Big-budget videogames as nakedly, relentlessly ambitious as Remember Me simply don’t come around very often. The fact that it’s the work of a rookie studio with something to prove is brazenly evident throughout it, and the opening two hours alone are a frankly dizzying assault of complex systems and rules, of big-budget spectacle and ground-breaking new gameplay techniques.
The fact that it doesn’t end up delivering on its own early promise will be almost moot, for some: elements of it are destined to be influential, and if you possess even a fleeting interest in the evolution of videogame design, you simply can’t miss it. But – and for other people, this’ll be a very big but – those elements are wrapped up inside something that’s punchy-but-seviceable at best, and agonisingly generic at worst.
For the most part, Remember Me is yet another lavish, danger-free climbing adventure that’s regularly disrupted by hand-to-hand combat, the style of which owes something of a debt (surprise, surprise) to Rocksteady Studios’ fearsomely authoritative Freeflow set-up. The ferocious monotony of the level design isn’t disguised even once; if you’re in a constricted area you’re either walking or climbing, and if you’ve just set foot in a wide open space (as you do every ten to fifteen minutes) you’re just moments away from an onslaught of nondescript henchmen.
But unlike the way-too-familiar platforming sequences, once you’ve gotten your head around the brawling it briskly becomes both arresting and taxing in the most rewarding way imaginable. This is partly down to sheer immediacy – hitting dodge will instantly kill every single one of your own attacks – and partly thanks to the ingenious customisable combo system. As you progress through the campaign you periodically unlock various different “Pressens”, single-button attacks which can be assembled to form an innumerable number of bespoke melee combinations. For example, Regenerative Pressens do less damage than regular blows but replenish your health, while Chain Pressens multiply the effect of the previous pressen in the combo. Craft a three-hit combo that starts with two of the former and ends with one of the latter, and you’ve created a very valuable method of eluding death during the game’s early stages.
But spamming three-hit combos will only serve you so well for so long, and this is where the turning point comes. Once you realise that you can’t simply bank different combos and wait until you need them (the game’s difficulty tier ranks up way too quickly for that) you’ll begin modifying your combos almost constantly, even when you’re slap-bang in the middle of a fervid rumble. Some fights are almost puzzle-like in structure, and to ignore the combo system is to embrace failure (and intense frustration) with wide open arms.
In addition, before long you’re wielding a set of devastating S-Pressens: dynamic super moves which take an absolute age to recharge, until you build a combo that’s riddled with the obligatory cooldown Pressens. If all of this sounds terribly convoluted, you can rest assured that (thanks in no small part to some very elegant menu streamlining) it genuinely isn’t. In fact, the combat’s only real flaw is that most enemies tend to move in large packs, and ludicrously, combos die if you lay into more than one enemy at a time.
But what Remember Me is destined to be remembered for is a series of startling interludes that allow you to retrospectively disrupt and “remix” other people’s memories. Like tinkering with a futuristic editing suite that’s powered by Minority Report’s ghostly precogs, these eye-popping set-pieces demand no small amount of investigative trial-and-error, and yet solving them never requires anything more sophisticated than stark, no-nonsense logic. Each remix is deliberately uncomplicated, allowing you to tinker with only a small handful of variables at any one time, and consequently they’re a triumph of style and design rather than gameplay. But what glittering vision, and what immaculate functionality.
That everything else in the game fails to measure up isn’t surprising, but what really hurts Remember Me in the end is a crippling lack of focus: the thing’s almost over before it finally stops throwing new gameplay systems at you. During the second act you’re given a telekinesis-like power solely so that you can open a few doors with it. Some of the larger action sequences are deliberately pitched to make you experiment with Pressens; others senselessly mollycoddle you, like the boss bottle that incrementally auto-saves every few seconds just in case you aren’t up to the challenge. There’s a brief spell where it unwisely tries its luck as a corridor shooter, and another bit where ham-fisted switch puzzles are the solitary order of business.
In short, it’s a hare-brained mess. Playing through the game’s flaccid mid-section is like watching tap water slowly dilute a glass of vintage red wine, and all at the gleeful behest of its own creator. But these self-conscious gameplay shifts are easily forgiven once the finale rolls around, at which point good old-fashioned overkill rears its ugly noggin: enemies multiply, skirmishes double in duration and short corridors become a distant memory. And as for the three incongruous brainteasers that pop up unannounced in the back end? Here’s the polite version: they’re murderously frustrating and trite.
What’s most aggravating about Remember Me is that there’s a weapons-grade masterpiece buried somewhere inside it, and for all of its many flaws, it’s still difficult not to root for it. Dontnod’s sophomore work is now solidly anticipated. Let’s hope it’s still given the opportunity to create it.