With many point-and-click adventures opting to use humour as a key selling point, I have often found that they undersell one of their genre’s greatest strengths. With the emphasis on jokes their ability to tell a story and weave you into its heart often goes begging. In first-person shooters you may be in the centre of the action but you’re usually a mere passenger being funnelled from checkpoint to checkpoint; with point-and-click you are there unpicking the tale and at the crux of each twist and turn.
Set in the Dark Eye world – a German series of pen-and-paper RPGs – Memoria plays it relatively straight, with characters only pulling out the jokes when in keeping with their role and situation. It’s a world that would seem familiar to anyone who has played a Western RPG before, full of magic, mythical races, and hideous beasts, and the tone is well suited. With such a rich lore to draw on it makes sense that Daedelic have chosen to focus on telling the tale of an adventurer, even if our hero is not your typical sword-wielding dragon-slayer.
We open on Geron, a supposed bird catcher, searching the woods for a merchant who he has heard can cure his ailing friend. Geron is no ordinary bird catcher however, and it transpires that in recent times he saved the kingdom of Anderghast from assured destruction. Not through great physical or magical prowess mind you, but by his wits and a few basic spells.
Upon finding the merchant, the jolly traveller shares with him a vision from the past, promising Geron that if he can solve the mystery within it he will help him. He sees a young Princess, Sadji, setting out to turn back a demon invasion. Geron witnesses her break into an ancient tomb hoping to find an ancient weapon that will turn the war in their favour, only to see her become trapped deep underground. However, this is no cutscene. Although you controlled Geron up to and into the merchant’s tent, as soon as he begins his vision you take control of Sadji, complete with her own unique inventory and talents.
What proceeds is a tale of a tale, as our bird catcher begins obsessing over this long forgotten princess and the riddles connected to her. Being the only way by which he’ll cure his friend, we find ourselves in one timeline investigating our own actions in another. What this allows is not only a clever way by which to tell a story but provides a good explanation as to why our locations flit about. As we skip ahead in the princess’ story so do our surroundings, offering new places for us to explore and puzzle in.
With each of these new sections your world is conveniently restricted to only a handful of screens. Though it may sound limiting there can be an awful lot to achieve in each area and these well-defined boundaries help cap potential frustration. Knowing that a solution lies within four or five screens travel offers a reassurance that you don’t have to wander halfway across town trying object X on everything that proves interactive. Any such frustration is also eased by an inventory that never grows too large, plus easy access to all of your objects via the mouse wheel: a lovely touch that can save the monotony of continual returning to your inventory when experimenting with solutions.
The puzzles themselves are on the whole good. Many rely on the traditional art of combining objects, though there’s a lot of variety as there are also riddles and logic tests tucked away too. They have a touch of devilishness about them but during my time with Memoria I only found myself truly stuck on a small number of occasions. Most of the trickier ones can be cracked simply by paying attention to the world about you and to what those you speak to say. There are some quite charming double-bluffs at times however for those requiring help there are hints offered in the pause screen should you need nudging in the right direction.
The most interesting feature of the puzzles for me were the magical powers that Geron and Sadji possessed. A mix of breaking charms, petrification spells, and the ability to send visions into other’s heads had to be used throughout the adventure. This extra twist allowed you to break away from merely acting on everything clickable and instead gives you pause to think if you had to alter something or someone before proceeding.
Thankfully there were only two ludicrously frustrating mysteries in the entire game, and I think the designers eventually realised both. The first is a tedious maze segment that after a period of blindly fumbling in the dark I was given the option to tskip. The other saw the answer given directly when I asked for a hint, almost proving it was a guessing game and not a solvable by any logical means.
Everything is tied together by a lovely art style that mixes hand-painted 2D backgrounds and textures with more dynamic 3D figures. The combination of styles was quite unnerving at first as I initially thought I was looking at just a series of sprites, but the painterly textures on the 3D characters allow them to blend seamlessly with the whole; you can no longer tell what’s interactive simply because it doesn’t fit against the background. The only jarring aspect are the inconsistencies with certain animations; facial close-ups look cheap as the mouth moves in weird ways, and people stand as though they were mannequins. When they move and interact on screen you forget about it all but all too often it looks a little stilted.
Given the budget of a title this size it’s easy to see why such details weren’t possible and they do little to distract from the strength of the story and the puzzles. The latter mostly trod the line between challenging and frustration very well but it was the former that captivated me most. The longer it went on the more I became wrapped in this dual tale and how it unfolded: Geron simultaneously trying to save his friend and learn more about Sadji; and Sadji proving to the world that even a supposedly fragile princess can turn enter the battlefield and leave her mark on history. By the end there was a momentum to it and I chewed through the last two hours of brain teasers just to see the story’s conclusion.
The cast may not go down in videogame folklore but their bittersweet tale is full of surprises. In a genre where those with the laughs have made the biggest impact, it might be worth taking a pause from the puns and explore the wonderfully modest Memoria.