Ever since 1999 Silent Hill has provided one of the most evocative settings ever visited by gamers. Famous for far more than just its fog the town presents the ideal foil for its tormented heroes, allowing them the space to rise or fall based solely on their own actions. The early nuances and design choices in the franchise helped shape the survival horror genre itself, thus cementing it in the minds of enthusiasts everywhere. But times change and franchises deviate from that which previously made them great – not that this is an issue when done well. Enter Silent Hill: Book of Memories, Konami’s newest release for the PlayStation Vita. It’s probably as far from survival horror as you can get, instead taking the form of an isometric action RPG with elements of dungeon crawling thrown in. With the focus on fighting rather than wholly on survival it’s clearly a very different beast from its predecessors, but in the end one has to question the design choices made throughout the product.
The first thing that will hit you about Silent Hill: Book of Memories is that it doesn’t actually take place within Silent Hill, real world town or crazy fog world version. Instead the game sees your created character receive the titular Book of Memories, a strange tome into which is written every event of your life so far. Receiving a package postmarked ‘Silent Hill’ and delivered by Howard, Silent Hill’s postmaster, for your birthday would see most sane people run as fast as they could with the intention of taking off and nuking the gift from space. Instead our protagonist does what any decent American youth would do and begins editing the book, just to see what happens. And what happens, you scream? Well, editing the book in this way leads us into the dark world of the Book of Memories, because clearly you need to go and kill some evil monsters in order to change the past.
Entering the game proper sees you thrust into a manifestation of the book, a physical challenge posed for you to pass in order to change the world to the way you want. The problem is that once you’ve made it into the actual game it all becomes far too formulaic far too quickly. Each level has a quest, each level has locked doors for which you must find keys, each level ends in a simple puzzle which you must solve by using pieces found within the level. Each of the floors may be randomised but the rooms and monsters which they contain are repeated all too often. Each floor contains a shop (staffed by Howard) and a library (for saving your progress), with the majority of the rest comprising either a challenge room or a memory residue challenge room. Success in the challenge room will give you a puzzle piece while success in the memory residue room will grant you some much needed memory residue (the currency you use in the shop), but in essence all you have to do in either (and, indeed, throughout the game) is simply kill everything that moves. Oh, and each floor contains a number of traps which are, in the main, randomly located where they will do the most destruction to you. A lot of them can be mere annoyances, especially when you have spent enough points in your vitality or intelligence stats. Special mention however must go to the poison trap – activate one of these and you will see your health drop to just a single point for ten seconds. Activate one of these in a room full of monsters and you can almost certainly say goodbye to a significant amount of playtime and hello to the annoyingly long loading screens that sandwich zone play.
Combat itself demonstrates the most repetitive elements of the game; usually armed with either a double handed melee weapon or duel-wielding two single handers each room will see you running in circles around the assorted monsters (all taken from previous iterations of Silent Hill) and hitting the same buttons over and over again. Again and again and again and again. There is a combo system in place which rewards you for well timed blows, but in reality you will have often knocked back a monster or been pinged by another one (thus breaking your combo) before you have a chance to unleash your fury fully. Weapons each have a durability factor and they will deteriorate fairly fast, forcing you to either use them until they break or to use one of your limited stock of items to fix them up again. This item management makes Book of Memories one of the least satisfying action RPGs you can loot in; each dagger you find is the same as the last one you used, each shotgun as good as the last. Once you have expanded your backpack a little there is virtually never a time where you are forced to let a weapon break – from the Blood zones onwards weapons become increasingly rare to find in game, but by then you should have such a good selection that, when combined with your carried tool kits and the presence of a shop on each floor, you should be fine. The restricted inventory and item durability issues would seem to fit perfectly with the Silent Hill ethos of killing only what you need, but they are instead wholly incompatible with the intentions of a ‘kill everything on the floor’ dungeon crawler. Far too much time is spent running through previously cleared rooms to return to a weapon left by the wayside, or, even more often, to return to the shop to sell something for a pittance of memory residue. And return to the shop you shall, over and over again as later zones see a sharp drop in the number of required health packs and tool kits provided.
To be fair to the combat though there are certain weapons that provide a welcome break from the monotony of button smashing; the flamethrower is a fan favourite, its bursts of flame clearing rooms of small critters fast and efficiently. The rock drill, which sees you run into the maw of danger only to ‘ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR’ your way out as you drill through the most robust of faces. Of course, the pleasure is fleeting as these weapons degrade even faster than their compatriots, ensuring you carry them with you and hardly ever experience the fun. Ranged combat is an option, and later ranged weapons complement your line up of melee weapons perfectly, eating up ammo instead of durability and tool kits, but it feels that playing a ranged focus character would be to intentionally hamstring yourself for much of the time. Even the signature monsters from the series, Butchers, Pyramid Heads and Boogeymen are devalued as soon as you learn their attack styles, as soon as you know when to flank and when to spank. Back to running around in circles and spamming the same two buttons for you!
