Inventors of method acting, mime and smoking seductively, the French have a reputation for being pretentious. But if one is to look beyond the colourful art house films and sadistic haute cuisine, one can see that the French are unashamedly base. The French are willing to ply their children with fine wine from a young age, and condense an entire political ideology into a single Gaulish pun. But if one is to dig deeper still, this lack of shame manifests itself not only in la comédie, but in haute drame where puns are no less abundant than exposed nipples.
And so Remember Me is not just riddled with puns, but nipples too; only they are not present to arouse, or even nourish, but to repulse—just as the puns are present not to amuse, but to form a sincere reflection of themes of the past and present mixed with fantasies of the future. But more importantly, the nipples belong to the puny leapers. The leapers are the lepers of the future; stigmatised outcasts with dry nipples, deformed faces and hunched backs. And superpowers.
Some can turn invisible when not exposed to floodlights; some can stick to walls before unleashing a devastating attack; and some are all but invincible when surrounded by their leaper colony comrades; while others still are immune to some of Nilin’s more useful focus moves (special attacks and skills). They are worthy adversaries. The invisible leapers, with their flickering digital artifacts and dangerous red exclamation marks (an easy way for the player to perceive an incoming attack) who pop out of nowhere, are especially terrifying as they stalk Nilin imperceptibly across the battlefield.
The red exclamation mark proves its worth during these uncomfortable occasions, but it is just as useful elsewhere as well; helping to turn the combat into an entirely timing based affair. The camera joins in too; awkwardly making the point of focus settle by default just above the heads of the combatants, which is at first a jarring angle that feels counter intuitive and must be fought against. But soon it becomes a boon as the right thumb settles comfortably on the buttons; attuned to the frequency of button presses so that the offence is acted out all but blindly to a tempo—the eyes watching only for the exclamation marks and distinct enemy types while the ears listen for the sound of incoming ranged attacks because the lethargic, short sighted camera cuts them out of view.
The required slowness of the button presses to keep a combo going (press the next attack too early or too late and the combo will be broken) combined with the abstract visual indicator of enemy attacks, and the errant camera that forces you to use sound to survive off-screen ranged attacks, all come together to form an oddly serene battle system that is contemplative and thoughtful.
And one would expect it to be so cerebral: the effects of each combo can be edited to one’s own personal preference. Unfortunately this does not mean one can (as I fantasised that it would) alter the order of button presses (which within reason could work; one could easily be prevented from making a combo ten presses of the same button), but that one can alter the effectiveness and focus of each combo by mixing together healing effects, focus move cool downs, multipliers that increase the effectiveness of the next attack, and damage maximisers.
The later on a combo chain that any effect is placed, the more effective it is, so the order of the effects applied to any given combo must be carefully considered; as must where to place the multipliers, and which moves to sacrifice on the simpler combos that you will need to use in the most dire of situations, but will otherwise slow you down. As you play you unlock not only more effects to help you build your combos, but also more combos. Early on you might not have enough moves to fill up a new combo, so another problem must be considered and solved: would it be better to sacrifice your easy, short combo for the sake of a long, more powerful one; or would it be better to have the small combo to fall back on thus leaving the longer combo only a little more powerful due to not having enough effects to fill it in completely?
Unfortunately, even by the end of the game, there are only a few combos. The truth is you only need a few: an emergency healing combo; a powerful combo; and a cool down combo are more than enough for any situation, but it does result in a certain level of staleness setting into the combat due to the fact that you’re using the same limited number of combos over and over again.
Although there is reasonable variety in how enemies must be approached, they too are introduced at a leisurely pace, and it’s only towards the end when they are mixed together in a variety of ways so as to alter your sortie response strategy. And it is here where the combat system begins to shine, despite the staleness of the limited number of combos that has already begun to fester pungently.
