Harry Mason is not having a good day. After crashing his car in a freak snowstorm, he wakes up to find his daughter missing with nary a trace. Determined to find her, Harry sets out into the night with a flashlight to explore the town of Silent Hill in this reimagining of the series’ original entry.
Yes, reimagining, not remake. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is not the same game as its 1999 PlayStation source. It retains signature elements of that game, sure: you’re Harry Mason, you’re looking for your daughter Cheryl in the town of Silent Hill, many of the original characters are included, etc. But Shattered Memories distinguishes itself by spinning a different yarn, stripping combat, trading rust for ice and tossing in some good ol’ psychology into the mix.
The story touches on themes of regret, loss and sexuality through direct gameplay as well as through phone messages and images found in the world. It’s intriguing and Climax does a good job of baiting you with details so you’ll want to continue on just a smidgen more. Even if you know the original story inside-out by now, Shattered Memories goes down a different path so series vets won’t feel like they’re retreading old ground. We’d love to go into more detail but it would be a great disservice to those who plan on setting foot in Silent Hill.
Shattered Memories tries to get into your head in a way no other game really has since Silicon Knight’s Eternal Darkness on GameCube. The much-publicised psychological test in the beginning of the game is personal and probing, wanting to know things like whether you make friends easily, need a drink to relax or even if you’ve ever been unfaithful to a partner. While your answers won’t significantly change how the story plays out, they do have a noticeable change on the world around you: for instance, police officer Cybil will look slightly different and be either receptive and helpful or untrusting and hostile depending on your answers. It sounds like a small change, but it does impact your perception of the supporting cast’s motives and can lead to mistrust and tension when someone appears. Similarly, enemy appearance will alter but not cause any behavioural changes. Periodically you’ll find yourself back with the psychologist, who will test you through moral dilemmas and image interpretation. Based on all this, by the end of the game you’re treated to one of five alternate endings and given a (surprisingly close) psychological evaluation.
A significant addition to the Silent Hill formula is Harry’s cell phone, used to make and receive calls (you can dial any number found in the game with actual, albeit mostly brief, results), receive messages that advance the plot, take photos and access a GPS map. You can draw on the GPS screen to plot a route, which comes in handy when exploring outside of the dangerous ice world (also known as the Nightmare sequences). The phone feels very well integrated and is an indispensable tool for Harry.
Climax’s decision to nix combat seemed questionable at first but ultimately proved to be a very wise choice for creating suspense; when the world ices over and the static amplifies, you don’t have the sense of empowerment that fighting gives, which causes you to feel more vulnerable and tense when enemies start running at you. You can throw enemies off if you’re grabbed, flares will keep them at bay, hiding in or under things will throw them off your trail and knocking over cabinets and lockers will impede them, but you can’t directly harm or stop them until the world thaws again – it can get pretty intense trying to reach the end of the Nightmares with creepies on your heel.
The Nightmare sequences are ultimately the game’s biggest flaw. While well-implemented and spooky in their own right, monsters, and thus danger, only appear when the world is frosted over. With just the one enemy type – as mentioned, the monsters can change their appearance but not their behavior – they can feel a little repetitive and far from the iconic design of past Silent Hill creatures. Another gripe is using the map in these sequences: oftentimes you have no idea how to reach the set waypoint when you’ve got baddies chasing you down, and slowing down for a quick check is often a bad idea. Escaping the Nightmares also tends to rely heavily on trial and error so you’ll find yourself retreading the same areas many times as you attempt to flee.
On the upside, Shattered Memories nails its atmosphere; the graphics are moody and realistic, some of the best on Wii in fact, and the use of sound to heighten tension is excellent. The constant falling snow strengthens the sense of cold isolation; those who usually get scared by horror games will likely meet similar results here. Harry’s flashlight casts accurate shadows over the game world and is probably one of the best implementations of a flashlight in any game.
The flashlight is a shining example of Climax’s decision to build Shattered Memories from the ground up to take full advantage of the Wii’s unique feature set, even with PlayStation 2 and PSP ports in the pipeline. The game is among the notable few Wii releases to feature intelligent motion controls without resorting to tacked-on waggle. Object manipulation is done through pinching and on the Remote and twisting, turning and shaking. Throwing off an enemy or knocking down an obstacle is done by quickly moving the controllers to the side; on paper this may sound like dumb waggle but it makes perfect sense in context and feels natural. Phone calls come through the Remote speaker a la No More Heroes as well as the series’ trademark warning static. Even smaller touches, like the battery indicator on Harry’s cell phone matching the charge of the Remote, go a long way to sucking you into the mysterious town of Silent Hill.
The adventure isn’t overly long - about five or six hours on your first playthrough - but with multiple endings there's decent enough incentive to hop back in. You can always change your psych test answers or explore the world differently and see where that takes you.
Whether you buy into the psychology bits or not, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is still a great horror game on a console starved for them, yet is more remarkable for being a distinctly Wii game through-and-through. Play it for the atmosphere, play it for the suspense, play it for the story; we don’t care, just don’t miss out on one of the best Wii games this year.