Mizuka is a young woman who keeps forgetting her name. She hasn’t slept for 17 days – the invisible old sailor living next to her bed won’t let her. A runaway circus elephant wants to be human. He’s hiding out in a cabin with a man who has lost his wife over his obsession with cooking spaghetti. The ghost of a WWII soldier stands in the middle of a plain steering a ship that isn’t there. He thinks he’s sailing from Manchuria to Japan. A man in a wheelchair sits on the beach daydreaming of becoming a fish. He sometimes thinks about cutting off his feet. Welcome to the bizarre unreality of Memoranda.
It’s an old-style point-and-click adventure inspired by and drawing directly from many of Haruki Murakami’s short stories. Like much of the Japanese author’s fiction, it’s a dreamy world of Kafkaesque surrealism, offbeat humour, and curious characters who all seem to have lost, or more precisely, are trying to recover, something intangible. Basically, it’s like an existentialist version of a LucasArts game.
Memoranda follows the story of aforementioned Mizuki and her attempts to get to the bottom of her memory loss. As part of her journey, you help out many others along the way, usually in exchange for their assistance. In true point-and-click style, this is mostly in the form of tracking down or combining specific items, getting people to talk to you, solving riddles and deciphering codes. Just as well that Mizuki has Guybrush-sized pockets for carrying everything around with her.
It gets off to a very promising start. I loved the opening sequence with Mizuki dreamily reminiscing over old photos and reflecting on a local folk tale, followed by a plaintive exchange with the old sailor and a montage of yet another sleepless night. You’re immediately struck by how fantastic the hand-drawn visuals and animations are – it’s like you’ve fallen into a realist oil painting populated by cartoonish-looking oddballs.
The setting also seduces – a sleepy, idyllic and quaint coastal town that probably owes more to Monkey Island and Broken Sword than it does to Murakami. It’s all Western pre-war deco, pastel-coloured continental-style buildings, inviting artisan cafes and bakeries, homely log cabins, red and white lighthouses, and picturesque swamps and plains. Even its grimy alleyways and overgrown scrapyards feel welcoming.
Complementing these locations and fitting the tone of the game perfectly is the stirring jazz soundtrack. There’s a faintly disharmonious and unsettling undertone to it that helps create that vague sense of dislocation so typical of Murakami’s work.
And I absolutely adore Mizuki, she’s a great character brought to life by some brilliant voice acting; she’s introspective, fanciful and whimsical, with a peculiar but endearing way of speaking. Her self-musings and conversations with the other characters are generally entertaining and amusing, not to mention all the fourth-wall moments and in-jokes she indulges in. I actually think I’ve got a bit of a crush on her, but don’t tell the missus!
Ultimately though, point-and-click adventures live or die by the quality of their puzzles. And I’m sad to say that Memoranda’s are all over the place – some are far too obvious, others completely obtuse. It’s not as bad as in the demo I previewed earlier in the month though. Bit Byterz have taken on board feedback from the testers and backers. They’ve added in a journal that keeps track of current tasks, an optional hint system for the code conundrums, and the ability to highlight interactable objects in order to bypass the ridiculous pixel hunting required to find them amongst the highly-detailed backdrops.
But as the game progresses, the puzzles become increasingly illogical, tenuous and strained. Some of the clues are virtually inscrutable, even in hindsight. You’re just constantly second guessing the developer’s reasoning, and there’s far too much reliance on trial and error – literally testing out every imaginable permutation, constantly returning to old locations to see if anything has changed, and re-talking to NPCs.
It doesn’t help that it’s not clear when all the dialogue has been exhausted, so you have to keep clicking on characters until the conversation loop resets. And for the life of me, the use of the odour analyser still makes little sense to me, and working out what to do with it was purely down to exhausting all the options.
The other key issue is the story itself, which just fizzles out halfway through. It’s largely based on the plot of A Shinagawa Monkey, but Bit Byterz have tried to cram in as many cameos, events, themes and motifs from Murakami’s other short stories. As such, Memoranda lacks structure and direction – the plot threads just don’t come together, with many of the characters and happenings being entirely superfluous to Mizuki’s tale.
Memoranda feels more like taking a tour through a Murakami theme park than being in an interactive version of one of his books. It certainly lacks his craftsmanship and ability to connect with you on an almost ineffably intuitive level. But this is always going to be the issue when you attempt to emulate the fiction of one of the most beloved, imaginative and complex authors of the last few decades. Still, I admire their bravery.
At the end of day, Memoranda looks and sounds gorgeous. There’s a wonderful atmosphere to it, and there are some great moments. But it’s let down by the poorly-designed and overly-obtuse puzzles and a disjointed narrative. In all their keenness, Bit Byterz have tried to get as much Murakami into their story as possible, but without linking the elements together or quite capturing his essence. Shame, because as a big fan of both point-and-clickers and Murakami, I had high hopes for this adventure.
Developer: Bit Byterz
Publisher: Digital Dragon
Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac
Release Date: 25th January 2017