The dystopian future of Remember Me draws from the rich narrative waters established by science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson to create a world that extends the familiar divide between the haves and have-nots. Where a small pocket of the elite live above a suffering population that simmers with a rising heat threatening to cause civil war.
Remember Me seems to take equal inspiration from works such as Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse series, particularly the Epitaph story-arc, with a technology called the Sensation Engine (Sensen), a brain implant that allows memories to be traded and shared—or forgotten all together.
Nilin awakens at the bottom of this food chain, imprisoned as an “Errorist” fighting to take down the Memorize corporation that has unleashed this twisted technology. As a memory hunter, Nilin has the skills to not only take memories, but manipulate them in order to change the actions of others. But she awakens after having most of her own memories wiped and is hesitantly guided toward purpose by the communications of Errorist leader Edge.
With Nilin’s memory wiped, there’s every opportunity to form an immediate bond with the player, as both take shaky steps into a strange new world. Walking through the facility where Nilin is imprisoned, both Nilin and the player have no choice but to trust the voice of Edge, who guides an early escape that leads to the initial view of the slums of Neo-Paris. This also leads to the introduction of one of the game’s primary enemy types, the Leapers, humans who have absorbed so many memories that their sensen has degraded and twisted them into a new sub-human species scrounging memories beneath the surface of the city.
Surviving the strange streets of Neo-Paris will find Nilin splitting her time between a Prince of Persia styled bit of platform climbs and leaps from ledges and pipes, and combat that is going to take a few more words to explain.
At the core, the flow of combat takes cues from the Batman: Arkham franchise, with Nilin laying down fists and feet against adversaries, a red warning indicator letting players know when it’s time to hit an additional button to flip over enemies, often causing them to hit one another and allowing Nilin to continue her chain of attacks. But Remember Me also seeks to distinguish itself with the combo lab feature, at least insofar as adding a bit more meat to a very familiar bone.
As Nilin beats down more opponents, she unlocks longer combo chains, which alternate between the two primary attack buttons—X and Y on the 360 controller. She also unlocks “Pressens” that can be placed in these chains, which break down into four categories – heal, power, chain and cool down.
As players unlock pressens from these four families, they can customize chains with them – to an extent. Each family of pressens offers X and Y variants that can be placed in corresponding X and Y slots within combos of increasing length. Mixing and matching pressens in these spaces allows Nilin to regain health while fighting, and chain her power attacks to increase the damage being dealt to enemies. This doesn’t really force the player to learn any combos beyond the initial three X attack prompt that can be equipped with a heal and cool down pressen and essentially allow players to pound a path through the game with minimal effort. But it does extend the invitation to make a more intimate connection with combos rather than simply reading them off a menu and then attempting to execute them.
Nilin’s real power comes from focus abilities, which power up as she deals damage to enemies. These more powerful options allow her to enter a brief fury mode where she flies from enemy to enemy with more powerful hits, smash the ground to reveal invisible enemies around her, strap a bomb to the side of an enemy, take control of enemy robots, and briefly turn invisible to sneak behind an enemy for a one hit take down by overloading their sensen.
Guarding against any abuse of these powers, using focus abilities initiates a cool down cycle before it can be used again, and using the cool down pressen in your combos then speeds up this countdown process. There’s a long portion of Remember Me where the combat does come across as monotonous until Nilin unlocks all of these powers, and I experienced several sequences where I was left leaping over enemies and stealing quick combos while waiting for those timers to run out. I’ll also admit to often resorting to the shortest combo and thus the slowest route, but it’s damn tricky executing a longer string of attacks with enemies ever eager to strike and the evasion warning flashing every few seconds.
There are two main types of enemy encounters, which are almost always triggered when entering a wide open area between platforming sections.
Scenario one is where a pack of leapers will attack while invisible variants phase in and out of sight to swipe at Nilin, wherein Nilin can sometimes activate lights in the area to make them visible but more often than not uses focus powers to find them and then specifically attacks them while a swarm of regenerating leapers try to stop her.
There’s some attempt to break this up a bit with an arm cannon feature for blasting enemies off of walls or issuing a powerful blast to weaken opponents.
