Review: Remember Me

I adored Life Is Strange. It was close to a perfect adventure game, with a quirky, emotionally evocative story about adolescence and high school life and creativity and community on the Pacific Northwest and time travel and serial killers and weird magic. It had at least three compelling mysteries driving the plot: what happened to the missing Rachel Amber, how did protagonist Max’s old friend Chloe become so troubled, and what is the significance and source of Max’s new time-traveling abilities? The gameplay allowed the focus to stay on the story and the characters. Player choice resulted in some gut-kick moments (especially the ending decision). And themes relating to memory and nostalgia and time were cleverly woven not only through the story but through the use of the time travel powers in the game.

So when I finished Life Is Strange, I figured I’d try Remember Me, developer Dontnod Entertainment’s earlier title (Life Is Strange was released in 2015, while Remember Me came out in 2013). I played through a few levels, but the closed-in environments weren’t interesting enough to keep battling with a difficult keyboard-based configuration on PC.

Time passed. A lot of time passed. Finally, with the June 2018 release of Vampyr by Dontnod, I decided I’d try to revisit Remember Me. In the interim since my last play attempt, my wife had gifted me a wired 360 controller for the PC. This controller change was an immense improvement. Remember Me is a game that is oriented around the button configuration of a console controller, and it’s one of those still relatively rare titles that legitimately plays better with controller. Combat, a significant element of the game, is largely oriented around the A, B, X, and Y buttons, which are strung together to create increasingly powerful combos. Button mashing was largely ineffective, I found, and careful use of combo streaks with dodging was critical to succeed.

So, with my new controller approach, I tackled the game at the highest difficulty, Memory Hunter, and I’m pleased to say that I beat the game. It wasn’t especially long, with eight levels. It didn’t feel especially deep–despite often sprawling vistas, the futuristic setting of Neo Paris was limited largely to cramped hallways, alleyways, dormitories, and plazas. While the parkour navigation and wall-crawling was entertaining, it still felt limiting when pathways were always predetermined. Secrets to be discovered often depended on taking a path to the left instead of to the right before advancing, or going down before going up. Those secrets appear to represent replay value; I could go back through individual levels to collect all the lore entries and power-ups. I have no motivation to do so.

The game didn’t even feel especially hard with the game controller. There were some frustrating battles, but no boss fight required more than a few attempts to figure out what the game expected from me.

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Combat is a large part of the game, along with memory remixing and environmental platforming. I’ve discussed both combat and the parkour platforming above (I’d add that there is also a customizable set of combos that can be reoriented with new moves that you unlock, though I early on found a set of moves that took advantage of the different powers in-game and didn’t mess with it much after that; it was more convoluted than needed for the combo trees actually employed in combat).

Memory remixing was the most interesting element of the game. You play as Nilin, a memory hunter who has had her own memory stolen. Over the course of the game, you rediscover your lost memories and abilities while attempting to tear down a dystopian society built around the commodification of memory. A key ability of Nilin’s is the power to steal or even remix memories. Nilin can project herself into someone’s mind and alter one’s memories so that they remember a different outcome. Small changes in a memory snowball into larger changes. Nilin must be able to make the right changes to cause a larger change in memory that could even result in an individual taking on a new worldview or personality. The remixed person might take rather sudden and drastic action based on the newly re-perceived events, even.

Unfortunately, this cool feature is underutilized. There are maybe a half-dozen memory remixes throughout the game. I would have liked to have had more opportunities to play with reality (or at least memory) in this way–and I suppose Life Is Strange‘s time travel powers represent an improvement on this form of gameplay.

Most of Remember Me feels underutilized, in fact.

There are a lot of cool ideas here. Interesting philosophical ideas drift in and out, explicitly and implicitly. Memory and the past become critical to the game’s central theme and narrative. But the game doesn’t fully explore any particular concept, and what it tries to say about capitalism and memory and resistance and family is muddled.

Nilin is a kickass female protagonist, and the game has a fair amount of racial and gender diversity. But there’s not much character development, and there are few interesting, unique characters. (One person we’re supposed to care about a lot, who is key to what should be an emotional moment late in the game, is defined only by his fan-worship of Nilin.)

There are cool sci-fi ideas, from memory storage/sharing and memory remixing to an oppressed class of robots and an outcast band of humans with corrupted psyches. At many times throughout the game, the game world felt rather like a spiritual sequel to the darkly conspiratorial cyber-punk world of Deus Ex. But with so many sci-fi concepts buzzing about, the world seemed somewhat amorphous. And oddly, many of the artifacts of the world (toys, shows, news, advertisements, etc.) appeared largely to support an impending story development. Yet the robots in the game don’t get developed after all, even though we see them used as abused personal assistants, prostitutes, and soldiers. (It’s likely that these robots are not truly sentient, but there’s a lot to be said about designing robots that look and act in a human-like fashion and then using them for sex and violence and drudgery.)

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Gameplay is varied, and the game often tries to suggest a much bigger world. But the closed spaces of the final level design leave a lot to be desired.

The story is fairly straightforward. Nilin, the aforementioned amnesiac memory hunter, is rescued from prison and works with an anonymous benefactor using the pseudonym “Edge” to retrieve her memories and promote the Errorist cause. The Errorists are, well, memory terrorists. They quickly escalate to large-scale acts of violence and destruction, as well. Nilin is pulled along, committing ever-more-despicable acts on both the physical and memorial stage. She is morally repulsed by the outcomes of some of the things she does, but she keeps following Edge’s orders. Authorial intent would seem to be that she is uncomfortably in his debt (he did save her, after all) and reacting to even larger atrocities committed by the corporate powers of the world. But even so, the actual story fails to fully deliver, and at times it seems that Nilin keeps doing horrible things–things she regrets–merely because she has nothing better to do and is willing to blindly follow the leader.

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The most interesting elements of the story relate to the technology and philosophy of the memory-sharing corporate society. I’ll admit that I didn’t even read all the lore I collected (and not reading the lore is rather unusual for me in a sci-fi or fantasy game with any form of codex), but I feel like the cool ideas outstretched the feasibility of execution. The ability to alter memories as though they were actual events that, if changed, would follow logical paths was a little bit difficult to believe, for instance. And let’s just say that Edge’s ultimate intention seems a little contradicted by his methodology.

In general, motivation was a bit of a stretch. While some apparent plot holes were cleared up as Nilin regained memories, it still remained that Nilin would do things before having the adequate motivation to do them. And while I actually grew rather fond of Nilin, I had very little emotional attachment to any of the other characters. Even Nilin’s own emotional journey felt muted to me.

Everything points to a much bigger game that was trimmed down. Perhaps there were budget or deadline concerns. Perhaps Dontnod eventually realized that it was overambitious with what it wanted to do for a first title. While the game is complete, it is not polished and feels smaller than it wants to be–smaller than it should be, for all the features and ideas it tries to contain.

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I liked Remember Me. The combat was mostly fun, and the memory remixing sequences were interesting puzzles. But I wish I’d been able to play the game that Dontnod seems to have intended to make here, rather than the game that they ended up with.

Remember Me is not a bad game–and this middle-tier release from a new studio should have given the AAA titles an impressive run for their money. But while I can still wholeheartedly recommend Life Is Strange, I could only suggest Remember Me with qualifications. It’s not a perfect game, and yet I don’t regret my time with Nilin in Neo Paris.

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