Saturday, February 13, 2010

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

I don't think it's unfair to say that, post Silent Hill 3, the series has followed a troubled path. The fourth entry originally wasn't even going to be a Silent Hill title, which explains many of the ways it broke from the series's conventions. However, the true break comes when the franchise headed West. A much reviled film (which I actually love) and two mediocre-to-just-kind-of-good games shook the faith of fans and critics, leading to poor sales and low-to-middling reviews.

The problem with the Silent Hill games has always been the gameplay. I've only played about half of the series, but everything else about them has always struck me as unique and brilliant: the settings, the atmosphere, the music, the characters and plot...yet the clunky controls and awful combat mechanics have dogged the series all along. Much as Silent Hill 2 is one of my favorite games, I only enjoy it so much because I set the combat difficulty to Easy so I don't have to try. The Silent Hill: Origins and Homecoming titles tried to amend this by making weapons breakable and giving the combat more depth, respectively, but neither the "different combat" nor "emphasized combat" approaches worked well.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, then, is an attempt to bring the series, and the survival horror genre, back toward the story/puzzle based side of things, making it at times more akin to a point and click adventure game than an action game. The title also symbolically 'reboots' the franchise by being an almost-remake of the original, keeping the premise--a guy named Harry gets in a car accident near Silent Hill and his daughter disappears in the process, so he has to find her--but changing everything else.
Presentation-wise, Shattered Memories is a decent looking Wii game. I don't know that I'd say it looks as good as the best Wii games, let alone the best looking Gamecube or PS2 games, but for its (likely) modest budget and what it aims for, it looks fine. The music and sound effects are appropriately eerie, though the voice acting does deserve special mention for being above average. Best of all is the way the game makes use of the Wiimote's speaker. I don't want to spoil anything, since this is the only truly great thing Shattered Memories does with the unique aspects of the Wii, but if you thought the speaker's bad sound quality couldn't be put to use for anything other than reloading sound effects in shooters or the 'thwunk' of the bowstring in Zelda, you'll be pleasantly surprised here.

Intentionally or not, the game is divided into discrete halves, both story-wise and gameplay-wise. Half of the story transpires in interesting first person segments where a therapist asks you questions, as well as to do things like color a picture and fill out questionnaires. The other half, the majority of the game, is in the third person segments where you have direct control of protagonist Harry Mason, as he explores Silent Hill. The game tries some really interesting things with his cellphone, such as eerie phone calls and the ability to take pictures to make ghostly apparitions appear, but by and large all of the stuff it does with the Wii's motion sensing quickly goes from novel and tactile to tedious and unnecessary. Having to manually open cabinets doesn't make a game more immersive or "better", it just makes it annoying to play. This kind of thing doesn't bother me in games like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption or Killzone 2, but that's because it's used sparingly there and works well. Motion control issues get worse, but we'll get there in time.
I will say that the game's story and characters, and how your various answers to the therapist alter both, are pretty groundbreaking and interesting even though, judging from the plot summary I read, the major plot twist is a bit much. Every Silent Hill game has some major earthshaking twist in it, and at this point it's starting to become a cliche. Anyway, I feel like the positive reviews you might be seeing elsewhere for this review are disingenuous because they emphasize the plot and characters aspect at the expense of just how awful the actual gameplay is. There is no combat in the game, for starters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a game except that, in Shattered Memories, the gameplay is quite literally divided between exploration/puzzle solving and the chase sequences.

You always know you're headed for the chase sequences because suddenly everything freezes over and your character starts to run everywhere. It's a completely transparent way of saying "now there are enemies and you can be killed, so don't bother to take your time enjoying the environments or allowing any tension to build." So the chase sequences aren't scary, and since you are never in any danger while exploring, this robs the game of all of the series's normally rich atmosphere and spooky vibes. As for the chase sequences, they are inarguably bad. No, I'm sorry, there is no argument here: they are not fun, exciting, or scary. They are just tedious, frustrating, and completely un-needed. They wouldn't be half as bad if the controls functioned properly, but because the enemies move so fast they will inevitably catch up to you (or ambush you), start dog piling on, and force you to flail around with the controllers, trying to toss them off. You'll end up trying every possible combination of motions to break free, but it either never works or never works consistently. Even if you manage to get one of the things off of you, it doesn't work enough times in a row to function like it probably was supposed to. I am not exaggerating when I say that I looked up every possible tip and message board thread about these escape sequences and ended up trying the same one 23 times until I gave up in a fury. Yes, I'm serious: 23 times. I haven't even played through the good sequences of games I like 23 times. Yes, as it turns out, having no combat is worse than having bad, clunky combat.
I think that I understand what people see in this game, and what the developers were going for. But as I ranted and raved to everyone in earshot (and instant message-shot, and on a YouTube video) when I quit the game: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories reeks of some wannabe auteur making the game he or she wanted to make, without realizing that other people would have to play the damn thing and attempt to enjoy themselves. If Shattered Memories was a movie or got rid of all the Wii motion control stuff (mostly the chase sequences), it might be an experience worth arguing for. It is, after all, ambitious and different, which is more than you can say for 98% of the Wii's library. But as the most crucial part of a videogame is being able to control it, Shattered Memories is more failure than success.2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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