Memento Mori review
A statue of a young, beautiful boy carrying a skull… A painting of a company of skeletons dancing in circles around a campfire... A cautionary tale about the risks of vanity and luxury, the most vicious of the devil’s temptations... All these artistic creations share the same purpose: to remind people of their own mortality, of the brevity of their earthly life. The Latins had a perfect expression for this kind of representation: memento mori (“remember that you have to die”), and this fascinating title makes for an ominous first impression in Centauri Production's new adventure. Memento Mori promises ancient secrets, forbidden prophecies, cursed paintings and a ruthless cult, and while these elements seem to be common ingredients of the Dan Brown era, this game is more than a simple copycat. It may ride the wave of religious conspiracy thriller popularity, but it does so with enough twists and original developments to stay refreshingly interesting, if not entirely devoid of some drawbacks of its own.
As the game opens, someone has stolen a painting from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and replaced it with a well-executed fake. The investigation led by Colonel Ostankovic doesn’t yield any results, so he is forced to contact Larisa Svetlova (nicknamed Lara), who used to work in his division before getting a job with Interpol. Lara is an expert in art thefts and friends with Maxime Durand, a skilled forger whom she helped capture years before. Ostankovic needs to avoid unwelcome press attention, so he asks Lara to send her old friend to St. Petersburg. His duty is simple: he must enter the museum at night and examine all of the paintings while no curious eyes can see him. If he can find the fake, all his past charges will be cleared. This may sound like an easy job for someone as skilled as Max, but as soon as he steps inside the museum, he stumbles upon the thief himself. The burglar manages to disappear before Max can catch him, but from his brief glimpse of the intruder, two details strike Max as extremely odd: a strange tattoo covering the thief’s bald head and his long monk’s robe. Clearly, something far more sinister than a simple art forgery is going on in St. Petersburg, and it’s up to players to help both Lara and Max piece this mystery together.
Memento Mori plays from a third-person perspective, but unlike most games in this style, here the game is presented in full 3D. In each location, the camera is fixed at a certain position, although it can slightly rotate to follow the character’s movements. At first, this choice doesn’t seem particularly favorable, because it sometimes forces the player to click around just to make sure there aren’t any additional portions of the current room. However, once you become accustomed to it, it’s a small sacrifice for the fact that Memento Mori makes good use of the 3D environment, and the pre-determined camera angles are effective and often nicely atmospheric. In fact, upon clicking certain objects like a computer, the camera smoothly swoops forward with a circular movement that is quite beautiful and provides a nice sense of cinematic immersion.
More importantly, the benefit of 3D is used well for puzzle solutions. Many times throughout the adventure, players have the chance to examine certain areas from a first-person point of view. These screens allow a 360-degree revolution around objects (rather than simply spinning yourself in a circle), and while the option feels a bit gratuitous at the beginning, as the game progresses it is implemented in clever ways. Without a doubt, this kind of puzzle is by far the best of the game: having the opportunity to carefully examine every nook and cranny, to move part of the scenery to reveal what is beneath, to circle around obstacles in search of little details, is a very satisfying experience. A chromatograph from the Interpol laboratory lends itself as a perfect example: Lara has to learn how to operate this instrument by piecing together the scarce information provided, but the fun starts when you click on the machine itself. The scene switches to Lara’s own view and from here you can rotate the image at your leisure to discover every button, plug, display or lever on all sides, and figuring it out requires both a sharp eye and a good deal of logical thinking. In addition to this feature in the main environments, every inventory item can be fully examined from every perspective as well, making the clue-searching a consistent and believable process.
Unfortunately, the majority of the non-3D activities are quite straightforward and sometimes rather uninspired. Players will encounter two types: dialogue-related choices and inventory-based puzzles. The dialogue feature was highly publicized as one of Memento Mori’s distinctive features, but while the idea of basing choices on an emotional response is interesting, the game doesn’t do much with it. There are certain situations where the choice between a “positive” or an “negative” response is fitting, but often this distinction is extremely vague and many times I found myself choosing one instead of the other without a clear idea of what either implied or how it would impact the outcome. Then again, the choices are usually quite irrelevant, since the few times it actually matters, the player has the option to simply choose the other if the “wrong” mood has been selected first, making the decision rather pointless.
