Saturday, November 12, 2016

Forget Me Not

I'm still trying to fill the void in my life left by Life Is Strange. I know nothing will fill it, but have been looking for acceptable substitutes. One obvious place to look is Dontnod's only other game, "Remember Me". This game didn't get much of a reception on release: decent but unspectacular reviews, and I think it sold rather poorly (especially for a AAA title that spent five years in development). So my expectations were fairly low, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal.

To be clear: this game does not play at all like Life Is Strange. It's a fast-paced action game, very different from LiS's laid-back adventure game structure. It's set in a dystopic future rather than the realistic present. Still, you can see some of the same DNA at work in both titles. The games share an interest in identity and empathy, and there are a couple of game mechanics that span both entries.

The bulk of the gameplay is focused on combat sequences. They feel a bit like the fights in Shadow of Mordor: mostly melee attacks, with occasional ranged strikes. You sometimes fight up to a dozen enemies, and combat has a very fluid feel, as you flow from foe to foe and dodge and flip your way out of harm's way.

The most innovative part of Remember Me's combat is the combo-creation lab. This is a bit confusing, and not explained very well in-game, but once I got the hang of it it added a whole other level of coolness to the game. Basically, you have two main attacks: a punch (left mouse button) and a kick (right mouse button). There are several combos that you learn as you progress through the game, each of which follows a fixed attack sequence: P-P-P or K-P-K-P-K or K-K-K-P-P-P-P-K. You can choose to slot different abilities into each attack position: damage, self-heal, ability-cooldown, or a multiplier. Abilities become more powerful later in the chain.

One thing I really like about this is that you don't need to learn as many moves as in other games (like The Witcher or Shadow of Mordor): there aren't buttons for parry or dodge, for example. However, there is still a lot of complexity and strategy, but it's a strategy you need to come up with yourself rather than learn and apply. Based on your own personal playstyle and the specific obstacle you're facing, you'll want to make or use different combos to get through the fights.

By the end of the game, I was mostly using the long 8-attack combo: it started with a small heal and cooldown reduction, but everything else was damage-oriented, and a full chain could wipe out multiple weak enemies. However, I also kept two shorter combos around for more particular applications: the 5-attack chain was focused on healing, while the 6-attack one focused on cooldowns. There are some enemies who damage you each time you strike them, which can be deadly, but using the self-heal makes them fairly easy. And some bosses can only be damaged by your special abilities, so killing mooks doesn't accomplish anything, but they make great fodder for bringing your abilities back up again.

I played on Medium difficulty, which was nicely challenging. There were a couple of boss fights that were frustrating, but after enough tries I was able to finish everything. One thing I really appreciated was that, during fights that had unusual mechanics, it would float hint text on the screen after you had gone for long enough without making progress. It didn't feel condescending or cheap, but would show up when it would be appreciated. You'd also have to survive long enough to see it, so it wasn't boring either.

I did get a bit annoyed at the QTEs, which are used in most boss fights. These are used like in God of War, where you need to press the correct button quickly in response to an on-screen prompt. The worst part about this was just figuring out what each symbol meant, since I was playing on PC and didn't know what each one corresponded to. I had to look it up online, and for reference, here are the defaults:
  • Fist (Punch): Left mouse button
  • Foot (Kick): Right mouse button
  • Bending arrow (Dodge): Spacebar
  • Gear (Interact): "E" key
 Even once I learned what each meant, it usually took me at least two tries to get through a QTE sequence, since my reflexes aren't very fast. But it gets much easier each time you repeat, since it's always the same order at the same time, and in any case there are usually just 3 buttons to remember anyways.

The QTEs are probably my only real complaint about the game. Quite a few players were disappointed that the game was short... it is noticeably shorter than other games in this genre (my total playtime was just under 10 hours), But personally, I'm more and more attracted to shorter games. There's no padding in Remember Me, and it uses its length very well.

One small design quibble has to do with the level design. Unlike Shadow of Mordor or even Bioshock, levels are very linear, where even backtracking is often impossible. I actually enjoyed this: there's a fun, propulsive feel to the gameplay, particularly when you're in constant motion, leaping from ledge to ledge and always pressing forwards. But, there's also a collection mechanic to the game, where you need to examine and explore areas thoroughly in order to find hidden power-ups and experience boosts (which help increase your maximum health, maximum focus, or available pressens). That aspect of the game is, in itself, also pretty fun: the levels are gorgeous, and benefit from increased scrutiny. But that leads to an unfortunate tension between opposing forces: the game feels best when you constantly rush ahead, but it's frustrating to realize that you've missed out on single-chance opportunities to improve your character. I'm not sure if there's a solution to this problem, or if it even needs one, but it's something that bugged me off and on.

