Review: Silent Hill: Book of Memories (Sony Playstation Vita)

Silent Hill: Book of Memories
Genre: Dungeon Hack
Developer: Wayforward
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 10/16/12

We can safely divide the Silent Hill franchise at the point between Silent Hill 4: The Room and Silent Hill Origins as the point where the franchise started being something completely different from what it had started as. While the first four games in the series, developed by in-house group Team Silent, were generally thematically and structurally similar to one another, the more recent four titles have gone in notably different directions while attempting to be, basically, Silent Hill 2, and failing miserably at it. Somewhere along the way, Konami apparently decided to try and branch out from making survival horror games… ahem, paying other people to make survival horror games in the series, and approached Wayforward about making something outside of the genre. The end result of this partnership is Silent Hill: Book of Memories, a Diablo-styled game based in the Silent Hill universe that, if the developer had any idea of how to make either a dungeon hack or a Silent Hill game, would have been worthwhile. The demo certainly showed that the game seemed to be heading in the right direction, as it certainly showed off some ideas that implied the final product would be worthwhile. Wayforward is certainly a competent developer, after all, and the Silent Hill franchise has plenty of elements that could be incorporated into a dungeon hack without too much difficulty. So long as Wayforward, again, had an idea in mind of how to adequately combine these two elements, it seemed the final product would likely be good at the very least, if not a must have on the Vita.

Well, speaking as someone who would have loved it if this thing managed to happen, they didn’t even come close.

The plot of Book of Memories is that your chosen character is visited on your birthday by Silent Hill: Downpour character Howard Blackwood, as he delivers a package to you from the town of Silent Hill, despite you not knowing anyone from there. It turns out that the package contains a book which, in turn, knows every memory and experience your character has ever had, which is basically the point most of us would have shoved the book under the bed and never touched it again. Your character, of course, makes the connection that modifying the contents might, in turn, modify their life, and does so before going to sleep that night. This thrusts you into a hellish dungeon where you fight for your life to see the end… but once successful, you learn that you have indeed modified your life and given yourself the things you’ve always wanted. Of course, this being Silent Hill, that doesn’t come without some consequences. Now, the basic concept is handled fine enough; the idea is certainly neat on its own merit, and it’s a fine plot for the sort of game this is. The game makes a fair effort to try and make the morality of the game important, relative to the experience, by changing various elements of the results of your work based on your moral karma throughout the dungeons, and it certainly does a fine enough job with that. The game also makes it a point to drop little notes into each dungeon to show you the effects of your actions, showing either good or bad results and reactions from the affected parties as a result of the path you follow, which helps to make the experience interesting. In fact, there’s really only one minor quibble about the plot, one so simple and almost completely unimportant that it almost doesn’t bear mentioning, and yet, I must.

The plot of this game is so far removed from what Silent Hill as a franchise represents that light from this game would take a million years to reach the Silent Hill universe.

Look, the one thing that has always been a part of the Silent Hill series is that people who are in some way affected by it are affected for some reason, regardless of what that reason is, that the player can at least understand. Harry and Cheryl Mason were both tied to the cult, James Sunderland and the past few protagonists in the series did a very bad thing, hell, even Henry Townshend lived in an apartment that was obsessed over by a guy who was a part of the cult from the town. This plot has more in common with The Twilight Zone than anything attached to Silent Hill, and there’s no rhyme or reason to why you end up with the book to begin with unless “because I’m unsatisfied with my life” counts. Further, as the plot goes on, two more people with the same book pop up in the plot, which just further makes the whole experience confusing; is the town just handing the damn things out like they’re King James Bibles or something? I mean, the damn book overwrites reality, you’d think that’d take more power than the rinky-dink god of a backwater cult can possibly provide, especially given what a failure said god has otherwise been so far. The karma system that determines what ending you can ultimately earn also ties into actual plot events not even a small bit, and it’s difficult to know what it even does tie into, which is a horrendous problem for the game. When your own actions influence the plot, you can at least then understand why things happen and what caused it; when mechanics that don’t seem to work the way they’re explained change the plot, that’s when things become frustrating in a hurry.

