Review : Silent Hill : Shattered Memories


The past three nights gave me the opportunity to finally break open a game I’ve had in shrink wrap since my birthday back in March.  I’m talking about Silent Hill : Shattered Memories (“SHSM” ).  I have to admit, I’ve been avoiding playing a game claiming to “reimagine” one of my absolute favorite pieces of video game art, but in the end, though imperfect, I believe SHSM is an innovative, emmersive, and addictive piece of work that stands on its own.

When I first began playing, I have to admit I immediately considered putting the controller down and walking away when I realized just how “reimagined” this Silent Hill (“SH”) would be.  From the very first gameplay moments, I knew this was not the SH I loved.  Basic elements defining the previous Silent Hill were gone.  I literally had to pause the game, step back, and have a conversation with myself that “you have to look at this game from a fresh perspective.  This isn’t SH, this is something else with no history.”  Once I did that, this game began unfurling its own lush, seedy, and human story that tapped into me in different ways than its predecessors.

Environment.  SHSM takes place much closer to our reality.  The game is set in upstate NY.  There’s a sign in the first few minutes of gameplay at a car repair shop that reads something like “Rochester 40 miles, Buffalo 50 miles, Hornell 30 miles”.  If you’ve been to upstate, you probably know these names.  The setting tapped into me because I went to undergrad about 10 miles from Hornell, and I went to grad in Rochester.  You tell me small town on a lake in upstate NY, and I’ve got ample memories.  Instead of the gutted streets and mysterious abondoned aura of SH, this game relies on a blizzard shutting down the town.   I could immediately identify.  I don’t know if that device works for people who grew up in warmer climes, but it worked for me.  Which leans on something about SHSM’s environment that is different than its predecessors: I’ve been there!  I’ve been on the streets of a small town silenced by feet of snow.  I used to go out late at night and take photographs at the height of storms because the look, the sound (of silence) is so surreal.  The world of SHSM actually exists.  If you want to experience it first hand, spend a snowy evening in New England.  Whereas, if you wish to visit the inspiration of the original SH, Centralia, PA, you will only find a few smoking holes in the ground as most of the town has been leveled.

Where the previous games have always dealt with human emotions and experiences, SHSM really puts these elements into a universal context : highschool, late night parties, broken families, the thrill and heartache of young love.

  • Story.  SHSM is story driven: the hallmark of a great game.  There were times during gameplay when I would’ve hit fastfoward if I could have just to advance the story because it was that compelling.  I actually started and finished the game in less than 3 evenings just because it was that good.   The plot relied on the unfurling of a mystery surrounded by a cast with very discernable spines and human desires including sex, love, and self-fulfillment while juxtaposed with fears of inadequacy, rejection, and failure.  The character exemplifying this conflict the mos ended up being the Player’s character: Harry Mason.  This leads to the second point
  • Innovation.
    • Always being watched. This is the first game I played that actually began with a warning the game would build a psychological profile of me.  .   .   .   The game story and character elements morph depending on your interaction with characters.  This sort of underlying feat has been attempted in the past (including previous SH games) but SHSM actually provides a framework.  The game literally begins with the Player being interviewed by a psychiatrist.  Throughout gameplay, this element is revisited, reminding us that someone is literally watching the decisions we make in gameplay.  I think the effect was sometimes heavy-handed, but nonetheless novel in execution.  Moreover, this element brought back something missing since Silent Hill 2 : a game world that reflects the conflict within the main character.  As James, in SH2, delved deeper into SH, he was foremost diving deeper into his own past.  In the case of SHSM, we are led along this same thread where every advancement in the plot is a step to the revelation : Why is Harry trapped in Silent Hill?
    • The Phone. The game actually uses a mobile phone.  At first, I was skeptical.  I’m used to the high tech in a SH game being the static of a broken radio, but the phone paradigm actually worked as a map, inventory, camera and… phone!  It was kinda cool to call other characters.  Even getting their answering machine added tension.  Static or broken calls during a heavy snowstorm heightened the realism.  Getting txts, a bit hightech by SH standards, still brought the game into a contemporary context: this world is our world.
  • Gameplay. When gameplay is about exploring this lush environment, as in every SH, it’s excellent.  When gameplay segues to the nightmare segments, it can be painful.  SHSM introduces a different take on SH’s “Otherworld”.  Instead of the Player being transported to an industrial Hell, the Player is thrown into a frozen mirror of the real world (literally, ice-covered).  The Player than has to find the exit from this world by navigating a maze at a hectic pace while being chased by the only monsters in the game.  The creatures look like humanoid clay bodies bathed in Peptobismal.  The end product’s frantic pace does drive our heartbeat, but the underpinning lack of development in the monsters is glaring.  The real end-goal during the chase segements is to get the heck out of them to progress the story: what this game is all about.
  • Puzzles. Again, this was a frustrating bit.  There’s actually a sequence where you have to remember the colors on a toucan’s nose in a shopping mall.  This is just too unsophisticated a puzzle for SH.
  • Music. Akira Yamaoka.  If you know the series, you know his work.  His music comes straight from the town’s soul.

