Read Only Memories: Is cyberpunk allowed to be this adorable?
Read Only Memories has all the ingredients of a great indie game: a strong visual style, a happening soundtrack, and likable characters. It commits to a distinct aesthetic which The Escapist so eloquently describes as “…like a Telltale game, Phoenix Wright, and Snatcher had some sort of millennial cyberpunk baby.” It has the makings of a great game but does it live up to expectations?
Ever since seeing Ghost in the Shell as a kid, I’ve had an obsession with cyberpunk. Dystopian futures, androids, body augmentation, VR….man, that’s the stuff of my dreams. Needless to say when Erik recommended Read Only Memories, a game by MidBoss, featuring all of the above and more, I absolutely could not resist dropping the $15 on it and I was not disappointed. Read Only Memories was worth every penny, but it also wasn’t everything that it could have been. It’s wonderful when a movie or game is everything we expect, but in this case, I can’t help but wish it had surprised me more instead of choosing to play it safe. Regardless of this, Read Only Memories is a great game and has a lot to offer.
Upon first booting up the game, you are inundated with gorgeous and nostalgic inducing 16-bit style graphics. This aesthetic may not be for everyone, but for those that like it, it’s well executed and brings a lot of charm to the experience. The low fidelity nature of the visuals can make the interface clunky at times as it’s not always easy to make out what you’re looking at (especially for really small things) but those instances are infrequent and are easily resolved by choosing “look” to get a brief description of the object. All-in-all the visuals are stylish and really bring a lot of personality to the game.
This nostalgic visual style is complemented with a tight 80’s synth inspired soundtrack by 2 Mello that provides an atmospheric backdrop to the locations and a sense of personality to the characters you meet during your journey. The music rarely feels like a bad fit however at times it is more understated than I would have liked, as the overall vibe is very mellow throughout. One funny note though, I found that some of the tracks would not have sounded out-of-place in a classic Sonic game, if sped up (check out track 16 – Troublemaker to see what I mean). Like the visuals, the soundtrack will likely be enjoyed by most of the intended audience of this game but it might not hit the mark for gamers who’re looking for the next Undertale soundtrack as it lacks the same energy and catchy pop music sensibilities, offering up a more ambient vibe instead. That being said, it makes for great background/work music.
Read Only Memories is a visual novel with point & click adventure elements. As such, heavy emphasis is placed on the narrative and the characters. There are the rare puzzles to solve and divergent plot lines but for the most part the game is very linear in nature. Some may take issue with this as it reduces the replayability of it but I think in this case it wasn’t a matter of lazy design but rather to give the developers the most control over the exact experience they wanted you to have. There is a particular set of themes, questions, and decisions that it’s clear MidBoss wanted you to think about and to that end, it is successful. To it’s own detriment though, it makes for story that can (at times) be too predictable.
Upon reflecting on that issue, I realized that this may have been by design. The predictable plot allows for it to serve more as a backdrop rather than the focus and let’s the drama of the characters take the spotlight. The themes of the game are mostly about the human (or rather sapient) connection, the common struggles we all face, and teamwork. These themes are not told explored as much through the main plot as they are through the interactions you have with Turing and the varied other personalities of Neo-San Francisco. This focus on relationships is even echoed in the achievements available for the game, many of which are related to how well, or poorly, you treated the characters you encountered.
I won’t spoil anything about the plot here, but it will suffice to say that its weakest point is the ending. The climax of the story never really seems to hit a high point and left me wondering ‘that’s it?’. That’s not to say that the ending was bad per se, but the story keeps seeming to be leading to a dramatic conclusion and then sidesteps at the last moment. There aren’t really any major surprises, any real heartbreak…I think in the end it just plays things too safe. This is a complicated thing to try to explain, as of course I would have balled my eyes out if certain characters died, etc. but when it seemed like the stakes were so high, too many characters came out of it no worse for wear. All that being said, it’s still a good story and the epilogue and recent EX mode add more content to flesh out what happened in the aftermath but I can’t shake the feeling of having watched a movie that obviously played it too safe because they need the lead characters for the sequel.
Read Only Memories is a great experience, filled with memorable characters, a fascinating world, and thought-provoking themes. It is absolutely worth the $14.99 price tag but it isn’t without its flaws. The team at MidBoss have been very receptive to critique, even going so far as to change plot elements based on fan feedback. That, along with the EX post-game mode update and the newly announced update, “2064”, make me confident that they will refine some of the game’s weaker points but don’t let that deter you from playing it now. None of its shortcomings aren’t made up for in spades by its wonderful dialogue, amusing characters, and groovy synth beats which culminate into a cyberpunk adventure that shouldn’t be missed.
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Shannon "Glitch" Crescent
UI/UX nerd, red Crux, and deep dish pizza enthusiast. Card carrying member of the PC master race with particular passion for simulation games. Also known to enjoy other genres like survival horror, point and click adventure, and metroidvania.