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September 12, 2013

4

Xbox 360 – Remember Me (2013) Review

by Master Pillow

Futuristic Neo-Paris comes alive with sumptuous production design and striking visuals that more than show this current generation of consoles still has a few tricks up its sleeve.  Throw in an appropriately rocking original soundtrack and a gripping hard science fiction narrative with more than a few twists and one would think developer Dontnod has a real winner on its hands.  Unfortunately, a little thing called gameplay almost ruins the entire experience.

Set in the year 2084, Remember Me, spins a rather chilling vision of the future where The Memorize Corporation has invented and popularized a brain implant trademarked The Sensation Engine, or Sensen for short, that confers outfitted human beings the ability to upload, share and edit their own memories.  A huge market for memories has thus been created as individuals can exchange bad ones for good allowing people almost unfettered control in shaping their pasts.  As such memory swapping has become a global phenomenon as individuals attempt to legally or illegally exchange memories almost like the modern drug trade.

One huge negative byproduct of Sensen has been the marked increase in Leapers, humans who have become too addicted to memory swapping to the point where their own psyche has been effectively corrupted physically mutating them into beings that resemble lepers.  Forced underground, these Leapers form their own twisted version of society and constantly pose a threat to those who live on the surface. With The Memorize Corporation holding monopolistic control over the market and the advent of the Leaper menace a resistance group called the Errorists has risen whose goal is to bring down the system in the name of freedom.

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Remember Me casts players as Nilin, a former memory hunter and resistance member, who one day wakes up within the confines of the Memorize Corporation’s re-education camp, her memory completely wiped.  Confused and scared she receives instructions over her still-working Sensen from a mysterious figure named Edge who professes his desire to help her out.  With nowhere else to turn Nilin listens to Edge as he talks her through escaping the camp and sets her on the path to not only recover her lost memories but to also bring down the seemingly evil corporation.

Players control Nilin through your standard third-person perspective as she traverses different areas of Neo-Paris.  For the most part Remember Me alternates between platforming sections where Nilin has to jump, scale or shimmy around the environment in order to get to her objective as well as your standard beat-them-up where players need to engage enemies in a rudimentary melee fighting system.  As this is what players will be doing for 95% of the time both gameplay styles need to be fine-tuned and though neither is broken or unplayable the problem quickly becomes apparent that they aren’t compelling enough to hold modern attention spans for long.

Although the environmental scenery can be downright breathtaking the problematic side-effect of having such grandiose architecture is that it forces developer Dontnod to rely too heavily in hand-holding by essentially showing players exactly where to go with a massive orange arrow.  This is exactly the opposite structure one would expect in a game such as this which features seemingly expansive environments where players have to discover for themselves where and what exactly they are supposed to do in order to succeed.

Think back to the original Tomb Raider as an example where the majority of the fun was in discovering how to scale insurmountable obstacles and the adrenalin rush of success that follows after a ton of trial and error.  To be fair there’s obviously a fine line between presenting something that is challenging and becoming downright tedious and unfair but achieving that balance is what sets good developers apart from the crowd.  By employing a system where the arrow always shows players the correct path to take the platforming here in Remember Me quickly becomes stale and ridiculously linear to a fault.  Sure, there are areas where players can go off the beaten track in order to find hidden items but these are few and far between and unlike other games these sections are easily discovered.  These hidden items do have some use as collecting enough of them expands Nilin’s health or focus bars making it slightly easier to take or deal damage.

Although it isn’t part of the gameplay developer Dontnod’s environmental architecture begs for additional freedom as it quickly becomes apparent that the levels are constructed in an obvious fashion that funnels players down a set path thus ridiculous obstacles always are present such as fallen rocks or stacks of garbage to block players from going the wrong way.  Dontnod also throws in a ton of additional detail through information bubbles that pop up as Nilin makes her way through a level.  As an example, if she walks through a shopping complex text suddenly appears giving players a short blurb detailing the contents of each store.

That sounds great if this were a point-and-click adventure game but it is completely perfunctory here as the information is totally useless as none of it affects the narrative nor does the game ever once give players the chance to actually enter any of the shops.  Walking past a fish seller and getting text that details the store and its owner doesn’t serve any purpose other than to clutter the screen and give the false impression that Nilin’s Sensen is providing her information even if she doesn’t want it.  Well, neither does the player especially since it is totally superfluous.