I actually wrote this review on Sept 6, 2010.  I’m positing it now that I’ve recovered my database, four months later.  I want to play the game again.  There were frustrating bits in gameplay, and the ending was a major let down, but getting there is what this game is all about.  If you are looking for an experience within which you can become lost, this is a great game.  If you are looking for something dark, twisted, yet beautiful, this is a great game.  If you’re a SH fan and can put aside your past SH experiences, do it!  If you’re looking for Angry Birds, move along.

Mirror’s Edge Demo

This isn’t so much a review as some comments.

Happy Holidays, Everyone! : )  I’m home in PA for a few days.  Among other things, I’m enjoying a new PS3 my family got me.  At night, I’m playing the latest in the Silent Hill franchise, and a review will be coming shortly, however, what I wanted to write quick was my thoughts on the Mirror’s Edge demo from the Playstation Store.  Woah woah woah…

 

Who thought this up?!  I remember listening to an NPR article a year or two ago about the group down in NYC who would run over bridgeworks and up walls, etc.  This game is like an application of just that.  The care the team put into the experience : depth of field and high contrast environments, the rush of wind as you fall, the motion blur as you run.  The gameplay is wild and complex, but it’s so compelling!  I actually feel myself breathing quick at the end of a particularly intense scene (or after I fell to my death).  This game is just beautiful in the same sense as the cinematics to the original Matrix merged with Bladerunner.  It’s just incredible.

It’s on my short list.

ClockTower 3

I recently completed Clocktower 3 by Capcom.  My feelings?  Interesting story told in a very heavy-handed manner.  Gameplay was fairly straightforward and enjoyable albeit linear.  Graphic environments were well executed, however background music / sound did not live up to the task.  Cutscenes were excellent.  The overall experience was fun, though brief.  With the exception of the final boss, the game took me less than 6 total hours of gameplay.  

On a scale of 1 – 10? 

Graphics = 8

BG Music / Sound = 4

Sound FX = 7

Story = 8

Fun Factor = 7

Replayability = 4

 

Overall Rating = 6.3

 

The major opportunities for improvement, in my mind, would be music first.  The loops were way too short and simple.  They actually distracted from gameplay. The issue with “replayability” is really a matter of the linear nature of the game.  Now that I know the puzzles, the only real challenge is surviving the bosses when their difficulty is increased.  The linear construction particularly conflicts with replaying the game, in this case, because the game is focused on avoiding conflict (unlike Resident Evil), therefore, the player doesn’t have that action experience moment to moment to relive.  Clocktower is really about solving puzzles and beating one boss per stage which just doesn’t provide a decent incentive to replay the game when the puzzles have been solved.  A problem like this, though, can’t be solved after the fact.  This is something that had to be addressed way back during the initial design of the gameplay.

