I’ve been trying to write the first sentence of this review for twelve hours. The best I could come up with was something about how storytelling in video games can often be forgotten in favour of violent set-pieces or the need to polish multiplayer. How I’m sick of the eye-rolling from all quarters when I eulogise about how video games are as valid a medium for a great story as books or movies. How important it is to then balance the story with the actual playing mechanics.
I wanted to tell you how disappointed I am with Remember Me, the first game from Dontnod, published by Capcom. How the immaculate world of future Neo-Paris that is painted with such detail, and the science fiction story that takes a concept and has the confidence to fully explore its implications, exacerbate the failings in combat design and even basic play testing. I wanted to warn you off, to advise waiting for the bargain bin and leave you with a sense of initial impressiveness leading to final frustration.
The trouble is, I’m just completely split – a day after completion – on how I feel about it. Amidst all the combat repetition and flakiness in the final third, there’s something about this game that has really resonated.
Set in a beautifully-realised future vision of Paris, Remember Me hypothisises a world where memories can be openly shared, and even manipulated. You play as Nilin, once a powerful memory hunter, now reduced to a confused amnesiac at the very start of the game. As she learns, as do we – and with her memories come her fighting skills, incrementally becoming “remembered” as she fights her way to the truth. She is guided by a friend, Edge, who is no more than radio chatter in her ear, leading her to the realisation that the memory controllers have created a classist dystopia where good memories can be resold and bad can be forgotten. Memorize plays the role of The Evil Controlling Company and offers itself as motivation for ten hours of climbing, fighting and the odd bout of riddle solving.
Nilin is an interesting character. Vulnerable get strong, her abilities as a memory hunter reveal themselves to be unique amongst her peers. Not only can she view memories, she is able to find “glitches” and remix them so as to give the “rememberer” a completely different perception of the final consequence, changing minds and removing motivation. She is animated with swagger and poise and voiced naturally with the delicious Welsh lilt of actress Kezia Burrows. The writing occasionally lets her down with slight pretention and a propensity for the overly-dramatic, but on the whole she is brought to life in a very real and convincing manner. Her supporting cast are equally well thought out, if not always believable in their actions.
The art is beautiful. Stunning, even. The journey through the game may be entirely linear, but the environment that is given to you to savour along the way is exceptional in its concept and detail. It helps that Paris is not often used as a future dystopian setting, and it turns out that its old brickwork is the perfect foundation for the topping of Bladerunner-esque neon-clad skyscrapers and sweeping aerial transport flythroughs, with the Eiffel tower reaching up through the glare of it all. The designers do not miss any chance to pull the camera back from the detailed alleys and rooftops to reveal the epic vistas, music swelling to match your heartbeat. There’s tangible self-confidence evident at every stage of the visual design, as if the game itself understands just how very impressive it is. From tight streets to scrubbed clean prisions, from grubby market stall bars to clean digital landscapes, the solidity and smoothness of the game world is a pleasure throughout. In fact, on many occasions, it saves Remember Me from a premature press of the power button.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Olivier Deriviere’s score is everything that Tron: Legacy‘s should have been. It shares many of the same themes as Daft Punk’s attempt – swirling strings constantly undercut by digital jumps – but is so much more progressive and compelling. It matches the complexity of the visual design at every step, growing in layers with every successful punch and kick that Nilin lands. Its richness and drama outdoes so many of its contemporaries, with the peaks and troughs matching the story threads as they untangle. In the final moments of the game, the volume balance shifts in favour of the music so that the finale approaches with full strings and digital crackles. It’s a shining example of how game music can be as essential as any other genre. (You can buy it on iTunes here).
These are the parts that have remained with me now that my journey with Nilin has been completed. Environment, story, character and music, all showing great professionalism and expertise in their execution So, Game Of The Year? Unfortunately, there is another side to consider, and it drags the good down with annoying niggles that lead to genuine game-breaking complaints.
It all started so well, though. If you were following my attempt to finish Remember Me in a day (it was never going to happen, by the way – I had about four hours left when I finished writing), you’ll know that I was so very positive about it for the first half of the playthrough. Story and abilities unfolded in equal pace, enemy types showing variety and menace. The building of combat moves – called Pressens here – is an interesting approach to melee combat and combo construction, with different moves having passive boosters that can be combined and designed to meet specific requirements. Need some energy? Throw in a regen move. Need to cooldown the specials faster? Need to hit harder? The Pressen options allows configuration on the fly, mid-fight even, so that there is an underlying strategy to every move.
The combat alleviates the temptation for button-mashing by being totally dependant on specific timings of button combinations. Taking inspiration from the Batman: Arkham series, enemies surround Nilin with warning signs showing when she should evade. Combos can be built up to eight moves, and will only be effective if the next button is pressed as the previous move hits (this is shown both in her animations and in a combo line at the bottom of the screen). This focus on controlled attack does make the fighting more compelling and engrossing. At least, for as long as there are new elements to discover and utilise.
