Meet Harry Mason. He's crashed his car in the middle of a blizzard on the outskirts of a small town called Silent Hill. He's confused -- his memory is iffy, but he's painfully aware that his little girl is no longer in the vehicle. So with flashlight in hand, he braves the cold, the snow and inevitably the terror as he searches blindly for her. This is the setup for Shattered Memories, which is not a remake but a full-blown re-imagining of Konami's classic horror adventure game. While devoted franchise fans will find some familiar gameplay elements, characters and story arcs, the Climax Studios sequel is simultaneously distinguished by some altogether new mechanics and concepts that represent bold and refreshing departures from the conventions that some purists hold dear. Backlash is therefore inevitable, but whether you choose to define the experience as Silent Hill-esque or not, it is undeniably well-executed, eerily atmospheric and at times downright chilling -- literally, as I'll explain.
Shattered Memories is an adventure game riddled with a host of disturbing themes, not least of which is the fact that the town is caught in the grip of a snow storm, most of its inhabitants are missing, and dreadful monsters periodically scream from icy formations. The nightmarish and disorienting storyline is surrounded by high production values, from detailed character models whose bodies and faces animate fluidly to strong voice acting and a moody as well as dynamic soundtrack by series composer Akira Yamaoka. The PSP version of the game is identical to the Wii with new trimmings in control and presentation. The portable experience is not nearly as compelling as the console one, but if you seek scares on the 'go,' Shattered Memories suffices.
Silent Hill proved to be a standout experience on Nintendo's console for two reasons: excellent pointer controls and a fantastic and moody flashlight tethered to the device. The PSP iteration of Shattered Memories is unfortunately not nearly as impressive because Harry is no longer able to point his flashlight around environments. Instead, the beam automatically shines wherever the character walks -- there's no direct control over it, which is a disappointment. That said, portable players unfamiliar with the superior console configuration will probably not dwell as much on this shortcoming because the fundamentals still function just fine and navigation -- a little more sluggish -- remains perfectly serviceable.
Shattered Memories looks pretty good on the smaller screen. A robust particle system allows for heavy snowfall. The beam illuminates the icy intersections and darkened corridors Harry explores believably, even casting and projecting lifelike shadows on walls. Like in the Wii game, you will believe that Silent Hill is a real town as Harry makes his way through fully modeled bars and diners, bathrooms and bedrooms, hotels and malls, amusement parks and fishing docks, woods and underground passageways -- each location meticulously rendered with the little details like framed pictures, posters and papers.
The expansive world is completely streamed and you therefore won't encounter any exorbitant load times, which is a great feat. The minor drawback to this, however, is that you must deal with a quick but noticeable lag as Harry bursts through doorways during monster-intensive situations. The PSP version of the game also suffers from more frequent framerate drops, especially with multiple monsters on-screen or in large environments.
Shattered Memories effectively maintains an air of unease and the element of surprise. In one moment, Harry is trudging through heavy snow and in the next you discover yourself inexplicably seated in an armchair and interfacing with a psychologist, who asks all sorts of sordid questions about your morality and sexuality. From this point forward, Silent Hill profiles you. Every answer you give and every move you make in the game world is considered and the experience altered based on those replies and actions. And as you advance, the psychologist interrupts your adventure repeatedly with more questions and mental tests. It's an ambitious concept that affects some intriguing scenarios and also enhances replay value. Characters change and behave differently. Areas locked in one playthrough are opened up in the next. The world itself is modified. Even the gruesome monsters evolve based on your preferences.
Konami has made much ado about the profile system and the countless possibilities tied to it. I found it a novel addition but ultimately a little underwhelming because many of the alterations are subtle and purely cosmetic. For example, a different hue of color that engulfs a particular room or a character whose outfit changes to something more sexually revealing depending on your choices. The trademark jittering, contortionist monsters of the series are back, and their collective evolution is at least partially glued to the profile mechanism. For example, the enemies can acquire phallic additions based on your decisions, and true enough, some of their physical changes are dramatic. Unfortunately, though, their mutations seem limited to aesthetics because they keep the same behavior throughout the experience, never growing more difficult or even altering their plan of attack as you advance. And Silent Hill devotees will surely find the monster selection lackluster compared to the mesmerizingly bizarre creatures in some of the other games.
That noted, based on your choices, the game does boast multiple endings and there are some dramatic differences along Harry's journey, including entire path, character and dialog tree shifts. This truth definitely extends the replay value for what is otherwise a decidedly short experience. Shattered Memories can be completed in about five or six hours, and although the adventure is genuinely captivating if not thrilling, the abrupt closure may leave some feeling unfulfilled, particularly if you measure a game's worth by its length. That said, I'm of the mind that a relentlessly engaging six-hour game is better than a 12-hour one with some dull moments and so I'm satisfied with PSP's romp in Shattered Memories.
I do realize that some diehards will scoff at the notion that Shattered Memories offers a true Silent Hill experience, and I can certainly understand that viewpoint, even if I don't agree with it. This game is to previous Silent Hill outings what Resident Evil 4 is to Capcom's survival horror series -- a departure and its own entity. Some purists will have to get over that fact and move on because there is a lot to love about this title and some of the bold design choices Climax has made, many of which enhance the suspense.
Mason has tools in this game including his flashlight and his cell phone, the latter tied to some original puzzles. Oftentimes the character will need to dial phone numbers to trigger sequences to advance and discovering those numbers is a task occasionally embedded in fun puzzles. But Mason never gains access to any weapons. When the world freezes over, the character has no real defenses against the incoming monsters -- all he can do is run. It's a novel mechanic that some gamers can't even fathom. Seriously. Every time I explained the concept to seasoned players, they repeatedly questioned whether it was something that lasted through the entire experience. It does. Harry never fights back. He sprints for his life. And you know what? It's scary.
Frantically running from doorway to doorway with deranged screaming monsters in tow is truly frightening, especially since the creatures are both fast and adequately smart. They will tail you through doorways, over crevices, into crawl spaces and even open lockers that you might hide in. The problem with the system is not that there are no weapons but rather that these hair-raising run sequences are interspersed throughout the game and predictable. When the world takes on an icy sheen, you know the monsters are coming, it's intensely scary, and you will likely panic as you stumble toward a safety point. However, as soon as the ice disappears, so does any sense of danger because you know the monsters have temporarily retreated and any genuine threat with them. Exploring the dark town with your flashlight remains moody and often eerie, sure, but your heart rate isn't likely to quicken. Not knowing when or where the creatures might appear next would've proven far scarier and as a result every new dark room would've held the potential for danger -- a missed opportunity by Climax.
Even if there is both an upside and downside to the weaponless sequences, I have to give the developer full credit for bravely trying something unabashedly new. The same could be said for many of the unique gameplay offerings contained within the title. As Mason progresses through the adventure, he is able to interact with the insides of moving vehicles, to roll around in a wheelchair, to go for a long swim and there are even a couple scenarios where he falls down huge black chasms. These are not cutscenes but clever gameplay situations. He can roll down windows, unlock doors and fool around with dials inside the cars. His swim strokes are tied to buttons on the PSP -- it all works pretty well.
These unconventional gameplay situations are wrapped in a similarly fresh narrative and the developer is unafraid to utilize flashbacks and even throw you into seemingly nonsensical world-altering challenges on a whim. Harry chats with a character, goes to the bathroom and returns to find her completely different -- new hair, face, clothing, and not to mention attitude. You don't know why. And when he opens the bedroom door in his apartment and the world morphs to an underground lair complete with a staircase that descends forever downward, you won't know why, either. You will therefore never feel wholly at ease, which is undoubtedly the desired result.
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