The final boss was a wicked pain, but once I figured out the rhythm, he’s wasn’t that bad.  (It just took me a long time to figure out the rhythm!)  One of my apartment mates took this video of my victorious moment.

{flv}Seth_Rocking_Clocktower_3{/flv} 

Silent Hill Origins (PS2)

A few weeks ago, I completed Silent Hill Origins. For those of you that haven’t read some of my earlier entries, the Silent Hill game series from Konami has been among my favorite series. “Origins” was originally written for the PSP and then ported to the PS2.

 

Story

 

There was an interview I watched a few times several years ago with Rafael Chandler of Red Storm Entertainment, creators of the Rainbow 6 games. Basically, his point was: story is where it starts and the rest follows. I’m a believer. Of course, there are genres where this is less true (arcade action for example), but in the Adventure / Survival Horror arena, I think this is crucial. Even in first person shooter, as Chandler discussed, where the gamer is focused on a mission structure, a story is crucial to carry the player through the game.

 

Silent Hill Origins has the story. It works pretty decently as a precursor to Silent Hills 1 – 4, depicting the origins of certain persons, events, and plot lines. I feel there were times when the more horrific elements were a little too intrusive versus the more subtle treatment of Silent Hill 2 which is often characterized as the epitome of psychological thriller.  However, this may be a characteristic nuance of the transition of the series from the original, Japan-based, “Team Silent” to US developer Climax.  

 

Gameplay

 

Gameplay was rough. Admittedly, it took me a lot longer to get through this game than its predecessors. Usually, I’d get through a title in a few days at most. This game, I frankly put down in frustration for weeks at a time. There were two elements that irked me. The first is, as we all know in any horror flick, you don’t walk away from the monster when he’s down because once you turn your back he’s back up and chasing you. It’s the same philosophy in most games: just because you knock someone down, doesn’t mean they are out. This is the case in all the Silent Hills, including Origins. However, unlike the earlier titles, Origins requires you to wait until the monster is back on his feet before you attack again. Honestly, it might sound trivial, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, your heart’s pumpin’ and you’re surrounded by zombie-creatures, you don’t want to break that tension by having to wait, in place, for precious seconds while the creatures writhe around on the floor rejuvenating. You want to take them out and not be like all those stupid teenagers in every horror film you ever saw.

 

Second issue, which is kinda the generic bane of many action-based games and which does not always get thefull attention it deserves: fighting has to be fair. What I mean is that there has to be a very clearly defined ruleset as far as : “if monster does ‘x’ than player must do ‘y’ else some negative outcome will occur”. This is the central issue I had with a game called Rule of Rose which I never bothered to review (but should). Oftentimes, you just couldn’t do anything to counter the baddies attacks. Often times in Origins, you can see one of those straight-jacket monsters coming at you, but before you know it, they’re magically on top of you spewing acid in your face. Between the moment when you saw the character, and the moment the negative outcome occurred, you as the player never have that opportunity to really counter their attack, you just have to kinda put up with it and after a while, it gets really frustrating.  Stuff like that, I’m guessing, happens when a development schedule gets crunched and certain parts of QA are, unfortunately, neglected.

 

In-Game Graphics and Sound.

 

I’ll lump these together for space. For the most part, I thought these were executed well and up to par with the series.

Cutscenes / Presentation

 

I was happy, except for the scenes involving duo-tone flashbacks which felt like blown up images from a low res source. The details felt flat compared to other, usually present-day shots.

 

Overall, I think the game was fulfilling in the end; however it wasn’t consistently enjoyable.  The gameplay got in the way too much.  I had to have a roommate egg me into finishing after I gave up in frustration, which is a first in the Silent Hill series for me.  I felt treatment of many psychological / character elements was heavy-handed.  I’m a  strong believer in “show don’t tell”.  Let the audience figure it out. 

 

Obviously, I haven’t given Silent Hill 5 a go yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Reach out and make a friend