Unfortunately, this plays a large part of the game’s downfall. Once you get the hang of the exact timings for fighting and evading (a shoulder-flip that doesn’t break the combo), the challenge lies in the confrontation and analysis of new enemy types. Three hours from the end of the game, they just stop appearing, and instead the game quickly falls into the pattern of some simple traversal (again, through spectacularly realised environments) between bouts with combinations of different enemies in conveniently enclosed arenas. The suddenly lack of variety, mixed with increasing repetition, soon sours the positive reaction to the game’s first two acts. The combination of enemies may change, but once their attack points are identified, it’s just a case of prioritising their order then chipping away until they all lay defeated. The Pressens, by this point, can be stacked to achieve a certain aim and the player ends up only using two combos for all the combat. Even the addition of an arm-mounted tool called The Spammer (the closest the game comes to having a gun) doesn’t do enough to add any more interest. Whereas the art and music has huge ideas, the game mechanics betray the fact that Remember Me is the first game by a single team.
What is hardest to understand is why Dontnod didn’t capitalise more on the amazing world they’d created. One of the key themes of the game is the massive class distinction between those that can afford the Memorize technology and the underclass who have been effectively turned into drug addicts, pleading for any free memories to just feel something. However, there’s a third element to this, and it’s one that is so obvious that you constantly expect it to be brought to the fore, only to see it get totally passed by. Neo-Paris is not just home to the relatively new Memorize technology – all through the city, from the slums up to the priceless penthouses, there are humanoid robots working a huge variety of tasks. These skeletal androids are basically used as slaves – cleaning, cooking, shopping, even in prostitution – and their presence is constantly felt. Even though their behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as their society gets torn apart by Nilin and her friends, the game takes no opportunity to use them in more meaningful ways. There’s even a trigger moment where Nilin crashes into a shopper mid-run, the android dropping all her shopping and then subsequently chastised by her owner. It’s the perfect trigger moment that could drag all the past robot activities into glaring focus, and the game was screaming out for a new enemy type by that point. However, any consequence is so noticeable by its exclusion that you can’t help but wonder if an initial idea to include a robot uprising had suddenly been edited out. In fact, two of the game’s most memorable moments have nothing do do with the main cast or story, but with the androids. The first is the brief passing through a repair bay where one standing ‘droid is operating on another, its still body suddenly twitching under the surgeon’s tool. The second is the most shocking – a cleaning ‘droid, similar to many other you’ve already seen, who suddenly stops, pauses, then smashes its head against the cracked glass before resuming its cleaning. It’s shocking and disconcerting, a wasted opportunity in a design that desparately needed a further element.
To make matters worse, there is a distinct feeling in the last third that Dontnod didn’t have time to playtest their game completely. Platforming sections gradually become more and more frustrating, instant kill drops and unclear signposting draining away motivation and patience. Unfinished sections invite exploration only to find unconnected buttons and dead ends. Fallen enemies trap you in their dead bodies. A running escape from a police aircraft over disappearing squares will test your patience to the limits, and the sloppy controls will fight against the uncooperative camera for most of the campaign. There definitely seems to be a cut-off point where the game stopped receiving new ideas and Dontnod was happy for the remainder to be filled with mixed arena battles against beautiful backdrops. Unfortunately, this lack of variety – mixed with some extremely dubious actions from the supporting cast – really drains away the power of the story concept. It’s almost as if Remember Me was a point-and-click adventure or slow-paced RPG that decided to become a melee brawler.
However, even with this slew or negative comments, the game still leaves such an impression after its gone. There’s something about its bravery in trying something new amidst a sea of multiplayer shooters that makes you want it to succeed, even when the game world literally and figuratively starts crumbling. There may not be a single original element to any of its gameplay mechanics – Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time for the platforming, Batman for the combat, Vanquish for the QTE boss takedowns, even Rez for some of the later digital environments – but the depth of the universe distracts you from the dwindling variation and quality. The character designs are stylish and distinct, enemies are very menacing and the fragile memory remixes are handled with the restraint you would expect from a seasoned developer like Naughty Dog, not from a young startup. It’s a beautiful interactive slice of science fiction, so it’s a real shame that the interactivity detracts so much.
Full circle, and still faced with indecision as whether to recommend with major caveats or warn off but with recommendations. Your mileage will vary – if, like me, gaming is a doorway to new worlds in which you can get lost, then Remember Me certainly has enough in its environments to allure. If the mechanics are your number one priority, the simplistic combat and lack of variety, along with stuffy controls and frustrating signposting, will probably remove your motivation to play through to the end. Either way, the good news is that sales have been good enough that a sequel is highly likely, meaning that Dontnod could further expand on their incredible universe. As for their first entry, though, let me put it this way: I’m probably never going to play it again, but I’m really glad I experienced its journey. Despite the failings, I’ll certainly remember it.