Silent Hill: Book of Memories has one of the most intriguing introductions I've seen all year. It involves a mysterious book that is delivered to the lead character. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that this is actually a transcript of everything that character had ever done. It was a comprehensive list of choices, both big and small. But maybe it's more than that. What would happen if you erase the past and rewrite your own story?
Unfortunately, Konami's newest Silent Hill game isn't very interested in finding out. What could have been a captivating tale of the butterfly effect of rewriting history quickly devolves into little more than hacking and slashing. To make matters worse, most of the story revolves around a cast of characters we only know through notes and television transmissions. By the time the story wraps up, we've completely lost the thread and are dumbfounded by the game's insane twists.
Book of Memories is not your typical Silent Hill game. Konami trades spooky survival horror for a more action oriented dungeon crawler. You play a character of your own creation, either male or female. From there you are sent into a series of randomly created dungeons where you fight enemies, collect keys, pocket gold, solve puzzles and defeat bosses. It's like Diablo with pyramid heads, double-headed dogs and the occasional sexy undead nurse.
Told in the vaguest way possible, Silent Hill involves the player jumping into different people's minds. It seems we are erasing and rewriting people's memories, which leads to destructive results. We are clued into what's going on through notes left lying around and optional TV broadcasts. One could go through most of this game without knowing what's going on, simply treating it as a typical hack and slash action game.
That's too bad, since there are hints of a compelling narrative buried deep inside this game. There's the story of the co-worker you screw over. Another chapter involves you getting reacquainted with an old high school crush. There's the story of the police officer who suspects foul play and the ex-boyfriend that won't leave me alone. Since these stories were never fleshed out, I found it incredibly hard to care what happened in the day to day life of my character.
Believe it or not, Silent Hill lends itself well to the trappings of a dungeon crawler. The series is appropriately spooky and the bad guys aren't that far removed from what I saw in Torchlight. And even though it doesn't make a ton of sense to the confusing storyline, you can bring three other players in to help you explore every inch of the levels.
Each level plays out in largely the same way. The idea is to go from room to room looking for objects that will later be used to solve the gate's tricky puzzle. The good news is that these objects are easy to find, they are always hidden in a blue orb that gets marked on your mini-map. Unfortunately, breaking these blue orbs means that you'll have to complete some sort of challenge. Pick up all the puzzle pieces and it's off to assemble them and move on to the next stage.
Each of the levels is modeled after different environments found around Silent Hill. You start out in an underground industrial plant, the sort of place Freddy Krueger has nightmares of. Before long we're battling possessed dogs through a cabin in the woods, gothic castle, buildings and more. The stages may look different, but they all play out exactly the same way.
Like any dungeon crawler, Book of Memories has a wide arsenal of weapons to choose from. The levels are full of both melee weapons (knives, bottles, pipes, axes, guitars, etc.) and ranged weapons (guns, a flamethrower, etc.). On top of the standard selection, beating bosses will net you elemental weapons. Keep in mind that all of these weapons will wear out and break if you don't regularly repair them.
If we simply left it here, Book of Memories would be a perfectly workable first stab at a Silent Hill dungeon crawler. While far from perfect, it would be the kind of game that would gain a strong cult following on the PS Vita. Sadly, we can't leave it here. Book of Memories is a frustrating, hateful experience that made me want to throw this brand new handheld system against a brick wall. At times I despised each and every one of the people who had a hand in making this product. You know who you are.
Things start out simple enough; the enemies are fairly tame and you can explore the levels without much threat of dying. But then the game starts adding invisible traps that get in your way. Sometimes it's a set of spikes jutting up from the floor, other times it's a painful bear trap. Still, these are minor inconveniences that can be avoided. But all of a sudden the game introduces you to a sinister new trap, one that zaps almost all of your health away for a small amount of time. Get hit even once and it is game over.
As if this horrible life-sucking trap wasn't bad enough, it's often placed right next to the doors. I lost count at the amount of times I ran through the entrance only to trigger the trap and immediately get hit by one of the half dozen enemies in the room. This unfair trap led to my death more times than anything else, to the point where I was ready to give up and never play the game again. There was never a point where I felt like the trap was anything but a one-way ticket to a cheap death.
The frustration isn't exclusive to these ill-conceived traps. Some characters will explode when they die. While this is an annoying cliché on its own, it's made even worse when you remember that the rooms are tiny. I found myself getting killed by these volatile baddies simply because there was no place to run.
Later in the game you'll run into an enemy that doesn't play by the game's rules. Not only can he walk from room to room, but he can also get you in safe areas. The game establishes early on that enemies can't aren't allowed to bother you when you're shopping and solving puzzles. But then, completely out of the blue, this character ignores the rules and does what it pleases. Usually this means that you die without warning because you're attempting to solve a puzzle.
Perhaps this is the right time to bring up the game's insane load times. Every time you start a level it takes close to a full minute to load. I timed it. This is made even worse when you die. Not only is there a death animation, but you also have to wait for a cinema to play out. And to make matters worse, there's a slow fade that doesn't immediately jump to the continue screen. When everything is said and done, it will take you close to 90 seconds to respawn. That's simply unacceptable.
It's bad enough that I feel like I died for no reason, but here I am sitting through well over a minute of loading. And when I finally do get back into the game, all of my progress will have been lost because there's only one save point in each stage. It's a hopeless feeling that made me question if getting to the bottom of the mysteries was even worth it.
The good news is that some of these problems can be resolved (or at least lessened) with friends around. Unlike most Silent Hill games, Book of Memories is meant to be played in a group. Either online or off, this PS Vita game supports up to four people at the same time. The added muscle makes dealing with frustrating design decisions easier and makes the game worth playing.
I found myself conflicted. As a multiplayer game, Book of Memories is a pretty good time. Even when the rooms are far too small to support that many people, I was impressed with how the co-op was handled. Even after completing the 21 lengthy stages, groups are encouraged to keep exploring the dozens of bonus dungeons. This is a massive game with a lot of multiplayer fun. Too bad playing the game by yourself is such a frustrating experience.
Book of Memories was developed by WayForward, a company I generally like. I was a big fan of their recent takes on A Boy and His Blob, Contra, Double Dragon and BloodRayne. While these games have some of my fellow critics cold, I fell in love with their style and old school sensibility. I was eager to see what WayForward could do with this well-known survival horror series. Book of Memories is a real disappointment.
Many of the game's problems could have been resolved with one or two simple changes. Part of the reason the cheap deaths sting so much is because it feels like I'm losing huge chunks of progress every time. Adding a few more save points would have gone a long way. Furthermore, after I beat the game I discovered that there was an item I could attach that would protect me from the poison traps. This is a result of the game not giving me all the information I needed when managing my inventory. This is the kind of change that would have left me feeling more positive about my time in Silent Hill: Book of Memories.
The graphics aren't bad, though they aren't as impressive as other recent PS Vita games. Aside from some cool lighting effects, much of the game feels like it could have been done on the PSP. On the other hand, the various bosses are all big and impressive looking. Plus, I like the different types of stages we visit along the way. The presentation may be unspectacular, but it won't be the thing you're talking about after finishing Book of Memories.
If you're the kind of person who plans on teaming up with friends to take on this lengthy adventure, then I can recommend Silent Hill: Book of Memories. The action isn't especially fresh and the graphics leave a lot to be desired, but there are some good ideas wrapped around a truly twisted narrative. However, if you're the kind of person who plans on going it alone, then look elsewhere. There is nothing in Silent Hill for solo players.