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As players traverse the environment the developers at Dontnod also have the strong tendency to force program the camera into panning or zooming in to a particular section of the scene in order to show off the pretty graphics.  While doing this once or twice to highlight particularly pleasant visuals is understandable there is again no reason to overuse this tactic and it quickly becomes not only distracting but it feels as if Dontnod is purposely trying to pat itself on its back like an overly excited kid who keeps tapping you on the shoulder just to tell you how cool he is.

Platforming and graphics aside the other major gameplay element is melee combat.  Nilin is a spry young lass employing standard punches and kicks rendered in fluid animation.  While not exactly a button masher like similar games from the golden days of beat-them-ups seen in titles like Final Fight or Streets of Rage, the gameplay in Remember Me is only barely more customizable.  Players are allowed to create their own combos by gaining enough points to unlock new abilities.  However, each combo is pre-canned meaning once you assign the sequence of buttons you want they have to be reused over and over again until you decide to customize the combo again.

The system attempts to give players some control over their playstyle since it is possible to create a sequence of button presses where each input does something different other than punching or kicking.  For instance, the combo might start with a simple punch but the next button adds health to Nilin’s HP Meter.  While it isn’t a particularly deep customizable fighting system it at least functions to give players the feeling that they are more in control of their destiny and elements like button presses to add health actually are intrinsically useful especially once the game’s difficulty ramps up and health stations become harder to locate.  Fighting tough foes and dealing damage while at the same time replenishing health quickly becomes second nature.

As the game progresses Nilin will learn special moves that help her combat specific foes such as allowing her to plant a sticky bomb on enemies or even hacking robots to fight for her cause. These moves can only be utilized once Nilin’s focus bar has sufficiently been charged through natural melee combat like punching and kicking.

Nevertheless, the game falls prey to many beat-them-up ills primary of which is the game’s tendency to increase the difficulty by throwing hordes of non-descript enemies at Nilin who can obviously hit her from the back or her sides.  This means players will always need to be aware of enemies in the area and not solely concentrate on just one as launching into a long combo will usually leave her totally vulnerable to attack from her blindsides.  The other major criticism is that no matter how you craft your combos that eventually the game begins to feel ridiculously repetitive especially once you find a sequence that works for you.  In this case the same button presses keep being entered over and over again and each battle no matter how tough or type of enemy becomes a massive chore.  Granted some enemies initially present a challenge by jumping around or flying in the air but once players figure out their pattern they too become easy prey.

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Another annoyance is the totally wonky camera that constantly spazzes out especially in confined areas such as narrow corridors.  Not only does it frequently focus on the wrong part of the room but it also has the tendency to provide a totally inappropriate camera angle that makes it tougher than it should be to even see Nilin on the screen.  It really feels as if this is a first generation 3D title in the vein of the first Tomb Raider where players need to constantly fight the camera while being aware of all the potential enemies on screen.  Outdoors or in large expansive areas the camera manages to provide a better view of the action although there are still times during Boss battles where it decides to change into a more cinematic angle much to the detriment of the player who instead just gets a much nicer shot of Nilin getting pounded.

It goes without saying that if games like Streets of Rage or Final Fight float your boat or even Dynasty Warriors where the action is repetitive to a fault than Remember Me might just be exactly your cup of tea.  However, if you desire more variety or the chance for each encounter to feel totally different this is clearly not the game for you as not only is the platforming and melee combat always familiar but the entire structure of each level plays out exactly the same way – run, jump or climb to a new melee area; knock everyone unconscious; pull a switch or hit a button; rinse and repeat until the admittedly overblown final end boss.

It is too bad that the majority of the platforming and melee combat is so mundane because the game’s one big original mechanic is actually incredibly riveting in execution.  These are the so-called memory remix sections of the game where Nilin has to enter a person’s mind and rewrite a past memory in order to change their entire life.  Imagine the huge possibilities that this can present as you could go back into someone’s memories and tweak them in such a way as to change their entire personality.  Past choices that ended badly can now suddenly be modified to end up being positive experiences.  Conversely, the power to change memories can carry nefarious purposes as one could alter good memories and turn them sour.

It’s a great science fiction hook that is unfortunately underused in the game in only a few sections sprinkled throughout the narrative but they are all highlights as the full power of memory editing hits with full force when one realizes how these particular memories that Nilin has to change really alter a person’s outlook.  Not to mention that questions of morality and ethics come surging to the forefront as one realizes how dastardly some of these tweaks end up and how simple changes actually feel inherently like Nilin is brainwashing individuals for her own ends.

