Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

I’ve spent a lot of time stumbling my way through games in the Silent Hill series. While I have spent at least a little time with each, I’ve only finished three of them: the first, third, fourth. Oh, and Silent Hill: Play Novel, which is a bit of an oddity because it was entirely in Japanese and I don’t really count it because I just mashed the A button and selected random options until the text ran itself through. In any case, the original Silent Hill and SH4: The Room had always been my clear-cut favourites. SH4 was never a big fan-favourite, but I loved the story and gimmicks enough to look past the lousy controls and awful combat.

The original game I’ll always love because it birthed a franchise that has kept me captivated to this day, even though the actual gameplay in the series ranges from sketchy to mostly awful. While you always had a particular destination, the game gave you more or less free run of the town, with tons of little secrets to find all over the place. I think SH2 and Silent Hill: Origins were similar, and maybe even Silent Hill: Homecoming, but I’ve literally played less than two hours of each of those. I also liked that while the gameplay was still fairly sketchy, it was still serviceable, especially once you acquired the hammer, which basically makes Harry unstoppable if used correctly.

Also, Harry was awesome. Far and away my favourite character of the series. He was just a normal dude on a vacation gone wrong. No trite world-saving stuff here. Just a man on a mission to find his daughter. And who couldn’t sympathize with that? And he huffed an puffed if you made him run for too long. I totally understand that. Maybe he wasn’t the most strongly-developed character, but I still resent Konami and SH3 a little for what they did to Harry. Plus he’s got mad mixing skillz.

Given the last couple paragraphs, you might imagine my glee at hearing that Konami would be remaking the first game, a situation I’d been dreaming of for years now. What you might not have expected is my added glee upon learning that Tomm Hulett would be leading the project (he’s awesome guys. Go chat with him on Talking Time). Also the fact that it would be a re-imagining rather than a remake made the situation a little more interesting. On that note, you know this were gonna get crazy.

I kept up with the Shattered Memories thread on Talking Time up until the point where people were actually buying the game (I didn’t receive it until Christmas, a couple weeks after release), because I wanted as much hype as I could muster for this game, but no spoilers at all. And this worked out really well in that regard. Tomm would very regularly pop in between discussion and speculation to tease and offer tidbits about the game’s development here and there. Most of it was either cryptic or links to a development blog, but the one thing he made very clear was that Shattered Memories would very well live up to its title.

And it would do this in two ways, the most obvious being that it would be one of the central themes of the game. But the better part was that it meant that the game would subvert your expectations at every chance it got, taking everything you know about Silent Hill and twisting it into something new and wonderful. Or horrifying. whatever the context demanded. In any case, it was clear that there were going to be much greater differences between Shattered Memories and its inspiration besides the fact that Silent Hill would now be covered in ice instead of rust and corpses when Harry ventured into the Otherworld.

Speaking of which, the Otherworld itself is a huge departure from the source material in a lot of other ways. The first thing we learned was that combat was no longer an issue. As I’d mentioned previously, it had gotten downright terrible in previous games, so they axed it completely, and now when you’re confronted by enemies, Harry’s only recourse is to run like Hell. Which was a little iffy at first, but I believe it worked out for the best, because it gets incredibly tense when you’re running for your life and can’t find that exit! I am a little disappointed, however, because Tomm sort of led us astray by saying that the Otherworld could happen at any time, which I interpreted as meaning that it could literally happen anytime. That doesn’t happen. Otherworld transitions are still scripted, but they don’t just show up as the second half to each section of the game anymore, which is still an improvement.

While in the regular Silent Hill, Harry is fairly free of worry. Those Otherworld transitions will pop up here and there, probably catching first-time players off guard, but otherwise there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. The bulk of the non-escaping gameplay is exploring various locations, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Harry’s flashlight is an indispensable tool, and his seamlessly integrated cellphone, which acts as phone, camera, menu, and more is worked perfectly into the game. There is occasionally a little puzzle that needs figuring out, none of them particularly difficult. The big change is that they are no longer oblique adventure game puzzles, but rather perfectly natural situations that range from discovering a lock combination to escaping a locked car. It’s refreshing, and I’m glad not to have to spend hours reading into the subtext of a seemingly meaningless note to figure out a puzzle.

Harry himself is again the star of the show, and for many more reasons than the fact that he is a relatable regular Joe. In fact, if anything, players should be able to understand him even better, because this time he reacts to situations differently depending on the player. Sometimes Harry’s angry, sometimes he’s jittery, sometimes he’s just wallowing in desperation. You’ll most definitely sympathize with Harry throughout the game, watching him trudge on in search of his daughter as his situation continues to get worse and worse. And then at the end, maybe you won’t like him at all anymore if that’s the way your game plays out. It’s just one of the lovely aspects affected by the game’s highly publicized psychological profile feature.

When you turn on most Silent Hill games, you get a warning about gory and disturbing scenes. When you turn on Shattered Memories, you get a warning that the game is watching everything you do and changing itself to better disturb and scare you. And it does. Every move you make, from the more obvious therapy sessions with Dr. K that bookend each of the game’s chapters, to deciding whether to explore the men’s or women’s washroom first, is noted by the game, and it will decide how everything rolls out based on what it sees. Secondary characters change costumes and even personalities, you’ll have access to different buildings, and the forms the enemies take will be altered to represent your worst fears. Of course, these are just the most obvious changes. Everything down to the billboards scattered around town have the potential to change, and this feature of the game is best observed by playing to the conclusion of the game, and then watching someone else play through.

The only thing I have to complain about is that the exploration aspect of Silent Hill has been somewhat lessened in this iteration. While most of your time with the game will be spent exploring, you never get full run of the town as with the original, and that’s something I miss dearly. It’s never obvious, but most of the time the game is simply herding you from one building to the next, never giving you much chance to check out places you don’t need to be. On the flip side, if I had been given that freedom, the time I spent on a single playthrough would have increased exponentially. And in this very particular case, that would have been a bad thing. For one, it’s a very concise game, clocking in at five or six hours on a fresh run; three or less on a replay. More personally, I don’t have the time for epic sixty-hour quests anymore, so games like this that I can actually get to the end of in less than a month are more than welcome, especially when they’re as replayable as Shattered Memories is (what with having five endings and endless amounts of other little changes to discover and all).

Shattered Memories goes a long way to distinguish itself from the original Silent Hill. The core gameplay is almost entirely different. The story is completely redone after the first twenty minutes of the game, and even the characters won’t be the same Silent Hill crazies you remember. In fact, the only true links to the original game are Harry, the fact that he’s searching for his daughter after a car crash, and the general order of areas you visit while in town. Spoiler or not, there is no Satan-worshiping cult in this game. There are no sexy nurse monsters. There is no Pyramid Head (thank God). It’s a game about Harry, his quest for the truth, and to a lesser degree, the oftentimes disturbing (but completely grounded in reality) situations that the townsfolk get themselves into. It’s a fantastically atmospheric game, and I love every part of it, even though it has almost nothing in common with the game it’s based on. It’s creepy, it’s sad, it’s tasteful, and it’s so much fun. And the best part is that you have no idea how the game will end until you’re walking down the very last hallway.

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