Hell, I hardly knew ya.
Apparently this game’s been sitting there ever since 2013, just biding its time, waiting patiently until it got cheap enough for me to notice. And I hate to say it, but it’s been a week or so since I finished up the quest and it’s already starting to fade. Still, it was fun while it lasted. I think.
Kinda surprising this game isn’t more memorable, actually, since it’s got quite a bit going for it.
It takes place in your typical dystopian not-too-distant future where the twist this time is that they have some kind of quasi-magical technology that can read, store, swap out and erase your memories. Mostly they try to be all edgy and serious about it, although at times a distinctly offbeat tone peeks through that was sort of like The Fifth Element meets Total Recall, though not nearly as over-the-top silly as either one.
Visually the whole place is absolutely gorgeous, so you can’t fault them there. I guess cyberpunk-y settings always benefit from a certain amount of intrinsic neon-hued flashiness; but even going on a decade since its release it still manages to be quite striking.
Seems like you’re constantly looking up, down or across at impressive things in dramatic fashion. The colossal robot looming over you and threatening to stomp your guts out. The plunging abyss beneath your feet as you dangle from some heart-stopping precipice. The imposing cityscape of gleaming glass towers stretching out before you. The framing of the images imbues the events with a real sense of scale, both literal and as a representation of the forces arrayed against you. Of course, when you’re constantly hanging off of buildings I guess they don’t have much choice.
Yeah, I didn’t realize it going in but I was happy to find quite a quite a bit of Prince of Persia-style wall-climbing and ledge-hanging; and as usual that was by far the most fun part. There’s this one section, for example, which I think was the high point of the entire game, where you’re running for your life on top of, around or through one skyscraper after another while this futuristic helicopter is gunning for you. What a great sequence! It makes you think they probably could have done away with the fighting altogether and just left it at Parkour & Puzzles.
And really, the combat may have been repetitive and uninspired but even that had its virtues. One neat feature is the design-your-own-combo system, where you can mix and match damage, healing and energy recovery attacks however you want. At least it helps you remember the combos, and being able to stack extra healing provides some extra room for error if you’re a doofus like me who gets hit a lot.
Ok, so what the hell’s the matter with this game, then?
Well, I think the main problem here is that, title notwithstanding, its use of its central premise never rises very far above the superficial. The whole memory concept feels grafted on to an otherwise generic framework.
When I brought up Prince of Persia back there, it got me thinking how smoothly Sands of Time integrated the idea of time into every aspect of the game. Not just the signature rewind mechanic, but the setting, the plot, the narration, the character development, the themes, everything from the ground up. Go and re-watch the ending and witness one of the most perfect closed-loop, neatly tied-off stories you’ll ever find in a game.
Sure, there are a few setpiece-type sections here where you have to go in and alter people’s memories; and while they’re not exactly bad, they don’t seem to arrive with any real buildup or leave much impact in their wake. It’s like, one minute you’re beating up random goons, the next you’re tinkering inside somebody’s head; and then it’s right back to hopping around throwing punches. What should have been the game’s calling card just falls kind of flat for lack of more substantial development.
They try to shoehorn in a few other nods to the memory theme as well as inject a bit of personal melodrama along the way to spice it up, but it all basically just boils down to: giant evil corporation in big shiny building is trying to control [something] while group of rebels is trying to stop it. In this case the [something] is memories, but it just as easily could have been air or water or electricity or virtual reality or some wonder drug or pretty much whatever MacGuffin they chose, and it wouldn’t have changed anything in terms of what you’re actually doing. It’s definitely no Prince of Persia there.
Is it unfair to hold this to the standard of what I think is one of the best games ever made?
If nothing else it illustrates how poorly thought-out execution of your fundamental theme can drag everything else down with it toward mediocrity. I guess it happens to the best of us. Even Prince of Persia had its Warrior Within, which I think we’d all rather forget.