Review: Read Only Memories: Neurodiver

15 May 2024

Don’t look now, but it’s been quite a while since 2015’s 2064: Read Only Memories introduced us to the cyberpunk world of Neo San Francisco. While we covered the definitive Integral release a few years after its initial release, I don’t think anyone was expecting to have to wait for a proper follow-up for this long. That didn’t stop developer Midboss from expanding the universe between these games with a graphic novel story centered around ex-cop Lexi Rivers. Both of these stories are worth experiencing, which puts pressure on Neurodiver to uphold a story-rich status quo. 

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who dove into the series and enjoyed the ins and outs of what I found to be a deep and compelling universe. But the number of times this game was pushed back signaled that they want to be sure they get this right from the get-go. Thankfully, we’ve been lucky enough to get a chance to get acclimated with Neurodiver on a couple of occasions through previews of the Pilot Memory and a prior build of the game. Having a chance to talk to the developers directly didn’t exactly hurt, either. 

I’m lucky enough to have been around the “long waits between games” block before, so the expectation of the “is this worth the wait” is a sentiment that isn’t especially foreign to me. Regardless of the wait, the time has finally arrived for everyone to experience ES88’s story and her psycho-diving exploits.

Published by Chorus Worldwide Games, Read Only Memories: Neurodiver releases on PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series S|X/Switch/PC (Steam/Epic Store) on May 16th, 2024. The Switch version was played for this review. 

Golden Memories Made Magical

Overlooking Neo San Francisco, the MINERVA complex is home to some of the best and brightest espers in the field. One such esper, ES88 (aka Luna Cruz de la Vega, or just Luna), starts her day by completing her first psychic dive with her newly assigned synthetic esper known as the Neurodiver. This worm-like creature helps ES88 establish a better psychic connection with the subject, allowing her to dive into their memories and help repair fragmented irregularities in their minds. Once she finds her footing, ES88 is summoned by lead esper FORTUNA to take on a new assignment after helping her bumbling coworker retrieve a mundane memory. 

Flanked by her broad-shouldered “brain-controlled android” partner known as GATE, FORTUNA briefs them on the exploits of the rogue esper known as Golden Butterfly. Primarily wreaking havoc in people’s minds by creating memory fragments and jumping from person to person, ES88 starts out thinking that her first major assignment is one that she can handle despite the challenge it presents. 

While early on the story largely concerns itself with getting you familiar with the cast and their relationships, things start moving in a mind-screwy direction once Golden’s motivations and methods used to accomplish their goal begin to take hold. Those same exploits test ES88’s skills and fortitude in ways she never thought she might have to endure.

Despite those trials, GATE’s emotional support in those tough moments was a highlight. Their relationship is one of my favorite story elements during my playthrough, and seeing her be such a rock to her partner while she navigates Golden’s shenanigans is not something you see very often in games. ES88 is usually a pretty bubbly person, which leads to some fun interactions between both of them. Having an outspoken personality flanked with a straight-laced foil is nothing new, but it’s fun watching the esper/magical girl fangirl watch her partner navigate that part of her personality. 

Golden’s personality (and numerous forms) starts out somewhat flamboyantly, but further progression into the story starts to peel back more of this antagonist’s personality beyond what someone might expect from this type of character. They’re most definitely playing their role, but the kind of rogue with motivations that move beyond a simple “doing it because it’s chaotic and evil” kind of motivation. Golden definitely needles Luna once they make their presence known during dives, as you’d expect. Though certain plot beats had me going “Wait, that’s a good point” more than once. Some of the decisions Luna makes during dives do come back to bite her in the ass, and Golden is more than happy to use that opportunity to their advantage.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call them moralistic, but Golden is definitely the kind of antagonist I like to see in stories like this. They lean in a more chaotic neutral direction, and I find that the best villains are the ones that have understandable motivations. Once the credits rolled, I found myself mildly sympathetic to them. They might have been really screwy and affected Luna in ways that were less than savory, but I understood why.

Having Neurodiver set in this established universe comes with the perk of the expected cross-pollination one might expect from stories like these. It’s not on the level of MCU integration, and I doubt that was their goal. It’s more like the implementation you’d see in something like Star Trek, where it just happens to be the same characters from different shows sharing a space and time. The way they’re written here does serve the plot well enough, and I’m glad each of the returning cast members get their chance to shine. It’s all works into the plot without feeling especially shoehorned in. They’re just part of the story, and we get opportunities for a little more development and see what they’ve been up to since 2064 (or Read Only Memories, in Lexi’s case).

It’s obvious that Midboss appreciates and cares about the universe that they’ve created here, and the story of Neurodiver was something I enjoyed. It was a pretty straightforward story until it wasn’t (in a good way, of course). But good stories are often the kind that are just unpredictable enough to keep you engaged, and I really appreciated how this story navigated certain themes and went in places I wasn’t really expecting it to go. Given how the prior game was more of a murder mystery and this leaned in a more “detective, but with psychic sleuthing” direction, the shift in tone was handled well enough. It can be a mind-screw at times, but I think the purpose behind it was compelling enough that I can say that it was effective. I would go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite stories of the year so far.

