Remember, Remember Review

While I am the sort of person who does not shy away from reviewing obscure titles, I think I hit a new extreme here, as Remember, Remember, a visual novel that was released on Steam and Itch.io back in May of this year, has not been given a formal review of any kind beyond Steam reviews.  I genuinely do not think this has ever happened to me before, but after playing through the game, I cannot say I am surprised by the lack of attention it has garnered.

Remember, Remember Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer: Michaela Laws, Ethan Nakashima 
Publisher: Michaela Laws

Remember, Remember centers on a group of friends who, while on their way to their college graduation, are abducted by a mysterious figure and wake up in an underground bunker with their long term memories erased.  With an electric barrier surroundings the constantly visible door to freedom and special bracelets bindings the five young adults, they are forced into participating in a social experiment conducted by an enigmatic and sadistic individual known as Mask.  Mask’s experiment involves having one of these characters, Kris, play a game where his friends lives are on the line, as the maniacal masked megalomaniac eagerly observes the drama and dread that ensue.

It is a sound premise, yet if you are anything at all like me, you would look over that and immediately think of games like Zero Escape or Danganronpa, and I suspect those were core inspirations for the developer.  In fact, the traces of inspiration seen in the game’s storefront is what drew me to it, and further traces of inspiration can be found throughout the story.  However, Remember, Remember is not the sort of story to wallow in the limelight of another, and does try to do things differently with its characters, setting, backstory, and so forth.  

It tries, but is severely limited by one major thing.  The fact that the title only took me about six hours to see it all the way through, and the first playthrough only took me two.  Yes, Remember, Remember is certainly a brief visual novel, and while I will say that a good writer is capable of telling a compelling tale in just about any length of time, that is not really the case here.  I don’t know if this was due to a lack of budget, actual development time, or if the game was just restrained by the decision to fully voice every character, even inconsequential ones only seen in flashbacks.  Regardless of the reason, this decision negatively affects the title’s narrative in about every way.

With such a short run time, the pacing is unsurprisingly fast, and in order to achieve this, many superfluous details about the characters’ days trapped inside this bunker are not present.  Characters talk to each other about how their current situation stinks, eat from the lightly stocked kitchen, try to remember things, and then go to bed with many one more narrative progression happening.  No mention of them starting to smell from bodily odor, growing nuts due to the lack of environmental stimulation, or really any of the more subtle adverse side effects that come with being locked in an unstimulating environment like this for several days.

This lack of playtime also affects the game’s namesake with the memory aspect.  Never do the characters really question their identity due to their lost memories or express any form of disbelief at the things they recall.  When characters recover their memories, it is often in the form of exposition, and I cannot recall a single time when a character recalled something inconsequential or stupid, which I feel should happen due to how human brains are organized, and how desperately characters can be looking for memory triggers throughout the story.

Beyond that, Kris’ friends all feel a little underdeveloped.  They have simple personalities that are explained and detailed throughout the regular playthrough, and each of them has a specific route containing additional character development, a confession, and possibly a romance.  However, in order to pursue those routes, the player will need to play through the story multiple times, and play through all instances the life threatening game at least 4 times in order to see everything.  There is something to all of them, but none of them are particularly memorable, with the possible exception of Mask, who is admittedly a fairly straightforward evil mastermind, right down to his backstory.

Well, I say that Mask is memorable, but that is probably more due to what is eventually discovered about him, and why he chose to conduct this killing game in the first place.  In short, Mask tells Kris that an unnumbered amount of his friends are responsible for doing something very bad that negatively affected him personally.  However, the friends’ confessions reveal that none of them did anything malicious to Kris, and all of them had very good justifications for their actions.  In spite of this, they all also bear a heavy burden of guilt for their inability to help their dear friend, and are clearly haunted by their past.

Seeing as how he is portrayed as an almost unbelievably intelligent mastermind, there is reason to assume that Mask would have been able to learn this information, or at the very least be able to comprehend that acts of, I’ll just say it, negligence, are excusable under specific circumstances.  His inability to understand other rather simple concepts is further detailed in a series of journals that are unlocked after clearing various endings.  

They detail the backstory of Mask and why exactly he chose to get involved with Kris and his friends.  While I understand what the writer was going for with this, the supposed bond that Mask develops with a certain character simply do not mash with the backstory he is given.  It is hard to describe without direct spoilers, but it involves Mask forming a bond with someone, after proclaiming how much he loved torturing people to death, with only a flimsy justification that “this one is different”.  While only giving a few sentences to insufficiently describe how.

I should also mention that Remember, Remember has a notable fascination with “taboo topics” such as torture, rape, child rape, child murder, child abuse, mental disorders, drug abuse, emotional trauma, suicide, and my favorite, drug rehabilitation via torture, video games, and a militaristic discipline.  While all of these could work together, they are inserted as well as one would expect in a title that is already pressed for time with a two hour limit.  None of these are given the attention they deserve, and at some points feel as if they were only included for the sake of striking them off of a checklist.

From that aforementioned list, the one that really bugs me is how the game treats a child character with a “mental disorder” whose parents are intentionally ignorant about this “disorder” and is not allowed outside to such an extent that I wondered if she had a condition that would cause her skin to burn rapidly when in contact with direct sunlight.  It just strikes me as lazy research, considering that children such as her are often still enrolled in public schools, not home schooled like she is, or at least go to some sort of specialty facility where professionals help her with challenges that she faces due to her “disorder”.

