As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for Remember Me. This review also contains some spoilers for the television show Fringe.
Remember Me is a weird game. It’s already an awkward marriage of Uncharted-esque traversal and beat-’em-up/rhythm-game,1 but then it throws in puzzle sequences whose closest cousin is the point-and-click adventure. It’s also a wonky game, with inconsistent voice acting, strange mechanics, a confusing narrative, and a whole bunch of bugs. And you what? I kinda love it.
It’s quite possible that my positive feelings towards Remember Me are somewhat protective in nature. It’s the rare oddball of a game that has a lot of rough edges but does enough stuff well that it’s worth playing and discussing; however, it’s also the kind of game that both the gaming press and gaming enthusiasts will likely forget about in a couple of months.2 I hope that people keep this game in the back of their minds, though, because it does a number of things very well.
World-building, for one. Remember Me does a fantastic job of creating the setting of the futuristic city of Neo-Paris in the year 2084. Part of that is in the absolutely stunning art direction, on par with that of games like Half-Life 2 or Deus Ex: Human Revolution.3 Neo-Paris looks like a real, lived-in place. The class struggle here isn’t just a conflict that’s described in dialogue; it’s something that’s evident in the very fabric of the setting. Slums of corrugated metal are juxtaposed against the pristine sand-coloured bricks of the early twentieth century buildings where the rich live, while huge skyscrapers of glass and concrete loom in the background. Electronic displays and bright lights abound, and information about landmarks is delivered via a sort of floating virtual reality display. There’s, for lack of a better word, a distinctly European flair to the city, evident in its architecture and even its signage. At times, the camera pulls away from the player character, Nilin, to admire the beauty of it all.
Remember Me also takes great care to establish the game’s narrative background. This is partly accomplished via collectible encyclopedia entries, but some of this is done through cutscenes and dialogue as well. The game tells us that Neo-Paris’ rich have used Sensen technology to forget about the ills of the poor, and this is reflected in the game’s frequent transitions between the slums and the rich districts of the city. We see the rich merrily going about their day with servant robots to do their bidding, while the poor reside in squalor. It’s a fantastic allegory for privilege in our current society, where the rich often can’t comprehend the problems of the poor, simply because they’ve never had to deal with such hardships. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking premise for a piece of speculative fiction.
The other fantastic aspect of Remember Me is its combat, which is somewhat reminiscent of Sleeping Dogs or the Batman: Arkham games, but actually has more in common with a rhythm game. Button presses must be perfectly timed in accordance with coloured circles at the bottom of the screen in order to chain together combos for maximum impact. The effects of each component in the combo can be customized, lending the combat its tactical nature.4 The combat isn’t just about timing; there’s some strategy involved in customizing combos and deploying them appropriately. At first, I focused mainly on power and regeneration moves, but I soon realized the importance of cooldown and linking moves as well, especially in the back half of the game when special moves are necessary to defeat enemies. It’s a surprisingly challenging affair, and one that relies on dodging just as often – if not more often – than attacking. One of the nice touches in the combat is that the music increases in intensity the more successful you are at pulling off a combo; it’s refreshing to get aural feedback on top of the visual feedback that a game usually provides.
Speaking of the music, the soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous, layering electronic sounds on top of the the grandeur of an orchestral score. There’s no Hans-Zimmer-esque bombast here, though. Composer Olivier Derivière is an expert at building stirring tension and then slowly releasing it in a never-ending ebb and flow.
