A 2D point and click adventure that can't escape the difficulty trope
With the resurgence of indie games in recent years, many of the long-lost genres and visual styles have also made a resounding comeback. From roguelikes to tough-as-nails platformers, complete with pixelated visuals aimed at inducing both charm and nostalgia. But the adventure genre hasn’t really caught this wave – though niche, the recent high profile releases such as Broken Age show that it’s still a viable endeavor. And it’s somewhat surprising – the mechanics of adventure games are typically very simple and straightforward (an inventory and some interactive items on static environments), so one could assume that there’s be no shortage of independent teams trying to create memorable adventures that don’t require fine-tuning controls or inventing gameplay mechanics. Memoranda is one such title – an adventure game that was made possible thanks to Kickstarter, and it hopes to take players through a series of wondrous scenarios and mind-bending puzzles.
Players assume the role of Mizuki, a young 25 year old woman, who suffers from insomnia. Just as she tries to fall asleep, after spending many days awake, she is disturbed by an imaginary old sailor. He refuses to let her sleep until he can. Mizuki’s other unfortunate and odd problem is that she occasionally forgets her name, as if it is stolen from her. Unable to sleep, she leaves her apartment and explores the town. The story that follows involves many odd encounters – a runaway elephant, a cat opera-singer, a man who loves spaghetti, a talking moose head, and so on. The game also revolves around characters transitioning from being an animal to being a human (and vice versa) depending on how they truly feel at heart.
Despite the unique cast, the story doesn’t really take advantage. Most of the characters are static and rarely serve a purpose beyond proving you clues for a puzzle or brief optional conversation. The world is quite basic and grounded in comparison, featuring a typical small town that you’ll explore, with typical bars, a pier, a bakery, and so on. A potentially interesting theme of transitioning from animal to humans is never explored. And even Mizuki’s own problems typically don’t feel very involving, and at the end of the game you’ll be left with just as many questions as answers. If this all seems like material from a fictional story, you’re not too far off – the narrative is apparently inspired by a series of Haruki Murakami short stories. I am not familiar with them, so it’s difficult to comment on how much was lost in translation from page to game. In the end, this is a mellow adventure that rarely picks up the pace and doesn’t really offer a satisfying or particularly interesting journey.
The gameplay elements are rather traditional. The town is comprised of a series of environment scenes, where you’re able to look at and/or interact with certain items in the 2D space. Helpfully, the game allows players to quickly transition between locations using a map, which features handy quick tips about why each location is relevant. You can walk through the levels, or quickly teleport by double clicking the exits of the screen to teleport out. Further, the game helpfully includes a key that points out all items on the screen that can be interacted with, saving you from pixel hunting. Mizuki also writes a quest journal of sorts that helps you keep track of the various tasks at hand. You’ve got an inventory (obviously), where items that you collect can be combined or broken apart. Characters can be interacted with for brief linear conversations.
But while Memoranda is designed to be a fairly by-the-numbers adventure game, its difficulty is what causes the entire experience to suffer. The thought of creating tough yet logical and enjoyable puzzles in adventure games is what keeps their designers awake at night, but unfortunately in this case, it seems the developers were unconcerned. Given that the game takes place in an imaginary setting, many of the puzzles and item combinations are odd and have little real-world logic behind them. This results in constant checking of the inventory to see if the new thing you just picked up can be used with something else.
The same goes for puzzles – though there are up to three hints that can be used for each, the solution is oftentimes so otherworldly that it’s tough to see many players solving it without resorting to a guide. For example, in one scenario the players need to find a series of numbers to a lock, and the hints say that the numbers are in the building on a poster. Well, you find a few posters, but numbers are nowhere in sight – that’s because they are, in fact, represented by musical arrangement words instead (solo is 1, quartet is 4, and so on). This sort of outside-the-box thinking and extreme attention to detail is required for the entirety of the game.
In another example, to open a lock you need to have realized that a bookshelf wall in another room has the same amount of grid cells as the lock, and provides the solution. The puzzle elements are often completely disconnected from each other in this way. And it gets worse, whenpuzzles need to be completed in order and you may be missing an action that allows you to proceed – that action often being very arbitrary. Or, the puzzle and the solution are located in different parts of the town, increasing the challenge to exponential levels and making it hard to ever connect the dots yourself. And as mentioned earlier, you could be missing some nonsensical interaction within your inventory or with an item in the environment. Memoranda isn’t challenging due to its cleverness or complexity, but rather the ambiguity of it all.
At least, through it all, you’ll be enjoying the game’s rather wonderful art style. The 2D art is wonderfully and uniquely drawn, and decently animated. The production values aren’t quite as high as the leaders of the genre, but it’s still nice to look at. The soundtrack consists of appropriately light music as you spend time staring at the same locations for a while. Although Mizuki and all other characters are voiced, the writing is inconsistent and the delivery often lacks quality. The main character herself doesn’t sound convincing and has trouble relaying any sort of emotion.
Memoranda does have a few redeeming qualities – the art is lovely, the characters are unique, and the general mechanics are sound. However, there are many faults to be found beneath the surface; the story feels shallow and incomplete, nor is it very interesting. The unique characters and themes presented are merely staging pieces for the puzzles. The audio design is underwhelming, and if it were not for the high difficulty, the entire thing would be over in under 3 hours. Ultimately, the entire experience suffers from the very high level of challenge that is simply not enjoyable. Despite avoiding a few of the traps that adventure games commonly fall in, Memoranda is unable to avoid the worst one, offering logic-defying puzzles that are tough purely due to their nonsensical nature.