Here, Harry is attacked by mobs of twisted monsters, but lacking any significant defenses, he must simply flee until he reaches a certain area, at which time, he will return to the real world.
Oddly enough, it is in these sections that the game largely lacks fright and tension. Monsters simply run at you and jump onto your back, shrieking all the while. If caught, Harry can shake the deformed body off and continue on, and though death will come if he is mounted one too many times, it’s typically easy to get through a nightmare without failing. The end result is that the nightmares feel nothing more than an exercise in finding the correct path to the exit as quickly as possible.
While the nightmare sections are far from bad, they fail to match up to the thrills found in the real world. Series die hards might want to skin me for this, but the game would have been far better if it had abandoned monster horror altogether and focused entirely on those unsettling real world situations that players can relate to.
So, how does all of this control? For the most part, it’s very well done. It’s quite apparent that the game was custom-made for the Wii; it’s hard to imagine playing the game without waving the Wii Remote around like a flashlight, illuminating dark corners and zooming in on important details.
In addition, the motion controls are used for a variety of actions, including operating bridge controls, rolling down car windows, and even opening a tiny latch on a coin purse. While some of the more minor gestures can take a few tries to get right, the controls rarely feel problematic. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine wielding that flashlight without a Wii Remote in your hands.
Also, the beam from that flashlight sure does look nice. Graphically, the game pulls off some impressive lighting, which offers a great contrast between the normally obscured world and the glimpses of clarity provided by the flashlight. You’ll notice that some objects don’t look great up close, but the game looks very good overall.
If only it ran as well. The game suffers from some serious hitches at times, especially during nightmare sequences. It appears the game uses door transitions to load, as the game will pause rather noticeably if you run between doors too quickly, and the frame rate will very often stutter during these mad dashes. It’s enough to take away the little bit of fear you might have been feeling.
With Akira Yamaoka again in charge of the game’s music, series veterans will know what to expect from the sound. While this isn’t Yamaoka’s best work, there are some stunning vocal songs that make it easier to stomach the fact that there are relatively few tracks in the game. In terms of sound effects, the team seems to have taken a far more minimalist approach compared to past entries. There aren’t nearly as many frightening, sourceless sounds to unsettle you, though the familiar static makes a return.
With its truly original and thought provoking story, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the rare game that is an absolute must-play despite having a number of elements that lead to disappointment. As long as you realize that this is a complete re-imagining of the original Silent Hill, you’ll be extremely impressed with the brilliantly crafted story and disturbing themes. Still, it seems torn between being a horror game and an unsettling experience, and it doesn’t do quite enough to realize all of its great psychological promises.
But if this is the new direction that the roads of Silent Hill will take us, I’ll gladly take the lonely, disconcerting trek.
Some incredibly creative storytelling meshes with striking visuals to create an impressive experience overall.
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The flashlight and cell phone based exploration is far more engaging than you might think, but the nightmare sequences don't work as well as they should.
Akira Yamaoka's music is always a plus, but the use of sound isn't quite as effective as it could have been.
Even though there's plenty of reason to take it slowly and play through multiple times, this one won't last you very long.
Despite some elements that could have been improved considerably, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories takes the series in a much-needed new direction, making this a game that you simply must experience.