It would appear that somebody at Konami had gotten the memo about 2012 being the official Year of the Action RPG. As such, they've enlisted the mercenary capabilities of Wayfoward and tasked them with turning beloved survival horror series Silent Hill into an isometric Action RPG. The result, Silent Hill: Book of Memories stands before us, promising co-op goodness. Is it a horrible amalgamation of two disparate genres, or a brilliant experiment with the formula? Let's find out.
Probably the most jarring element of Book of Memories is the character creation process. Who put these blank slate characters in my Silent Hill? We are going to have WORDS. Oh, I can dress my character up in a tuxedo and top hat? I guess I'll give the developers a pass for now.
The story sets up an interesting premise. You're a student and while hanging out in your dorm, you receive a mysterious book as a gift in the mail. Of course, the return address simply reads "Silent Hill", which would have been my first clue that the book might be more trouble than it's worth. Naturally, you open the book anyway and discover that it not only contains a written account of your life so far, but tells tales of the future. What's our hero's reaction? To rewrite things, of course! Doing so creates new worlds in your dreams that become the levels you explore.
Because when I think of the strong, mature characters of Silent Hill, I immediately want to dress them in silly accessories.
For the most part, the remainder of the plot is discovered in notes strewn throughout the levels rather than through cutscene exposition. Periodically, you'll discover television broadcasts that serve as audio log vignettes as well, but almost the entire plot is earned by piecing together notes. In a series known primarily for its strong characters and mature themes, it doesn't hold up at all, and ultimately fails to deliver on the premise.
Each level consists of a series of mostly-square rooms that are randomly generated. The goal is to reach the Zone Puzzle at the end, but you'll need to collect a requisite number of puzzle pieces along the way. These are earned by activating blue challenge orbs throughout the level, which lock you in the current room and task you with some sort of combat challenge, though most boil down to "kill all of these guys, please". Fail to meet the victory conditions and you'll have to start over. Once you've grabbed all of the necessary puzzle pieces, find the exit and you'll be greeted with the Zone Puzzle.
Though puzzle solving is a traditional component of a Silent Hill game, the Zone Puzzles in Book of Memories are downright embarrassing. Usually, they involve taking 4-6 items and arranging them in a certain order (short to tall, dark to light), but occasionally require solutions that don't make a lick of sense, even if you've found the note with hints on them. Luckily, the few nonsensical ones can be easily brute forced by abusing the hint system.
In addition to the challenge orbs, each level has an additional quest given to you by the demon Valtiel. Early quests simply involve picking up several objects strewn through the environment, but every now and then more interesting ones show up, such as guiding a chihuahua through the level while keeping it safe. Of course, the first time that you're tasked with killing Pyramid Head, you'll be inventing new swear words. Completing a quest usually earns you a higher-powered weapon to carry or a powerful relic.
Enemies all have an affinity to either Blood or Light and when killed, leave pools of Karma behind. Collecting Karma of a certain type pushes your Karma meter towards either extreme and lets you unleash powerful attacks using the Vita's rear touchpad. Blood attacks do damage and Light abilities usually have a secondary healing effect as well.
Since this is an Action RPG, your primary interaction with the world will be hitting things with various types of weaponry, ranging from series favorites like "crowbar", "plank of wood" and "knife" to more exotic weapons like flaming swords, bass guitars and even laser guns. Though the latter items in that list certainly make things sound a little more interesting, they feel more like the joke weapons you'd get from a new game plus mode from one of the main games in the series. Inventory space is limited, however, and you'll probably find yourself hoarding the more interesting weapons rather than actually using them.
Those blocks? Yeah, they say "666". SPOOKY.
To keep the combat more in line with a traditional Silent Hill title, weapons degrade over time and don't usually last more than a handful of rooms without needing repair. Tool kits help combat this, but are relatively uncommon outside of stores. I'm not sure how a wrench assists in the regular maintenance of a flaming zweihander, but I digress.
The load times in Book of Memories are among the worst I've ever experienced on a handheld. Loading a level up can take well over a minute, and if you happen to die, you'll be reloading the entire level again. Couple this with unskippable cutscenes prior to any of the Guardian fights and you'll begin to wonder if solid-state media is really as advantageous as everyone says it is.
Played in co-op, Book of Memories becomes a bit better, but not by much. Four players can play together, either online or over an ad-hoc connection, though finding four people who own a Vita in close proximity to each other is only slightly harder than capturing a unicorn. Online it is! You can either host or join a game from a game browser, though the lack of drop-in/drop-out really hurts your ability to find open matches. When hosting, you have to sit in a lobby and wait for players to join; once you start your adventure, no additional players can join. Sadface.
Naturally, only the host's progress is saved, though experience, weapons and memory residue earned in co-op is retained. Voice chat and some simple chat macros help players communicate with one another, but it was rare for me to get anybody to talk, and it seemed that nobody bothered to figure out how to use the chat macros.
The best part about this boss is watching people quickly die while learning how to beat him.
In a multiplayer game, all weapons and found items are shared between players, and all too many of my co-op "partners" encountered online either didn't understand this or didn't care. In one four-player match I got into, one of our teammates would constantly wait until we were engaged in combat before looting the entire room, leaving the rest of us low on precious supplies. If you're feeling more team-oriented, you can drop anything you're carrying for other players to pick up. Once the difficulty picks up, you'll want everyone to be well-supplied.
Curiously, when multiple players encounter the store, everybody must wait their turn, which brings the pacing down to a screeching halt, especially on later levels. The end-of-level puzzle cannot be solved cooperatively, and once a player engages the puzzle nobody else can try their hand at it. Even worse, it seems that the player who starts the puzzle MUST finish it, even if they back out and decide to explore further. Rounding out the badness is the fact that if a player dies, they drop most of their inventory at the spot of their death. Though the items are recoverable, this becomes incredibly frustrating if one player was carrying a key.
So, despite the litany of caveats I've spelled out above, Book of Memories DOES get more enjoyable in co-op for a couple reasons. First, with the exception of Guardian battles, death simply means respawning at the beginning of a level. No more loading screens! Second, a good group of players who understand the limitations of the inventory system really does make the game easier, and those damned Combustible Pyramid Heads no longer mean nearly instant death.
As a Silent Hill title, Book of Memories doesn't really hold up. In some ways, it feels like the answer to a question nobody asked. In any case, I know I've never wondered how an isometric action-RPG would fit with the Silent Hill universe. On its own merits, the interesting ideas are overshadowed by too many odd design decisions for me to recommend this one to anyone but the most ardent of fans or people craving a co-op experience on the Vita.