Book of Memories looks solid on the Vita, and while it doesn’t seem to be pushing the upward limits of what the system can do, it’s aesthetically solid enough to be enjoyable. Your character models generally look fine when you see them up-close, as do the other random humans you’ll meet on occasion, and your character looks and animates fine in the dungeons you explore. The environments are sufficiently varied, and while they don’t always convey the theme they’re aiming for, they generally look interesting enough to be worth exploring. The various monsters you’ll face are often monsters from previous Silent Hill titles, including the nurses, split-headed dogs, straightjacket monsters and more, as well as the more notable “big” monsters like The Butcher and Pyramid Head, and fans should recognize them immediately. The Guardian monsters you face are unique to this game, and generally look more in line with the sorts of bosses you’d expect from the genre, which, while disconcerting at times, isn’t too big of a deal in context. Aurally, Daniel Licht returns from his work on Silent Hill: Downpour to produce the soundtrack for this game, and he does a fine enough job of trying to sound like Akira Yamaoka that the soundtrack works; it’s not better or worse so much as it is different, and Licht is a fine enough composer (as Dexter fans can attest) that the end result is fine enough. The voice work that pops up is also generally solid, and while nothing here stands out as being fantastic, Howard Blackwood’s voice work is well done and everything else ranges from okay to good, overall. The various sound effects that inhabit the game are also fine enough, as the monsters you face sound generally monstrous and the combat effects sound adequate, though nothing stands out here, to be honest.

As mentioned when discussing the demo, mechanically, Book of Memories is pretty easy to work with. The left stick moves your character around the game world, and Square and Triangle are used to attack with the weapons you’ll hold in your left and right hands, respectively (with a two-handed weapon they both do the same thing). The X button is your context sensitive interaction button, while Circle handles blocking (when pressed alone) and strafe-dodging (when pressed with a direction) which is helpful for avoiding attacks. You can lock onto an enemy with the left trigger, allowing you to target all of your attacks on that enemy as you wish, and you can change targets once locked on with the right stick. Holding down an attack button when using a melee weapon allows you to charge the attack for extra damage, but you’re stuck in place while doing so, so more agile enemies can take advantage of that. The touch-screen also comes into play when playing, as you can use health packs, ammo reloads, and tools from the backpack icon on-screen to heal, reload guns and repair damaged weapons. You can also swap weapons with the screen, and interact with the menu screens when paused through the touch screen. The game frequently prompts with tutorial displays when it feels they’re needed, but honestly, the controls are intuitive and you’ll likely figure out most of what the game wants you to know on your own before you leave the first zone, which is promising.

While the game borrows its structure and some mechanical concepts from games like Diablo and such, it streamlines the core components down to their basics, choosing to make the game less about loot collecting and monster slaying and more about the theme and concept. The weapons you find, for example, are generally always going to be the same as other versions of said weapons, so the knife will always be a knife, the revolver will always be a revolver, and so on. Further, weapons break down relatively quickly, so you’ll either have to repair them with a tool if you want to keep the weapon in question, or replace them with something else you find in the environment. Further, you’ll not find armor of any substance in the game world, anything you can acquire to change your appearance is generally for decoration, and you don’t have a lot of storage space to carry around additional weapons, which makes collecting and selling loot prohibitively tedious at best. Instead, weapons you use earn you proficiency in using the weapons, which in turn improves your performance with said weapons and the damage they deal, so you can potentially get good with the knife, for example, which makes it more deadly in your hands than a cleaver or a board or whatever. Weapon elements can also play into combat, as weapons might have Steel, Blood, Light, Earth or other elements associated to them, which can in turn influence how much damage they might do to an enemy, though this is also set to the weapon in question and doesn’t change in any fashion.