As for the inventory puzzles, they are generally well integrated into the plot (with the occasional exception of contrived fetch quests), but their design can also leave something to be desired. There is a sequence, for example, where Max has to find a particular book in a library: he knows the general description of its appearance and the subject treated. However, there is no reasoning required, since the game forces you to pick up almost every book that fits the description and compare it with the library catalogue. When finally finding the correct book, Max will say so himself and the player’s contribution has only been clicking a number of times to climb the shelf-ladder, pick up the next book, climb down and compare the volume. The process can’t help but feel superfluous and unnecessarily long, and this is not the only case where a particular solution can be found only by monotonous interactions. At times, it almost feels like the many inventory puzzles were designed just to be filler in between the ones that capitalize on the 3D engine.
The use of 3D also lends itself well to the graphics, and while not as artistically rich as some pre-rendered adventures, the environments are quite nicely polished. The realistic presentation makes for highly atmospheric locations, and effects like smoke or fog and dynamic lighting add a vivid touch to every place Lara and Max visit, along with an excellent choice of colors. From a dark, dusty old library on the outskirts of St. Petersburg to the modern architecture of the Interpol Bureau to the cosiness of Lara’s Russian apartment, every location has been carefully designed and the camera angles often offer some breathtaking overviews. My favorite locations are an underground disco in one of the poorest zones of St. Petersburg, whose crowd of punks and prostitutes makes for a nice diversion from the quaint feeling of the rest of the game, and an ominous Finnish monastery, where the peculiar architecture of the church and the cloisters appear beautiful and peaceful by the light of day, only to become malignant and woeful by night. Unfortunately, the character models don’t fare quite as well. While acceptable, they aren’t very detailed and tend to be clumsily animated, with poor lip synching and awkward movements, especially when running or picking up objects. Thankfully, the textures are excellent when it comes to clothing fabrics, which are among the best I’ve ever seen in an adventure game.
While generally the game’s interactive objects are easy to distinguish, there are some that are fairly small and would border perilously on the dreaded pixel hunt if not for the game’s hotspot highlight feature. Even using that isn’t foolproof, however. More than a few times I encountered a necessary object that was hidden behind a supporting character, and since the characters’ movements inside each location are scripted, there is no other solution than to patiently wait for them to move out of the way. Without knowing this in advance, it took me a long time to figure out where a particular object was, since I was pretty sure I had searched all locations meticulously.
The sound department is somewhat of a mixed bag. The voices are generally good, with the notable exception of Lara’s, which sports a Russian accent so fake that it made me cringe every time she spoke. Honorable mentions must go to the narrator’s voice, which has a nice James Earl Jones tone to it, and to Max’s brother André, whose actor conveys every line with a subtle sarcasm that is spot-on for the character. Sound effects are pretty good, particularly any that are water-related: from the drips of the catacombs to the heavy rain of a storm at the beginning of the game, the sounds are able to create an involving, subtly menacing ambiance. When it comes to the musical orchestration, though, Memento Mori is one of the few games whose soundtrack, if it were available, I’d be glad to buy on its own. The main score is incredibly emotional and the tune associated with Lara and Max’s growing bond (albeit from a distance) has the rare quality of being romantic without becoming cheesy. Nevertheless, it’s the theme heard when something nasty is about to happen or when a major revelation is about to be exposed that is really outstanding: with its almost tribal drums and dissonant piano notes, it literally exudes atmosphere and is so sinister and haunting that it managed to frighten me every time I heard it.
Before venturing into the meanders of Memento Mori’s story, I have to say that the game is tempered by some technical issues that, while not severe enough to be deal-breakers, can nonetheless be annoying. First of all, any time I was running other background programs like an antivirus or web browser, the game tended to crash frequently after cutscenes and sometimes after dialogues. Even without those the game could be quite unstable, and in the end I resorted to saving after every relevant discovery. At least any other glitches are more quibbles than real problems: Max’s brother has the unkind habit of disappearing from his location randomly, only to reappear as soon as the player leaves and then re-enters the same locale. Meanwhile, some objects tend to get stuck in thin air and free themselves only if the player comes back later. I don’t know if these issues are hardware-related or not, but they occurred with both the machines I tested the game on and I really hope that the developers can release a patch that addresses these issues, because constantly fearing crashes really isn’t the best way to become immersed in Memento Mori’s riveting plot.
