My uncle has a habit of changing his stories every time he tells them. Alcohol might be a factor, but you can see the details shift with each pint of Stella. Sometimes exaggerating, other times introducing whole new characters. It’s a skill, and you get the sense that the story is more important than the truth.
Perhaps the one-man development team of Matias Schmied has one of those uncles. Because it takes the unreliable narrator and the shifting sands of memory, and constructs an Earthbound-like narrative adventure game out of it. And rather than be a confusing mess, it can be a Sistine Chapel of plot strands. You have to walk around and admire it.
It tells the story of Bruno Gallagher, a young gent who – very early on in RE:CALL – gets possessed by a technology that can reshape memories. Those memories can be Bruno’s or they can be someone else’s. Regardless, Bruno can jump into and explore them as a top-down RPG, moving things around, changing entities, and generally acting like a bull in a memory shop. Whatever Bruno does in those memories has a butterfly effect on everything in the future.
Where this gets exceptionally clever is that those butterfly effects happen in real-time. Removing bullets from a gun means that someone doesn’t get killed in the future. Hop out of the newly remastered dream, and you will find that person, alive and well, listening to your memory. And the cause-and-effect doesn’t have to be that drastic: you will be changing the background colours of paintings, and sketching notes in diaries for future-you to find.
Matias Schmied doesn’t stop there. RE:CALL could easily have been a memory-of-the-week scenario, where you solve crimes and right wrongs. But there is a consistent story running through RE:CALL, with a nemesis who may have powers similar to your own, and a sequence of events in the past (explorable, of course) that lead to you and your nemesis gaining your powers. It’s neatly convoluted, like the Swindon magic roundabout, and could have been the plot of a major science fiction movie.
There’s nothing too onerous about playing the memories: they aren’t too dissimilar from other Earthbound-a-likes, such as To the Moon. You move around, chat to people – choose dialogue options carefully – and pick up items that can be used elsewhere. But, of course, there is a ‘canonical’ series of events, and every time you deviate from it, you change the memory’s ramifications, as well as your surroundings outside of the memory. Thinking on these two planes of thought is imperative.
Eventually, the memory will end or someone will die, and that’s where the Groundhog Daying comes in. You can replay the memory with the knowledge you have gained, creating the perfect playthrough that achieves all of the consequences you desire. There’s no true branching or divergence here, which is a shame considering the topic matter; RE:CALL wants you to emulate a very specific new timeline.
As discrete puzzles, these memories are absolutely brilliant. They don’t bake the noodle half as much as it may sound, but you will still have large scenes with plenty of levers and dials to twiddle, working out what would cause the precise effect you need. There are some similarities to other timeloop games in that sense, particularly The Sexy Brutale. RE:CALL manages to find the sweet spot of letting you do everything that you can think of, reacting accordingly and often leading to further memory toys to play with.
We were utterly hooked. While it needs an edit, arriving with more typos than it should, it’s stupendously well written. Bruno develops a cast of posh nitwits and endearing fools that are great fun to be around, and their memories are as wild as you’d hope. The plot loves a cross and double-cross, and it doesn’t necessarily go in the directions you expect. This is an immaculately crafted whodunnit that occasionally strays into whendunnit.
We wish there wasn’t a caveat, but there is. RE:CALL does lose its way, and we’re not sure whether it’s a lack of confidence in the main mechanic, and whether it will stretch to a whole game. We would love to have been there in the design brainstorms to say YES, yes the premise would absolutely stretch to a whole game, so please don’t change it. But change it they do, and it’s here that RE:CALL becomes far more generic.
Only four of the seven chapters in RE:CALL use this memory manipulation mechanic. They are, by far, the best levels in the game, and we were hungry for more of them (DLC pleeeease?). But that means the other three degenerate into reasonably straight, uninspiring puzzle levels. The memory manipulation is stripped from the character, and instead we play around with switches and stealth, which we’ve done umpteen times before. And better, we may add.
There is one level – the final one, alas – where the memory powers are gone, and (being careful not to spoil too much here), the level becomes a colossal maze that needs to be explored multiple times over. It takes hours, and invokes a new non-memory-based power that is an absolute ballache to use. It’s fiddly, demands that you spin two plates at the same time, and threatens to undo all of the marvellous work that came before.
It’s not an utter travesty, and might have been okay in a game that was dedicated to it, which had time to iron out the kinks of the awkward new superpower. But here, it’s extremely rough-edged and only made us hanker for the older, better mechanic that RE:CALL built the first few levels on. It’s a bad taste that remains until the credits roll.
But let’s linger on the memory of those first few levels. They made us feel like a time-travelling disc jockey, spinning the records in different directions to see what new events would occur. When RE:CALL is confident in its central conceit, it’s a bloody brilliant narrative adventure, and the writing here is among the very best. Let’s choose to keep the first levels as core memories. We’ll conveniently forget the rest.
You can buy RE:CALL from the Xbox Store
- Superb memory-hopping adventure
- Exquisitely written
- Memories are fun to tinker with
- Cracking dialogue and characters
- Keeps taking the fun powers away
- Last level is kind of awful
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Whitethorn Games
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 17 January 2023
- Launch price from - £16.74