I've been a staunch defender of the game's right to exist, declaring that no sequential game should be bound to the blueprint laid out in the original, provided the game itself turns out to be enjoyable. Having played small sections of the game, I became more confident in WayForward's ability to craft a great dungeon-crawler with a Silent Hill flavor.
All I can say is ... what did I do, Book of Memories? What did I do to make you hate me this much?
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (PlayStation Vita)
Release: October 16, 2012
Silent Hill: Book of Memories is not a traditional survival horror experience, that much is quite evident. However, the bold move toward crafting a full-on hack n' slash role-playing game set in the Silent Hill universe is not only intriguing, it's got serious potential, something this title demonstrates time and time again. The potential for the concept is broad indeed. The execution, however, is not quite what it needs to be.
The premise sees your personally created character come into possession of a mysterious book by way of series harbinger Howard the Mailman. It turns out that the book is capable of pulling its user into nightmarish dreams that have the power to alter reality depending on the actions taken within them. Thus it is that players venture forth into a realm of creepy corridors and themed rooms populated by classic creatures from the main series.
As fan-service, Book of Memories is a well-researched and loving tribute to the series. Familiar monsters are presented rather beautifully, with unnervingly weird new sound effects. A range of weapons are culled from the entire breadth of the franchise, with steel pipes and knives joined by such macabre arms as the Great Knife, Laser Gun, and Sword of Obedience. The sinister Valtiel from Silent Hill 3 acts as quest-giver, providing a special challenge at the beginning of each level with the promise of a unique item. Even the stat-boosting relics that can be found and equipped make reference to the myriad eccentric items used in puzzles during past escapades.
Taking the form of an isometric RPG in the same vein as Diablo or Torchlight, each zone of Book of Memories plays out the same. Rooms of various size and shape are connected by maze-like corridors, and each one contains monsters, treasures, or other curiosities. One room is used as a save point, and another is Howard's store, where new items and weapons can be acquired. Some are Karma rooms, which contain vague "puzzles" to be dealt with in one of three ways. Between four and six of the rooms will contain challenge orbs that must be broken to spawn waves of enemies which, when defeated under specific conditions, will yield a puzzle piece. To clear a zone, the set number of puzzle pieces must be found and a simple size/color matching puzzle needs to be solved at the exit. It is a simple concept, and one that works pretty well at first.
Combat is a fuss-free button mashing affair, with players swinging objects or firing weapons at the nearest targets. Blocking and dodging can be performed with a simple button and stick press, though the animations for doing so are slow and often fail to activate before the swift enemies can get their shots in. In fact, it's close to impossible to attack anything up close without taking damage, a problem that only becomes apparent later, when health kits become harder to find. For the most part though, there's a ton of weapon variety and the basic combat remains quite fulfilling.
One grievance is that weapon durability means your favorite gear will break forever after too much use, unless fixed with a wrench. This is not a bad idea at all, but the limited carrying capacity for wrenches, coupled with the fact that every single weapon is flimsy and becomes heavily damaged after almost any single combat encounter, feels a little too much. Either more wrenches or greater durability would have been fine, but having neither makes fighting more ponderous than it ought to be.
One thing Book of Memories does that works really well is the use of a Karma system. Enemies come in several different types, the two most common being "Blood" and "Light." As Blood and Light enemies are defeated, they add to the player's Karma meter, strengthening their attack power against monsters of that type. For instance, the more you attack Blood enemies, the greater your Karma meter swings toward the Light side, making you stronger. Eventually, players gain access to the Karma Flip power move, which turns all Blood monsters in a room into Light monsters, and vice versa.
By controlling the alignment of monsters, players can keep themselves dominant, and unlock special Karma abilities that are utilized using the rear touchpad to rain damage on enemies -- Blood Karma uses devastatingly damaging spells, while Light can sap small amounts of health to heal the player. The Karma system is, by and large, a fantastic way of making the game more tactical, and it's implemented incredibly well.
Book of Memories is stuffed with fine ideas and it's hard not to keep coming back to. However, as you may have already guessed, the title suffers from a huge amount of tiny, needling little annoyances that amount to an overall frustrating experience. In essence, Book of Memories is a nasty little game, designed to abuse the player, and not in the fun, Dark Souls kind of way. More in the ambushing, cheap, exhausting way.
For a start, the level design is grotesque. Corridors connecting rooms usually go one way, and often amount to intricate map layouts with no shortcuts and only one save room per level. A save room that is randomly generated, found by chance, and can only be accessed along one linear path. What's more, these levels can get huge, taking up to thirty minutes to beat, and if you die without finding the save room, you lose all progress. Keeping the game regularly saved therefore requires immense amounts of backtracking (once you find the room), as does taking divergent paths once one fork in the road has been fully explored. A lot of player time is wasted, which is one thing a portable title really ought not do.
