Games 12/22/09: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Buzz! Quiz World (PSP), PixelJunk Shooter

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Climax/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)

It’s always exciting when a game like “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” takes complete liberty not only with the franchise that bore it, but also the system on which it runs.

It’s also a downer when problems that have regularly haunted the franchise creep in yet again and debilitate the mood to a potentially eject button-pressing degree.

“Memories” purports to re-imagine the original “Silent Hill” game by resurrecting its main character and introductory plot. Harry Mason has once again awoken in a snowbound town after a car accident knocked him unconscious, and once again, his daughter has mysteriously disappeared.

From there, though, most everything changes. For starters, “Memories” is combat-free: It controls like a third-person shooter, but the only aiming Harry does is with his flashlight, and encountering a monster triggers a pursuit sequence in which players’ only options are to escape or die trying.

The precise flashlight control is the tip of an iceberg’s worth of clever uses “Memories” devises for the Wii remote. An early puzzle, for instance, has players picking up cans and overturning them until a key falls out of one. “Memories” never tells players what to do: It places the cans prominently, and real-world curiosity and motion take over from there. It’s a perfect mix of obtuse and intuitive, and similar tricks permeate “Memories'” puzzles in numerous simple but inspired ways.

“Memories” also crams the bulk of its user interface — camera, GPS, some storytelling — into a virtual cell phone, and whenever Harry makes or receives a call, the game uses the Wii remote’s speaker as a cell phone speaker players actually hold up to their ear. The gesture looks predictably silly, but as an immersion tactic, it’s pretty great.

“Memories'” best trick, though, is its attempt to mentally profile players through a series of psychological evaluations that take place after the events of the storyline but are intercut throughout the game. How players complete these evaluations partly dictates what they see, what they can access and how Harry behaves when “Memories” resumes the action. Regardless of the game’s ability to read players, it’s an awfully clever way to mix up the scenery and engender a second playthrough.

Unfortunately, “Memories” fumbles some classic conventions en route to devising so many new ones.

Per series tradition, navigation is needlessly laborious, with visibly open paths from A to B getting arbitrarily walled off for no believable reason. Getting lost among arbitrary blockades would mean something if there was danger in doing so, but “Memories” strictly relegates monster encounters to alternate-dimension portions of the game, and if you’re not in one of those zones, you’re in no peril whatsoever.

Not only does this make “Memories” a frightfully unscary game, but it turns getting lost into a dull session of backtracking, trial and error that will frustrate some into losing interest completely. Lots of amazing little reasons exist to keep pushing ahead, but it’s hard to think about those when you’re wandering fruitlessly with no way out in sight and no reason to be alarmed by that fact.

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Buzz! Quiz World
For: Playstation Portable via Playstation Network (No UMD version available)
From: Relentless Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violent references)
Price: $20

You lose some but win plenty with “Buzz! Quiz World,” which can’t match the presentational pizazz of its Playstation 3 counterpart but more than compensates in other departments.

The biggest loss “World” suffers, obviously, is that of the Buzz! buzzer controllers, which are chiefly responsible for transforming “Buzz’s” PS3 iteration into the best game show emulator ever crammed into a $60 package. The $20 “World” controls just fine using the PSP’s face buttons to represent the four multiple-choice answers to a question, and it’d be absurd for Relentless Software to conceive a scenario in which players are crowding around a tiny PSP screen with buzzer controllers as big as the screen, but the loss is felt all the same.

“World” compounds the loss of buzzer controller functionality by turning the game’s interface into something more representative of an emceed quiz than a full-featured game show. Buzz still plays the part of gabby quizmaster, but the sets and studio audience are stripped away in favor of a sparser interface that trains its focus on Buzz and the quiz information and keeps it there. The presentation remains slick for what it’s attempting to convey, but it’s definitely less flashy than its PS3 counterpart.

The more intimate approach almost certainly is due to Relentless smartly presenting “World” as a game players are more likely to play alone on a train than with friends on a couch, and “World’s” significantly meatier single-player component would speak to this as well. Where the PS3 game offered some bare-bones solo challenges with no real progression, this edition presents four multi-tiered challenge trees — each containing numerous quick-play challenges that themselves are replayable thanks to high score tables and medal rewards. Though they don’t register as official Playstation Network trophies, “World” also offers a large handful of unlockable trophies for players to collect throughout the entirety of the game.

“World” features the requisite support for wireless multiplayer (four players locally running on one copy of the game, four players online), but Relentless again plays the realistic expectations card by including a suite of six-player modes in which players pass a single PSP around the room. In a cool touch that’s far more inspired in practice than it appears on paper, “World” also includes a Quiz Host mode in which a player plays the role of host and manages the questions, answers and scores on the PSP. The mode essentially turns a video game into a board game, and it absolutely works in spite of its no-frills approach.

Elsewhere, “World” retains all the trappings of recent “Buzz” games. The roster of questions, at 4,500 deep, is plenty sufficient, and players can download the same bonus and free user-made question packs the PS3 game supports. And while the game show feel isn’t quite as apparent as in the PS3 version, “World” still throws out enough special modes, gimmicks and rule variants to give the action significantly more variety than its quiz game peers can muster.

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PixelJunk Shooter
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

The inadequately-named “PixelJunk Shooter” is, technically, a shooter — superficially, a 2D space shooter in the vein of “Geometry Wars” and its ilk. But while there are enemies to shoot in “Shooter’s” subterranean caverns, the real objective centers around rescuing workers trapped deep within. Blasting through dilapidated cave walls is all it takes to rescue some, but a majority of the rescue effort revolves around using one element — magma, water, ice — to nullify another. Cracking a wall to unleash a tidal wave, for instance, will cool a lava pool into rock, which then can be shot away to create an opening for civilian rescue. “Shooter’s” physics-laden elemental riddles begin as simple cause/effect puzzles, but the challenge ramps up nicely as the enemies grow more dangerous and the elements, environments and available tools increase in number. Executing adequate rescues and taking down the screen-sized boss enemies isn’t a lengthy or difficult exercise, but engineering perfect rescues and mining the caves for every hidden valuable is. For players bent on doing exactly that, “Shooter’s” core action (playable solo or with a friend via local co-op) and terrific audiovisual presentation are more than inviting enough to inspire the repeat playthroughs likely needed to master it inside out.