When the game’s art and environment work in concert with its soundtrack and combat mechanics, it has an unparalleled fluidity. Unfortunately, the other aspects of Remember Me are a mixed bag. For one, the traversal sections are bland for the first half the game. They’re signposted to the point of triviality, but if they weren’t clearly highlighted, then the game would be nearly unplayable, as players would struggle to figure out where to jump to next. In the second half of the game, though, when more complicated environmental puzzles and quasi-stealth sections are added, they become far more enjoyable. The memory remix puzzle sections are also kind of a mixed bag, but I’d say they’re more good than bad. They provide an interesting set of mechanics that you don’t typically see in mainstream video games, and there’s immense satisfaction to be felt in watching the results of a remix play out like a mental Rube Goldberg machine.5 However, the solutions aren’t easily deducible a priori (though their logic makes sense ex post), which gives the puzzles a trial-and-error nature that can make them a bit tedious. In a way, they’re kind of like the point-and-click adventure games of old, where you just clicked on everything and tried every possibility in the hopes of accidentally stumbling upon the correct solution.
Where Remember Me really stumbles is in its plot. Okay, the voice acting and dialogue are occasionally terrible,6 but let’s leave those aside for the moment and talk about the plot. To be clear, nothing about the plot is truly awful. It’s there, and it provides a generally logical justification for the events of the game.7 But that’s kind of the problem: it’s just there. It has next to fuck-all to do with the premise of class struggle as set up by the game in its early hours. For the most part, the villains you pursue are maniacs doing things that are grossly unethical and inhumane in ways that have little or nothing to do with their socioeconomic status. Further complicating matters is the fact that Nilin steals and remixes memories throughout the game, despite the fact that she’s trying to bring down Sensen. She shows remorse for it and even debates the ethics of doing it, but the game has a happy ending. So in the end, it seems as if its message is “the ends justify the means,” which is more than a little unsettling for me.
That being said, the ending, being an emotional, personal one, does manage to ground things a bit and provide suitable closure to a narrative that was never really on the rails in the first place. But Remember Me doesn’t emphasize enough the link between Charles’ decision to alleviate his daughter’s sorrow and the proliferation of Sensen technology. It halfheartedly demonstrates that small-scale actions can have large-scale consequences, but doesn’t make that point forcefully enough. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the fourth season of the TV show Fringe, which struggled similarly. Seasons 2 and 3 of Fringe did a masterful job of showing how Walter’s decision to save Peter from the Other Side had consequences that spanned two universes. However, the fourth season’s alternate timeline never made an adequate case for why Peter’s absence caused William Bell to go crazy and try to create some weird third-universe utopia.8 Likewise, Remember Me doesn’t do a good job of explaining how Charles’ innovation on his daughter came to be commercialized, nor does it show how any of this is linked to Doctor Quaid’s crazy prison experiments. However, I will give the game credit for drawing an interesting parallel between wanting to forget personal hardship (like Charles did for Nilin) and wanting to forget the hardships of others (like the rich do for the poor). It’s the one instance in which Remember Me successfully links the micro and the macro.
Still, these glaring flaws notwithstanding, Remember Me is an immensely enjoyable experience, if only to get sucked into the beauty of it all. The craft and care that go into making a game world seem believable and vibrant are things I wish other developers would learn from this game. This is a strong first outing from developers Dontnod Entertainment, and I hope that when they revisit this world,9 they’ll take what they’ve learned and make an even stronger game.
4 A kinda ranty aside about “tactical” combat: I’ve seen a lot of people praise the original BioShock for its supposedly tactical combat and a lot of people criticize BioShock Infinite for its supposedly non-tactical combat. It’s true that BioShock had a lot more weapon and ammo options, but rarely were any of them meaningful. Even when you had multiple weapons, the smart thing to do was to stick to a couple of guns and ammo types. All the extra options were largely useless. If having extra pointless options makes combat more “tactical” and rewarding for you, then good for you, I guess. But I prefer combat where the choices I have are actually the choices I’m going to use, like in BioShock Infinite. I also prefer combat where I can actually aim a fucking weapon at an enemy. (Nope, I’m never going to forgive BioShock for its kludgy, clumsy aiming system.) ^
7 Since the game takes place over the course of only a couple of days, it’s plausible that Olga Sedova hadn’t yet realized that her memory had been remixed, which would explain why she’s helping Nilin at the end. So…not a plot hole, folks. ^