Plenty of franchises can make successful departures from one genre to another, whether for a one-off side story or an entirely new spin-off series. The experiment may inspire apprehension in the hearts of the series' fans, but it can also breathe much-needed life into something that's growing stale. Silent Hill: Book of Memories attempts to extract the survival horror trappings from Silent Hill and put them into a dungeon crawler--losing most of the horror in the process. In some ways it works better than you might expect it to, providing the same kind of addictive role-playing game grinding you find in other games in the genre. At the same time, it loses a lot of what people like about the series, and it doesn't do well enough as either a horror game or an RPG to make the game great.
Book of Memories begins, unsurprisingly, with a book. The titular Book of Memories arrives on your character's birthday, in a mysterious package from the town of Silent Hill. Your character, whom you customize before starting the game, quickly learns that his or her entire life's story is written in the book (it must not be too exciting, because the book isn't that thick). This is immediately followed up by the idea to change what's written in the book, ultimately leading to a past-changing journey through your nightmarish psyche.
Like many a dungeon crawler before it, Book of Memories is built around randomized dungeon floors, or zones. Typical of most action RPGs, clearing a zone involves a lot of whacking enemies with weapons to get experience, money, and loot, with less of an emphasis on the latter. Most weapons are reminiscent of those in the earlier Silent Hill games, meaning you pick up a lot of wooden planks and steel pipes. These weapons break relatively easily, but they can be repaired with a toolkit or simply replaced with similar weapons scattered throughout the environment. Both melee and projectile weapons are either one-handed or two-handed, and one-handed weapons can be dual-wielded. Different enemies have different weaknesses to weapons, so you might want to pay attention to what you bring with you.
The stats for these weapons aren't surfaced well, but to some extent it doesn't matter. Every fire axe you find is exactly the same as every other, and there are a finite number of weapon types available, negating some sense of the discovery and loot lust found in other dungeon crawlers. You may find that you have an affinity for a particular weapon, but at a certain point you've seen all there is to see. Weapons can be leveled up through extended use, but it's a long process, and it's not clear what improvements are acquired when you do so. A simple magic system can also be used by collecting either “light” or “blood” karma, enabling healing skills and offensive skills, respectively. Karma is earned by killing enemies of the opposite type (so you gain light karma for killing blood enemies), and early on you gain the ability to flip the alignment of nearby enemies, leading to an almost Ikaruga-esque strategy implementation of killing certain enemies before others.
For the most part, all of this could be an explanation of any dungeon crawler. The Silent Hill aspects come into play more in the environments, the enemies (from nurses to straitjackets to, yes, Pyramid Head), and, most interestingly, the puzzles. Each randomized zone has puzzle pieces and a puzzle hint scattered throughout it. You use these pieces to solve a basic puzzle and open the zone's exit. It's neat the first few times, though unfortunately all of the puzzles follow the same basic pattern of asking you to order all the pieces by size or color, in some direction hinted at not too subtly by the given hint. When playing alone, there are also "forsaken rooms," which serve as mini-puzzles and have good, bad, and neutral possible outcomes. Similar to the end-of-zone puzzles, these rooms are a nice idea and are interesting a few times, but they lack variety.
Still, while many aspects of Book of Memories fail to meet their potential, if you’re prone to dungeon crawler addiction, you might easily find yourself enjoying this action-heavy Silent Hill despite its flaws. There’s something compelling about clearing floors and leveling up your character, especially since you can take the game on the road (though long load times hinder the ability to pick it up and play for a few short minutes at a time). There are many randomly placed notes and broadcasts to collect as you play, and while they each add only tiny bits and pieces to the game’s story, it’s enough of a hook to get your attention. Book of Memories scratches an itch for those who enjoy a steady grind toward a stronger character.
Having three friends to play cooperatively with can help make the experience more worthwhile. While the co-op in Book of Memories is nothing revolutionary, it helps to have people at your side with whom to either stick together to more easily overcome some of the combat’s shortcomings through brute force, or spread out to collect puzzle pieces independently, greatly accelerating progressing and negating some of the need to backtrack.
When things go bad, though, they go annoyingly bad. For example, one trap you encounter randomly in dungeons, the poison trap, temporarily drops your health down to one hit point. On paper this makes the ensuing seconds scary and frantic, which could be good for Silent Hill. In practice, however, it tends to be exceedingly frustrating. Say you spend a good 15 minutes exploring a zone without finding the save point in that area (a common occurrence). You wander into a room in which the doors are locked and you're forced to fight. Right before taking a hit that would normally be harmless, you accidentally trigger a poison trap. There goes 15 minutes of work, from which you retain nothing--no experience, no items, not even bestiary entries.
Therein lies the main problem with Book of Memories: it straddles the line between being Silent Hill and being a dungeon crawler and winds up being great at neither. Its failure to fully embrace either identity means it can't borrow all the best elements from either past survival horror games or past action RPGs. Developer WayForward hasn't married the refined loot lust experience of Torchlight II with the atmosphere and plot of Silent Hill 2--if such a thing is even possible. In the end, Book of Memories feels unique in comparison to earlier Silent Hill games, but the game might have been better served by sacrificing some originality for what is known to work.
Even when it’s frustrating, though, Silent Hill: Book of Memories can tempt you back until you have seen all it has to offer. It’s an OK Silent Hill side story, devoid of horror though it may be. It is also a competent dungeon crawler. It is far from the best of either of those things. In the end it is a game with an identity crisis, but one that had the potential to be much worse (and, sadly, much better) than it ended up being. Don't demonize it for being different from the rest of the series, but don't expect something amazing and fresh either. It's not a bad game; it's just confused.