Friday, October 21, 2022

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Wii)

If there’s one thing the Western Silent Hill games have in common, it’s that they started out nothing like the final product. In the case of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Shattered Memories), it actually came from a fusion of multiple concepts for completely different games. Shortly after Silent Hill: Origins (Origins) released, Sam Barlow’s team at Climax Studios wanted to create another entry for the PSP, though it was suggested that they instead make an FPS for the Wii. As a result, they pitched Brahms PD, a spin-off that featured an amnesiac police detective and combined shooting segments and sessions with a police psychiatrist. When this pitch failed, Climax came up with Silent Hill: Cold Heart, an original installment that starred 19-year-old Psychology student Jessica Chambers as its protagonist. Among other mechanics, this pitch featured melee combat, a body temperature system, scavenging and an updated version of the Psych Profile system with a therapist named Dr. Alan Fairchild. While this pitch never saw the light of day, it wasn’t due to rejection on Konami’s part, but rather Climax believing Konami would reject it.

What almost was.

At this point, Cold Heart turned into Shattered Memories, a reimagining of the original Silent Hill (SH1) that removed combat in favor of emphasizing the scenario, which released in 2009 for the Wii and 2010 for the PS2 and PSP to mixed reception. Nowadays, Shattered Memories, the seventh main Silent Hill entry, isn’t as easy to come by as the other Western-developed games, with my complete physical Wii copy setting me back about $81. While pricey, this version is still the cheapest secondhand, with the PSP and PS2 versions easily breaking triple digits on eBay. Much like Silent Hill 3, while Shattered Memories holds up as one of the better Western takes on the series, I’m not sure the price of admission is completely justified.

Shattered Memories starts out with a framing device where Dr. Kaufmann starts a session with a new patient. From there, the game opens similarly to SH1. Harry Mason loses control of his car on the road and crashes through a fence in the town of Silent Hill. When he comes to, he realizes that his daughter Cheryl is missing and sets out to find her in the snowy town. However, Harry has a faulty memory from the crash and gradually discovers the truth behind the accident as he interacts with the other residents of Silent Hill.

While it’s tempting to compare Shattered Memories to SH1, that also feels unfair considering Shattered Memories is a reimagining set in a new universe and not a straight remake. With this in mind, the narrative is, for the most part, well-written and well-executed. The basic story beats remain the same throughout each playthrough, but the exact details of the plot and even the ending can change depending on the player’s actions. Talking about the characters feels more difficult due to how the player’s actions influence their exact appearances and personalities, but I can say that I still got invested in them, even feeling a little sad about a breakup, and I found it interesting how certain elements were maintained, just recontextualized. For example, Kaufmann is still a doctor, but is now a psychiatrist and Lisa is still a nurse, but more in line with a modern hospital worker, complete with the stress. One optional line of dialogue also reveals that everyone views her as an angel, hinting at her more angelic personality from SH1. The lack of the presence of The Order also helps make the story more accessible and can actually come as a relief for veteran players who may have tired of that thread.

Before I talk about the multiple endings, I should get into the gameplay. When you first start the game, you’ll see a red screen with a unique Psychology Warning that essentially tells players that the game will change itself according to the player’s psychological profile and create your own personal nightmare. While this warning may sound silly, the spirit of the message is true in that no two playthroughs are exactly the same (more on that later).

A little silly, but effective.

Controlling Harry feels intuitive. You move Harry with the Nunchuk and control his flashlight with the Wii Remote, which also moves the camera. Not only does the flashlight control feel very faithful to the player’s movements, it also illuminates dark spaces very realistically (and certainly much brighter than the flashlight in Silent Hill: Homecoming); You can also toggle the flashlight with “+”. Pressing Down on the D-pad also lets Harry glance behind himself, though this is really only relevant during the Nightmare sequences (more on that later).

In an effort at reducing the HUD space and making the game more accessible, Harry carries a phone that serves multiple gameplay functions and is accessed with the “-” button, with certain features quickly accessed with the D-pad. For example, Harry can receive calls and texts, dial phone numbers found in the environment, take photos, access a GPS with a map players can draw on and even Save the game. You can also save up to ten photos to the phone’s storage, though this only really comes in handy for one puzzle that relies on specific colors. As an additional small detail, the phone’s battery matches the Wii Remote’s battery level.

Calling certain numbers can help with puzzle solutions.

Compared to other Silent Hill games, Shattered Memories has a more linear design, with the next intended location subtly highlighted in some way, including light sources in darkened areas. However, players can find collectable Mementos and Echo Photos for going off the beaten path. While Mementos don’t have a direct impact on gameplay, Echo Photos help fill in some extra lore about each location, including an epidemic of teens at Midwich High School choking themselves for brief euphoria. While puzzles are generally simpler compared with previous games, including SH1, the environment interactions (highlighted with a white arrow) are still interesting in themselves. If players have to move an object, they “pinch” it by holding the A and B buttons together and moving the Wii Remote, with accurate twisting and tracking. As a great quality of life change that works with the streamlined nature of the game, any keys collected are automatically used at the right door, eliminating the need for navigating a complex inventory system. Additionally, if Harry runs toward a door or obstacle, he’ll automatically go through it without the need for pressing A.

