The Survival Horror genre has been rapidly declining since the mid-2000s. Changing tastes among consumers and pressure from corporate bigwigs alike has forced the likes of Capcom and Konami to slowly transition away from the methodical, cerebral-based antics of old and instead go down a more mainstream, action-oriented route more aligned with Hollywood blockbusters than a George A. Romero romp. This is best exemplified in Survival Horror’s tent pole franchises such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, though in the case of the latter it still has one decomposing foot (just about) in the horror space.
However, Book of Memories, the PlayStation Vita-exclusive from WayForward Technologies, marks an emphatic escape from what we have come to expect from the venerable psychological horror series. To put it succinctly, Book of Memories is a dungeon crawler with a distinct Silent Hill flavour, combining the aesthetics and aural staples of Konami’s series with a modern, hack-‘n-slash twist sprinkled with a healthy dose of puzzling for good measure. In short, it’s an interesting, albeit flawed combination.
Story-wise, the game focuses on the eponymous Book of Memories; a mysterious tome that contains the reader’s entire history up to that point. More importantly, the reader can change history by literally rewriting the pages. So, no mysterious letter’s from a dead wife, no missing daughters, but it’s enough of an excuse to step into a portal to the alternate realities that occupy Silent Hill. Book of Memories features a basic character creation process, letting you select your gender and tinker with some things such as headgear, clothes, hair – all the usual things you’d expect.
The game itself is set up into ‘Zones’ that range in appearance. You’ll visit spooky forests, gloomy dungeons, hellish underground complexes and many more in your adventure. As mentioned, Book of Memories is essentially a dungeon crawler, so you’ll spend much of your time roaming through corridors, exploring rooms and accumulating loot. The overall objective in each Zone is simple: solve the end puzzle by collecting a determined number of riddle pieces and clues, and occasionally battle a boss beyond. However, this is easier said than done. Puzzle pieces are carefully guarded by the numerous monsters that inhabit dungeon rooms, which is something Book of Memories does extremely well. The game is chock full of Silent Hill’s iconic beasts, from Nurses, Split Heads, Air Screamers, Butchers and yes, even the mighty Pyramid Head himself.
While some rooms featuring roaming foes, a lot of the time you’ll be required to trigger spawning enemies by smashing a blue, glowing orb. Defeating the result bad guys will reward you with a puzzle piece. That’s not all either, as the game also produces an optional side quest in each Zone, given to you at the start of the level by the mysterious Valtiel. These vary from anything between escorting a dog through the zone unharmed to defeating a specific enemy, or group of enemies in a certain order. The reward is actually worth the effort too, coming in the shape of some meaty weaponry and other useful tools. Unfortunately, for a game where combat is paramount to your success, Book of Memories’ combat is disappointingly generic.
Essentially, the game requires you to mindlessly hammer away at the attack button, hacking away at foes until they go down. Your character can wield a weapon in each hand, though the bigger tools require both hands to wield. There’s little strategic value to the combat, and while you can dodge using the circle button and the analogue stick, it’s so capacious in nature that you can’t rely on it to save your bacon when it counts (though proves handy when it does). Yet despite the repetitive nature of combat, it still remains satisfying when you successfully dispatch a gaggle of ghouls, although to keep your health in ship shape, you’ll have to employ the old ‘hit-and-run’ tactic.
Beyond combat, the game will shower you in basic RPG mechanics. Fighting foes will eventually boost your level, letting you increase rudimentary attributes, while equipping special items also increases your stats. Meanwhile, Memory Residue (the game’s currency) can be spent in shops dotted around zones to stock up on weapons and items such as medical kits. Easily the most significant aspect in Book of Memories’ basic gameplay however is the Karma system. Enemies come in two types, namely Blood and Light, which when defeated drop pools of blood aligned to either of these forces. Collecting this will boost your Karma Meter to either the Blood or Light side, allowing you to unleash special powers when unlocked. There’s three for each side in total: Light focuses on healing your character, while blood is the more violent approach and damages foes.
This injects a much-needed tactical edge to the proceedings, letting you alter your preferred playing style. I found myself low on health a lot the time, and therefore tended to side with Light to gain the extra HP. It’s a nice touch, and keeps you thinking about how you approach the game. And, while combat is lacking in terms of execution, there is at least an element of strategy in the sense certain foes are susceptible to specific weapons or alignments (for example, Air Screams are weak against firearms), which does give you food for thought when approaching certain battles.
Of course, you don’t have to tackle all this alone. Team up in the game’s multiplayer and you can take some of the strain off by having your pals battle foes at your side, and it feels satisfying cooperating with other players. I didn’t experience any major lag at all, and joining games was easy enough; you can also host private/public games too, though it’ll overwrite your current single-player progress. Sending commands to other players on-screen is pretty fiddly though. Likewise, having to use the touchscreen to pick up items becomes cumbersome after a while, although overall the controls are responsive and mirror previous Silent Hill titles, with the shoulder buttons used to aim your firearm, square/triangle for using melee weapons, and X being your workhorse ‘action’ command. A touchscreen-based inventory system ensures you can easily heal yourself, repair weapons or select a new weapon with ease by tapping the icons on the bottom right of the screen.
Book of Memories’ biggest flaw aside from the generic combat is the copious amounts of backtracking you’ll have to do. The maps are surprisingly vast, and you’ll end up hauling ass from one end of the zone to the other as you hunt for missing keys to unlock new areas, or just to save your progress in in the single-zone save room. There’s no checkpoint system to speak of, so if you end up brown bread you’ll start from wherever you saved last – and if that was some time ago, then be prepared to repeat everything again. Lastly, the game boasts some decidedly cheap traps that you’ll only discover when they’re draining you of health; there’s no way of spotting them until you fall into their grasp, making it a pain when you’re exploring or combating enemies. On the plus side, there’s dozens of zones so you’ll be busy for a while.
Visually the game is one of the prettier titles on Sony’s new handheld, and environments are suitably spooky, oozing those quintessential Silent Hill traits – rust, blood, burning fires, everything is here as you’d expect. Sound-wise the voice cast is nothing to write home about, though the music packs an atmospheric punch, and the sounds that emanate from the monsters have been updated with a fresh, ghoulish twist.
Overall, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is an admirable take on a classic franchise, which for the most part provides an entertaining dungeon crawling romp let down by some glaring issues. Combat is underwhelming and the basic grind can become repetitive, while the amount of backtracking further compounds these issues. However, if you can stick at it, you’ll find that Book of Memories is still frighteningly addictive, and with friends can provide a nice distraction.