The other scenario is where a variety of enemy types appear, and this is where the game gets good in encouraging players to explore the variety of focus powers at Nilin’s disposal. You can use stealth to take down one powerful enemy and then plant a bomb on another to immediately level the odds back in your favor, or wipe out several by turning a robot to your cause. These situations felt more strategic and helped claw away some of the tedium that comes quite naturally from entering a room and fighting wave one, wave two, and then wait for it… wave three.
You’ll spend a lot of time using combos to cool down these powers for a second and third use, particularly during the game’s few boss encounters, which will often end with a few quick time prompts for good measure.
As much fun as some of the final encounters can be, there is a severe repetition to the two approach formula that quickly wears out its welcome. It’s hard not to feel like you’re just endlessly pounding your way through enemies to continue the story. In fact, combat, as interesting as its approach is, feels like little more that a crutch to further the story and the game’s real treat, memory remixing.
All too seldom, cinematic sequences will find Nilin entering the memory of another person to watch a sequence of events play out—a man fights with his wife before she leaves him, a wife tries to save her husband in a hospital. Nilin’s true skill is in rewinding through these memories and finding key points that can be manipulated to ultimately change the way the memory plays out and thus how the person in question remembers it, changing their grasp of reality and their subsequent actions within the game.
You flip through these cinematic sequences and find highlighted points of interest where trial and error will have you moving objects and effecting equipment. The process works with changes that will immediately cause a fail state and ones that will successfully create a new memory. It’s a bit like playing a mini-game from a Quantic Dream game really, and it immediately filled me with the wanting to be able to run around the streets of Neo-Paris changing everyone’s memories. Maybe I could make a down and out person turn their luck around by affecting their memories. Or maybe I could just make someone have a phobia of ladybugs—the possibilities seemed endless and terribly exciting.
But the possibility for that game based on these current memory remixes is also beyond the reach of the developer, DontNod Entertainment, and you really feel that frustration grinding against the limitations of want and desire throughout the game. Remember Me ultimately falls back on having to unleash waves of enemies to pound on between a story and atmosphere that wants for so much more, caught between a competent but safe bit of combat playing out against narrative and art direction with more grandiose philosophical designs and heavy moral questions—with a story that is not lacking in some degree of emotional punch for the trouble.
Frustration is compounded by the fact that you can’t really explore Neo-Paris. You see all these amazing views off in the distance, but you can’t even enter the shops along a very linear path. It isn’t frustrating because every game should be Bioshock in that regard, but rather because the atmosphere and future it paints begs for the ability to explore and really touch the world around Nilin—a world that in many ways offers a greater sense of familiar understanding as to how the future has become what it has. Instead of exploration, however, Remember Me falls back on having players hunt around corners and ledges for upgrades to the health and focus bars, along with a bit of hunting down a strange breed of bug and memory entries that can be read in a journal.
Along the way the game coughs up a few stray riddles and two more features that yearn for more space and freedom—Nilin’s arm cannon will eventually be able to steal power from one device or door to open or activate another, and players will activate “Remembranes”, essentially projecting past memories to reveal secrets about what certain characters were up to within certain stages.
It’s incredibly frustrating to not be able to excitedly recommend Remember Me at the same time there are plenty of compelling reasons you should be playing it. Even where it falters in finding the means to allow its vision of the future to flourish, the scope of that vision, the depressingly rare casting of a female protagonist a week before we meet a slew of games staring gruff men of action, and its overall artistic direction guarantee a cult following that will overlook the bulk of mechanics that are interesting but also slipping into the “just okay” category.
Remember Me is an important and colorful slap in the face to the status quo that deserves more attention, if only because it does what so many of my favorite videogames have done in the past—it offered me plenty to think about.
Food for Thought:
1. Remember Me has a terrific soundtrack, which is more opinion than food for thought but I’m putting it out there anyway.
2. Remember Me has a great deal of introspective discussion, both between Nilin and Edge and with Nilin’s own running monologue. It’s not out of place to anyone familiar with the discussions that take place in an episode of Ghost in the Shell, but I’m curious as to how the game might play out with far less of the babble that seems to be placed for fear of confusing the player—not entirely unlike the original theatrical release of Blade Runner versus the Director’s Cut I suppose.
3. Remember Me seems unable to avoid a familiar design decision where so much work is put into creating beautiful future vistas, and then the game immediately sends players below ground into sewer like environments. Dear designers, what is up with that compulsion? Seriously?