The inevitable fate of a game called Remember Me is that it slips under everyone’s radar. The inaugural effort from French indie DONTNOD arrives a week before GOTY nominee The Last of Us, and a handful of days before E3 looks to prepare piggy banks for a new era of spending. Misguidance or misfortune is a question I found myself asking far too often.
Following decades of world wars and natural disasters, the city of Paris is handed a lifeline – a company called Memorize, which has successfully digitised the human memory. But selective urban development and rare malfunctions have created an impoverished, mutated underclass. As Nilin, imprisoned amnesiac figurehead of the Errorist movement, you work to rectify this injustice.
I admire a studio which elects to create a story-driven, single-player game in an age of multi-player bolt-ons, but you have to get it right. Unlockable character models and concept art aren’t something I’ve particularly missed, and with no extra mode to fall back on, the experience and the story are all there is.
Remember Me certainly starts well. Adverts for the company behind the Sensen implants, which double as a sort of Google Glass overlay, provide a subtle and effective route into an unabashedly complex story. Nilin, broken by the state and on the brink of pacification, is well-voiced and empathetic.
The game certainly feels French, though not always for the right reasons. The opening exchanges in the Neo-Paris slums are hugely evocative of French developer Arkane’s Dishonored – as is the voicework. An array of English and American accents sap the character from a city you have to strain the camera upwards to see. The levels of contrasting architecture are beautifully rendered when you look for them, but too much of the action is set in alleys and interiors, and Nilin fills the frame.
Thankfully, there’s enough character in those areas to get by on. I’m continually impressed by what developers can squeeze out of eight year old hardware, and there are places where it’s put to good use. A Human Revolution vibe pervades 2084, orange neon and clean lines clashing with the old architecture and gorgeous street art. It’s only with the occasional fixed camera angle from on high that you realise how big some of the areas are that your paths proceed through.
It’s one of many nearly moments. DONTNOD have created a fragment of a beautiful city, but they won’t let you explore it. The Sensen highlights the ledge you have to jump to, the pipe you have to climb. Occasionally that pipe goes down as well as up, and the path goes left and right. Sometimes the dead end has a power-up or a snippet of back-story, cleverly imagined as a webpage with a tally of who remembered the info. But with screens left by other memory hunters directing you to these anyway, exploration becomes routine to the point of being tiresome.
When you steep a game this heavily in platforming, those elements have to hold up. Climbing buildings and leaping from precipices should be thrilling, but Nilin, though not infallible, feels unrealistically agile. Scripted slips and ledge breaks attempt to liven things up, but only made me feel more like a spectator. Where there is a lack of control and genuine difficulty outside of combat, it feels accidental. In the few more open environments, culminating in a late chase sequence, movement feels clumsy, jumps hard to direct. Inspiration ought to be taken from the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Mirrors Edge rather than PS1 era Tomb Raider.
DONTNOD have created a fragment of a beautiful city, but they won’t let you explore it.
Deftness of movement certainly characterises the combat, but it too is disappointingly pedestrian. Nilin cartwheels around each telegraphed square combat zone, but despite the PR’s insistence, it amounts to little more than button mashing. The frequently touted combo system is a sad shadow of cult inspiration God Hand: combo strings are fixed, with only three combat effects (S-Pressens) and a multiplier to attach to X or Y. Combos can persist through dodges, but too often you either miss the window, or you dodge away from an enemy and have to start again.
Attacks lack heft, and enemies exist only as resilient punching bags to work up the ‘Focus’ for special moves. But even these are drip-fed and uninspiring, ranging from an attack that makes you attack faster, to invisibility that lets you insta-kill one enemy. With no control over combat style and finishing moves rare and unvaried, fights become battles of attrition, hitting cooldown combos to use the power which lets you kill everyone. And when you do, the music fades and you continue climbing. The result is an unrewarding and joyless experience, only serving to propel the story forwards.
Boss battles only fare a little better. As well-modelled characters defer to one-dimensional military personnel with important entry codes, so the fights become less enjoyable. Much of the gratification just comes from doing something different. Regular engagements stutter along, any rhythm in combos frequently interrupted. One vs one you at least have a little time to pick your attacks and get them off, even if it’s only in a simple ‘exploit weak point, punch in face’ trope. But with a limited number of mechanics, even these set pieces wear thin. One of the key gameplay mechanics, the ranged ‘data spammer’ suffers in combat, as lock-ons switch awkwardly in tight areas.
It’s all almost worth it. You can forgive lousy dialogue and bad puns (“This Little Red Riding Hood’s got a basket full of KICK-ASS!” and “kinky memory burglar Nilin, Edge’s current fun buddy” are personal favourites); it’s a French translation, and the bar for games in general isn’t particularly high. But delivery and direction can be held to account. Key roles are horrendously voiced, and the overarching plot, one of such relevance to the modern world, never quite knows what it wants to be.
Society, corporations, technology and government come in for criticism, but there’s nothing concrete or hard-hitting enough to constitute real commentary. Too much is left to the optional ‘mnesist’ journal entries, with omni-present radical and former WWE wrestler Edge only telling you what to do, and not why. Where Nilin expresses concerns about his orders in private, these don’t manifest themselves in any meaningful way while playing. Prior to one chapter, she asks herself whether one crime can really rectify another, and whether it’s worth the personal sacrifice. One minor revelation later, she decides that yes, it totally can.
Her inter-chapter monologues are ethereal and engaging, but they stand almost entirely removed from the events of the story. The famous quotes which follow bear no running theme, applicable only to their singular chapter, if at all; one Rudyard Kipling line is horrendously inappropriate. The execution of major characters is mandatory, as is that of minor ones: kill first, ask questions later. Edge touts the atrocious experiments and effects of Memorize and its products, but the hypocrisy of the Errorist cause and its ambiguous morality are never explored. Too often, Remember Me poses questions that it seems afraid or unable to answer.
It’d be easier to take if this was merely an average game, but there are moments of inspired brilliance
It’d be easier to take if this was merely an average game, but there are moments of inspired brilliance. Nowhere is the story more powerful or the gameplay more original than the memory remixes. AC-like approaches to targets culminate in remixing their memories to change their world view, with several making the victim believe that they killed a loved one. A film reel of events can be rewound and fast-forwarded at will, highlighting objects which can be tampered with. Different combinations create chain reactions, which you get to see play out in real time.
The result is emotionally galling, with all the drama and dynamic choice of a Quantic Dream title and decidedly more input. It also happens four times in the entire game. It almost seems as if they shouldn’t be there, such is the sudden and short-lived shift in tone. One potentially interesting character suddenly decides she’s Nilin’s ally, then only appears once in the rest of the game. Caricature villains and humorous commentary quickly resume.
It might all be a little too unbearable were it not for the score. It’s a tremendous piece of original music, horns and strings swelling in combat, expounding on the sense of wonder entering new areas. What really raises it up is the editing, music glitching and skipping at scripted moments of drama, but also dynamically within fights as you take a big hit. It really epitomises the sense of discord at the heart of Remember Me – moments of wonder, genuine thrills, which fall completely out of step with the blunt mediocrity of the majority of the game.
What you finish with is a confounding piece of work. Every time it flirts with greatness, it reverts almost embarrassedly to type. It wants to be an action adventure, a platformer, a character piece, a prophetic bit of commentary. And it tries hard. But we’ve seen it before: the trappings of a big publisher and big ideas manifest themselves in a muddle. It’s impressive that the game looks as polished as it does, but Remember Me aims high, and falls hard.
Reviewed on Xbox 360. Available from today on 360, PS3 and PC.