As you slaughter enemies, you’ll also gain experience for doing so, which in turn allows you to level up. Each level grants you two points to distribute to your stats, allowing you to improve your character as needed, as this is one of the few ways to measurably improve your performance in battle. You can also find various Artifacts as you progress through the game world, which can be slotted to your character in up to eight slots, which will, by default, change your stats in some fashion, providing either pluses or minuses based on the Artifact effects. Each class also gains certain bonuses from the various slots (with more bonuses appearing as you level up) on top of the Artifact bonus, so equipping an Artifact into a slot with a bonus adds not only the Artifact bonus but also the bonus assigned to the given slot. You also pick a charm before creating any character you make which confers an additional bonus to the character, such as higher financial rewards, more health, better indicators of what’s available on the map, and so on, and while these aren’t significant in what they do, every little bit helps. Your character can also buy Power Moves that allow you additional combat effects, such as switching the affinities of the enemies, area of effect attacks and more, which can be helpful in certain circumstances, though they’re not specifically required to survive. Finally, you’ll also find that you can earn Karma as you kill various enemies and collect their blood remains. Enemies come in two major types, Light and Blood, though Light enemies leave Blood Karma behind and vice-versa. Killing each type adds this sort of Karma to your Karma meter, and when said meter fills to one of the bars on either side, you can use a Karma ability from that element, which is basically an area of effect magic attack that you can often target using the back touch screen. Each Karma type has its own effects in its spells, though they’re largely interchangeable in function (though Light types tend to be more helpful to you while Blood tends to be more harmful to enemies), so you can go for either and not feel like you’re missing out. There are other types of enemies that pop up, such as Steel types, that don’t leave Karma behind at all, but they’re generally less common and more challenging, and serve a different purpose as such.

Pressing the Start button brings up a multi-page menu screen that provides you with various pieces of useful information. The Character tab allows you to see your stats at that point, as well as improve them when you level up through earning experience. Your character is ranked in six categories that may not do what you think: Strength influences damage dealt, Dexterity improves critical and shield break chance with melee weapons as well as speed and defense, Vitality improves health and resistance, Agility improves dodge abilities as well as projectile weapon damage and shield breaks, Mind improves resistance to special attacks and karma ability duration, and Intelligence improves performance with “wildcard” weapons and trap awareness. In other words, the stats are familiar in name but their effects will take some getting used to. You can also see Artifacts you have equipped, Memory Residue (money in this game) and so on. You can jump to the Map to see a full-screen map of the level, or to lists of the Weapons, Rooms, beasts and Artifacts you’ve encountered in the game. There’s also a Notes screen to review notes you’ve found in your exploration, a Broadcasts tab for the TV broadcasts you see through the levels, and an Options menu that allows you to adjust effect settings, turn on VOIP support when playing online and view tutorials on how things work.

Speaking of rooms, while most of the rooms you’ll find in the dungeons you explore are generally standard in their design and match the theme of the dungeon you find yourself in, several rooms are more specialized and provide additional benefits or tests to work with. You’ll find save rooms, which allow you to save by interacting with the book in the center, a shop on each floor that allows you to sell your loot and buy better items if they’re available, and various themed rooms that have weapons available to collect based on the theme, IE a firing range will have guns, a dojo will have knives and swords, and so on. Forsaken Rooms, however, are an oddity exclusive to Book of Memories, and they’re… different. These only appear in single player, and are removed entirely if you’re playing the game with friends, but they act as a way, in the single player campaign, to influence your Karma further based on how you respond. Each dungeon features a different room across its three floors, so in the Fire dungeon you’ll find the Crying Child room, for example, which means you’ll generally run across the same room three times per dungeon. How the rooms work is simple: you’ll walk into the room and see an event before you, and you’ll have to decide how to react. The best way to react isn’t always apparent, however, but you can usually puzzle it out, as your reactions will be graded as either Light, Blood or Neutral, and will pay out the appropriate level of Karma. Light reactions might involve not messing with a crying child, breaking nurse statues that are hovering over a child statue, breaking TV’s and more, while Blood reactions are often the opposite. The rooms can change somewhat from one iteration to the next, though, so you might find breaking the wrong statue might cause you to generate a Neutral response instead of the Light response you’d hoped for. This adds additional ways to influence your Karma and add to the meter so as to make spells more readily available, or to gravitate toward the Karma you’d prefer to have for plot purposes.