When I first heard about this game, I was tempted to label it just another Da Vinci Code rip-off that has filled the genre lately, though the fascinating setting and its emphasis on macabre aesthetics interested me anyway. True enough, the basic premise of Memento Mori – a secret cult, a long-forgotten prophecy, a blend of art and conspiracy – is indeed anything but original, but this time the result is different. What begins like a classic investigation, in fact, turns out to be a touching tale of loss and death, of pain and the peace that can be found in forgetfulness. It’s hard to discern right from wrong, the good side from the bad, and these ethical nuances are as powerful as the character of Max, who undergoes a difficult and emotional development throughout the game.
In contrast to Max is the bland characterization of Lara. As one of the two leading characters, I expected her to be as interesting and likeable as Max, whose background and personality are indeed very well fleshed-out. Unfortunately, she has a paper-thin personality and her segments – which happen to be completely irrelevant to the main plot, at least for the first part of the adventure – are quite dull and dreary. Since there is no interaction between her and Max aside from a couple of email exchanges, I found myself utterly disappointed every time the action switched back to her as the playable character. In the end, Max emerges as the real center of the story, but this isn’t an excuse for making Lara so underwhelming. The supporting cast is slightly better, mainly thanks to Colonel Ostankovic, whose arrogant attitude and pompous manners are quite effective, and Nada, a forger with a penchant for false documents.
Similarly, the writing varies greatly, and it seems the developers felt more comfortable with Max's growing drama than the early procedural tone, which can’t help but feel a little naïve. Where the writing really shines, though, is the external narration, which is richly atmospheric and foreboding. The narrator lines describing Max and Lara’s actions and foreseeing their consequences, combined with the actor’s deep, charming voice, are bound to send more than one proverbial shiver down your spine.
Some players may be disappointed that, near the end of its course, Memento Mori drops the conspiracy theme – even the artistic one, for that matter – to embrace a more psychological approach, but I found the choice a brave and interesting one. This change of tone allows the game to build towards an incredible climax, and the finale – not the much-vaunted multiple endings, but the whole last act of the game in its entirety – is really outstanding, easily one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Unfortunately, the first half of the game that heavily focuses on the art theft isn’t nearly as good, mainly because of its overly cautious pacing. When it comes to mysteries, I’m all for a leisurely beginning and a plot that gradually but steadily reveals itself, but Memento Mori starts so slowly that it almost becomes sluggish.
As for those multiple endings, out of the promised eight I’ve experienced only three, and while they were equally satisfying (truth be told, I found the “bad” ending even more intense), they sadly don’t depend on moral choices on behalf of the player. In fact, the final outcome is calculated through an utterly illogical process that registers your speed and effectiveness at puzzle solving more than your supposed choices. Scattered through the game’s eighteen acts, there are certain optional puzzles – like finding five differences between two pictures instead of three, or choosing to undergo a tarot reading session – that you have to overcome in order to obtain the fully successful ending, but these puzzles bear no connection at all with the most relevant aspect of the ending. While not diminishing the quality of the ending you’ll get in any case, this is still a missed opportunity, serving as merely a contrived mechanism to encourage replay.
Even in a single playthrough, Memento Mori is a pretty long game by current standards, as I clocked my experience at roughly fifteen hours. It’s a fairly easy one, however, and it’s unlikely that an experienced adventurer will become stuck, unless perhaps during the last segments of the game, when the puzzles become more complicated and the required exploration more thorough than the streamlined early sections. If you are looking for a brain-teasing experience full of complex puzzles to blow your mind, Memento Mori has little to offer along those lines. But if you are fan of story-driven adventures, you’ll find a promising new adventure to fill your needs in this gripping psychological drama (albeit disguised as a conspiracy thriller) with one of the most shocking and memorable endings the genre has seen in a long time.