Looking back, it’s difficult to think of a single moment that represents Silent Hill: Book of Memories. No one element of the game tends to stand out among the rest. Instead, the components of the game congeal into one of the few, primary pillars on which the game is built. That synergy can be the game’s greatest strength, but more often it’s Book of Memories‘ greatest weakness.
Let’s address what will likely be the most important thing to fans of the series right away. This isn’t your typical Silent Hill game. Shucking the franchise’s adherence to survival-horror, Book of Memories is a multiplayer action-RPG in the grand tradition of Diablo. Players will gather loot, level up, increase their stats as they fight through ever larger and more difficult levels.
The standard rhythm of kill-loot-level-repeat is in full effect here, with the two most major wrinkles that weapons will degrade and level up with use. The formula lends itself well to portable play as what could otherwise have been a grind is easily segmented into short sessions. The loot-drop model has always supported itself on addictiveness, and being able to progress through a dungeon or scrape out a character level on the bus and come back later definitely meets that requirement.
The problem is that’s about all Book of Memories has going for it. The combat is fine; the leveling system is fine; and the graphics are… okay. Put together, all of these things make for an experience that’s fun while you’re playing, but hardly stands out. By the time your bus has reached its stop, you’ve already forgotten just about everything you’ve done.
The one thing that might have stood out is the game’s story. Silent Hill games have traditionally had intriguingly macabre (if not entirely comprehensible) narratives sculpted to disturb and unsettle. Book of Memories ties into the series’ mythology by having the so-called Book of Memories mysteriously mailed to the character from the titular town. The book turns out to be a record of your custom-built character’s entire life up to the moment that the game starts. Not knowing what else to do, the protagonist begins rewriting their own past, their own memories, to suit their own desires. In order for these changes to take effect, they must delve into increasingly deep levels of their own psyche and cut through the creatures guarding that aspect of reality.
It’s a very interesting concept, and sets up some upsetting moments as you discover the lengths the “hero” will go to manipulate the lives of those around him.
However, like most things in Book of Memories, it’s not presented in a terribly interesting manner. The entire tale is told through collectible notes audio message showing glimpses into the real world, while never actually showing it. Had the developer allowed us to interact with or even see the characters’ real lives and the effects that the book has on them, the story might have had a greater impact. What we get instead is something that is simply intriguing, if for no other reason than that it is obscured.
What unfortunately doesn’t make any effort to hide itself is the way the game seems to constantly work against itself.
The game is structured for what should be short play sessions. Each level is its own self-contained labyrinth filled with classic Silent Hill monsters and the weapons to face them. However, the game’s ludicrous load times before each level eat away both what precious, portable gaming time you may have as well as the players patience.
“Alright,” you might be thinking. “That’s not so bad. I’ve got a long enough commute to look past that little niggle if it means having Diablo in my pocket.” The problem is that you’ll probably end up facing those load times more than once in a given level, since dying means reloading the entire level from your last save. And yes, you will end up dying quite a bit.
It’s not that Book of Memories is a terribly difficult game. It’s that Book of Memories can be a terribly unfair game.
When I reviewed XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I praised the way that the game surfaced information. Every component of that game is made clear to the player, making them feel as if they are in absolute control of any given situation. Book of Memories, on the other hand, buries most of the information you’d like to know behind menus, or doesn’t reveal it at all. “How close am I to leveling up?” Check the menu. “What type of weapon is this monster weak against?” Check the menu. “Is this artifact better than the one that I have equipped?” Check the menu. “What are the stats on the weapon I’m holding?” There’s really no way to tell.
But by far the most egregious example of the games paranoid sense of secrecy are the invisible traps. Specifically, I’m talking about the late game’s inclusion of the “poison trap,” which reduces the character’s health to one for 10 seconds. One. One health. Whereas the various slow-down and spike traps are individually annoying, the poison trap is the real first domino in the chain reaction of small annoyances that lead to true frustration.
Charging into a room full of monsters — weapon at the ready, magic fully charged — only to trot across one of these invisible blights, get smacked down by one of the weaker enemies, die, reload, sit through the painstaking load time and restart the level with every single room once again filled to the brim with monsters to fight through is the confluence of events that sums up the worst of what Book of Memories has to offer. And because the single save point nestled randomly within each dungeon acts as the only checkpoint you often will, quite literally, have to start all over again.
The thing is, this confluence of events isn’t an overly common occurrence. When that Rube Goldberg machine of frustration isn’t working to press its boot down on the game’s blossoming fun, that rhythm of fight-collect-level up can be quite an enjoyable, even relaxing distraction.
Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a game at war with itself. Two opposing armies, both comprised of individually innocuous components, constantly clash for the forces of fun and frustration. And while I ultimately came out enjoying my time with the game, I’d have to declare this battle a draw.
This review is based on a copy of Silent Hill: Book of Memories purchased by the reviewer.