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Silent Hill 2, sans zombies
on 28 April 2003
If, like me, you played Silent Hill 2 on "Beginner" action level because you couldn't care less about killing zombies, but wanted to get past them to the interesting puzzle and story aspects, you should at least give Shadow of Memories a rental once-over.
Let me state that it is evident that this is far more an interactive movie than a game. The actual amount of user interaction is a far lower proportion of the total game, compared to the cutscenes. Fortunately, the quality of these is such that if you're in the right frame of mind they are quite enthralling, involving you emotionally with the characters and very effectively deepening the storyline. Strangely enough, on occasion even better results are gleaned from playing the game badly, as you get a higher percentage completion by dying more often.
The high quality of the cutscenes comes from excellent graphical design and animation of characters and backgrounds, a well written script, and excellent acting performances. Charles Martinet as the mysterious being Homunculus gains particular kudos for his superb voice talent. Rarely in video games have the voice acting performances matched the graphical acting performances so completely, for all the characters. Another good move on the part of the developers was in making sure that cutscenes and gameplay were all done in the same quality graphics, thus making it much more of a seamless experience (Cf: Shenmue and most of Resident Evil: Code Veronica).
With a highly detailed 3D rendering of a German town through four different eras, the look of the game is fantastic. Once again (as with Silent Hill 2), one takes one's hat off to Japanese developers who have created a Western environment with so much attention to detail that one would swear that the creators of the game were Westerners themselves. Only Eike's bizarre hairdo screams "Japanese!" at you. (Also slightly unfortunate was the choice of "Lebensbaum" as the name of the town - chiming as it does with "Lebensraum", Hitler's fascist dogma of "Living Room for Germans" which "justified" his conquest of Europe.) Of course, it has to be said that the American accents can be a little irritating, particularly when a 1580s butcher woman tells Eike "You're pretty cute"!
But if it's so good, why give it only three stars? It's not just the shortness of the game (I completed my first runthrough in a tad under five hours), but that, for a game which is all puzzles and no action, said puzzles could have been a little more taxing. I only came across two of what I would call genuine posers, the first of which is simply how to get the plot started at the very beginning (having just had a mystical experience involving Eike's own death and resurrection, the "Old Alchemist Shop" seemed to me the most logical place to visit, and so it proved - but I can see how youngsters might be at a bit of a loss). A glance at the prop list of items you've picked up will also give you far too many clues as to what to do with them. Some puzzles could have been really difficult, except that the notebook feature told me exactly what I had to do. Furthermore, in a time travelling game it would make sense to have puzzles which could only be solved by going into a number of different time periods. Although there is at least one of these, you are told exactly when to go to by the game. If, instead of this, you had more options as to which period to visit, and more items needed to solve each puzzle, the game could have become a genuine challenge. Once you've completed the first run through, you do have the challenge of discovering what tiny differences you need to make to the way you play in order to get the different endings. However, the first run through is *so* unchallenging that there isn't as much incentive as there should be to go through the game again.
My final niggle with the game is the time limit on each chapter. Without the time constraint, given the freedom to do more exploring, I feel that even my first run of the game would have been a far lengthier and richer experience. Certain shops and buildings are only open during the day in 2001, but you only have a small window to visit them before they close. Why not keep them open? Similarly, since the church provides nothing more than an interesting, well-designed and beautiful interior for the player to look at, I can see absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be open to visit throughout the game; but it isn't. Explorer-players who enjoy games like Shenmue will therefore be disappointed in the game's own insistence on restricting even the comparatively small area you see in the game, quite apart from restricting your time to do such exploration.
So, in conclusion: I experienced a complex and fascinating story, met some interesting characters and got to know the social and architectural evolution of a small German town. As a gameplayer, I could have done with more in the way of mental challenge. But it's very much worth a look, and after SH2 and SoM, I look forward to other Konami adventure games - those guys really know how to tell a story, and they take the trouble to make the graphics as realistic as the PS2 allows, which isn't always true even of the most recent games.