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Review: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

Jordan Deam | 17 Dec 2009 13:00
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I'm all for videogames that ask uncomfortable questions; the purpose of art, after all, is to challenge our ideas of truth and beauty, and you can't always do that without causing some anxiety along the way. Developers like Tale of Tales have built a reputation for crafting thought-provoking and sometimes disquieting meditations on death (The Graveyard) and loss of innocence (The Path). But some games' "uncomfortable questions" aren't quite so abstract.

Have you ever cheated on a partner? Well, no, actually.

Nod if this word applied to you in high school: virgin. Clearly you didn't know me in high school, Doc.

Do you enjoy role-play during sex? Erm ...

It was roughly at this point that I began to wish I hadn't fired up Silent Hill: Shattered Memories with an audience in the room. I can safely say it was a learning experience for all of us.

Shattered Memories' most novel addition to the Silent Hill series is a blowhard therapist who tries to figure you out while you're puzzling over the rest of the game. During occasional lulls in the main storyline, you'll find yourself transported to his office, where you're forced to sit helplessly as he waxes philosophical about the primal nature of guilt and fear. Then he'll ask you to take a short test, ranging from pen-and-paper questionaires to simple sorting games. ("Dead or Asleep" is a personal favorite.) As soon as you're finished, he'll either berate you for lying or claim he knew how you would respond before you did. He's pretty much the worst therapist ever, but he's also a scene-stealer.

The back of the box claims that Shattered Memories takes your responses in these tests and uses them to tailor the game world to fit your personal psychological profile. In practice, you're unlikely to discern the difference, at least in a single play-through. Instead, you'll find a curiously familiar middle-American town, socked in by a freak blizzard that has deposited just enough impassable snowdrifts to neatly corral you from one desolate alleyway to the next. You'll know at a glance that Shattered Memories is one big, linear haunted house - but when you have your first "aha!" moment during a tricky puzzle, you probably won't care.

The world of Shattered Memories can be staggeringly disorienting. At night, you'll rely on your flashlight to see anything, and since it only covers roughly a quarter of the screen, you'll be tracking across the screen constantly to piece together your surroundings. Then there's your minimap, a function of your in-game, GPS-enabled smartphone. It marks off buildings, roads and doorways, but since so much of your routes take place indoors or around unmarked obstacles, the map is near useless from the start. It's hard to say which of these design decisions are intentional, but the end result is a constant battle just to figure out where to travel next.

Curiously, the only time Shattered Memories' environment becomes open-ended is when you least want it to. Every so often, you'll find yourself plunged into an icy, misshapen version of your previous surroundings, with a pack of faceless, fleshy humanoids nipping at your ankles. Without weapons or offensive capabilities of any kind, the only way to make them disappear is by reaching a set checkpoint, but it can be nearly impossible to find, especially under the creature-imposed time limit. Worse, there are decoy routes everywhere that seem to exist solely to trip you up. Instead of deliberately making your way from point A to point B, you'll likely run for the nearest exit in every room and pray you're a step closer to the finish line.

The chase sequences and therapy sessions are mostly diversions from the core gameplay of exploring and solving puzzles, however. At their simplest, you'll encounter a locked door with a key hidden somewhere nearby. But it doesn't take long for Shattered Memories to get more intricate and creative with its quandaries. Later puzzles make good use of your cell phone: You may have to phone a friend for help, for example, or dial into a radio request line to get them to play a certain song. They're just complex enough to force you to linger on them for a minute or two, but simple enough that you're rarely stumped.

Unfortunately, even the most brilliant puzzles aren't enough to sustain your interest after you've repeated the same nightmare sequence for the dozenth time in a row. Simply put, these sections are inexcusable, and a huge misstep in an otherwise unique, provocative and atmospheric experience. Perhaps if you're already a fan of the series, you'll be more willing to forget this frustration and forge ahead. But if this is your first Silent Hill game, as it was for me, then you're in for a bumpy - and probably short - ride.

Bottom Line: There are just enough stellar gameplay ideas in Shattered Memories to make you want to keep playing - until you get stuck in the same nightmare for twenty minutes and give up.

Recommendation: Rent it. Many of Shattered Memories' puzzles are brilliant, and it's worth a few bucks to experience the therapy sessions alone. But the chase sequences are so frustrating you probably won't find them worth suffering through after the five-hour mark - I certainly didn't.

Score:

Jordan Deam doesn't want to talk about his father right now, OK? Who's paying for these sessions, anyway?

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