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Each of these sections presents a pre-canned sequence of events that plays as a cinematic giving players power to fast-forward or rewind a specific memory sequence.  The trick lies in finding which objects can be modified and then basically guessing how simple changes can dramatically alter the entire memory sequence.  In a way it is like a visual choose your own adventure book where the story has many branches as players keep repeating the sequence until the desired goal is met.  Written in text it might not seem like such a big deal yet the game makes these sequences stand out with emotional resonance  due to some great camera angles, cinematic editing and competent voice over work.  At the same time trying to figure out how to alter a person’s memory to end up with a completely different result is gripping drama especially when one realizes how moving seemingly non-descript objects like a chair or a bottle can lead to unintended results.

Overall, Remember Me, spins a gripping enough narrative but most of its mysteries are not particularly hard to deduce long before the final few segments.  Admittedly, the story does occasionally get muddled but part of this stems from a lack of really engaging characters in which Nilin can interact with come solely from pre-canned cutscenes that put a strong focus on exposition and filling in the blanks instead of allowing character interaction.  Once again it has to be repeated that the game really feels as if it would have benefited from a change in genre to something more along the lines of Shenmue where players could fully explore the expansive game world and interact with various inhabitants even though most gave replies that did not further the plot.

With the gorgeous visuals that impress, even more so if you are running it on the PC at the highest settings, along with an almost fully realized futuristic dystopian world with architecture that resembles the film, The Fifth Element melded with Blade Runner, Remember Me is a game brimming with potential.  Developer Dontnod clearly put much thought into crafting a believable world yet the overall experience is hampered by some creaky game mechanics that are only merely serviceable.  There is nothing wrong with trying to utilize platforming and simple melee combat but the lack of difficulty and repetitiousness will only appeal to those who are looking for exactly this sort of experience.  At the same time all the work Dontnod has done in intricately rendering the world and its inhabitants never feels fully fleshed out as there is next to no chance to explore it in any meaningful way.

Remember Me is certainly half of a unique title with superlative production and art design coupled with appropriately stirring music.  Nilin makes for a great strong female protagonist who is both capable as well as vulnerable due to her loss of memory and most players will immediately warm to her predicament.  The game makes a striking first impression as the game’s first few hours really draw players into both the narrative and the game world itself but unfortunately things quickly go stale due to the mundane platforming and repetitious melee combat.  At the same time the visuals themselves become progressively less impressive as the game’s narrative moves Nilin out of the sprawling expansive rooftops of Neo-Paris into exceedingly cramped corridors where the architecture begins to resemble generic laboratories or futuristic office buildings.  Traversing hallways for hours really takes the wind out of the game almost to the point where it begins to feel like a slog as attention spans wane.

Going almost hand in hand with the move to cramped architecture is a general drop in the narrative’s quality as well as the introduction of new characters that almost never are fully explained nor make much of an impression.  Even worse is the plot which slowly begins to spiral out of control until it soon becomes muddied to the point where players might feel lost, as if they’ve somehow slept through a massive expository cinematic that links story elements together in a coherent fashion.

For their first game, developer Dontnod should be commended for really nailing the game’s visuals and art design as well as getting kudos for sticking to their guns in featuring a strong female protagonist who doesn’t neatly fall into genre stereotypes.  Still, although the platforming and melee combat are serviceable they feel like they belong in a bygone era long since passed, feeling dated compared to the stunning graphics.  If more emphasis was placed on memory remixes and building the game world in general so that other supporting cast were much more fully developed then perhaps Remember Me could have been a truly stand-out title.

As it stands Remember Me is still playable and might satisfy many fans who can ignore or even desire its simple repetitive gameplay yet the prevailing feeling once the end credits roll is one of missed opportunity.  However, there’s enough here to make one hopeful that Dontnod will learn from their mistakes and craft either a much better sequel or a totally new IP, probably for next generation consoles.  Remember Me might not be worth its full manufacturer’s retail price but it certainly can entertain and is worth a weekend rental just to see how close a new developer got at crafting a truly gripping original IP.

**1/2 out of ****

Developer: Dontnod
Publisher: Capcom
Rated: Mature
Released US:06/04/13
Released EU: 06/07/13

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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