Silent Hill: Book of Memories reminded me of Killzone: Liberation without the asinine final boss fight. Allow me to explain.
The flexibility or freedom that a handheld release of a popular franchise can offer is a powerful thing. My favorite example of this is from the Killzone series. Four games total, one on the PSP, and that PSP release is hands down my favorite one. With it, Guerrilla Games took players out of the first person and into an isometric view reminiscent of the classic Crusader games on PC. It was fresh, different, and it just clicked. When I discovered that the newest Silent Hill was going to be a Vita exclusive and push RPG and online co-op play, I was intrigued because neither of those are typically associated with Silent Hill.
Silent Hill games also don't have a character creation system, but that's how BoM starts. Players choose from one of four classes, including a bookworm, jock, or goth, and then your gender. There are a few other options, including a few basic outfits, and you also set your name which is used for multiplayer and in-game within notes and things you find. Initial character creation options are slim, but as you play, more accessories are unlocked to help ensure you look significantly different from the other players, and to add variety to the single player mode. On the next screen, players choose from about eight different charms, none of which are explained. I chose the one that looks like a ninja star, and later noticed in my Character screen that that meant I had a permanent speed boost. Next, an opening cinema shows that your character receives a mysterious birthday package (delivered by the same postman from Silent Hill: Downpour, by the way). The package contains a large book, which you open. Within it, you see detailed explanations and drawings of your own memories. Soon after, you 'awaken' in Zone 1.
The levels in BoM are known as zones, and each chapter contains three zones, with a Guardian boss fight at the end. The zones are based on different people in your life. Each zone begins with your back to a closed portal. After taking a few steps, a "friendly" monster appears to give you a challenge exclusive for this zone. Usually the challenge is about finding x number of objects, which is intended to make you search the area thoroughly. At the exit, you will encounter the monster again and will receive a very nice reward item if you complete the task. Along the way to each zone's exit, gameplay is a lot like a dungeon crawler. A small map in the left hand corner of the screen becomes nearly essential as you proceed down various paths and come across numerous rooms. You enter a room, fight any demons that might be in there, check objects and surroundings for any kind of loot or a key, and move on. While it sounds monotonous, I found it to be very compelling and just to make sure I get this out there, BoM is still very much a survival horror game. There are a lot of tough demons ready to kill you, and keeping up with health and weapon items as you progress into zones six and seven and so on becomes a more conscious challenge. It's not a 'scary' game like Condemned or other Silent Hill games, but the horror theme and the challenge and pressure of surviving are still legitimately in place.
You can wield two smaller weapons, one ranged, or one larger melee weapon at a time, while your backpack (which is upgradeable) can hold a spare weapon, medkits, and toolkits. Toolkits are used to repair weapons instantly with a single tap. I kept the Firesword given to me by the friendly monster repaired through several zones after I got it, thanks to the toolkits. You can see a weapon's status in the HUD by looking to see if it's green, yellow, orange, or red. I thought that was a good design decision as opposed to having to pull up your character menu or just getting a warning when it's about to break. Players can also charge attacks by holding X or Triangle and dodge enemy attacks with left stick + circle, a critical skill later in the game.
Earthly weapons aren't your only means of attack though. Karma powers, something that took me a little while to fully understand, are a huge help. There are three 'associations' in BoM; Blood, Light, and Steel. Most of the time I was in the Blood alliance, as the demons I killed spilled red blood that I picked up. This drove my Karma meter, situated in the upper right of the HUD, to the red. Blood creatures will automatically attack Light creatures, so it's to your advantage to let them fight each other if both are present in a room. This was somewhat hard for me to sit back and do though, as my initial reaction was to attack everything. Anyway, when your Karma meter reaches a certain point, you can call upon a special power that utilizes the rear touchpad for various aiming and touch controls. I found it a little forced and awkward the first few times I used it.
All of the attacks in the world won't mean much if your character is too weak to sustain damage or doesn't cause damage efficiently enough. The main character screen, opened at anytime with Start, shows your current level and allocation of Strength, Dexterity, Vitality, Agility, Mind, and Intuition -- I may have those last two wrong and I unfortunately I don't have the manual in front of me, but you get the idea. These values can be incremented (not all at once) at your discretion each time you level up. Consumables on the other hand are bought at the Shop, which is hidden within each zone. Here, the postman will buy anything you want to sell and offers up various supplies. The currency is Memory Residue, which looks like gold and is found inside objects. The priciest items to be found or bought are Artifacts, and as with the weapons, there a couple dozen or more of these. Artifacts have strange names but very usual purposes, as they provide additional boosts to some of your character's stats.
I've found playing BoM to be a lot of fun as I've become more invested in my character. Learning more about the people in the story and seeing what's down that next hallway and behind the next door has become somewhat addictive. The challenge level is encouraging me to seek help online with other players, which is what the developers were going for I think. What I have played so far has been interesting. I'm having some trouble hosting a game, but I am able to join other games, although there aren't a lot available right now it seems. On a side note, hosting a session will wipe your single player data for the zone. It's no surprise then that whoever is hosting will see progress in their single player story, while other players can earn additional XP. Depending on who you play with, teamwork may or may not be a priority, which is always the case in online play, but BoM does have voice chat which is quite helpful. Seeing the variety in character types and customizations is neat and it does make those challenging rooms a heck of a lot easier. Ultimately, I don't plan to do a whole lot with online play, although Ad Hoc is a nice option if I can convince a friend to purchase the game. Furthermore, I'm enjoying the single player enough that multiplayer just seems like a nice bonus right now as opposed to a necessity.
As for presentation, BoM looks and sounds great. The visuals are fluid, pretty detailed, and framerates are smooth. The different sets of zones offer different environmental backgrounds which keeps things interesting along with the steady supply of new monsters. Effects are nicely done, although your character screams gratingly when knocked down even if it was only a very minor decrease in health. I thought the soundtrack was very fitting and I loved that it was constantly playing, too, rather than just popping in from time to time.
To the summary...