Suddenly focus moves become an absolute must when approaching any given battle; and often the same focus move must be used multiple times which means that you are forced to use all your combos: you must cool down your focus moves so they may be used again; you must devastate your enemies; and you must heal yourself through ultra-violence. And to top it off, you’ll also have to whip out your arm cannon to deal with the robots that you couldn’t convert to your side due to your power of persuasion not having cooled down yet. Or even worse, due to your focus bars (one focus bar is used by each focus move) having run out. The focus bars can be refilled by inflicting or suffering damage, but that takes time; and in the mean time the robots are probably trying their level best to kill you, whether it be through the binary of combustion or penetration.
It is here where the frailties of the camera system do little to add to the unique feel of the combat. The arm cannon automatically locks on to the nearest enemy as the camera swoops down to a traditional third person shooter perspective. The aiming lock is then movable from enemy to enemy with the right thumb stick. The trouble is that the robots attack with such regularity that by the time you’ve navigated the lock to them, you’ll probably have to dodge their incoming attack before you can return fire. Which means it’s time to start again.
The only way to be more sure of getting a lock on the robot you actually want to shoot is to frame them approximately in the centre of the screen before you aim, but this means you must take your thumb from the handy dodge button, and the camera is sluggish and slow. And even if you have taken the time to carefully line up your sights, sometimes the camera will still snap to an enemy on the edge of the screen. By the time you’ve managed to get the robot in question in your sights again, all your previous painstaking efforts to heal yourself through regenerative combos will probably have gone to waste.
But there’s more to Remember Me than violence. Much of the game plays out as a contemporary platformer, with Nilin climbing her way around Neo-Paris. She edges her way across neon light bulbs and shimmies across chemises; her chemise flapping in the wind. She moves smoothly through the environment; though there is a slight weight to her movement which gives the controls an almost sluggish feel. But once one is used to it, this sluggishness gives movement in both combat and exploration flavour and believability. Each time Nilin’s thin frame is too much for a sturdy steel pipe to take and she falls, it’s all the more convincing; or every time she flips over an armoured policeman, her movement through the air is all the more graceful for the tangible effort that such gymnastics took. Now and then she even has to time her jumps, or consider her way across a crevasse; lest a hop in the wrong direction lead her swiftly to the cobblestones below.
Yes, cobblestones still exist in the year 2084. Neo-Paris is full of reminders of the past, from classical statues to cobblestone pathways and cramped, Parisian cafés. But everything is polished to a Google Glass sheen: digital signs hover in front of old cafés where Parisians smoke, sip café, and nibble on croissants as they always have. At the same time a humanoid robot sweeps up their crumbs or does their shopping in an upmarket boutique. It’s a powerful juxtaposition that makes the world believable in the same way that Phillip K. Dick managed to make a world where man and machine were one in the same feel authentic and genuine—by realising that the future will be full of remnants of the past, just as our present is too.
But much of this world is little more than elaborate ruse. As rich as the world seems from behind its emerald veneer, one cannot remove one’s Glasses; and so Nilin is forced down tightly orchestrated and focused alleyways that would seem to have been picked straight out of Paris’ backstreets if not for the fact that at every corner there is a little obstacle that should be nothing for an athlete as talented as Nilin to traverse yet nevertheless forces her across only one prong of the chocolate éclair-encrusted fork in the road. But there is something authentic about this too: much of this world seems to exist only through the digital gaze; so why should it be tangible? Besides, Nilin has lives to destroy, so there’s little time to stop and smell the rouge vin.
The cost of the lives she destroys is something that is flirted with; but the flirtation never progresses to even a kiss. One character who is made an ally through atrocity flies off into the sunset at the end of the game; the horrors that she has endured thanks to Nilin’s actions left unresolved; or even remembered.
And what were those actions? Memory remixing. Now and then Nilin must manipulate a character into behaving as she wishes them to, and what better way to do this than to force them to remember a life affirming; a life changing moment incorrectly? You’d think it would be a bit of a crêpeshoot, but within the world of Remember Me it’s a piece of cake every time.
