Remember Me Review
Memory can be a depressing thing. Often some of our fondest memories end up lost to the ravages of time, while some of our most traumatic linger endlessly, like a punishment. So, what if you could excise those memories? Or input new ones? What if you could experience the life of another through their own past experiences? It's a dangerous-sounding and fascinating premise, one that Remember Me, a new third-person action game from first-time studio Dontnod, almost manages to successfully realize.
Where it falters is unfortunately where so many other thoughtfully written games tend to: its mechanics. Remember Me is a better story than a game, a mixture of Philip K. Dick-style plotting and Luc Besson's sci-fi aesthetics grafted onto an initially nifty, but ultimately repetitive gameplay design. There are a few characters here worth caring about, a story that twists itself effectively around the troubled morality of forever trying to erase one's own painful history, and a visual palette that's absolutely gorgeous. But in-between the margins of Remember Me's best elements are sluggish combat, brainless traversal, and a fractured sense of progression and purpose. This is a game of many highs and lows, with little middle ground to speak of.
Fortunately, one of the highs is the character you spend the most time with. Nilin is a memory hunter ensconced in the seedy underbelly of Neo-Paris' civil war. When the game opens, Nilin's memory is in the process of being wiped clean by nefarious scientists of a corporation that more or less runs the whole show. The company's Sensen technology is ubiquitous in Neo-Paris, with all walks of life sporting implants that allow them to access others' memories and dump unwanted ones. Unfortunately, it can also grant access to those with Nilin's special skills, who might be looking to play around inside of your mind.
Though Nilin has lost much of her memory at the outset, a strange voice appears and helps guide her out of the prison she's mysteriously found herself in. The helper, an omnipresent "Errorist" leader named Edge, tells Nilin bit-by-bit who she is, what she's a part of, and what her mission once was. It's a fairly typical case of rebellious anti-corporate terrorists looking to bring down Big Memory, but how that struggle is framed against the slowly returning memories of Nilin is where Remember Me most definitively succeeds.
Remember Me is deliberate in its meting out of information, introducing you to other characters of varying degrees of villainy over the course of its roughly eight-hour adventure, and then proceeding to give you a bit of insight into how they came to be what they are. The characters the script bothers to flesh out are often strong presences throughout the game. However, a few too many characters are tossed into the mix for brief periods, only to be tossed aside later with nothing worthwhile learned about them. I mention this only because the story is at its best when Nilin is allowed to dig deep into these characters' motivations. Some of the less-interesting characters, like the miserable warden of the new La Bastille prison, are simply psychotic and horrible. Others, like the husband and wife duo that run the corporation, have more nuanced reasoning for how they came to be so powerful, so merciless, and so deeply destructive.
These memories are presented to Nilin in separate gameplay sections, which task you with remixing defining memories in their lives. There's not much to it, in that you essentially just rewind the memory until you find exploitable glitches, which you can then use to completely alter the scope of what's happened. Though it amounts to little more than a bit of extra button-pressing, the consequences of those changes become immediately apparent, and result in some of the more thoughtful storytelling moments in the game.
Unfortunately, not enough is done with these memory remixing sections to make them more than an occasionally meaningful distraction. The rest of the time, you're punching and jumping your way through the various slums, skyscrapers, and scientific facilities of Neo-Paris, taking on enemy soldiers, robots, and Leapers. Leapers are essentially memory junkies, grotesquely deformed dregs of this futuristic society that can scarcely hold a coherent thought, and lash out at anyone not similarly deformed. The Leapers are a sad, tragic enemy that nonetheless never evolve into a more consistent threat than anyone else in the game. They, like the soldiers under the company's employ, simply lash out at Nilin every time you enter a battle arena, and proceed to die at your hand.
Were the combat better, or at least better-paced, fighting them might have been a more engaging experience. As it stands, hand-to-hand fighting is largely Remember Me's weakest link, a hodgepodge of basic button-mashing combos made far more complex by a system that requires precision and trial-and-error to be most effective. Each move Nilin learns can be manually placed in the structure of a larger combo. There are four distinct attack varieties, each which does something a bit different, bonus-wise. Some attacks help restore health, while others reduce the cooldown time on Nilin's special moves, which can range from intense blasts of memory disrupting energy, to circuit-scrambling attacks that bring robotic enemies over to your side.
It's a nice idea, but it falters in execution. Each hit requires a fairly precise timing to continue to the combo string, and the volume of enemies you often face simply doesn't allow for much precision in your fighting at all. Nilin's attack animations also have a tendency to run a bit long, which makes parsing out the combo timing a real pain early on. Eventually you'll get the hang of it, but it never becomes much fun to fight, no matter how tricky the enemies eventually get.
The rest of the game is peppered with traversal puzzles and the occasional actual riddle to be solved. These suffer from a similar problem of repetition to the combat, where you simply find yourself darting from highlighted ledge to highlighted ledge, or solving the same basic door-opening puzzles over and over again. Granted, there's no reason to really explore Neo-Paris much, outside of a few collectibles and other hidden bric-a-brac. But even still, the fact that the game essentially tells you exactly where to go at all times is emblematic of Remember Me's unwillingness to let the player off the leash. All the game's levels are linear to a fault, often rather cramped, and frankly just not that interesting to explore.
It's too bad, because Remember Me's art design is phenomenal. Neo-Paris' landscapes look both appropriately futuristic and horrifically dingy, the kind of lived-in dystopia you'd want from a game so clearly inspired by Dick-ian sci-fi. Though the textures and other environmental details do look a bit better on PC, the Xbox 360 version of the game looks strong as well. Unfortunately, both versions have the same stilted, often awkward-looking character animations, which tend to detract from the scenery even when they aren't specifically glitching out.
That art design, the game's intriguing story, and the terrific score by composer Olivier Deriviere are ultimately betrayed by Remember Me's slavish dedication to a game design that just doesn't quite work. There are great ideas in this game, ones that deserve better kinds of interactivity than what's presented. Sadly, the plot and the game design never quite enmesh, leading to fascinating moments being broken up repeatedly by mechanics that just aren't much fun to slog through. There's a story and a universe here worth remembering; sadly, it's the wonky and repetitive gameplay you'll most often have trouble forgetting.