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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

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To begin with, let me just say that I really did enjoy this game, there aren’t too many games that I’ll immediately play again the day after I finish them like I did with this one, and that despite the seemingly negative nature of the upcoming pedantry, this is probably now my second favourite entry of the series. No lie.

Shattered Memories is described as a “reimagining” of the original Silent Hill game, but in all honesty it bears very little resemblance to the original, beyond the fact that both games feature a man who can’t drive very well and has lost his daughter it’s pretty much night and day. I wouldn’t say it’s too outlandish to consider SM a brand new entry in the series, as I do, and to suggest that the implied association with the first game is purely to draw in the nostalgia crowd who (rightly) thought Origins and Homecoming were bullshit and to ease them into the idea of having to play a “new” Silent Hill game without any sense of fear and self-loathing.

Yes, Climax do have some balls, it seems. They certainly weren’t worried about “doing the original justice” or “keeping the die-hards satisfied” with this remake, as pretty much everything is totally different, besides the aforementioned premise and a few character names from the original, the Otherworld is now blue and icy, there’s no combat and the exploration and puzzle solving elements have been given a severe trimming down. In fact, very few of the established elements of Silent Hill are even present in SM. See, balls! Like fucking grapefruits!

The gameplay itself is divided into 2 distinct sections, exploration through the town and chase sequences. During the exploration sections, you, Harry Mason, wander through various dark buildings and streets with a flashlight. That’s it. Sounds thrilling, right! These sections are pretty much linear; they are given some semblance of a sandbox feel by the inclusion of various mementos and photo opportunities left by strangers most of the time it’s just moving from A to B, and the quickly established fact that these sections feature no monsters or dangers of any kind make them sound as exciting as dry toast. And yet, these sections, as well as the story, are what make the game feel like a Silent Hill title, and are actually my favourite in the entire game. The traditional Silent Hill atmosphere is strongest in these parts, and there’s just something very chilled and relaxing about travelling through the snow with soft, beautiful music playing, knowing that, for now, at least, you’re safe. No homo. This is a very underutilised methodology in horror games, earlier Silent Hill and Resident Evil games (Nemesis, in particular) worked on the premise that you could be attacked any place, any time, and by including long periods of complete safety, SM creates a false sense of security that the save rooms in RE really cannot match.

Although, this isn’t to say that SM has completely abandoned established horror practice, as the transitions to the Otherworld, while not always impossible to predict, are fairly sharp and jarring, taking you from seemingly safe locations, such as bedrooms and living rooms, to icy, nightmare land, and these transitions usually made me “jump” more than most of the actual monsters, which isn’t saying much, as an adorable puppy licking my face and waggling its tail at me made me jump more than the monsters in SM. I’m really not sure what happened there, pretty much every other element of these chase sequences was done well, the controls are tight and dependable, easily outstripping similar sequences that I’ve played recently in Yakuza 4 and LA Noire in terms of usability and not making me cry with frustration. The environments are challengingly maze-like but sufficiently navigable and the music and camera work give a strong sense of impending doom. And yet, all of this is undermined by the pathetic looking, whimpering cuddly toys you’re running away from. I’m not sure if this was the developer’s aim but I actually felt like a bit of a girl for running away from enemies who are trying to snuggle me to death, to the point where I expected Harry to be wearing pigtails and a pink bra in the next cut scene. The reason being chased in RE3 was scary was because the guy chasing you was a fucking huge monstrosity with a rocket launcher and a massive impaling tentacle. Now, say what you like about RE’s lack of subtlety in comparison to SH but fuck, that guy was scary! I mean, even Pyramid Head had a giant phallic knife. Because of the absolute lack of threat posed by the enemies, these sections fall from being “tense and heart pounding” to “mildly irritating.” Shame really, Silent Hill has always had such good monsters, and maintaining this tradition would have benefited this title in particular, perhaps more so than any of the others.

