Version tested: Wii
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories wants to get to know you. Do you make friends easily? Do you work best to a plan or schedule? Have you ever been unfaithful? Have you ever used role-play during sex? Are you a private person? Do you prefer friends over family?
Placed in an analyst's chair, the game begins with the first of many such psychological evaluations. There's no 'wrong answer' as such, but part of the fun in this intriguing re-imagining of the original 1999 Silent Hill is that the experience is designed to shape itself around the kind of person - and therefore player - that you are. Being a misanthropic loner, of course, the resident shrink had a field day with me, but I guess that's the point.
Controlled through the eyes of the subject, you can either sit and focus intently on the thoughts and demands of the stern-faced evaluator, or point the Wiimote elsewhere, avert your gaze and let your eyes wander around his wood-panelled office. Eventually the headmasterly figure gives you your next test. You tick the appropriate box, grab pictures and place them in the desired location, or simply respond with a nod or a shake of the head by moving the Wiimote.
Then it's onto the action, and the almost-immediate realisation that Shattered Memories is, by some margin, the most creative and engaging game to emerge in Konami's horror series since the perversely unsettling Silent Hill 3 back in 2003. Indeed, by the end of it, you're left mulling over the highlights of one of the most compelling and sure-footed offerings the genre has ever seen.
The first thing to stress is that Shattered Memories is a whole lot more than a remake. While it retains some of the main characters and basic premise, developer Climax has changed so much along the way that calling it a 're-imagining' is more in line with the end result. Gone is the obsessive-compulsive map-checking and handle-turning trudge as you establish a route through festering, dimly-lit corridors in abandoned asylums and schools. Gone is the hapless and ungainly combat, and out goes the need to check every empty room in the search of anything not nailed down too. Gone, in short, is all the tedious stuff.
As with the seminal original, the game focuses on Harry Mason's desperate search for his young daughter, Cheryl. Having crashed his car one night on an icy road on the outskirts of Silent Hill, he wakes up in a blind panic to discover her missing. Grabbing a torch, he ventures out into the snowy night, scaling fences, checking nearby buildings for clues to her whereabouts and hollering her name at the top of his lungs.
Holding the Wiimote like a torch, you point the beam around the gloomy environment, and move with the nunchuk stick, holding Z to run. Obstacles are scaled by simply going up to them, while doors can be opened by moving to them and pressing A. There's a satisfying intuitiveness to basic movement, making the environment all the more interesting to roam around.
The tactile nature of the puzzle design works particularly well on the Wiimote, too. Initially it tasks players with manipulating objects, lifting latches and pulling locks back, but you're soon asked to be more imaginative. Discarded empty drinks cans can be picked up, rotated and shaken. With a bit of patient manipulation, eventually your search yields a key rattling around in one of them, and simply tipping it upside down and shaking allows it to drop out. As simple as that example is, it demonstrates thoughtful use of the Wii's controller, which we so rarely see.
But these initial good ideas are nothing compared to some of the excellent ones implemented as the game progresses. After meeting police officer Cybil Bennett for the first time, you get a phone, revealing a whole array of new actions including taking photos, retrieving voicemails, texts, making calls and even using a GPS map. As you wander around, strange feedback noises emanate from the Wiimote, and when you eventually reach the source of the static a voicemail pops up and you hold the Wiimote speaker to your ear like a real phone to hear the messages - most of which add to the generally tragic back-story, fleshing out the previous inhabitants of these deserted locations.
Sometimes, calls and messages come in out of the blue from Cybil, or even Cheryl as the search intensifies, and the role of the phone during your adventures grows as you go along. Elsewhere, you can also use the camera function of the phone to take snaps of ghostly 'apparitions', which fully reveal their origins once captured, both in terms of the image captured and accompanying voice message chillingly transmitted to the handset.
Other interesting narrative devices allow players to zoom in and read posters, pictures and any items of interest at their leisure, rather than picking up discarded notes and journal fragments in traditional fashion. More often than not, Harry also delivers his thoughts on these items, all of which infuse the environment with a credible sense of place. Any phone numbers you come across in the game can also be called up - mostly just to add a bit of intrigue to the game, but sometimes to help you solve specific puzzles. The phone implementation really is fantastic, and quickly becomes an integral ingredient in the game's appeal.
