Note: Since time of writing, an update has added new dialogue and memos, as well as other improvements intended to improve gameplay. This review is based on the original release.
Amnesia is a common theme in adventure games, but the star of Memoranda has a very particular type of memory problem. Based upon the short stories of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Memoranda is Bit Byterz’ first adventure game that was partially funded through Kickstarter. It follows the story of Mizuki, a young woman who keeps losing track of her name and sets out to rediscover it. It’s an intriguing concept on which to base a game, but although having a colorful cast of characters, a unique art style and a wealth of interesting stories to draw from, its puzzles become frustratingly obtuse and much like Mizuki, it seems to have lost its own plot along the way.
Actually, while it is the starting point of the story, Mizuki’s name search quickly becomes a secondary consideration. Her immediate concerns take precedence, such as the fact that she hasn’t slept in over a week due to an apparition of a strange and creepy old sailor appearing by her bed every night to keep her awake. From there, things get more convoluted. It becomes obvious that the game is based on a series of short stories rather than any one cohesive tale, as they all start to run together like watercolors. The plot strands jump from one to another without much reasoning, and none of them are ever satisfactorily explained. Why wouldn’t the old man let Mizuki sleep? Who knows; certainly not Mizuki or the player. Why does she need to create an ice flower for a friend who’s going to the Arctic to search for that very flower with her husband? Search me. Why is there a guy in a wheelchair on the beach waiting for his mom? Even now, I really couldn’t tell you. While short stories often leave questions intentionally unanswered, the way these are crammed together and translated to the computer screen leaves much to be desired.
Another big problem is that the story suffers from a severe case of mood whiplash. It cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a whimsical, Japanese version of Alice in Wonderland, with funny, interwoven vignettes chock full of magical realism, or whether it wants to be dark and rather brutally real. The game swings back and forth so much that eventually you give up trying to figure out what the developers were aiming for. In one scene you meet Mizuki’s friend who apparently committed suicide several years before, and in the next you have to click on dream cats that eat numbers in order to figure out a combination to a safe. There’s no real rhyme or reason behind it. This leaves a number of loose ends upon completion of the story, even about Mizuki herself. The game keeps hinting at a dark past, but refuses to go into detail about her parents and relatives while continually trying to poke you in the direction of something clearly ominous. It almost seems as if whole portions of dialogue were accidentally skipped over.
The characters themselves are weak and one-dimensional, which is a shame because so many of them have interesting premises and backstories that are never capitalized on fully – or in most cases, at all. Of course, in any game there will be a certain number of characters are that are largely utilitarian, needed to simply move the plot forward. However, Memoranda introduces a plethora of people, from Henry, the boy whose friend was apparently taken out to sea, to the Spaghetti Man who is housing an elephant and does literally nothing besides cook spaghetti all day, though he tells Mizuki it has a deeper purpose. Unfortunately, we never find out what that purpose is, or why he absconded with an elephant and decided to give it pants; nor are we are able to help Henry find out what’s become of his friend. This goes for Mizuki too. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants to do with her life, either in the moment or in the long term, she never acquires a real sense of purpose, and players are prevented from listening in on what was surely meant to be the most helpful conversation she has in the entire game.
Despite the shortcomings of the story, some compelling gameplay could have at least salvaged the experience and made it enjoyable. Alas, after an hour or two the puzzle design breaks into more pieces than a jigsaw. For the first couple hours the obstacles are fairly straightforward, with none proving overly difficult to solve. While not easy by any means, the average gamer can complete them simply by being observant of the surroundings. And then it all comes unglued. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the puzzles, much like the plot, seem to lose all direction. You’re given clues for puzzles that you won’t solve for several hours yet, which is confusing when you can’t find clues for the puzzles you’re facing at the time. In order to move the story forward, you need to overcome obstacles in what seems to be a very arbitrary order. However, it’s often unclear what that order is, and it’s very easy to get stuck running around trying to solve one puzzle only to find that you simply cannot do that yet, even though it would seem there is nothing stopping you. Mizuki herself seems to be actively impeding you from completing puzzles at times, as certain additional pieces of dialogue are only unlocked after a task is finished or someone is talked to, again, for no apparent logical reason.
