I often find myself disgruntled with retro indie games. Though the style’s significant titles revitalize their genre of choice with gorgeous visuals and minutely tuned mechanics, the story often gets left by the wayside. I’m not the kind of person who thinks every single game requires a tantalizing plot, but while I might have an afternoon’s worth of fun with a new side-scrolling brawler, I’m more likely to make return trips to said side-scrolling brawler if it has a story worth caring about (like Dust: An Elysian Tail, for one). When far too many games in the past wrote the plot in a few paragraphs or less and called it a day, providing a meaningful story ensures your project has a meaningful identity that doesn’t need its classic influences for support.
It’s only appropriate that Read Only Memories, one of the more exciting retro-themed games of the past few years, is all about identity. Whether they’re a robot, a human modified with animal genes or an androgynous hacker, most of the vital residents of Neo-San Francisco are feeling out who they truly are, one step at a time. As a fellow citizen and impoverished freelance journalist, you also spend the length of your adventure carving your persona through a combination of intimate conversations and vital investigations. It’s a delicate balance that occasionally tilts in the least desirable direction, but the end result is truly captivating.
After getting acquainted with Turing, the world’s first independent, intelligent robot, and investigating their creator’s disappearance for a solid twenty minutes, they want to know you better. They ask for the usual personalization details with one small yet significant change: rather than offering a male/female option, they ask for your preferred pronouns, even going as far as letting you write custom identifiers. Aside from gleefully allowing players to truly identify any way they wish (a rarity even amongst games that tout extensive character customization options), it’s an early indication that your adventure won’t be as grim as the Blade Runners or Shadowruns of the world.
Indeed, everything about ROM’s take on the future feels warmer than its contemporaries. With the exception of a few run-down parts of town, bright, pixelated pastels envelop every corner, from Turing’s baby-blue head to the neon lights pulsing through a local club. In a touch reminiscent of Phoenix Wright, characters have their own visual tics that make it easier to remember who’s who. It’s also filled with puns and sly references, even going as far as writing a unique response to a number of items you attempt to examine and/or combine: you may not be able to talk to your refrigerator or connect your headphones to another human, but ROM will reward you for your efforts by cracking wise.
It’s not all grins and celebrations: you are involved with a missing person case, and when said missing person has been working on something as ground-breaking as Turing, they could have picked up any number of enemies along the way. With the help of some questionable allies, you have to get your hands dirty and do most of the legwork yourself, occasionally bending and breaking laws to chase the next lead to its bitter end. These misadventures feel just as rewarding as chatting up the colorful denizens because they always stay fresh. Whether you’re intercepting a car or flirting with someone to get backstage, you engage with a minigame unique to the situation, following its own logic. Even failure isn’t the end (most of the time); miss a mark, and the missed opportunity might return again, albeit at a less advantageous time. The story keeps its brisk pace without sacrificing challenge, for there is a price to pay if you keep screwing up.
Unfortunately, there are times where the journey moves too quickly, glossing over some topics that deserve their own time in the spotlight. Turing will occasionally voice their concerns over personhood and puzzle over their gender, but these moments are given the briefest of considerations before jumping back into the action. I especially felt that my time with Jess was far too brief: she rightfully accuses you of failing to understand the true struggle altered humans face, but instead of sitting down and talking about it earnestly, the most you can do is respond with the equivalent of “I sympathize with your plight but can you help me with this thing?” You grow attached to these characters but are rarely given the time and tools necessary to show them how much you care.
While the puzzles are mostly harmless and satisfying to solve, I also have a bone to pick with a particular sequence. A wannabe rapper blocks your path into a shop, and to get past him, you’ll have to help him with his rhymes. This involves showing him whatever item from your inventory rhymes with the highlighted word… except when it doesn’t. For the last rhyme, the solution involves him misidentifying one item from your inventory while the one that should work falls flat. It isn’t quite as bad as the infamous cat mustache from Gabriel Knight III, but while I appreciated the joke at the end, I wasn’t thrilled with solving a puzzle that obfuscates the answer.
Despite that one questionable puzzle and the desire for deeper conversations, I found myself swept away by Read Only Memories. It pulled me in with a solid sense of humor and an adorable robot, but really took hold when it was time to get serious, taking a hard look at the stakes and the sheer pain suffered by my newfound allies. When the credits finally rolled and a chorus sang along to the main theme, I felt compelled to leap from my couch and join in. If that doesn’t adequately express how much I enjoyed this game, I don’t know what will!
Like its retro-themed kin, Read Only Memories borrows from a whole host of sources. Its presentation is straight out of Snatcher, Neo-SF’s energy drink of choice is a callback to a series of cult survival horror games, and one of its characters bears more than a little resemblance to a character from one of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classics. By themselves, these would simply be a parade of references, but it’s the way the game modifies and remixes its influences that helps it stand out from the crowd: Read Only Memories spins an engaging tale about corruption and self-discovery, and is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that will sink its hooks into whoever plays it, accommodating their gender and sexual identities along the way. In its quest for identity, Neo-San Francisco becomes impossible to forget.
If you want to hear the other members of Scanline Media discuss their thoughts on Read Only Memories, follow this link.
Read Only Memories is out on Windows, Mac and Linux for $15, and will release on several other platforms in the future. A press copy was provided by the developers at Midboss and their PR firm.