Simply put, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is not what I was expecting. After playing the early Silent Hill games I have drifted away from the series but was excited to get my hands on a new installment, especially on the PSVita. If you’re suspecting traditional Silent Hill game play you are going to be very surprised and quite possibly disappointed.
Book of Memories plays more like an action/RPG game than the survival horror style of its predecessors. Dungeon crawler games like Torchlight come to mind more than traditional Silent Hill. Upon beginning the game, you aren’t given much in the way of the story. You are simply handed a book by a stranger that contains all of your memories which you discover can be changed. Changing them involves playing through several “nightmares” (themed dungeon environments) where you must to explore, battle creatures and collect puzzle pieces which must be put together in the right order in order to change each memory and move on to the next. While the idea of manipulating the past by navigating someone’s memories is neat, the story lines can be awfully predictable. For example, one level revolves around the memory running into an ex-crush of the player. Playing the level changes the memory so that she breaks up with the current, stereotypical, self-centred boyfriend and asks the player out instead. From the moment you start that nightmare you can pretty much predict the outcome. It is sort of anti-climactic.
The core portion of the game play focuses on combat and levelling up your character and weapons which can be as simple or deep as you want it to be. Your character can equip items in both their left and right hands or a single two-handed weapon. Weapons degrade over time. You must repair them before they break or they are lost forever. Thankfully the weapon icon changes colour from green to red to tell you when it needs repair but I still found this out the hard way. Each arm has their own unique buttons to deliver attacks. If you hold the attack button down for a bit longer your player will do a heavier attack. This generally metes out twice the damage, sometimes more. I generally found that just mashing the buttons dealt out the same amount of damage in the same amount of time without putting your character at risk during their “wind up”. You can also string together combos by timing your next button press with the impact of your last strike. Combos open up more powerful attacks and finishing moves. You can also block attacks but don’t expect any visual like you see in games like Batman Arkham City or Sleeping Dogs. I found blocking difficult but more skilled or hardcore players probably will not have a problem.
While there is a relatively robust RPG element in Book of Memories, I did not find it all that necessary to dig really deep into it. As you progress through the game you earn XP to level up your character and assign these XP points across the standard RPG character stats. You can also equip accessories that enhance specific abilities. Weapons also level up as a reward for sticking with any one weapon type. Different enemy types have different weaknesses to different weapons but when attacked in groups, which happens often, I hardly found it worth my while to pause, study what weapon might work best and continue. I just found weapons I liked, hacked, slashed and made sure I had plenty of health packs and repair tools. If a specific weapon didn’t work effectively against any one enemy, I’d hope to heck I had another that did.
Keeping in theme, the currency in Book of Memories is referred to as memory residue. There is a shop within each nightmare where you can buy and sell items, weapons, ammo, artifacts and even cosmetic things to spice up your appearance. Slain enemies drop pools of light or blood which can be collected to sway a karma meter in one direction or the other. Moving the karma meter sufficiently in either directly allows for the use of special, more powerful skills during combat. I found it difficult to focus on one or the other karma because it is extremely easy to accidentally pick up some of the karma you’re not going for when you’ve just finished off a group of enemies and there is a bunch close together.
Book of Memories doesn’t completely do away with survival horror but it is really limited to the conservation of weapons, ammo and health packs. Hidden within each level is a single save point which you must find in order to be able to save. You can save there as many times you want during each level. I highly recommend you save frequently during later levels. If you die before you find the save point you have to start over from the beginning. This resulted in a few frustrating do-overs during my play time. Don’t get me started about the random spike traps that pop up out of the floor either. They have to be one of the cheapest hits I’ve seen in a game ever.
While this all might sound good on a technical level, Book of Memories suffers from a major, fatal flaw in that the game play doesn’t come close to matching all of this potential. Combat gets boring far too quickly. What should be the core, fun part of the game becomes an exercise in repetition just to progress the story. Navigating through all-too-similar room again and again from nightmare to nightmare I never got that sense of exploration, discovery and reward that would make this game so much more fun. You just search stuff for keys and loot, look for areas of the map you haven’t yet been and hope you don’t die over and over again. This is a big time deal breaker for me.
I will note that despite the concern about picking up karma, overall control on the Vita is good and responsive. Book of Memories employs the front and back touch screens for touch only. There are no gimmicky uses of either here. If you’re looking to play online with friends, Book of Memories smartly includes a co-op mode for up to four players. Players can communicate either by pre-set text messages or by voice if properly equipped. However, there are also some incredibly long load times. Think original PSP UMD long for a comparison. Definitely not something I expect from a game that resides on my memory card.
Book of Memories’ graphics display a pretty decent level of fidelity which, unfortunately, often gets lost in the game’s isometric viewpoint and frequent dark areas. I totally understand the choice of viewpoint, especially given the ability to play four-player coop online. In order to fit enough on screen a lot of the character detail ends up getting lost even on the nice Vita screen. Lighting effects are used to good effect to enhance the game’s atmosphere. While nothing spectacular I thought the way shadows are cast and move in relation to your character and flashlight looked pretty good. There is also plenty of blood and dismemberment with some of the bigger, sharper weapons that makes the game very worth of its M rating. The environments get stale quick though. There is only so many ways you can dress up a dungeon. Small cosmetic changes from story to story only serve to spice things up for a short time only and the game relies on a number of visual highlights as cues for what is important and what isn’t.
My initial impression of Book of Memories’ soundtrack was that it had a cinematic quality and added a general sense of creepiness to the game. Once you get deeper in to the game though you realize there is far too little variety. While the tracks change between each of the nightmares, the levels within each nightmare play the same background music over and over again nor does the soundtrack change dynamically with the action to enhance the experience. The voice acting is passable and the sound effects for the most part are decent. Nothing spectacular, just the requisite growls, gore effects and audible cues when your health is low.
To their credit, Konami has been clear that ‘Book of Memories’ was going to be departure from the traditional Silent Hill style of game. Instead the action skews more towards the action and role playing genre. While this may not be a bad thing in theory, the end result is a Silent Hill game that is poorly executed and mostly forgettable. From a technical standpoint nothing is really broken. It doesn’t look bad and it doesn’t sound too bad either but it is way too repetitive. I play games for fun and the score reflects the fact I just didn’t find Silent Hill: Book of Memories all that fun to play.