As part of yesterday’s weekly PSN content update, a demo of WayForward’s Silent Hill: Book of Memories was made available for Vita owners. So, being a big fan of Konami’s psychological horror series, I decided to check it out…

Now, if I’m being honest, I’ve not been looking forward to this game at all, despite (or perhaps because of) my love for… well, at least the first four games of the series. Everything we’ve seen so far suggested that Book of Memories is a top-down, multiplayer, Silent Hill-flavoured hack n’ slash. I expected to hate it. So, after playing through the hour-long demo in bed last night (where else?), I was quite surprised to find that I actually quite enjoyed the experience.

You start off by creating your character build, choosing from a bunch of presets such as ‘preppy’, ‘goth’, ‘jock’, etc, and then customising their appearance. There’s not a massive amount of choice to be had, but perhaps that’s down to it being a demo. You can choose a stat-boosting symbol, name your character, and then the game begins.

It starts, as these things often do, with a cutscene. It’s your character’s birthday, and he or she is greeted at the door to their appropriately dingy apartment by a slightly creepy mailman, who proceeds to deliver a package to you… from Silent Hill. As he turns to leave, he wishes you happy birthday. How did he know..? Inside the package is a book, a book that contains detailed accounts of all of your character’s memories (hence the title, I guess…). Your character, being the typical horror-media chap or chapesse they are, is obviously curious about what might happen were they to rewrite their own memories…

Apparently, doing so causes you to awaken in the series’ Otherworld. The first thing that struck me is that, graphically, it doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as some of the screenshots we’ve seen so far would suggest. Granted, it’s not going to win any beauty pageants, but it’s perfectly acceptable; the rooms are decorated with an array of items and debris, and the lighting looks quite nice, with your torch occasionally throwing some nice shadows onto environmental objects. The music is also pretty decent so far, (actually reminding me of a dungeon crawler on Windows Phone called The Harvest), and I’m fairly sure the title theme is sung by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Either way, it sounds suitably Silent Hill-ish.

It soon becomes apparent that the game is essentially a dungeon crawler set in the Silent Hill universe, and while it probably wouldn’t be a vastly different game without the license, I appreciate the nods to Konami’s franchise on display here; The Order is mentioned in a couple of collectible notes, and Silent Hill 3‘s Valtiel pops up at the start of each floor to give you an extra mission to accomplish for rare loot. The basic structure revolves around exploring each floor, filling out the map as you go, battling enemies, collecting loot (such as ‘memory residue’, the game’s currency which is usable in the shops you’ll find on each floor), and finding your way to the challenge rooms that will grant you the items needed to complete the floor’s puzzle and progress onto the next one.

The Order is represented in some of the game’s discoverable notes.

Challenge rooms are fairly self-explanatory: you’re given a requirement to meet, and doing so rewards you with a puzzle piece (a number of which you need to collect to beat the puzzle at the floor’s end). Unfortunately, in this demo, all the challenges seem to be minor variations on a theme – that theme being ‘kill everything in the room’. You might have to accomplish that in a time limit, or do so without losing a certain percentage of HP, but killing everything is still the order of the day. Hopefully this will be expanded in the final game.

All this monster murdering brings me nicely onto the subject of combat. Well, it’s at least functional: you can hold either one small weapon in each hand (say, a knife and a pistol) or a large one (steel pipe, anyone?) in both hands, and you use them by pressing square or triangle, dependant on the hand. There is a rudimentary combo system, so the game tells me, but I couldn’t manage to get the timing right to string together more than two or three hits. Apparently, doing so activates… something. I don’t know what that something is, as I never managed it. Holding circle blocks, and also allows you to dodge with the stick, while the left shoulder button is used for enemy lock-on. As I said, it’s all very functional, and it’s mildly entertaining in a button-mashy sort of way. To be fair to WayForward, combat has never been a strong point, or indeed a design focus, of the Silent Hill series, and the ease of movement in Book of Memories makes it a less frustrating component. This being a dungeon crawler, combat also provides you with XP, allowing you to level your character, upping his or her stats as you go.

The character/stats screen.

I mentioned end-of-floor puzzles before, and at this stage they’re pretty rudimentary, offering challenges such as ‘put these four things in order of size’. The demo appears to offer the first ‘zone’ of the game, comprising two dungeon floors and a dungeon boss, which is essentially an arena battle against a massive, fire-breathing demon. Like the puzzles, the boss is pretty easy to fell, so I’m hoping progress through the game will yield more challenging puzzles and bosses, and more variety in the challenge rooms.

So, a Silent Hill dungeon crawler. Is it blasphemy to say “it works”? I don’t know. In general, I’m all for long-standing franchises branching out and showing a little variety (so long as it’s still enjoyable), and despite the fact that the genre of Book of Memories is so far removed from what we expect from the series, it does retain a little of that Silent Hill mystery. That is communicated most effectively by the ‘Forsaken Rooms’ – rooms that are at odds with the general Otherworld appearance of the rest of the dungeon that supposedly hold abandoned traumatic memories within them. These will only appear in single-player mode, and have three outcomes – neutral, dark and light. Your actions will determine which you get. There’s only one in this demo, and it’s not immediately clear what is going on, which makes me want to press on and find out more – usually the hallmark of a good SH experience, in my book.

Forsaken rooms offer a rare change of perspective.

Speaking more generally about single-player, it certainly has a degree of that typically lonely, somewhat-claustrophobic atmosphere that a good Silent Hill game has in spades, and exploring to fill out your map, while mechanically different in this version, is as engaging as it’s ever been. Obviously, this will all be somewhat diminished when playing in a party with others, and I think that’s where the majority of complaints will be focussed.

But as a lonely, single-player experience, I think this game might just work out pretty well. The structure lends itself to handheld play very nicely, and there’s just enough of the Silent Hill DNA threaded through this demo to justify the name on the box. Before this little sampler came along, my interest level in Book of Memories was skimming the baseline. Then the shopkeeper said, “They look like monsters to you?”

I might just be sold.