Basically, if you go in knowing it's a dungeon crawler with Silent Hill visuals, you'll be much happier than if you go in expecting a Silent Hill game. In either case, you'll get killed by a two-headed dog monster at some point. The setup is appropriate enough. A character of your own creation mysteriously comes into the possession of a book that contains people's memories. He or she immediately tries to rewrite his/her life within the book, which translates (for some reason) into entering a nightmare Silent Hill world and fighting monsters. The environments and monsters will be familiar to any Silent Hill fan; you'll start in a fiery, industrial otherworld full of rusty grates and mysterious machinery; you'll eventually explore wooded Shattered Memories-esque worlds, a creepy church, and other mainstays. Monsters include the omnipresent nurse creatures, disgusting, bloated Insane Cancers, flying Air Screamers and even Pyramid Head ... all appearing without the benefit of context, representing not the specific fears and obsessions of any of the characters, but just weird monsters to be killed with a crowbar.
You search each long, randomly arranged level for challenge rooms that give you a required item when all the spawned enemies are defeated. Sure, some of the challenges are different – or at least phrased differently – but they all boil down to "Kill all these enemies." You search for keys, and for items to replenish your ammo, health, and rapidly diminishing weapons. You wander into invisible traps that pop spikes out, or slow you, or temporarily reduce your HP to 1 – the last of which can be used strategically to kill enemies, or (more often) it can be cruelly placed in front of a door for you to walk through and immediately die.
The gameplay is unforgiving enough to impart an exciting sense of tension, as you explore room after room, hoping you'll find a save point or the shop – nightmare monsters need groceries too, apparently – and hoping vainly that your health and preferred weapon will hold out, and that you won't have to face a room full of elementally altered ("combustible," "explosive," "corrosive") Butchers.
The basic gameplay is also, well, basic. Once you get the hang of swinging a pipe, or a crowbar, or a magical wooden sword at nurses, and subsequently scrounging madly for materials to keep it up, you pretty much know how the game's going to go from there on out. There are some very weird and interesting systems that add variety, but they tend to be story-oriented and rarely affect the gameplay.
For example, there's a weird room in each stage that houses a freeze-frame situation of some kind – a stockpile of televisions, or a group of nurses circling a helpless victim. How you choose to interact with this room will result in a grade of "blood," "light" or "neutral," and may also get you items or Karma. Each room's potential interactions are a mystery at first, and you learn what the good and evil responses are mainly by doing. You can knock down all the nurses, for example, or break the televisions as they recite the news; or you can choose to let the message play out or attack the victim. These rooms can be morally ambiguous, and figuring out how to trigger a certain response is an intriguing bit of dream logic.
I really like Karma as a concept: a way to quantify "good" or "evil" actions, even if both of those are somehow expressed by beating monsters to death. Your Karma, as expressed through the meter, and through the above Forsaken Rooms, will then affect the story. It's a good idea that is muddied somewhat by the inability to change direction without major time and effort, and by the randomness of the "blood" pickups, which slow the process even more by leaving Karma drops around for you to be accidentally knocked into.
The story, by the way, is told entirely through notes you find lying about. Each set of 3-4 levels focuses on a specific character (not yours) who faces some kind of ... I guess "bummer" is the right word for it. Derek is an overworked teenager. Graham is a cop who is getting old and maybe getting sloppy. It's a far cry from the kind of tortuous, hellish situations that characters from previous games have been saddled with. James Sunderland's intense guilt and pain over the loss of his wife doesn't really compare to Derek losing his job at the grocery store.
To break up the monotony of repeatedly stalking through the world's least logically designed church, you can play with up to three other people online or locally, using either voice chat or pre-recorded voice clips (or whatever combination). Voice chat is still novel enough in handheld games to be worth mentioning, though it seems to be pretty hit or miss in practice. Unless it's supposed to turn your friends into incomprehensible blips and thematically appropriate static. Multiplayer doesn't affect the story or anything (everyone ends up playing through whatever story the host has got going) but it is a welcome bit of variety.
And variety is Book of Memories' biggest problem – putting aside the conceptual issues behind grafting Silent Hill visuals onto a totally unrelated dungeon crawler. While the horror visuals make for an infinitely more interesting environment than most hack-and-slashes can offer, the novelty wears thin if I have to continually revisit levels and experience the same visuals again and again.
The aspect that defines dungeon crawlers, loot, is severely lacking here, giving me no motivation to continue grinding in fights with the same monsters. Instead, I just get the same weapons over and over, with very occasional rare items. And the one aspect that most defines Silent Hill, story, is lacking here in both presentation and content, again providing a missed opportunity for material to lure me back in.
This review is based on a Vita download of Silent Hill: Book of Memories, provided by Konami.
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