Saturday, October 23, 2010

SILENT HILL - SHATTERED MEMORIES: "Shattered" Memories? Non-existant more like it

Konami (Sony PSP)

Reviews have generally been warm to this game, and after reading several of them I figured I'd go ahead and give it a try. I was in the mood for a really spooky game (a rarity these days, unfortunately), and it seemed as if the apparently impressive Silent Hill: Shattered Memories might strike the gong. And for the first twenty minutes or so, I had thought that I was going to get my money's worth. Unfortunately, the game begins to collapse all too quickly.

This feels like a really odd thing to say, but my experience in playing this title reminded me strongly of an article I once read by Roger Ebert reviewing The Village. Ebert, upon seeing the movie, had made several comments about it which nailed a lot of my own reactions to Shattered Memories right on the head, among them the statement that it was "based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn".

He had also gone on to add,"Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It's because if you knew them, you wouldn't want to go. The whole enterprise is a shaggy dog story, and in a way, it is all secrets. I can hardly discuss it at all without being maddingly vague". You're not supposed to talk about the secrets in Shattered Memories. Magazines were even more vague about them than they normally would be, and you're not supposed to spoil any of it, especially that big secret ending that the Silent Hill series is apparently so well known for, for any of your friends or anybody else preparing to play it. And, like the makers of The Village, I'm sure that the game's creators all feel the same way: it's not because it would ruin the game for you, but because it will instantly guarantee your not being suckered into plunking down your hard earned cash for it. So I'm going to be a good sport and try not to give too much away, although to be frank that really isn't saying much since there really isn't that much to give away in the first place -- it only merely seems like it for the first hour or so.

In the beginning of the game we are shown old videotaped footage of a happy father, Harry Mason (aren't they imaginative?), and his equally happy daughter, Cheryl. Clearly their relationship and togetherness knows no bounds, supposedly. Then, late one snowy night, we see Harry's car crash somewhere within the always-spooky town known as Silent Hill. Luckily, he isn't hurt, but his daughter Cheryl is missing. Off he goes to search for her, as all good videogame daddies do, and the gameplay begins.

As Harry, you wander on and on alone through a remarkably detailed town containing disturbingly few inhabitants and lots of atmosphere, solving lots of puzzles along the way. And the further you go, the more Twilight Zone-ish both the story and the situation become. Is Harry crazy? Is he hallucinating? Why all the sudden shifts -- which do come across as incredibly creepy? And, most important of all, what really HAS happened to Cheryl?

At first, the title is a technical marvel. Loading times are ingeniously placed and next to nil, so aside from the occasional slight hiccup the game runs smoothly and without interruption so impressively that you hope other game designers will take their cues from it and adopt the same technique. The cell phone mechanic is ingenious and holds a lot of promise. You'll be even more impressed once you learn just how unchanged the game is from platform to platform; all of them are exactly the same aside from graphics quality. And, at first anyway, the character situations are genuinely intriguing and not a little unnerving as we see sudden... abrupt forks taken, and I'll just leave it at that.

And every once in a while at certain points, the game suddenly switches to a tense moment which have led many critics to praise the game, the moment that turns it into -- as one put it -- true terror. Everything will suddenly freeze up, and you suddenly discover the hard way that you're not alone after all; a horde of bizarre zombielike creatures are after your hide, and you are completely unarmed. Your only option is to run as quickly as you can, desperately rushing through doors and hallways, throwing obstacles down after you in an attempt to slow them down, your only defense being the occasional torch you may be lucky enough to stumble across along the way that will keep them at bay, but only for the short time it remains lit.

Does this all sound exciting? It is -- but only up to a point.

For the first couple of levels or so I was genuinely enthralled and thought the game was really good; after that though, the whole thing shed its mask and revealed itself for the truly shallow title it actually is. No amount of ultracool atmosphere can absorb the fact that you eventually realize that, unless you're being chased, you are absolutely safe. There are no threats whatsoever while you're exploring. No traps. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, zero. And when you are being chased, by around the third round the whole exercise of trying to evade the monsters becomes one big exercise in headache-inducing tedium, especially after you realize that there is no limit of lives you have: if you're caught, you simply try all over again until you can get it right. This completely neuters the situation of any feelings regarding real threat, as there really isn't anything at stake. Add to this the fact that you realize that you are in fact running through a giant maze that merely gets bigger and more annoying with each level, and the whole exercise quickly becomes a tremendous snore. You're simply wandering around trying to solve puzzles that hinder your progress safe in the knowledge that nothing is going to harass you in the least until that moment when everything ices over and you roll yours eyes thinking, "Oh for Pete's sake, not again" as you are thrust into yet another tedious chase sequence that's even longer and more boring and irritating than the one before it.

As if to add insult to injury, the "puzzles" in question are... how can I put this? Well, they're absolutely pre-school and an insult to your intelligence. The only way you'll get stumped on them at all is if it's because you're expecting the answer to be far more complicated than it really is. Here's an example: you know how a lot of games have put some variation of "Simon" into them as a form of minigame or puzzle? And how some of them have actually been cute and entertaining (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep's ice cream machine) while some have been merely inept (the "drumming duo" bit in 9: The Last Resort)? Well, did you think that any game could actually SIMPLIFY the "Simon" concept any more than it actually is? Well, Shattered Memories accomplishes just that. It actually simplifies it! You'll know it when you actually encounter it, and when you do, you'll be thoroughly disgusted that the creators actually believed this posed some sort of challenge upon your person. When "solutions" are needed they aren't even discovered in other areas -- they're ALWAYS just RIGHT THERE in the same area as the puzzle! The only way the entire process could be made any easier was if Harry had been given a step-by-step solution book at the beginning of the game which automatically flashed the answer right on the screen before your eyes the moment you approached a puzzle. Or phone text messages perhaps (which, come to think of it, I seem to recall happening).

The whole thing drones on and on and on in this precise same fashion throughout a game that takes only about a couple of hours or so to complete in its entirety. Harry trudges through the snow. He moves objects. He flips switches. He runs with a torch. He checks his cell phone. He frets over Cheryl. He learns events. He grows confused. He encounters a cop who is just as confused about him (aren't they always?). He sees strange occurances that defy logic. A couple doesn't recognize him. A lady converses with him. Same lady asks him to follow her off to wherever. Doors need to be opened. A school has to be explored. A bridge has to be lowered. Instructions have to be discovered to lower it. Someone answers the phone when Harry calls to ask for them. Isn't it just so convenient that they're available to answer the phone and give them right then and there, in the dead of night at some ungodly hour, right when Harry needs them to.

So we have impressive game mechanics ruined by boring gameplay, unexciting chases, and puzzles that might as well not even exist. That leaves the story. And boy, does it ever do its best to zonk you out, even giving you a good start on occasion here and there. It seems to be getting pret-ty trippy for the longest time. Trippy, but not at all scary. But, again, I'm reminded of that exact same Roger Ebert review of The Village I mentioned earlier in which, without his giving anything away, he states his reaction to that movie's ending by saying.......

No, wait, I just can't quote that review again just in case you haven't read it. This game's too broad a target. I'll just say that his reaction was again exactly like my own to this game's ending, and that I realized what a waste of time this title really was, not to mention that much-ballyhooed secret ending. Seriously. All you see, all you learn and experience, it all comes to naught. It's a huge cop out, a scam, as far as I'm concerned. And speaking of "cops", I think that if that cop you ran into really wanted to help, she would have simply said, "Nothing to see here, please keep moving along, thank you."

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