Book of Memories also employs a couple of useful systems to reward the player for doing well beyond the standard loot and experience you’d expect, as they’re not as rewarding here as in other games of the type. The first comes from, of all places, Valtiel. The caretaker of the Otherworld starts off each section by offering you a task to complete. Doing so rewards you in some way, with weapons, Artifacts and other fun things, while failing does nothing, so there’s no reason not to try and complete his requests. You can also go back and complete a request should you miss it, so you can always make the effort to complete the request at any point you wish. Further, escaping normal floors requires the player to collect various puzzle pieces to solve a puzzle at the end of the stage for cash profit. Basically, there are blue globes scattered around the game world that, when you shatter them, challenge you to complete a combat challenge of some sort. Most are as simple as “kill everything”, though some require additional work. Should you accomplish the task, you’ll be given one of the puzzle pieces to complete the stage. Once you have all the pieces, you can then trot off to the door to solve the puzzle. The puzzles on their own allow you the option to try to resolve them through trial and error, as placing the pieces incorrectly will show a red aura around the incorrectly pieces once you test the combination via a lever to the right. You can also find a note somewhere in the stage explaining the puzzle before you, however, which will usually explain the puzzle as “(Number) of (Piece), (Vague indication of coloration), (Vague indication of direction)”. Completing the puzzle in as few attempts as possible pays out Memory Residue, though each failed attempt depletes the pot slightly, so you’ll want to try to solve the puzzle in as few tries as possible, for obvious reasons. You can also just randomly cycle through the pieces if you can’t understand the hint, since the puzzle will just tell you when it’s successful, but this honestly can be tedious if you have no idea what to do.

Book of Memories can be completed in around twenty hours, depending on how good you are at working with the combat, though there are plenty of reasons to come back for more. There are five character archetypes to choose from, each with minor statistical differences that can make them worth playing, and each allows you to choose a male or female version, which can change around the plot somewhat. You can also revisit stages you’ve completed with your chosen character, and the game also features six different endings to unlock based on your overall Karma throughout the game and how events went, including a franchise standard Joke Ending for fans, and they stay unlocked for viewing once completed. The game also offers online play for up to four players at once, complete with VOIP support so you can talk to others when playing as needed to hash out, though you can also simply play locally with others as well if you’d rather. There’s also a full compliment of Trophies to earn, if such a thing is appealing, so you’ll have plenty of reasons to come back to the game time and again if you want. In that regard, Book of Memories does a lot of things right, as it gives the player plenty of reason to want to return and plenty of motivation to do so if the mood strikes them to give it a go.

The sad part being, the game also does quite a lot of the opposite.

If one takes in Book of Memories as a Silent Hill game, though there’s no reason why anybody should, it fails at even the most basic level. Dismissing the base concept that it’s not a horror title in the strictest sense, the game simply isn’t Silent Hill so much as it is a game that slaps the franchise name on the elements and calls it a day. Yes, the weapons are weapons that appear in the series, and yes, the monsters are monsters that appear in the series, but the game doesn’t fit the franchise thematically. Your character has no real reason to be associated with the possessed town in any capacity, isn’t tied to anyone in the town, and really is just tied up in the events because the game randomly picked you to be, which is basically not what the series is about. The modern games generally revolve around messed up protagonists who have done something to be there, and even Henry has a reason, tenuous as it was, to be involved in the dealings of the town. Your character has no reason beyond “you just are”, and that’s not helpful in context. Even then, the plot elements that dictate how the game progresses and ends are in the hands of the Karma system, which would be fine if that worked in a way that made sense. In theory, by focusing on collecting Light or Blood Karma, you in turn influence the elements of the notes that appear and keep the progress themed in one direction or the other. In practice, I went through stages where I made it a point to only collect Light Karma and still received Blood notes for no adequately explained reason. When your morality system is based on the elemental affinities of enemies and collecting their remains, you’re treading shaky ground, and the system, though useful for casting purposes, isn’t so useful for dictating plot events in the game, which makes it more annoying than anything.