You could say that her parents are just too busy to worry about that, which is absolute nonsense and makes them come across as horrible parents, or that these facilities like that do not exist where the child lives.  However, the title strongly implies that it takes place in the Chicagoland area, and I not only live in a Chicago suburb, but am familiar with several facilities that exist solely to help people, young and old, with various mental and physical disorders.  I mean, why would somebody with a mental disorder go see a specialist, instead of being confined to her home?  That just does not add up unless their parents are really, really stupid.

Seeing as how I have already reached a thousand words by going on that little tiraid, I should talk about the gameplay of this visual novel, the life threatening game as it were.  It is a Pac-Man style maze chase game where the player controls a butterfly around a map that has been enshrouded in a fog of war that prevents the player from clearly seeing the walls around them, or enemies who lurk throughout the environment.  There are five instances of this subgame, though I consider it to be more of a puzzle, that each shape up the rules and have their own gimmicks, but all of them center on taking your butterfly, picking up a blue ring in the center of the screen, giving it to a butterfly representing another character, and then getting another blue ring to repeat the process until all four are saved.

While the concept is fine, it is marred by the facts that these maps are somewhat randomized in most iterations and the fact that this is a maze chase game where the player cannot see most of the maze.  Well, that is not entirely true.  The walls and floor are a very slightly different shade of black from each other, and this can be further exemplified by taking a screenshot of the map, pausing the game, opening the screenshot up in Gimp, editing the brightness, and further edit the map in order to form a clearer route.  So there is a solution, but here is a better one that the developers should have considered:  Get rid of this stupid fog of war nonsense, which has absolutely no place in a timed maze chase game.  And no, I do not care if it makes the experience more anxious, as it also makes it far more annoying.

I probably spent a good fourth of my time with this game paying through these puzzles, and it only gets worse as the simplicity and often unfairness of this experience becomes clearer.  There are even simple programming mistakes, like enemies appearing right in front of the butterfly when they have no choice but to approach them, hazards that appear right before the player at difficult to determine inter holes, and hazards that fade away only for another identical hazard to fade into the same place, which should not happen.

Ultimately, going through these puzzles proved to be a frustrating exercise that probably could be replicated in its entirety by a second year programming student if given twelve hours of free time.  Heck, I saw games created by students in my high school Computer Science class that had more complexity, enjoyability, and better balance than this.  It was a chore whenever I had to go through it again, and become truly aggravating due to how whenever the butterfly is hit, Mask pops up on the screen, laughs at the player, and then the chase resumes after stalling for 5 seconds.  

Strangely enough, Remember, Remember ties all of its endings behind the player’s success in these puzzles.  With the first being a bad ending if the player fails to rescue all 4 characters in any of the first four puzzles, and the other eight all depending on the way the player clears the final puzzle.  These include: Save Everyone.  Mark everyone as guilty.  Mark everyone aside from the innocent as guilty.  Mark only the innocent as guilty.  Fail to save less than three people.  Fail to save everyone, and choose option 1.  Fail to save everyone, and choose option 2.  And finally, have Rosa live and Xavier die. 

This indirectly means that there is both no true ending, only a good ending, and no endings specific for each character.  Which I found to be incredibly disappointing, especially after having to go through the each of the puzzles an additional four times.  Each time, my patience for them lessened, and I am now at the point where I do not even want to look at the crudely sketched map of these puzzles, let alone think about them.

Speaking of which, the visuals in Remember, Remember mostly consist of well drawn characters with only one pose to call their own, backgrounds that look good, if uninspired, very simplistic backdrops that are mostly enshrouded in blackness, and a scattering of vastly more detailed CGs.  The game is also weirdly intended on being placed in a 720p window, as otherwise the character sprites are stretched out.  I would not really mind, except for the fact that this came out literally two months ago, in 2017.

I am predisposed to say that the game looks fine, but there is a lot more that could even be done with just these assets to make things more interesting to look at.  Seeing the same characters lined up against the same dull backgrounds, in the same order, in the same pose a couple of times really started getting to me after a while.  Similarly, the way Kris is placed in front of the screens that Mask speaks from just looks shoddy as Kris’s head is blocking Mask’s mouth.

I know this is a petty thing to mention, but there is little reason why this game could not have attempted something more stylish when presenting characters like this, maybe including cutaways that have characters’ faces occupy sides of the screen.  Or just pan around character sprites, zoom into the character’s faces, just something to prevent this title from having such a standard and boring loom that only grows less interesting after successive playthroughs.

As for the voice acting, this is clearly not professional grade voice work, but it is clear that all the actors are very much trying to give these characters life with their lines.  Even though they sometimes sound awkward in the process of doing so, they improve as the game goes on, and give the game far more life than it would have had with just its story alone.  

I know that I have been rather harsh to Remember, Remember, but I truly mean it when I say that is only because I can see signs of something special in this game.  From its core conception, to certain scenes that play out within it, and many of the ideas that are thrown around here, there certainly is something to this title, and I was drawn into its story right up until the very end.  So many good ideas are thrown into this game, but it lacks the means to truly achieve and develop them into something all that worthwhile.  

If given more time to play things out, more research applied to the subjects that are brought up, more character development, more foresight from the writers, more effort made to make the game’s presentation more appealing, more endings, and a subgame that is not an exercise in frustration, this title could be something truly special.  In summary, Remember, Remember is an underwhelming rendition of many promising ideas that also happens to channel elements from Danganronpa and Zero Escape, but just feels insubstantial is almost every way.

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