Oh - but the movement itself feels fantastic. I haven't played Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge, but it seems to embody the same parkour-esque design of those games. Nilin looks amazing when leaping to another handhold or landing in a crouch after a fall. The animations and environments combine in wonderful ways. While this isn't a challenging part of the game - you just need to press the right button and can usually take your time - I'm glad that there's so much of it, which helps this feel like more than just a fighting game.


I enjoyed the story, but many of the characters felt very under-utilized. Nilin and Edge and most of the villains got good character development, but allies like Tommy and Olga get very little screen-time. Which is odd, since they look amazing and very thoughtfully developed. I'm left wondering if there was additional content planned for them which got cut out of the final game, or if they planned to tell more of their stories in a sequel that never came. Or maybe it was intentional all along - again, I'm not inherently opposed to a shorter and more focused game, and it's probably better that they leave us wanting to know more about intriguing characters than leave us bored with too much information about people we don't care about.

The world-building, though, has got to be the highlight. I'm already a sucker for cyberpunk, and I adored having such a fresh take on that setting. You still have the requisite hallmarks of the genre: neon lighting, huge skyscrapers, omnipowerful corporations, cybernetic augmentation, virtual reality, noir-inflected storytelling. And yet, you would never confuse Neo-Paris with Shadowrun or Blade Runner or Neuromancer or Cyberpunk 2020 or other iconic cyberpunk franchises. Remember Me is brighter and more elegant, as befits its location in the City of Light. Megacorps are also less malicious, more reminiscent of Brave New World than 1984: they're delivering experiences that the people demand. Overall, while it's probably still a dystopia, it's much more optimistic than the standard hopelessness of most cyberpunk. And I like that!

A lot of cyberpunk deals with the impact of technology on human life. Remember Me feels unique in the way it focuses on the mental implications of this, rather than the physical. The core technology it explores is memory modification. This widespread, commercialized product allows people to store and refresh their memories of past events, remove painful memories, and even share their memories directly with one another. We mostly focus on the personal use of this capability, but the game also looks at institutional implications: prisoners can serve out their sentences without any memory of who they were before, and have the painful memories of their incarceration removed once they are released. And talented professionals can receive memories that tell them how to accomplish specialized tasks (similar to "skillsofts" in Shadowrun).

Nilin, though, has a unique ability. She can do more than just add or remove memories: she has the extraordinarily rare ability to remix memories, changing details of what happened in the past to influence a person's actions in the present. For example, rather than killing someone, she can convince someone else that that person has died, and so recruit them as an ally to her cause.

This is the one part of the game that seems to overlap with Life Is Strange, as memory remixing shares many similarities with the rewind mechanic. In Remember Me, you'll see a scene play out multiple times. You'll go back, change one event, then see how that change affects the subsequent actions. Finding the right combinations of alterations to make will allow you to accomplish your goal.

This was by far my favorite part of the game, and it's a shame that there's so little of it. I think there are maybe five or so memory remixes over the entire game, definitely less than one per level and fewer than there are boss fights. The remixes themselves are also far more linear than the situations in Life Is Strange. You can try different things, but as far as I can see there seems to only be one correct solution to each memory, and you must select it in order to proceed. That isn't necessarily bad, though... Remember Me isn't a choice-and-consequences game, and they created something cool that doesn't require player choice.

It gets at some interesting philosophical ideas, too. I was reminded of Inception and, even more, Dark City while playing this game. To what extent do our memories drive our actions? Do our pasts determine who we are? Is our identity entirely derived from our mind, or is there something more than makes us human?

The game ends on a very powerful question that is really resonating with me this week. Simplifying a bit, it asks, "Should we live in a happy illusion or a painful truth?" That dilemma is literalized in the world of Remember Me: the great promise of M3morize is crafting a world free of sorrow. But, as the scope opens up, we realize that there are massive problems facing the rest of the world, beyond the intimate circles Nilin occupies. She has the ability to change the world for the better, but she can only do so by discarding the pleasing platitudes, confronting her own issues and those around her, and struggling with the world as it is rather than the the world we wish we lived in.


Remember Me doesn't address these philosophical and moral issues as deeply or as comprehensively as Life Is Strange does, but it still does more with them than any recent AAA action game that I can think of, and that's a worthy achievement on its own.

I don't want to oversell this game - it isn't an instant classic, just a really solid and interesting video game that happens to feature some of the best world-building out there. It is a shame it didn't do well, because it definitely left me hungry for more: as the closing credits began to roll, I thought, "This feels like it would be the perfect prologue to a new story." There aren't any cliffhangers or anything, it comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it did such a great job at opening up this original world that I'd love to explore in the future.

Albums! Here's a big one that covers the whole game. It technically has spoilers, but don't be afraid to look at the pretty pictures. And here's a small one that features some of the unlockable concept art and other goodies from the game. Enjoy!

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