There are a couple of additional mechanics – power moves for instance see you spend a power point (accrued by killing things, surprise) to do something special such as a 360 degrees attack or an impressive charge through. The karma system, however, is far more interesting to play with. Each monster you kill is aligned to either Blood, Light or Steel. Killing a Blood or Light monster will see it drop a pool of the opposite karma – so, killing a Blood monster will give you a small pool of Light karma to bathe in. Collect enough karma and you will unlock various Blood or Light abilities, accessed by touching the Karma metre on the front screen and directing the power on the rear screen. These are a welcome addition to your arsenal, but in reality are of little use in extreme pinch situations where all too often their deployment will see you ineffectively flap at either screen in an attempt to fire off the power before death hits you. The question of karma plays a far wider role than the odd magical power though – throughout the story zones are a series of collectables and special ‘Forsaken’ rooms. The outcome of these collectables and rooms can be changed by your actions, allowing you to rewrite history for better or for worse. For instance, you may pick up a collectable note in one zone that is marked as being of Blood karma and it details something horrible happening to someone you love. Complete the quest in that zone and check your notes page and you may see that note has converted to a Light karma variant.
The underlying karma/notes mechanics are deep and it’s likely that to decipher all you will end up replaying levels over and over again. Impressively it doesn’t just seem to be a case of making everything ‘good’ as quickly as you can, as instead the notes depicting your life and others are fully interconnected and making someone happier in an earlier zone may well end up removing the reasons why someone ends up happier in a later one. The amount of Light and Blood karma notes and zone resolutions you gain are tied into the ending you receive, giving rise to the level of replayability that would expect from a Silent Hill, only that it is likely that due to the grinding nature of the gameplay that if you finish you may well just be happy with what you get. Of course, as with any action RPG-ish game playing more will see you levelling up more, but there is so much benefit in simply placing the vast majority of your points into your Vitality stat that it would be rare for anyone to try anything differently. This lack of balance in character creation ensures that the majority of players will end up with the same kinds of characters, the punishment being too high to even bother with experimenting with glass cannon builds.
This main story section is comprised of seven sections (Fire, Wood, Light, Water, Earth, Blood, Steel), each containing three zones. Each one of these sections has a distinctive look and feel (dripping pipes for water, squishy internal organs and sinews for Blood, and so forth) and the enemies held within all hold the respective elemental alignment of their zone, thus opening them up to additional damage from weapons which have the opposite alignment. After the twenty one story zones there are additional random zones (potentially hundreds of them!) for you to enjoy, and it’s here that the optional co-operative functionality comes in useful. With four players all combating one zone suddenly some of the design choices become a bit clear; your ranged specialist can hog the ammo and fill continually at will (poor Will), your light karma player can grab all of the white karma patches to facilitate team healing and so on. Problems appear when in random groups however, with everyone chasing similar drops or weapons, and a general lack of organisation can lead to frustration and failure all too often. While the co-op mode is welcome, a drop in system rather than a lobby start would have been preferential and would have suited the mobile nature of the platform admirably. A good group can overcome anything that Book of Memories can throw at it with ease, while a random pick up group will leave you with the all too familiar feelings of irritation and dissatisfaction.
And yet these feelings can easily dissipate if you just close your eyes and listen to Book of Memories. Hidden beneath the voice comms and the attack sounds, muffled by the wanton destruction you wage on otherworldly creatures, is a sublime masterpiece of a soundtrack. The most vocal Silent Hill fans will never forgive the absence of the series’ original composer, Akira Yamaoka, but here in Book of Memories Daniel Licht has eclipsed memories of Akira and made this game his own. Rather than induce fear (which would frankly be out of keeping with the rest of the game) Licht’s work has a wonderfully eerie quality about it, the uneasy notes creating tension and screaming ‘UNKNOWN’ directly into your brain – which is quite a feat bearing in mind the overall repetitiveness of the game. As you progress through the game’s various zones the soundtrack also evolves, each track entirely relevant for its elemental setting. Both areas high on action and those which provide a break from the overall grind are graced with appropriate music, helping to invigorate or calm you as appropriate. The one gripe about the sound within the game has to be the relative volume setting for the musical soundtrack when compared to voice or sound effect – while some of the otherworldly qualities are lost when you crank it up that has to be a far better solution than letting this gem go unheard behind the sounds of the endless action.
Overall then the overwhelming feeling is one of missed opportunity. There are so many great supporting features – the music, the note system, the very premise that replaying a level is actually your character rewriting a memory – that it’s a real punch to the gut that the main gameplay just doesn’t deliver. Because of these support systems you’ll want to finish the game, you’ll want to see what happens and then you’ll probably want to see if you can change it; whether or not you will actually realise any of these desires is entirely dependent on whether you can stomach another comedy poison trap death, another run through of an earlier level one-hitting everything to farm health packs or memory residue, another retry as that bloated Pyramid Head finishes you off after a two-headed dog nipped your heels. If you buy into the story you’ve created then you’ll come back in spite of the gameplay, a masochistic desire to see what happens achieved by clearing the same room, over and over again. It so very nearly worked, but I bet that a fair few who experience this iteration wouldn’t mind their own Book of Memories that they could then rewrite.