A Silent Hill game wouldn't be complete without the usual dosage of nightmarish apparitions and otherworldly scares, of course, and Shattered Memories delivers on that front too. This time around, rather than turning the world to filth and rust, the developer literally freezes the walls around Harry, who has to rush through a mazelike environment dodging faceless ghosts until he finds a predefined exit.
With no weapons to wield, one option is to try and tip bookshelves and statues into the path of pursuing enemies to slow them down, or occasionally you might find the odd flare lying around to help ward off their attentions. Alternatively, you can simply hide from the monsters and wait until they've wandered off elsewhere, but for the most part you'll be left with no choice but to throw them off in the appropriate direction by hurling your Wiimote and nunchuk.
Although it doesn't feel like it when you're caught in a blizzard of panic, throwing them off is also intuitive. If they come at you from the front, throwing the controller in a forward motion flings them off, while the opposite is true if they climb on your back. As soon as the penny drops, a lot of the stress of these nightmare sequences dissipates and you can focus on things like checking the waypoint on the map, or charging forwards in search of an exit. To help make the process of barrelling along at top speed easier, the game allows you to move through a door in one swift motion as long as you're running and holding forward at the same time.
Then again, that's of limited help if you get lost, which you easily can. You can also feel like you're going around in circles. Sometimes this is because you are going around in circles, with environments designed to be disorientating and make you double back on yourself if you just keep going in a straight line, and it's clearly meant to heighten the sense of panic, but it's also potentially frustrating if the process continues without success, and many players are likely to find these sequences frustrating and protracted.
More often that not, though, simple trial and error wins the day, and before long you'll find yourself faced with a mid-level puzzle to solve too. In common with most of the game's tasks, these are some of the most enjoyable bits of Shattered Memories, designed to make you feel quite clever in the process of solving them. Beyond these, the nightmare sequence continues for a few more minutes before you emerge to the relative safety of 'normality'.
What actually is normal is increasingly difficult to fathom as you progress. New characters appear in the oddest of circumstances, and it's not ever clear whether any of this is actually happening. In between the madness, the game switches back to the relative calm of the analyst's couch as you face another round of probing exercises. Some come across as trivial and innocuous, but at some point you realise that your responses have a subtle bearing on how the game plays out too. Characters may respond differently to you, or their clothes and the decor of their house may reflect the results of a colouring-in test.
As intriguing as these tests are, and as satisfying as the exploration and puzzling can be, some of the real standout moments are reserved for one-off interactive sequences where, for example, you find yourself trapped underwater in a sinking car, desperately fighting for survival using only quick thinking and motion controls. The panic this inspires is almost unparalleled, and even casual observers reported feeling unsettled as I grappled furiously with the controls. Being trapped in a sinking car appears to be a unifying nightmare.
Another thing to celebrate throughout Shattered Memories is the pacing. What it lacks in terms of length it more than makes up for in how well it holds your interest. By switching regularly between analysis, puzzle exploration, one-off set-pieces and nightmarish escape sequences, nothing ever outstays its welcome. As soon as you've seen enough of one particular location, you're off to the next, and, crucially, without any of the tedious backtracking and laborious map-checking that characterised all previous entrants in the series.
Shattered Memories also pushes the technical capabilities of the Wii to the max. One thing Silent Hill was particularly good at in its heyday was striking facial detail, and Climax has evidently worked hard to come up with techniques that recapture that style. At first glance during the psychological profiling phase you might have trouble believing it's a Wii release, and it's a standard that's maintained once you start wandering the snow-ridden world outside.
The flashlight effect is also mightily impressive, as well as being exceptionally intuitive to control via the Wiimote. Comparisons to Alan Wake spring to mind as you roam the detailed, gloomy environments admiring real-time shadows and recoiling from the menacing atmospherics. The importance of the audio conjured by Akira Yamaoka cannot be overstated, either, and if it does prove to be his swansong it will be a worthy one, demonstrating an understanding of exactly what's required to build tension. Excellent voice work and characterisation back this up, with Climax doing a fine job of creating a credible cast that does justice to the series.
It has been a rocky road getting Silent Hill back on track after the unexplained decision to remove development duties from the original Team Silent, but with Shattered Memories, Climax has found its feet in some style. Packed with inventive ideas and one engaging sequence after another, it's a spirited, poignant and unsettling game that not only delivers a long-overdue return to form, but reinvigorates horror adventures in the process.
9 / 10