And how does it work? First one must sit through a cutscene as one normally would; but at the end of the cutscene, the screen goes white, and one is politely asked to rewind. As you rewind certain props within the scene may be highlighted and manipulated. You must manipulate the correct props (sometimes choosing between two props on the same frame) to correctly alter how the memory plays out so that the post-memory epiphany that the violated character endures will be the correct one to suit Nilin’s diabolical needs.
The puzzles are simple but enjoyable. They are logically solved, and although some require a reasonable amount of experimentation; the experimentation is engaging—watching a scene play out to your own direction is satisfying and has a certain voyeuristic excitement to it. But once again awkwardness is reeled back into the gameplay: to move the cutscene forwards or backwards, one most rotate the left thumb stick clockwise or anti as if operating a film projector or editing suite. A lengthy cutscene can take upwards of thirty seconds to rewind from beginning to end, even when sped up. To make matters worse, if you make a mistake early on in the scene but all your other prop-alterations are correct, when you rewind past them, they too will be cancelled so that you must set up the whole scene all over again. Which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that finding the right frame is almost akin to pixel hunting.
These memorial remixes are rare, but their rarity only emphasises their sometimes odd placement. They are mostly used to the same rhythm as the cutscenes; but unlike the cutscenes they do not last only a few minutes—sometimes stretching over half an hour if the solution to the puzzle is hard to come by. Then the game continues on as if there had only been a several minute cutscene. The rest are used in place of boss battles—though elsewhere bosses take their rightful place at the climax; often foreshadowed with cartoonish foreplay illustrated through in-setting advertising or radio chatter, and make good use of crowd control and puzzle solving. Here these scenes work as the gameplay climax of a gameplay passage and are all the more effective for it. But due to their effectiveness, they also help to amplify the discord in the placement of the others.
In these scenes the citizens of Neo-Paris communicate in a mixture of English-speaking accents, ranging from English to American. An all-English Paris is as believable as an all-French world once was, but unlike the care that has been given to the rest of the world of Neo-Paris (to the point where the odd spattering of French can be spotted amongst the near endless English signage and graffiti) there are no remnants of the verbal heritage of Paris beyond a few French words thrown in which are pronounced with the same garishly foreign enunciation.
However, the excellent juxtaposition of new, old and present is not completely absent to one’s ears. The music, just as the setting, is predominately composed of synthetics: synthesisers, programmed drum patterns and glitchy effects and filters that seem to infect the music; distorting and breaking it. It’s an effective electronic backing that is elevated to greatness by the snippets of genuine orchestration that are melded perfectly to the synthesisers and drum patterns, and vice versa: Now and then a choir will sing only to be polluted by the vulgar, sharp punch of a synthesiser; or a synthesiser medley complete with wet, decaying drums will be punctuated with the tone of a classical violin. The music is beautiful and effective enough that it does not compliment the visual illustration of the setting, but is in fact a vital part of the setting itself and expresses no less than the classical statues and Google Glass signage do.
As benign and redundant (if a robot has an AI capable of working a desk job at a computer, would it not be infinitely more efficient to run that AI on the computer it works on, rather than in a robot manipulating said computer?) as most of the robots of Neo-Paris are when not attempting to kill Nilin in combat, there are some that are not so passive. Now and then Nilin will run into drones that float ominously above; their sometimes invisible line of sight often illustrated visually via Google Glass on the ground so that Nilin may dash easily from crevice to crevice. Beyond two puzzles involving sliding doors, there’s little more to the stealth than avoiding these lines of sight. It’s as archaic as the linear environments but, just like the linear environments, it is smooth flowing and charming for the very fact that it is archaic.
Perhaps the juxtaposition in the gameplay is just as deliberate as it is in the music and the visual design. It mixes the same things: the present (the combat); the past (the stealth and level design); and the future (the combo system). And that is why it works—becoming more than the sum of its parts, but only because of its parts. It uses the old and the new to create something that is neither old nor new, but different. Imagine how Prism must feel…