You know, people scoff, but I think a proper Silent Hill game is totally possible to pull off on a portable device. Hell, Silent Hill Origins on PSP was a very decent attempt, and with the extra Vita power at its disposal,Silent Hill: Book of Memories could have been a very cool addition to the series. However, the team behindBook of Memories has decided to go in a different direction, instead producing a non-canon dungeon crawler RPG. So, this time we’re not going for scares, we’re going for loot. Doesn’t sound like the best fit for the franchise, does it?
Nevertheless, I went into Book of Memories with an open mind. There’s a fairly vague and poorly presented story woven throughout the game, concerning the titular Book of Memories. Your character, created from a limited set of customisation options that let you choose personalities such as ‘Jock’, ‘Rocker’ and ‘Bookworm’, receives a parcel from Silent Hill, delivered by Howard from Downpour. Inside is a book containing their life story, so of course your character’s first idea is to cross stuff out in the book and change it. Sure, why not? That night, while they sleep, they enter strange Otherworlds, where they have to fight waves of monsters and find an exit. Doing this, apparently, makes whatever they wrote in the book come true. Makes sense to me!
There’s a short cutscene at the start, but other than that, the story is communicated via notes strewn throughout the levels that you may or may not pick up, and television broadcasts (that you hear and don’t see). The changes your character affects are pretty laughable, beginning with getting a promotion at a grocery store, but they do escalate. Unlike most Silent Hill games, the narrative doesn’t really drive the action in any way.
But OK, let’s take this game then solely on its own terms – as a dungeon crawler on the Vita. Unfortunately, even then Book of Memories is only just serviceable, and still has some pretty glaring faults. The action is decent enough – you run around themed worlds (Fire World, Light World, Water World sans Kevin Costner) which are all essentially just boxes connected by corridors, and you beat up enemies drawn from the series’ rogues gallery – Nurses, Needlers, Pyramid Head, etc . Weapons degrade over time, but you can find plenty around, or buy some from Howard’s store in each level. You can also level up your character’s RPG-like stats as you gain experience. So far, so simple.
However, enemies all have three versions – ‘blood’, ‘light’ and ‘iron’. How does this affect the game? Iron enemies are a bit tougher, and sometimes the different factions fight each other. It’s often pretty difficult to discern the different types of monstrosities – the blood and light nurses, for instance, are equally hideous so it’s tough to single one out if a mission requires it. Enemies drop ‘karma’, which itself comes in ‘blood’ and ‘light’ varieties, swinging the pendulum of your light/blood meter in their representative directions as you collect it. This is how you use magic powers, such as light ‘healing’ or blood ‘draining’ abilities. The problem is, there’s no way of predicting which enemies will drop what kind of karma, and once it’s splattered on the floor, it’s hard to avoid picking up. That makes it aggravatingly difficult to build up your karma meter in any useful direction. Also, the ‘Swarm’ enemy type is one of the most infuriating enemies of all time. It latches onto your character, draining their health, and will only take damage from you some of the time. Sometimes leaving a room will kill it instantly, sometimes it won’t. This is an enemy that will only let you win, when itfeels like it.
The touch controls also become a problem. The rear touch pad is used for aiming your magic powers, while the front touch screen is used for all menus and inventory management. The rear touch is imprecise, but since it’s used rarely it’s not gamebreaking. What does swiftly become annoying is the inventory’s layout, with the ‘repair weapon’ item and ‘close satchel’ icons so close to each other, you’ll constantly find yourself using the wrong command.
Each level, or ‘zone’ as they’re called, has a ‘forsaken’ room, which presents you with a scenario that affects your overall morality (and which ending you get). For instance, the first one has a little girl crying in her room. Depending on what you do in this situation, you can swing your morality one way or the other. Sounds reasonable. The problem is, you’re generally given no clue what you’re meant to do, or what will result in what outcome. Walk over to the little girl in her room? That earns you ‘blood’ points. Watch a TV with a news report in another forsaken room? That counts as ‘light’ points. It’s very poorly defined and seems arbitrary.
The famous Silent Hill puzzles are back and in a shockingly boring form. In every level, there are several sub-missions for you to complete, each of which earns you a puzzle item. At the end of the zone, they must be placed in order on some kind of shelf or platform, in accordance to a puzzle note you find elsewhere. It’s the same puzzle, every time, over and over, and even the hints in the note repeat themselves.
Every level also features an appearance by Valtiel, who talks to you ([fanboy] sigh… [/fanboy]) and gives you an optional mission. Completing it will net you items that can boost your stats, or cool weapons like the Butcher’s cleaver. Sometimes these missions are easy, like killing a certain monster, but other times they can be quite difficult, such as escorting a dog to safety (the same dog responsible for Silent Hill 2).
At the end of each world you’ll encounter a boss creature, which feature original designs. After the first ‘demon guy’ and ‘tree monster’, I was ready to write them off completely, but there are a couple of interesting designs later on in the game, and the encounters do evolve somewhat beyond bashing them over and over with the attack button.
The game’s a decent length on its own, lasting up to ten hours or a lot more if you like grinding, but it also has an online mode, where things improve. It’s easier to tackle the demon hordes with a few partners, and the game incorporates voice chat and a command system to co-ordinate your efforts. It’s definitely more fun with friends, but then it’s generally harder to play this way on the bus unless you have a 3G Vita.
On the plus side, the game looks quite nice. The environments are generally well rendered, even if they don’t feel Silent Hill-y, and the lighting engine illuminates the world in a very moody fashion. The soundtrack, by Daniel Licht, is also very good – not the series’ best, but it has some nice themes and atmospheres.
If you approach Silent Hill: Book of Memories as a Silent Hill fan, you will almost certainly come away disappointed. Despite the huge amounts of fan service in the game, with references and inclusions from across the series, the game retains none of what makes Silent Hill succeed. However, even if you come at this just wanting a dungeon crawler, there’s still a whole lot of flaws and annoyances. It’s possible to have a little bit of fun online, and if you’re gasping for an RPG like this, then Book of Memories is currently your only option on Vita. You just can’t shake the nagging feeling while playing that it could have been so much more.
Online, it's decent fun | Not a bad dungeon crawler | Looks/sounds nice
Not scary | Poor, vague story | Karma mechanic | Forsaken rooms | Puzzles | Touch controls | Swarms