Another non SH addition to the series is the intermittent therapy sessions, during which you’ll be asked a wide variety of questions about your personality and your feelings on topics such as sex, death and family life, and the game will, apparently, use these answers to create a “unique experience.” Now, I only played the game twice, answering honestly the first time and lying about everything the second time, and there were admittedly some differences between the two playthroughs. Some of them are very easy to predict, for example the female characters were wearing more revealing outfits when I said that I’d been unfaithful (I haven’t, don’t worry!) and some less so, I was given differing routes through the first section, for example, but for the most part the experiences were mostly the same. It’s a very promising step for gaming in general, having your individual choices impact gameplay in subtle ways but I can’t help but feel that it could have been used in more extensive and impressive ways than simply changing outfits. Also, despite having elements of cut-scenes and normal world play change based on your answers, the Otherworld sections always stay 100% the same, every time, and I would suggest that having vast portions of the game unaffected by the game’s major selling point is really not a wise move. Surely, when considering the implementation of a “personalised nightmare,” someone must have asked, “Well what if people like ice and the colour blue?” I, for one, do like ice and the colour blue, which dulls the psychological impact of these sections significantly. If the game could have deduced from my answers that I’m mortally afraid of vegetables and close-ups of Stephen Merchant’s face and created a nightmare around that, then I would have been impressed. As it stands, I’m not. One last gripe I have with the therapy sessions is the fact that they are needed at all and that they are touted as a new and exciting addition to the series. At least in SH 2 and 3, I’ve always taken it as standard that my actions and behaviour would have consequences to the games progression and ending, and as such it feels like buying an album with the words “Now contains music!” written on it. Although it could be argued that previous games weren’t affected as extensively and subtly by your actions, I still don’t feel that SM does enough in this area in order for it to proudly boast it as a major selling point.

Despite all of these vast differences to previous SH games, there are areas in which SM retains similarities to earlier entries in the series, and the most obvious of these is in its storytelling. Don’t want to give too much away, mostly because I can’t, even after 2 runs most of it makes very little sense, even to a seasoned SH fan like myself, I can’t imagine how a newcomer would react to all this. Suffice it to say that everything is steeped in symbolism and that the multiple choices the game presents aren’t the only way of increasing the replay value, you pretty much need to finish the game once in order to fully comprehend all of the subtleties of its story. Trust me, it’s impressive stuff. Of course, there are multiple endings in true SH fashion but I don’t get the feeling that as much effort was put into them as in previous SH games, each one contains about 4 seconds of unique footage, which would usually make it more of a “play the game once and watch the other endings on Youtube” kinda deal, but the replay value is bolstered by the aforementioned various choices you can make and the batshit impenetrable story.

One other area in which SM retains the high standards of the previous games is in the music. I have to say that Akira Yamaoka is one of my favourite artists in general; it does him a disservice to say “He’s good for a video game composer.” I listen to his music much more than I play the games, and I downloaded this game’s soundtrack long before I even considered playing the game. The in-game music has again shifted in style to suit the tone of the game, eschewing much of the earlier trip-hop influenced sound in favour of a more chilled, piano-based sound, which suits the relaxed, wintery atmosphere of the game perfectly. The 4 vocal tracks feature probably my favourite female vocalist Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who sounds amazing as always. The main theme “Acceptance” is simple and beautiful, the rockier “When You’re Gone” and “Hell Frozen Rain” feature incredibly catchy vocal melodies and an immense guitar solo respectively and the cover of “Always On My Mind” is just… well, let’s forget about that! Suffice it to say that the Pet Shop Boys’ version is still my favourite…

Overall, I would say that SM is a game for which it is very easy to nit-pick and single out weak individual elements. Yeah, the monsters aren’t scary, the exploration could be considered boring and the psychological profiling could be just as easily replicated by playing “pin the tail on the donkey” with a deck of Tarot cards, but when considered as a complete experience it ultimately succeeds, much in the same way as Heavy Rain does. I might not be able to explain exactly why I like it, but I do, and that’s all that matters!

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