Magical realism is the uncanny valley of literary genres. It doesn’t usually have the same uncanny effect, but it follows the same illogical progression curve: an unusual element that becomes more unusual as it approaches normality. I bring this up because magical realism is the genre to which Memoranda adheres, and the most prominent thought in my head after playing the game is just how bizarre it feels, even though it’s only slightly bizarre relative to some of the nonsense gamers are used to. Additionally, it’s not particularly obvious at the start that you’ll be spending most of the game with a bemused look on your face, but it seems like the story would be more enjoyable for those that know what they’re getting into and ignore the desire for a traditional narrative.
The game stars Mizuki, an insomniac young woman who periodically forgets her own name and is visited by the ghost of an old sailor every time she tries to sleep – hence the insomnia. There are a lot of other plot threads involved later, but those are the only two that feel complete…and even that might be stretching the definition of the word. It becomes clear toward the end of the tale that there’s not going to be any larger narrative significance here; it’s just a story about a girl solving those two unusual problems in the middle of her relatively ordinary life. Major subplots include animals turning into humans and vice versa, as well as an escaped circus elephant (which you’d think would be important, given elephants’ common association with memory), but they and all the others just end, without any resolution or player input.
This lackadaisical attitude is part of what makes the whole experience feel so strange. It’s not just that the characters refuse to comment when, for example, an opera singer’s sung notes become physical objects to be carried in a bottle, but the game itself doesn’t seem to find anything odd about it, either. It can certainly be a charming quality, but it’s rather unsatisfying when it seeps into gameplay and key story moments, and we’re asked to just accept that that’s how things work in this setting without any precedent.
On a more mundane level, Mizuki leads an unusually complete life for a video game protagonist. She has a healthy social circle, an ambivalent childhood, and even an ex-husband – all of which is introduced and ignored so systematically that it feels like intentional defiance of a dozen storytelling tropes just for the fun of it.
Maybe this is my narrow North American worldview talking, but the atmosphere of Memoranda has a distinctly European flavour – a striking blend of alien and familiar elements previously seen in similar works by Amanita Design, such as Machinarium and Samorost. The result is inexplicably pleasant, to the point that a handful of initially creepy scenes gradually settle for quirky instead. The art style has the subdued beauty of a historic village, and the character designs convey a great deal of personality.
The music also provides a vibrant complement to the world without being too distracting. The rest of the audio is rather wanting, however. Mizuki’s voice actress in particular sounds like she’s reading from a script, but very few of the performers come away sounding great. Much of this may be the fault of the writing, which alternates between amusingly odd and regular odd before descending to outright cringe-worthy during the painfully forced-sounding interactions with Mizuki’s friends.
As for the gameplay, it’s a point-and-click adventure, and that’s really all there is to it. Players instruct Mizuki to interact with items, examine the environment and converse with NPCs. There’s not much that hasn’t been seen before, except that the setting’s unexplained logic makes the puzzle solutions even more obscure than the genre usually suggests.
Plot-advancing events sometimes just happen without any connection to the player’s last action, and there’s a nearly useless hint feature that only appears on a handful of puzzles, so this is definitely not a title for those looking for a fair and satisfying challenge. The best that can be said of the gameplay is that it’s perfectly functional and reasonably designed, at least at first. In the latter half of the game, however, puzzle pieces become spread out across the map, making it even more difficult to connect the dots.
There’s a dream sequence in Memoranda that involves number-eating cats attached to trees, and the fact that its outright surrealism makes it less abnormal than the rest of the game says a lot about the title as a whole. Its story and atmosphere can be enjoyed with a specific mindset, but its gameplay can only be tolerated at best, so while this game has a potential audience, its hold on them will always be tenuous.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
The word "illogical" has always been the bane of adventure games, but Memoranda takes it to new extremes by extending it to its setting and narrative in addition to its gameplay.