Don’t Discount Those Deep Dives

Fans of the point-and-click adventure genre are pretty used to their games leaning in a more story-focused direction than other genres. It’s part and parcel of the whole thing, but that doesn’t mean that games like Neurodiver saw this aspect of the game as an afterthought. Those who played 2064 know what they’re in for here, and the gameplay is easy enough to understand for new and curious players. That’s not to say that some might bump up against some of the genre quirks, and Neurodiver does fall victim to some of them here and there. Thankfully, it won’t come up very often during your playthrough. But when it does, it pays to be detail-oriented.

You know what to expect here if you know your point-and-clicks. You’ll be doing the usual navigating around the environment in and out of dives. Most of the time, the game will guide you to where you’ll need to go through dialogue and fall into a routine when the plot isn’t kicking into any high gear. It’s accessible, for sure. But those who prefer their adventure games to be a little more complicated might be a bit disappointed here, though other games in this genre are available on modern consoles that might better suit those tastes.

Most of your time during dives involves collecting evidence and using that evidence in the memory to repair the fragments you’ll come across. You’ll find that you’ll need to use some amount of reasoning while you navigate the dives yourself, though being observant helps as well. As you would expect for adventure games, it pays to explore to some degree. Mostly because the game doesn’t hold your hand when you piece together the evidence you need to unlock the memory, though the balance between really straightforward and somewhat obtuse can be frustrating at times.

I won’t pooh-pooh the gameplay here, it’s perfectly competent. However, it becomes pretty obvious that the gameplay is in service to the story, which isn’t all that surprising given the genre. Point-and-clicks can and will be more story-focused unlike some of their contemporaries, but there’s just enough gameplay here to feel like it isn’t an afterthought. This focus falls in line with how it was in 2064, and the story in both games is good enough to forgive how light the gameplay might be compared to other games in other genres. There are plenty of other point-and-clicks that will scratch the gameplay itch better, but Neurodiver fancies itself a story-focused game. Your mileage may vary.

Magical Cyberpunk Girl in a Technological World

Aesthetically speaking, some fans of the cyberpunk genre seem to enjoy it best when it’s grimy and bathed in neon-adjacent colors. Neurodiver happily and effectively adopts that palette, and wraps it up in a graphical style best described as something out of a mid-90s PC adventure game. It may not be unique in that regard, but you can tell that Midboss enjoyed letting their artistic side come out a bit more here. Animation is deliberately limited to match that 90s PC aesthetic, and dialogue animation between characters fits that era. Hell, there’s a bit of self-indulgence by way of leaning into Luna’s fangirl tendencies. When “episodes” end, it does so with a preview similar to what you’d see in an anime. It’s fun and kinda cheeky, and it plays into her personality rather well.

That 90s aesthetic bleeds into the audio presentation as well, and it leans heavily into FM sound chips/audio hardware from that era. I’m totally fine with this, because those same FM chips were used on consoles like the Genesis/Mega Drive. When used effectively, the sound font can be a pleasant listen despite what some developers of the time awkwardly did with the hardware. Neruodiver remembers the best part of the FM audio sound font and ends up being something I wish I would have heard more of from the Genesis/Mega Drive and its contemporaries when it was still on store shelves. It makes me wistfully wish for more effective sound design back then, but alas.

True to form, dialogue is accented with just as much voice acting as there was in 2064. This was a strength there and the performances uphold the ones done here. Certain plot beats require more emotion than what was present in the prior game, namely through Luna and Golden. Thankfully, that emotion doesn’t fall into hammy territory for major characters. Most everyone here turns in performances appropriate to their role, and the tight writing backs that up. There were times where the overall audio mixing could have been a bit more audible when dialogue started getting a bit on the quiet side, but this is a minor gripe of mine that could be patched out later.

I felt confident that Neurodiver would match the quality of 2064‘s presentation at a minimum, and they definitely met that standard and then some with Neurodiver. You can tell that the devs were comfortable and in their element in this graphical environment, and it wasn’t afraid to lean into that during my semi-short playthrough. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the length of development, but I’ve waited on games for much longer and walked away with presentation that ended up a lot worse than what I walked away from here. Adventure game fans will appreciate what’s here, and casual folks likely will too.

Golden Opportunity Seized

There for a while, I started to worry that Neurodiver may not live up to expectations. I’m happy to say that those fears are largely squashed after the credits started to roll. It’s a story-first game, and that story is something I actually enjoyed quite a bit. It doesn’t always hit, but it’s effective when it actually hits it stride. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of adventure game, and I doubt it’ll be the last. So long as the story’s compelling in some way, I’ll be happy to give it a chance.

Read Only Memories: Neurodiver is a rare instance of great execution when the “when it’s done” attitude is adopted. Anchored mostly by its great presentation and story, this sequel easily meets expectations while also remembering what genre fans like about the series. New fans and old will enjoy what Luna’s story brings to the table, and I’m looking forward to what’s coming next for the Read Only Memories franchise. Cyberpunk fans should walk away from this with a big ‘ol grin on their face, and I’m one of them.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by Chorus Worldwide Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.