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The Paris of Remember Me often feels like a living place.

Remember Me will be one of those games that people kind of miss out on. Every year or so, one or two low-profile games with interesting ideas get ignored by the mainstream only to be rediscovered as “cult” hits later on. Remember Me will probably be one of those. The game design is solid, reliable, and even has a few new and interesting ideas thrown in to what is generally formulaic. This is actually in keeping with other games like it (Enslaved, The Saboteur, Singularity… to name a few overlooked gems) where AAA game design concepts get remixed into new IPs, usually original ones, where designers add their own ideas. It enriches the experience of gaming, really, to see mechanics and ideas you like being reinterpreted a few times before the next big thing comes along. This is how we got Assassin’s Creed and others off the back of Grand Theft Auto III‘s core design philosophy. This is how we got entire subgenres of books, music, and films.

Remember Me doesn’t ape any particular game that closely, but it’s definitely got a familiar feel. Most of the gameplay is straightforward platforming broken up by acrobatic fights with a variety of challenging enemies. Some are calling it a sort of beat-em-up/platformer hybrid and this is basically true. However, the mechanics service the story and world of the game and always take a back seat to that. This is a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you like your games. There are enough games out there that push the envelope of all of the above (Tomb Raider) that I’m satisfied with the type of game that emphasizes narrative and world-building over rote gameplay mechanics like combat and jumping on a roof. Not that these parts of Remember Me are unsatisfying. It’s more that they aren’t the reason to appreciate this game.

Speaking of the narrative, inarguably its core priority, Remember Me weaves a deeply personal story through a larger scale (intimately delivered) rebellion story. Some of the writing is fairly overwrought but the ideas and themes come across very well and elevate the game into a worthwhile experience. If it sounds like all the most interesting stuff is in the story, rest assured that there are a few neat gameplay mechanics that emerge as well.

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Nilin is our heroine.

One of the contextually important things about Remember Me is that it features a female lead character. The player always controls Nilin, the protagonist of the game. After Tomb Raider, this may not seem like such a big deal but it remains a fact that the games industry heavily favors male leads. Conventional wisdom is that games with female leads do not sell as well to the male-dominated market. Remember Me probably won’t shake up that truism by much, being one of those overlooked but solid games I mentioned. That said, it still feels bold to say “fuck that” and use a female lead anyhow. Especially when Remember Me could easily have featured a male lead without much consequence. That makes Nilin’s gender a choice, not a function. An important distinction. And not only that, but she’s a milatto baby!

Nilin is a “Memory Hunter” in a futuristic, cyberpunk Paris that is one of the last refuges of a world ravaged by global warming and warfare. These issues inform the environment, the little infusions of backstory and embellishment of the setting, but are not core to the story. This means that a lot of care was taken in creating a believable, self-contained world for this game. It always seems like games do this as a matter of course, but they really don’t. Most games do this to the same extent that early films used cardboard cacti. As a result of the care taken, Remember Me always feels like an actual setting, fresh if familiar. The setting feels like L.A. in Blade Runner or any of the hyper-urbanized settings of a cyberpunk novel. At the bottom of the city there’s flooding, garbage, death and decay. As you rise above the slums and ramshackle structures, there’s a gleaming metropolis of high-tech robots, augmented reality, and pronounced decadence.

The technology that informs all of this is Sensen, a sort of implanted augmented reality engine that everybody has. Sensen lets you manage your memories, which have become a sort of currency, but also work as a jack-of-all-trades much like contemporary cell phones which allow us to do a helluva lot more than call people. The Sensen appears as a floating hologram just behind our heads, hovering over our cerebellums. A Memory Hunter is a person who uses Sensen-derived tech to hack peoples’ memories.

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Nice shot to show off the contrast of technological haves and have-nots in Remember Me.

When we first meet her, Nilin is in a prison called La Bastille. This is where political prisoners and enemies of the Sensen-controlled state are put to be experimented on, subjugated, and ultimately wiped of memory. Nilin stumbles through the halls with no idea who she is. Like Neo in The Matrix, all she has to guide her is a voice in her head. The role of guide is played by Edge, a verbose young man who refers to Nilin as “sister” and helps her escape La Bastille. The game is fairly exposition-heavy, which is understandable given the assortment of setting-specific terms and concepts players must learn, and it’s through exposition that we find out Nilin is also an Errorist. More than just a play on words (terrorist, har), the term “Errorist” implies the belief that its membership have that memories ought not to be edited, remixed, sampled, etc and especially not by a totalitarian corporation like Memorize, their sworn enemies and creators of Sensen.

Memorize has a huge grasp on Parisian society and probably the rest of the world. People in this Paris have a variety of accents, styles, and ethnicity which works with the background fiction: war and climate change have forced people to migrate. Edge has an American accent, for example, while Nilin is British.

