Remember Me is built on great ideas. A device that acts as an external hard drive for your memories. A society that edits out suffering, rather than facing it head on. Memory junkies, addicted to quick fixes of positive emotion. Dissidents who steal the memories of some so that all might be free. A city clothed in highly skilled artwork. A soundtrack I can’t wait to own. A free-flowing combat system that invites the player to get creative.
Developer Dontnod Entertainment deserves praise for all the quality concepts packed into their debut title, as well as for standing by their multiracial female protagonist when others straight up told them they shouldn’t. But this compliment goes hand-in-hand with my general problem with the game. Great ideas, all around — but there needed to be more than that.
The game follows Nilin, a gifted Memory Hunter (the most gifted, we’re told) saddled with the unenviable task of toppling a corrupt society while trying to figure out who she is. No pressure. Nilin’s memories have been wiped clean in prison, and though she has no choice but to accept the backstory her friends have supplied her with, her forced reboot has shifted her perspective. Her story presents an intriguing question: If you forgot your life history for a few days, how would it change who you are? Would you trust the same people? Would you believe in the same things?
Nilin may need to piece herself back together, but she wastes no time in returning to her old job. Aside from her knack for unarmed pummeling, she’s got two primary tools of the trade: stealing memories, and remixing them. Stolen memories are taken stealthily, and provide useful info, such as the code to open a lock, or the way to enter a building unseen. Shady, perhaps, but roguishly enjoyable. Remixing, on the other hand, felt both compelling and deeply messed up. A remix involves tweaking the details of a memory that influenced the victim’s personal development. The things changed can be small — the placement of a cup holder, the angle of a table, the safety on a gun. If the remix works as intended, the victim is motivated to behave differently, having no idea that the life they remember is a lie. It made my skin crawl, especially since the memories you alter in the game all revolve around a loved one. Remixing is Nilin’s specialty, and she never hesitates in it, even as she rails against the immorality of the powers that be. The end, apparently, justifies the means.
This could make for a fascinating internal struggle, but the game never quite gets there. Nilin’s motivations seem foggy, and her typically harsh remixes keep threatening to push her into antihero territory. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing, if they’d committed to it. Nilin is a well-conceived protagonist, and a stronger acknowledgment of her murky school of ethics would’ve added one more layer of complexity. I kept waiting for her choices to bite her in the ass (especially that first remix, holy cats), or at least for the game to admit that she wasn’t coming out of this with her hands clean. But that never happens. The game is very clear about who it thinks the good guys and bad guys are. It never adequately reacts to the shades of gray.
The thing I wanted most in Remember Me was more time — time to soak in the world around me, time to fully understand the key players, time to learn more about what made Nilin tick. The dialogue sometimes gets bogged down with flowery prose and invented words (this may be a matter of personal preference — I’ve noticed an inverse relationship between how many made-up terms there are in a story, and how willing I am to go along with it). The villains monologue melodramatically, even when they think they’re alone, and the good guys sound like revolutionary bards. That’s a style thing, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but there were several times where the game got tangled up in its own flair. I was never with any of the characters long enough to get a solid feel for them, and the impact of the first big reveal was dulled by having little time to appreciate who the involved parties were. I could feel so much good stuff waiting below the surface, and I was eager to dig in. But again, the game doesn’t go far enough.
I could say the same for the visual environment, which is gobsmackingly gorgeous. Every pathway felt like running through an elaborate dollhouse, stuffed with careful little details — tables of colorful food, classy shop windows, individual items within piles of trash. Decay and opulence exist side by side, and they are evoked with equal care. Neo-Paris is a city begging to be explored. And therein lies the problem — you can’t. Ledges and platforms can only be used when marked with a too-obvious arrow, and you often can’t go back the way you came. I could jump several meters up a designated concrete wall, but I couldn’t hop up on a crate to get a better look at my surroundings. I once found myself standing on a small catwalk, wanting to look at the city behind me, but no, the camera was locked in place, honed in on the next arrow. There were public squares and plazas I was free to explore — and I did, covering every inch, savoring the sculptures and food stalls — but these were too few and far between. I don’t mind a nudge in the right direction, even a forceful one, but getting to mission objectives felt less like an action game and more like connect the dots. And while Nilin’s leaping and climbing is a conceptually fun way to get around town, I never found it to be a challenge.
The combat, thankfully, was more satisfying. Rather than your standard punch-kick-dodge affair, where combo chains are set in stone, the player gets to customize what types of effects each attack will have. These effects, called Pressens, grant health regeneration, increased attack power, or reduced cooldowns for special abilities (taking control of hostile robots, for instance, or gaining temporary invisibility). You can change your combos at any time, even during a fight, which lets you experiment and problem solve. This was, hands down, my favorite part of the game. It kept me thinking, and Nilin’s animations were delightfully badass. I wasn’t wild about the targeting, which didn’t give me as much control as I would’ve liked, and I could’ve done without enemy guards universally calling me “little lady” or asking if I had broken a nail (there are better, smarter, less irritating ways to make me want to hit someone). And I can’t talk about combat without mentioning the soundtrack, which reacts seamlessly to your actions, giving every fight the feeling of choreography. Pure cool. But toward the end, the fights lost some of their appeal. I think this could’ve been offset by having a more exciting means of getting from point A to point B. As I wasn’t engaged by any gameplay other than the combat, I felt as if I was being safely ferried from fight to fight, without enough going on in between to make me hungry for more.
Despite its flaws, I’d still recommend Remember Me to fans of beat ’em ups, or anyone who really likes cyberpunk. And I hope there’s a sequel. Seriously, I do. This felt like the first season of a new TV show — wobbly in places, but interesting enough for me to be willing to give it another try. Dontnod has built a world of great possibilities. They’re unafraid to show a diverse future populated by men and women of different colors and beliefs (the list of secondary characters contains a very refreshing number of women who are explicitly the best at what they do, from architects to bounty hunters), or to aim for big, ambitious themes right out of the gate. That’s admirable stuff, and I hope they continue down that road. Remember Me has some powerful ingredients at its core. Just like Nilin, all a follow-up needs is to figure out how those pieces fit together.
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