Really, though, it’s the complete lack of logic that does the puzzles in, as many of them are poorly designed in their own right. Most of them are inventory-based (some of which involve combining items), but there are a good number that require figuring out a specific code or a pattern to unlock a box, for example, and have to rely on clues found elsewhere. Any puzzles not involving inventory have hints available to help you along, but these are usually the easiest to solve. It’s the inventory obstacles that are the worst, because they require you to take ridiculously convoluted paths to solve problems. Instead of politely showing a doorman a card and explaining that you’re there on an errand for an elephant, his refusal to let you in forces you to randomly distract him with objects – one of which takes multiple steps to acquire because it initially disappears from your inventory whenever you take it, just to make the game more difficult. Another example is having to use liquid propane in a totally absurd way. While this might work fine in a comedy game in which all the puzzles are played for laughs, in Memoranda there is no consistent logic to what can or cannot be done. Many of the puzzles feel forced because Mizuki simply does not let you attempt the obvious solution to a problem.
One of the objectives that did not sit well with me is when Mizuki needs to enable an alcoholic to continue. In addition to having a disgusting conclusion, it was easily avoidable and needlessly cruel. (This really isn’t a spoiler, as it is very apparent that the character is an alcoholic and obvious that the game demands you to get him a drink.) Mizuki does this without questioning it or even attempting to find another solution to the problem, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of her actions, which is not a problem unique to this puzzle.
The point-and-click mechanics are fairly simple, at least. Left-click to interact with an object, right-click to hear Mizuki’s comments and occasionally get a better view of the item. You can also click to skip through dialogues and double-click to reach the edge of a screen faster. Various keys are also used, one to show all available hotspots for the current screen, another to open up the quick travel map, and the Spacebar to access the inventory. Pressing M opens up Mizuki’s “Memoranda” – that is, her personal notes as you progress through the game – which sounds much more helpful in theory than it actually is, as the notes are disjointed, unorganized and frankly unhelpful.
The game fares much better in its artistic presentation than actual game design. It has a clean but beautiful 2D look, which seems to be very Japanese-influenced. Some of the different locations you can visit are a flower shop, an underground sewer system and an old field with a pond dedicated in memoriam to frog soldiers. The colors are soft but vibrant and it’s all hand-painted to boot. The backgrounds in particular are gorgeous, with enough detail and animation to help them come alive, from a fidgeting frog in a trash can to a crab scuttling along a beach. The walking animation for Mizuki can come across a bit stilted and awkward at times, though her speed is fairly paced. The character designs are all interesting, with no two looking even remotely similar, though some could be described as having a somewhat “Suessian” influence.
The voice acting and sound design are two of the game’s strongest points. There are plenty of ambient effects, such as seagulls and ocean waves on the beach and cats meowing in alleyways. The acting is very good, though no particular character stands out as phenomenal. The only objection I have is that you can tell one of Mizuki’s friends in the local bar was recorded on a completely different microphone than any of the others, as the audio quality is fuzzy and much poorer than anywhere else in the game. The soundtrack is mostly classical, but despite several characters being interested in music (the baker discusses nothing but Wagner), the score never plays a terribly important role or adds much to the atmosphere. The one nice touch is that partway through the game Mizuki finds an old record and is able to play it in her apartment, changing the background score temporarily if you wish.
The ending of Memoranda is just as disappointing and empty as the rest of the game. The overarching story arc about Mizuki’s name is resolved, but it’s never properly explained why it eluded her in the first place. We also don’t get to see her overcome any of her personal problems, find closure on anyone else’s stories, or learn any more of Mizuki’s own backstory. The whole finale feels shallow and unsatisfying, though not entirely unexpected.
Memoranda is an ambitious game, and that is probably part of the problem. There are many interesting concepts and plot points introduced, but it lacks the strength of writing and game design to properly follow through on them. With great production values and a very enjoyable first couple hours, it seemed poised to be a very promising indie debut. But rarely have I gone from “Wow, this is great!" to “Why am I still playing this?” in such a short time. It could take ten hours to complete, or twice that long, depending on whether you use a walkthrough or simply get lucky trying random combinations of items to solve illogical puzzles and advance. It’s too bad, given the quality of the source material, but overall Memoranda fails to deliver on its promise.
Memoranda is visually stunning with an inviting atmosphere, but the lack of both plot and puzzle logic is too great to overcome.