Anyway, more than just wanting to stop Memorize from controlling everybody’s memories and therefore lives, Edge and the Errorists want to break Sensen’s hold on society and put a stop to various glitches associated with the technology. Foremost among these is the “Leaper” phenomenon. Named for their gangly bodies and jumping tendencies, the Leapers are like the Splicers in the Bioshock series. They are madmen and women changed forever by dependence on a specific kind of technology. Meant to empower, Sensen also has the capacity to corrupt. Nilin is an example of how Sensen can make a person very powerful indeed, but the Leapers are a constant reminder that Sensen technology has a severe downside and perhaps some mysterious, darker elements to be discovered later.

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The “remix” sequences are unique and awesome, if not particularly challenging.

Nilin’s unique skillset means that she’s a major asset to Edge’s overall goals. He puts her to work doing what she does best: infiltrating important places and the people who control them. With her Sensen glove, Nilin can change small details of a person’s memory in order to create a desired change in behavior. People who liked Inception will gel to this immediately. It’s basically the same idea, just delivered through memories rather than dreams. That idea is that even a small alteration will have a ripple effect. We see dramatic examples of this in Remember Me both from people who are unaware they’ve been changed and who are aware and this awareness is actually part of the overall effect.

An early example is Olga, a mercenary hunting Nilin for money to save her husband who is becoming a Leaper due to Sensen corruption and the experimentation of Dr. Quaid (a Total Recall reference? I think so). Nilin makes her remember that Quaid killed her husband, which puts her on Nilin and the Errorists’ side. It’s a cool bit of work and an early indicator for a couple of the neater parts of the game, as well as some sticky flaws.

While the remixing mechanic is very cool and used just enough to always feel that way, never overstaying its welcome, it also raises some troubling questions. The fact that Nilin is profoundly altering people (a form of mind control really) is never really dealt with. I don’t need it to be morally justified (it kind of is) but I do want some acknowledgment of the long-term consequences of Nilin mucking around in peoples’ heads. Especially when the changes she makes usually have something to do with death and dismemberment. That she’s essentially a terrorist (from the point of view of Memorize) means that collateral damage is a fact of her life and an occupational hazard. The game does deal with this, and Nilin’s guilt over the consequences, but more with Olga and some of the other secondary characters would have helped flesh this out. Olga gets turned and then you barely see her. It’s very weird.

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Since Olga is one of a handful of secondary characters, it would have been good to see her (and the others) more.

The other more surprisingly enjoyable feature of the game is the combat. Yes its straightforward, but it’s also a fairly robust and customizable (on the fly, too) combo system. The combos draw strikes from four categories: damage, regeneration, cooldown mitigation, and effect enhancing. Nilin eventually has four combos of increasing size and complexity with the option of flowing intricate strings of beneficial effects together. There’s an aesthetic element too. Nilin is beautifully animated and it’s always fun to execute her acrobatic, stylized martial arts moves. There’s also that you can choose your combos according to how the actual strikes flow together, creating your own choreography.

Fights are challenging on a fairly solid curve. As Nilin gets more powerful, eventually able to use her buffed up Sensen to make AR attacks (hacker stuff like logic bombs or temporarily rerouting robot AI), the enemies follow suit. She eventually fights giant mechs called Zorns, various other powerful robots, and Sabre Force (Memorize’s private police) goons outfitted with shields that damage Nilin if she attacks them. The Leapers also evolve, and eventually you fight combat-trained Leapers part of a Memorize project to enslaved the poor mutants and use them as labor and cannon fodder. There are even Leapers who can mask their Sensen signal, making them effectively invisible. Nilin also eventually masters this trick.

In some ways, Remember Me is incredibly old school. That it was published by Capcom makes an odd sort of sense (though it’s a French game) given that it follows the same basic gameplay pattern as Megaman. Nilin runs, jumps, and fights across levels only to face “boss” battles which subsequently reward you with new powers. When she’s fighting, Nilin’s glove takes on holographic spikes that make it look like a gauntlet. This eventually allows her to reroute power, fire interrupt signals at electronics, etc. It’s very much like how Megaman acquires new, useful powers by conquering other cyborgs. Nilin fights everything from Memorize higher-ups to Kid X-Mas, a reality-show bounty hunter.

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Nilin uses her gauntlet to fire on Leapers, messing up their Sensens and keeping them off her back so she can maneuver.

Though the game does an admirable job in trying to keep the mechanics and settings feeling fresh, Remember Me eventually starts to feel sort of samey. One of the unfair criticisms being leveraged at the game is that it’s “too linear”. I think this actually should tell you about one of the game’s strengths. You want this game to be more open world since it seems like such an interesting place and the core mechanics of movement and combat are solid enough to probably support a more open design. However, the real flaw presented by the linearity of the game is that samey feeling it begins to take on near the end. Some boss fights are recycled, with more challenge, and the game retreads the same ground too often (you go to La Bastille twice at least).

