I review a game which leans on a gimmick to see if there's anything underneath it
Read Only Memories is badly written.
I say that first and foremost because this game does its best to put its best foot forwards, from the gorgeous pixel art work to the snazzy sound and excellent voice work (especially in the trailer). However, even from the get-go, the game falls a little flat.
The trailer promises a futuristic cyberpunk crime adventure on “the mean streets of neo san francisco” where “the world is on the cusp of a new form of intelligence”. I couldn’t wait to discover "the biggest secret of them all."
The fancy VCR post processing in the trailer is not present in the game. I expected this but was still a touch disappointed that they didn’t include it. Most of the game is also not voice acted. Again, something to be expected, but disappointing, especially given that they could have voice-acted some small scenes to give a lot more flair to the characters.
But ultimately, none of that matters. The writing is bad. It’s so tedious I had to play this game in several sittings. I just got bored. How this game managed to be dull and derivative in a cyberpunk universe is probably the biggest “achievement” it has to its name. I mean this at every level, from the flavour text to the characters to the dialogue to the structure of the story to the universe. It’s all bad.
The flavour text probably had the smallest part to play but was my biggest peeve. The way the game works, you select an item, then you can select an action for it. Some items will have several actions (“Talk”, “Act”, “Look”, etc.) and others will have just one or two (just “Look” for instance). For some reason, the game will often give you the “act” option for several of the characters in the game which, upon selecting it, will have your sidekick robot chide you with a “they probably won't appreciate that” or “don't make me ashamed to be associated with you”.
That’s it. Unlike other adventure games where you’re given a little joke as a reward for trying something stupid, there’s just a shitty piece of dialog asking “why did you click that?”. The real question, of course, is “Why did the developers put that option in there?”. The game was essentially training me not to try things. This might be a part of why people are calling this a “walking simulator”, despite the fact that there are branching narratives and several endings.It's so tedious I had to play this game in several sittings.
There aren’t any “real” puzzles in this game. From the get go, you get a very strong indication as to what you should do next. The only thing you’re essentially judged on is how nice you are to characters in the game. Incidentally, I was nice to everyone, but more because I was pretty sure I would be prosletyzed by the grating, annoying characters in the game, and I took the path of least resistance, as opposed to actually empathising with those I was being nice to.
The characters and dialogue are derivative and boring. They may as well have been talking about filling out status reports and spreadsheets. Even games which have been poorly translated from Japanese (which, to some extent, this game tries to emulate) have better characters and dialogue than this game. Aside from the various annoying “vocal tics” that characters have, you could essentially take dialogue from one character and have a different character say it, and the game would continue to make sense. As much as the images in the game exude character, the dialogue serves to undermine it.
Worse, there’s no character “development” to speak of. No problems of theirs which you solve nor aspirations or personality traits to speak of. In their efforts to make these characters appear more “mysterious”, the writers have actually erased the “characters” themselves. What’s worse is that stuff does actually happen to these characters. The way the story plays out is just so unsatisfying that this character “catharsis” is a total letdown, whether it’s a sapient robot having to deal with death (and then being suddenly cheerful again) to a hacker who wants revenge for her sister’s death (and... changes a vocal tick?). Lexi, a police officer you meet at the beginning of the game, probably has the most satisfying of the character arcs, but her relationship to you is so tenuous that you’re left wondering why you care.
The story also doesn’t go anywhere, and all the threads connect up haphazardly (or not at all). Spoiler alert: You discover almost none of what you set out to discover at the end of the game. From the start of the game, you are tasked with finding “Hayden”, an old friend who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. You later find out that he’s dead (expected) but not who killed him. One of your “leads” is a “rogue AI” who destroyed a Frozen Yoghurt stand, but you never find out whether there was such an AI, and what exactly destroyed the stand. In fact, it’s never really made clear why that’s a “lead” in the first place. The only thing that’s “explained” is who killed a bunch of (as far as I can tell, incidental) characters you are talking to while on a wild goose chase which doesn’t yield any results. Quite literally, in the end the antagonist, an Android, essentially admits that in retrospect, killing those people made no sense.
That’s what you’re left with at the end of the story: You do a bunch of essentially random stuff and a bunch of people die for no reason, and you don’t even figure out what you set out to discover at the beginning of the game.
The universe itself has some interesting elements, but overall it has been created by people who had the words “CYBERPUNK ADVENTURE” tattooed in their minds when they started, and they couldn’t shake themselves free of being completely derivative. Nothing in this universe says anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere, or needed to be said at all. It’s a universe full of fan service and Mary Sues, and, worst of all, the lone genius who invented AI. Nobody needs this, and nobody will remember it.
This game is very pretty, with nice music, and good voice acting when it exists, but its writing is awful.
Oh yeah the gimmick! Everyone’s gay, and the game punishes you based on how nice you are to them. It’s literally the only way you can affect the world.
Verdict: Made me want to become a men’s rights activist.