At certain points in the game, everything in Silent Hill will freeze over except for Harry, indicating a Nightmare sequence. Unlike previous games, these sequences feature no combat and instead have Harry running away from invincible monsters known as Raw Shocks in a maze-like environment. While the flashlight provides extra visibility, it also attracts the Raw Shocks towards Harry, so it’s best to turn it off to avoid contact with them. Fortunately, the Nightmare chases are well-lit to the point where a flashlight isn’t necessary and blue outlines help guide Harry to the next area of the maze. Should a Raw Shock grab onto Harry, players can shake them off by quickly shaking the Wii Remote and Nunchuk in the Raw Shock’s direction. This motion also helps Harry throw down obstacles behind him and shaking the Nunchuk also speeds up Harry’s movement past any barriers in his path. Some rooms also contain a flare that Harry can light up to fend off Raw Shocks while running or throw down in front of him for a temporary barrier of light.

Harry must avoid Raw Shocks to survive.

While the lack of combat arguably takes away from the Silent Hill experience, the chase sequences also arguably heighten the feeling of helplessness. Harry is completely unarmed, so naturally his only choice is running away from monsters he can’t possibly hope to kill. Add to that an unfamiliar and frozen environment where players can get easily lost if they don’t know what they’re doing and the Raw Shocks feel like a real threat, though it can feel frustrating at times. Perhaps Climax could have added some passive threat outside of these sequences for a more consistent horror atmosphere, but as it stands it’s still a unique and engaging solution. Also, the Raw Shocks’ exact appearance changes depending on the player’s Psych Profile, adding into the personal nightmare angle.

Now is when we should look at the Psych Profile system, the game’s biggest core mechanic and one of its main selling points. Every action the player makes influences an invisible counter that weighs various traits. Whichever trait has the highest score determines what the game does with characters and environments, including clothing and dialogue, lighting and minor details like what movie poster players will see in a theater or what the Raw Shocks look like. The Psych Profile the player builds up can even influence what messages you’ll hear for puzzle hints. From my experience, my first playthrough had somewhat helpful messages that still sounded vague, but in my second playthrough, the hints more directly told me the solution, all because I built up a slightly different profile with my decisions. Some actions that influence the Psych Profile include, but aren’t limited to, what the player stares at and for how long, which sign they follow and any subsequent branching decisions, whether they explore or go straight to the exit and how they behave during their session with Dr. Kaufmann.

Characters can change based on the player's Psych Profile.

Like the Nightmares, players will return to Dr. Kaufmann’s office at certain points. Each time they do, he’ll ask certain questions verbally, to which the player can nod or shake their head by moving the Wii Remote in the appropriate direction. Afterwards, he’ll have you perform some new activity, like filling out a questionnaire, coloring in a picture or determining guilt, among others. Kaufmann’s responses also change depending on your responses and the Psych Profile you’ve built up to that point. Interestingly, for the sake of the Psych Profile, there are no right or wrong answers to anything Kaufmann puts in front of you and you can take as much time as you want answering questions, so there’s no pressure and plenty of room to answer honestly. Your answers can also have immediate consequences on the game when you return to Silent Hill.

So now the question is, does the Psych Profile system work? From my own experience, I would say it does, at least mostly. During my first playthrough, when I willfully went in with no knowledge of how the Psych Profile system worked, I answered Kaufmann’s questions honestly and played how I normally would, which gave me a story that I could personally connect with and found the conclusion very fitting. Out of the five possible endings, I got an outcome generally considered the best one, which also matched how I would normally behave. As for the notes Dr. Kaufmann typed out at the end based on my Psych Profile, I found them somewhat inaccurate, but enough of it felt accurate that it still gave me something to think about afterwards. As such, it’s a system I’d like to see in another game and I’d highly recommend just playing through Shattered Memories completely honestly, at least the first time.

For a Wii game that’s over a decade old now, Shattered Memories holds up pretty well visually, with a timeless art style and a great 2D art style during the traditional UFO Ending. The ice theme also works with the iconic snow of the town and serves as a great indicator of when players will have to deal with Raw Shocks. Plus, there’s a great VHS filter that comes up every now and then to alert players to danger. Akira Yamaoka’s score also works really well with the atmosphere, including a rearrangement of the Silent Hill theme, and playing phone audio out of the Wii Remote speaker adds to the immersion. Although the iconic sound effects from the series are absent this time, the new ones fit the game and are still pleasant to hear.

The level of detail is impressive for the system at the time.

Unfortunately, I did run into performance issues. Most of the time, the framerate is consistent and the lack of loading screens is a major plus for game flow. However, I did see some quick chugging while rushing through some doors or interacting with certain elements during Nightmare sequences. There’s also some minor texture pop-in, but nothing that detracts too much from the experience.

While not perfect, Shattered Memories is a bold reimagining that capitalizes on its premise for an engaging and memorable game. It’s unfortunate that the barrier to entry is higher than the other Western Silent Hill games, as that makes it harder to recommend. However, if you want to experience this hidden gem for yourself and don’t mind the price, I’d suggest getting the Wii version, as it has stronger immersion and, at the time of this writing, costs less than half of a US copy of the PS2 version.

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