The game is split up over eight chapters, each one taking around 60 minutes to complete. Some will run you longer as the game can be difficult in spite of itself. The camera and movement are occasionally awkward, which is very noticeable when so much of it flows well. Deaths end up meaning long load times before respawning (even with the game installed) and the falling deaths and instant-deaths via drone are annoying too often. This is just some rough spots in a solidly designed game, really. It’s not inherent to the game’s challenge level, which is really only a function of its combat system. The platforming is too simple and straightforward to really be difficult. The puzzles, while well designed, follow the same pattern. One thing that is difficult is finding all the upgrades and items that are hidden throughout the world. You can find these on the go, so it avoids the problem of forcing you to stay in the same location relentlessly hunting for goo-gaws. Instead, you’re meant to explore fluidly and the impeccably detailed design of the world often means its hard to see obvious places where stuff is hidden, even with occasional guidance from other Errorists who leave pictures behind as a hint system.

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Sometimes Nilin’s battles take place within the mind.

Earlier I mentioned that Remember Me‘s storyline is actually very personal and I’ll talk more about that. For now, let’s get into some of the core themes of the game. The rebel/hacker hook is there to get you into the world and the cause Edge promotes constantly. You get a real sense of the reasons why Errorists want to fix Paris and get rid of Sensen. While I was inclined to dismiss the anti-technological flavor of Remember Me‘s themes, I noticed eventually that the game walks a very fine line between anti-technological sentiment and celebration of the empowerment created by it. Nilin never ditches her glove or Memory Hunter role even as she is instrumental in ending the Sensen corruption that plagues her society and has caused her so much personal trouble. So in one sense, the game is happy to leave Nilin a character capable of using technology to subvert others while taking that power away from an impersonal entity (Memorize). The destruction of the central server hub feels topical in the world of NSA data collection (I wonder how intentional this is, or if it’s just a big coincidence). You can get behind Edge’s desire to get rid of Memorize even when you find out that Edge is really H30, an AI spawned by the CPU and memories spawned accidentally by the system and Nilin’s childhood influence.

This is where we get personal. Nilin had an unhappy childhood caught between the Cartier-Wells power couple. Her father is the technical mastermind behind “memoriel therapy”, the idea that controlling bad memories could heal people of their mental anguish. Her mother is more business oriented, and eventually becomes the public face of Memorize. As Nilin regains her memories, she finds out that these people are, in fact, her parents (kept from her by Edge, presumably, so he could control how the information is used). Nilin remixes her own mother to change her self-destructive blaming of a horrific accident on her little daughter. This paves the way for reconciliation and is repeated later when Nilin remixes her father. Both realize what has been done to them, eventually, and come together in recognition of their fucked up shit and love for their grown daughter, who has surpassed both of them.

We return to that car accident several times in the game. It hits you right in the feels, watching little Nilin at the mercy of her self-absorbed and negligent parents. The whole saga of Memorize comes down to a father trying to fix the suffering of his daughter, unable to see how he himself exacerbates it. Nilin’s dad is totally oblivious to the outer effects of Memorize. He stays locked up in his memories, trying to find a way to fix it all. Her mother simply doesn’t care anymore. She’s wounded, pissed off, and hateful and turns that negativity outward with major responsibility for all the draconian and exploitative elements of Parisian society.

So it all boils down to a lonely little girl and her fucked up relationship to her parents. I can forgive a  lot of overwrought speeches and dumb dialogue for a narrative twist this elegant. Though it is no less personal and potentially moving, the Edge reveal works less well. He thinks of Nilin as a sister because she helped create him. His founding of the Errorist cause is about being a suicidal AI, trapped with all the shitty memories nobody wants and slowly being corrupted by them. Though it results in probably the most perfunctory (if cinematic) boss fight in the game, the fact that Nilin is killing her only real friend is a point well taken.

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The drones are super annoying. But they are also often a part of the lively background of the game.

All in all, Remember Me‘s strongest selling points are its strong narrative (rare in games) and world-building. It’s a fairly short game so I’d recommend people wait for it to inevitably drop down in price before buying it. It’s one of those games that, unfortunately for the developer, don’t sell until they’re at bargain bin prices and game-hunting writers have proselytized for them. The early marketing sold me on the game completely, mostly based on the setting and consistent mechanic justifications (how the memory tech weaves its way into everything in the game).

It’d be too much to say that I loved Remember Me. I was definitely satisfied and will likely play it again someday to relive its story and world. Sometimes, that’s what games should be. A lot of people complain about the $60 price tag for a game that takes less than x hours to complete. I think, as a person who pays $15+ for 90-120 minutes of entertainment in the theater, $60 for 6-10 hours is a decent deal. It’s got nothing on something like Skyrim but this is not necessarily a weakness. Long games tend not to be very narrative, and that’s some peoples’ bag. I like all of the bags, though, I’m a fan of bags. Remember Me is in a different, no less valuable bag. Playing the $ vs. Length game is still an argument I can win, though, even for a game like Remember Me which most people will not pay full price for.

I hope they play it, in any case. The company who made it deserves some success for the impressive work they put in. We have to stop complaining about the stagnation of the games industry (content-wise) if we’re going to ignore games like this one.

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