By Greg Newbegin
When Silent Hill: Book of Memories was initially announced, Silent Hill fanboys cried foul... but that's nothing new. Purist fans will always voice their displeasure if they perceive their beloved franchise to be besmirched in any way, shape, or form. However, history has shown that certain franchises can branch out and try something new -- occasionally to great success.
Of course, the problem here is defining what makes a Silent Hill game a Silent Hill game, which is really a requirement if you want to keep something within the franchise but still branch into a different genre. This is really quite tough, as there are a number of things that people ASSOCIATE with Silent Hill, but don't necessarily DEFINE Silent Hill on their own -- disparate pieces remain disparate pieces without the magical glue that gives them meaning.
And this is why I'm confused by Silent Hill: Book of Memories. It seems to me that the developers (Wayforward Technologies, who sculpted us recent gem Aliens: Infestation on DS) decided that the horror theme and specific adversaries define Silent Hill, and built a dungeon crawler around these two precepts. The problem, though, is it doesn't FEEL like Silent Hill. It's so far removed from whatever it is that makes Silent Hill that it's something very different.
It's sad really, because it's not a terrible game, and could have been so much more.
Starting up a new game, players are asked to create their own character - there are some presets that can be fiddled with somewhat, but there are no real distinct creation tools. From there, the story begins, with the player character receiving a gift from someone in Silent Hill -- a tenuous link at best. The gift is a book -- the titular "Book of Memories" -- and it contains the character's memories to date. This prompts them to wonder what would happen should a change be made to an entry in the book. And then they immediately fall asleep. Perhaps it's to save time, or perhaps the setup isn't as important as the follow through, but it makes very little sense.
The game itself is interesting enough to play, though. Thrown into a bleak dungeon, players are tasked to find the required puzzle pieces in order to unlock a large door that blocks the exit. In order to do so, they must fight their way through a series of rooms filled with familiar enemies - dogs, nurses, and even pyramid head. Unfortunately, this is as much of the Silent Hill world that the game provides (bar the environments, which have a Silent Hill look to them), and even the identity of those characters is not immediately apparent, given that the character models in game are relatively small.
Playing much like a Diablo clone, players collect weapons strewn about the level, and proceed to bash in the heads of everything that stands in their way. Weapons deteriorate over time, and tools can be collected to make repairs on the fly. Initially, only two weapons can be held (one in each hand for one-handed weapons), but as players level up, additional weapons can be stored in a backpack.
Levelling is weird, though. Certain items can be used to provide perks (charcoal might give a stamina bonus, for example), and points are awarded to status features (stamina, dexterity, constitution, etc.) with each level up, but there doesn't seem to be much of a point to it. I never felt more powerful as I increased in level, and gaining levels didn't open up new armour or weapon options, so it just seemed pointless.
In fact, while playing the game is enjoyable, that last sentiment about sums things up -- everything feels fairly pointless. There are apparently 100 zones, and for each 3 or 4, you play out the memory of some character -- I can only assume this is someone the main character knows, but the game does a terrible job of explaining things. Weapons deteriorate, but are randomly spread throughout a level, so there is almost no need to really worry about its condition. Plus, there are no really rare weapons (excluding those received by defeating end bosses), so there just seems no point to any of it.
I would have enjoyed this game if it was something else. If the story made sense and it was in a world that was related to that story. If levelling felt more balanced and if better weapons were available at higher levels. And if it just wasn't so damned repetitive -- each level is exactly the same, but set in a slightly different-looking environment.
There was a feeling I got when I played the game, though, and I really think it has to be said. If this title was set in the Nightmare on Elm Street universe, and players had to battle through their dreams in order to escape Freddie Krueger? THAT would have made perfect sense. It even LOOKS like that universe already -- it's something that plagued me the entire time I played the game, and in the end, it only made me more disappointed that they got the Silent Hill feeling so wrong.
I do have to be clear, though. Increasing in level DOES make you more powerful - you can even purchase power moves. It DOES provide you with more slots for better weapons, which ARE won in boss battles. You can buy better items from an in-game store, and to some degree, you CAN make your character feel more like your creation. But there just isn't any narrative sense to doing so, and the weapons just aren't varied enough to really care about the loot. And did I mention the strange karmic alignment that doesn't appear to do much for you?
There's not much else I can say - it's fun to a point, but it just doesn't feel like it has any direction. You can play online with others, and this might be a way to provide you with more replayability (especially given the large number of zones in the game), but in the end, the time I spent with the game is all I need. If you really love dungeon crawlers, it's worth checking out as it does have its own spin on the genre, but treat it like an arcade crawler as opposed to something that's really story or character-based. If you're a Silent Hill fan? This isn't Silent Hill, but it might provide you with something to add to your collection. For everyone else, though, it's not that easy to recommend.