Regular saves become crucial as the game expands, because it goes from challenging to simply spiteful a few hours in. Eventually you find monsters that explode for huge health-drains when defeated, numerous invisible traps that, should you not be using a character with a high "Mind" statistic, will detonate to stab you or slow you down. Most infuriating of all are the poison traps, which take you down to one HP for a set amount of time, making the next hit fatal. You can get to a point where almost every room in the zone has a nasty little trap in it, sometimes even two. I reached the penultimate stage of the main game which used a two-hit combo of poison and spikes to kill me after I slaughtered all the monsters. Like I said, it's utterly spiteful.
It takes a long time to level up, there's no ability to re-spec your character, and these factors combined with the weapon durability and Godawful map design make for a game that can easily become an exhausting grind. It's mentally tiring to play Book of Memories, as you desperately search for save rooms to not lose twenty minutes of your life, backtrack through empty rooms, and get kicked up the ass repeatedly by cheaply obscured little traps. Then there are enemies that deal damage-per-second when attacked, or power through your attacks to repeatedly knock you to the ground. Think of a cheap way in which designers artificially bump up a game's difficulty, and you can bet Book of Memories has tried it.
The fact that I still keep going back to it, however, is high praise indeed for how well the core concept actually works. When the stars align and you get a level that tones down the bullshit, Book of Memories is a pleasant, even exciting, experience. The simple act of saving up money to buy my own Pyramid helmet or a Robbie the Rabbit mask for my character is joyous in its own perverse way, and when you start really dominating monsters, it feels incredibly gratifying. Book of Memories comes across as a game that doesn't want to be liked, that actively hates its players and will do anything to fight them when they try to have fun. It doesn't always succeed, however, and every time it fails in its mission to turn gamers away, the results are most entertaining.
Multiplayer is a big part of the experience, with up to four players able to team up online. This dramatically reduces the amount of problems found in single-player, not least for the fact that dying is penalized with a drop of recoverable items and a respawn, rather than the total eradication of all progress. Rolling into a zone with other players and laying the smackdown is most rewarding, and one can even hop into a high-level player's game to take on advanced dungeons early and gain a nice XP boost.
Of course, as seems to be Book of Memories' modus operandi, the online component is not free of multiple small annoyances. For one thing, keys for locked doors are carried by the person who picked it up, and nobody knows who has what if they're not communicating. Dropping keys upon death can also make them tricky to find. Even worse, players can't share loot, or even use the item shop at the same time, making players essentially line up and take turns to sell or buy gear. The zones can also be cleared by anybody regardless of everyone being ready. I almost lost my Great Knife pickup from Valtiel because someone was solving the end puzzle and I was trying to book it to the exit to pick up my loot in time.
Graphically, this is a beautiful looking title. Avoiding the washed-out look that many PS Vita games seem to be afflicted by, there's a great sense of color and contrast, with some terrific lighting effects. Easily one of the most gorgeous looking handheld titles released to date, there naturally has to be one negative caveat -- levels take an excruciatingly long time to load, even upon death. The joy of dying, only to be punished further with a lengthy reload time. Classic.
Control-wise, WayForward mostly makes judicious use of the PS Vita's input options. The touchscreen controls are almost entirely relegated to virtual buttons, conveniently placed at the edge of the screen, while the touchpad Karma powers are sporadic and make sense. My only criticism here is that picking up items requires awkwardly touching them in the center of the screen, something that several hybrid-controlled Vita games do, and I still can't work out why any developer thinks it's a good idea.
Book of Memories presents a fantastic idea and hours of fun content, then surrounds it with bear traps, barbed wire and shotgun-wielding farmers who dare you to take one step towards it. Yet, even as I write this, I'm still in the midst of playing it, and I want to keep playing it. I love it, but I despise it. I'm addicted to it, but after every zone, I need to switch off and walk away drained.
Is Silent Hill: Book of Memories good? I'm not sure I even know. It's compelling, it's engrossing, but at the same time its venomous and repellent. Like the town of Silent Hill itself, it draws players in with a promise, before cruelly punishing them on a capricious whim. It commits sins that are simply not forgivable, while performing feats that cannot go without praise.
What I do know is that the game's issues are issues of design, not concept. The core premise of Book of Memories is not only solid, it's openly brilliant. I want there to be more Silent Hill games like this -- I just want them with decent map design, a more balanced approach to combat, and maybe a bit less of a hateful attitude toward anybody trying to enjoy them.
It's a solid start for a game capable of excellence, but so frequently squanders the credit it earns on frankly confusing design. I can only hope WayForward gets a second chance to truly build on what it's begun.