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At a recent preview event held by Bandai Namco, we played 11-11: Memories Retold, the new game from Aardman and Digixart set during the first World War.

11-11: Memories Retold makes an immediate impact with its painterly visuals, an animated canvas created by a virtual impressionist. Viewed up close – as preview events often dictate – the game initially looks a little indistinct, perhaps a cheap trick to hide the rudimentary construction of its environments and characters.

However, stepping back from the screen by a few feet improves things considerably, and from the comfort of your couch it should look spectacular. The blurred, bleeding colours resolve into an image that is both detailed and ethereal. And like other games that have used similarly artistic techniques in their presentation – think Okami, Valkyria Chronicles, and Valiant Hearts – the effect is striking, and just as likely to stand the test of time.11-11: Memories Retold preview

The 11-11: Memories Retold demo begins in 1917, where we meet Harry, a photographer working at a studio in Toronto. The opening moments paint a vignette of Harry’s life – as well as introducing the control mechanics of his lens – before exploring his reasons for joining the war effort.

The scene is intercut, sharply, but elegantly, with the story of Kurt, a worker at a German Zeppelin factory. Similarly, we get an insight into the day-to-day grind of his life before he also decides to leave for the Western Front. (We also get to sample a tedious cart pushing environmental puzzle, but let’s not dwell on that.)

It’s a slow start, but one that firmly grounds the interests of the player in both characters. Harry’s life has an innocence, and a sense of removal from the conflict happening far away. Kurt’s scenes have a foreboding undercurrent, with Olivier Deriviere’s growling score emphasising the grandeur and majesty of the work as he ambles around the factory rafters.

Both scenes conclude with the two protagonists leaving their lives behind “to do their bit”. Notably, neither Harry or Kurt does so out of national pride, but are instead motivated by more personal desires.

11-11: Memories Retold

The demo cuts again, without warning, to the trenches. It’s here that the game’s aesthetic approach comes into its own, doing some spectacular heavy lifting in terms of creating scope and mood. The nighttime battle is smeared with smoke, and punctuated by crimson streaks of artillery fire that light the sky as Harry and his fellow soldiers go over the top. The sequence lacks peril from a gameplay perspective, but it hardly matters. There’s a tangible intensity and fervour that is at once both beautiful and chilling. The effect is enhanced by a cacophony of noise that paints the dark corners of the conflict that your eyes cannot see.

The music is again of note. In contrast to the brooding, sombre motifs often used in such wartime recreations, 11-11: Memories Retold takes the tally-ho approach, undercutting the horror of the moment with triumphantly futile, patriotic fanfares.

The perspective continues to switch between Harry and Kurt, who are now on opposing sides of the same battle. As they move ever closer, rudimentary fetch and follow quests give you something to do, feeling urgent and important without truly being so. Kurt is tasked with supplying backup to a machine gunner, while Henry has to snap portraits of his superiors posing heroically on the battlefield.

In truth, it’s not about what you are doing. Instead, 11-11: Memories Retold is unashamedly focused on atmosphere and character. The game makes each protagonist relatable with impressive economy, and it deserves credit for doing so without ladling on sentiment. Despite the scope of the war, this feels like a personal story.

Events gradually bring the two protagonists together, resulting in them standing alone, face to face, pistol to pistol.

And then you get to play as a cat.

11-11: Memories Retold

Having experienced a steady and relentless increase in tension, this scratch of the needle – which, for me, was entirely unexpected – is a liberating delight.

Suddenly, you become a nimble interloper, trapped inside a war where you have no side. It’s a beautifully executed conceit in which there’s no objective other than survival and curiosity. Scampering through the battle-lines you are ignored by soldiers on both sides, allowing you to see the machine of war from a truly neutral perspective. It plays out like a fly on the wall documentary, but made by a cat in a trench.

The demo ends as our feline explorer joins the tableau of Kurt and Henry. And there, for now, it ends.

The good news is that I wanted more. What 11-11: Memories Retold might lack in terms of traditional “gameplay” is addressed by its wonderfully drawn characters, an intriguing, human story, and no small amount of drama. It’s a testament to the work of Aardman and Digixart that the game has lingered in my memory for some weeks after playing the demo. In that respect, it’s a game well titled.

And I also hear there’s a playable pigeon.

11-11: Memories Retold will be released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC on November 9, 2018.

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