This would be less onerous if the game were a good dungeon hack, but it’s not that either, which makes the experience even worse. The mechanics are largely fine, to be sure, but with the elements one expects trimmed from the game, IE equipment, selling loot, et al, the game is left to exist almost entirely on its mechanics and little else, which doesn’t help things. Weapons basically come and go, either breaking long before you can put them to practical use or depleting your repair tools too quickly in the process. None of the normal weapons feel interesting or special and the really interesting weapons are too fragile to really have any fun with unless you want to deplete your tool count quickly, making combat annoying at best and boring at worst. You’re offered a whole one save point and one shop per floor, often in out of the way places, which means if you want to sell items you’ve picked up or save after completing a room you’re going to spend up to ten minutes walking around the environment to get back to this location to do so. Aside from the fact that this increases the tedium of the experience, and aside from the fact that save points in a handheld game are an atrocious idea, if you die, you go back to your last save, period, and enemies respawn on top of that in rooms you’ve already cleared.

You’ll also find that you take an exceptionally large amount of damage fairly early on in the game, which gets much worse as you go, and the experience eventually becomes one of banging your head against the difficulty of the game, which becomes draconian at times as you move on. Playing with others alleviates this somewhat, assuming you want to do so, or even can do so, but if this is not an option for one reason or another, you’re beat. It also bears noting that the game takes an excessively long time to load, upwards of a minute in most cases, and while the break in-between the half an hour long dungeons may not be so bad, when you go through a progression of end of stage (loading) boss fight (loading) cutscene (loading) new stage, it gets really excessive in a hurry. Also, while the game offers five “classes” to play as, aside from the different statistical bonuses they can acquire from slotting Artifacts, there’s no real notable difference between them, which makes it difficult to wonder why the developers even bothered in the first place. Oh, and while it’s nice that the game offers you the option to pick a talisman to start that mildly improves some aspect of the game, explaining what they do to start might be a good idea, as if you pick one that offers something you don’t want, IT’S BACK TO WATCH THE GAME LOAD MORE WHILE YOU RESELECT.

The thing here is, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a fantastic idea if you’re not stuck in the mindset that the franchise must be survival horror, but the actual end result is a game that can’t manage to be either a good Silent Hill game or a good dungeon hack, which makes it hard to know what the point was. The game looks and sounds fine, the gameplay works well enough and there are some interesting and novel ideas here that make the game seem like it could potentially be interesting at first. The game has some depth to it, to be sure, and if you could get a group of people together who want to beat the mess out of Silent Hill monsters you could have some fun here. However, the plot doesn’t really work out as effective or interesting based on how it’s handled, the game doesn’t work as a Silent Hill game, the mechanics are limited in comparison to almost anything else in the genre, the difficulty spikes frequently and painfully, there are terribly obvious loading times between levels and the game is just a chore to play more often than not. If you’re really into Silent Hill or dungeon hacks you might be able to derive some joy from this, but, honestly, speaking as someone who is really into Silent Hill AND dungeon hacks, the odds of doing this thing are really low unless you do so out of spite.

The Scores:
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: BAD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS


Short Attention Span Summary:
Silent Hill: Book of Shadows is an ambitious concept that fails to effectively translate this into a successful game. That’s the beginning and the end of it. The game looks, sounds, and plays “fine”, and if that was all there was to making a game we’d be well off with it, but nothing else really works as intended. The game doesn’t manage to pull off being a Silent Hill title as the plot doesn’t really work in the confines of the franchise, the mechanics associated with the plot don’t work as intended, and the game feels like someone slapped some franchise themed stuff onto a poor man’s Diablo and went on about his day. The game doesn’t manage to pull off being an acceptable dungeon hack because it strips away many of the compelling elements, makes weapons excessively fragile and unmemorable, makes the game oppressively difficult, adds in noticeable and painful loading times, and basically leaves the experience tedious. Truly tenacious gamers or those who actively want to dress up their characters may derive some fun from the game, especially if they’re genre or franchise fans of the highest order, but as someone who loves the concept, franchise, and genre, if there’s fun to be had with the game, it’s buried so far in as to not be worth discovering.



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