‘What would you do today, if you knew the consequence of every action?’. It’s a cracking question, and one that we’ve fallen in love with relatively recently across movies, TV and games. There’s Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day and Edge of Tomorrow, as well as the actions of Dr Strange in the Avengers movies. TV has Russian Doll, and games have The Sexy Brutale and the Zero Escape series. In our lives, we can feel out of control of events, so it’s an understandable fantasy to replay them and make them perfect.
Into that illustrious group comes Retrace: Memories of Death, perhaps the simplest and most refined of all of those examples. What would happen if you were taken captive with three friends in a horror movie, desperately searching for a way out, but had the unlimited power to rewind time and make the perfect escape? It’s like giving the kids in Scream the chance to do-over and get a no-kill playthrough.
You play Freya, an introvert who is invited out by her friends to a ghost tour of her city. She’d rather stay back and play video games, which probably resonates with a few of us. While waiting at the bus stop with your friends Lucas, Mia and Owen, an earthquake shakes everything and you pass out. Curiously, you get to choose whose hand you hold, before you wake up in the grounds of a spooky estate. The hand you hold determines who you start the game with.
The three characters start in different areas of the estate and have distinct characteristics. Owen is gung-ho but strong, Lucas has a steel stomach (it does come in useful), while Mia is more compassionate than the others. Regardless, they all have an equal habit of dying in grisly ways. You will also come across Claire, a girl trapped in a cage who may not be what she seems.
Each playthrough will likely end with one or all of you dying, with the remaining survivors being thrown into despair. Since each of you is needed to pocket a key that opens one of three locks in the main mansion, the survival of everyone is imperative. To make that possible, at the end of a playthrough you are tossed into a kind of higher plane, overseen by a character called Matemna (an anagram of meta-man, we’d guess). Matemna offers you the ability to hop back to any thread in the timeline via a series of tomes, each dedicated to a character. From there you can alter events, die, alter more events and die again.
And so on, and so forth. You return with knowledge of what happened before, so you can take different dialogue paths (Retrace: Memories of Death most resembles a graphic adventure, albeit without much of an inventory to manage) and leave notes for other characters. You can race through quickly and reach friends before they get sliced up, or complete puzzles so that other characters don’t fail them and – yep – get sliced up again.
Even writing this, it feels like a great premise. We want to play this game. Moving around the pieces of a slasher movie so that no one dies is a game that could and should exist. Unfortunately, it’s not fully realised here, and there are only fleeting sightings of what it could have been.
Probably the critical wound that stops Retrace: Memories of Death is a lack of agency. What choice you have comes at the start of each playthrough, and these are undeniably the best moments. Which character should you choose to start the dominoes falling in the right way? Taking your time and picking well is critical. But once you’ve picked from one of three characters (which means there’s really only three threads to tug on), you’re on railroad tracks. You might do the odd puzzle or stealth task, but there are a limited number of doors to go through, and few divergent dialogue options. Your character will make decisions for you, bringing the future-information to the other characters and updating the timeline without your help. Retrace: Memories of Death sets up a scenario where you should feel like a puppet master, then makes you a puppet.
When you are handed control, it’s often to do menial stuff that you’ve done a few times before. Mia’s path starts with a stealth section to avoid a sentinel, one of Retrace’s Nemesis-like characters, but it’s time-consuming and you have to do it multiple times. There’s the classic wolf, sheep and seed ‘crossing the river’ puzzle, and we had to complete it four times. Retrace: Memories of Death is inconsistent in how it handles its puzzles, sometimes auto-completing them to save your time, while forcing you through them ad nauseum in other situations.
The puzzles are mostly on the naff side, too. We’ve all done that wolf, sheep, seed puzzle so many times, and seeing it here felt a bit retrograde. Two logic puzzles are great in their set-up, including a murder mystery, but you’re never convinced by the justification of the answer; in both cases, it could have been any solution, and you’d be able to make a case for them all. Luckily you can just save your game at a nearby journal and brute force it.
If you consider Retrace: Memories of Death a larger version of one of these logic problems, it also has its flaws. Freya will very occasionally talk like someone with future-knowledge, shifting the railroad tracks to another line, while other times she will play dumb and say everything that she’s said before. If you had a plan to treat a scenario in a certain way, Retrace often won’t let you. It only adds to the confining, ‘you have to play by the game’s rules’ feeling that robs it of agency.
In story terms, though, Retrace: Memories of Death is actually well-told. The characters are a little on the archetypical side, but you get to a point where you care for them. The dialogue’s decently written and natural, and the plot has a few aces up its sleeve which it reveals towards the end. While the graphics are on the simplistic side and the controls a little wonky – we got stuck behind more environment and characters than we’d like – it was still atmospheric, if a far cry from scary.
It’s not a long experience, but it equally doesn’t overstay its welcome, and while it feels too railroaded, it at least doesn’t emerge as a complicated and knotty ball that no one could unravel. We hit one blocker where the game didn’t fully explain that it wanted one, last failing playthrough to unlock the end-sequence, but it was otherwise a smooth ride.
While the ‘redo’ concept isn’t necessarily overused in wider media, there are still a fair few movies, TV shows and games that have done it, and done it better, tied it up in a neater bow, and dodged the feelings of repetition that could have been a pitfall. The Zero Escape series in particular does a similar job, but a magnitude better in every category. It shouldn’t detract too much from what this little indie game achieves with its limited budget, and it still manages to create original moments from its fantastic concept, but you should be aware of its flaws before going in.
Retrace: Memories of Death on Xbox takes the basic structure of Happy Death Day and makes it into a video game, giving you the chance to save everyone from horrific deaths. But what could have been a web of strategic choices instead turns out to be a few single threads, and the promise fades a little. There’s a strong story here, but expect to feel a victim of the fates, when you should really be feeling that you’re a master of them.