How do you leave the place you grew up? With a boozy leaving do and promises to return often, or a quiet exit heavy with unsaid goodbyes? Desta: The Memories Between, a turn-based puzzle game from Ustwo, is a touching exploration of the latter.
You play as the titular Desta, who’s returning to their hometown for the first time since their father’s memorial service. They didn’t leave town in the best way, and as a result their return is marred with anxiety over looming reunions and – at the heart of the issue – finding the right things to say to the people Desta left behind.
It’s a situation many of us have likely found ourselves in, but The Memories Between tackles it from a more surreal angle. The game’s core loop takes place each night, where Desta travels through their recurring dreams looking to fix relationships and resolve the conflicts that have been weighing on them. These dreams take place on floating, tile-based chunks of their childhood – a nearby street, the local pub’s beer garden, sunny woods – and although each level looks gorgeous, they play host to plenty of ugly conversations as Desta is forced to face issues that have been left to fester in their absence, with the hopes of re-kindling friendship and resolving Desta’s anxieties.
Beyond harsh words, The Memories Between‘s combat revolves around Desta and their allies chucking balls at baddies – a sentimental relic from the time when they would talk out their problems with their dad while playing catch. In these dreams, the playful underarm Desta grew up with is replaced with a fiery overarm, where the aim of the game is to wipe out an opponent’s health bar by lobbing the ball off them. As it’s a mobile game, you throw balls by pulling your thumb back and adjusting the angle you want to go for – in Desta’s dreamy state they can hit targets by bouncing a ball around their cover or ricocheting it between two foe’s heads to damage both at once, like a sporty Terminator. It’s nice and simple, but getting to grips with The Memories Between‘s angling mechanics means it only gets better as you progress through the game.
However, chucking the ball is only one half of The Memories Between – the other half is making sure you’ve got one on hand. A smart player can sometimes angle a throw to ensure the ball lands back in their hands, but that’s not always possible – meaning that while you’re trying to whittle down health bars, you’re also tussling to keep each level’s limited amount of balls in your hand. In later levels, it’s not enough to just batter down your foes – you’ll need to deny them access to a ball or run the risk of them scoring an easy win. There’s a deceptive amount of depth to dig into, which is fleshed out further with a range of different abilities and items to equip.
As you progress, Desta will restore more of their relationships, convincing their former friends, foes and art teachers to join them on their quest to root out their anxieties. These party members all come with unique skill sets – for example James can teleport to pretty much anywhere in a level, while Sun can spend an action point to prepare a vicious counterattack for anyone that hits him in the next turn. Along with Desta, you can only bring two pals into each dream – meaning there’s plenty of room to explore which characters synergise well with each other’s abilities.
If you can’t stay on top of Desta’s dreamy ball game, it’s wakey-wakey – and you’ll have to try again the next night. The Memories Between is a roguelike, which means you’ll need to start back at the beginning if you lose your party members. The roguelike format actually feels like a bit of an awkward fit for The Memories Between – the more you’re invested in Desta’s healing journey, the less enjoyment there is to be found in revisiting the same identical levels. There’s also not enough variety to keep replaying the same levels interesting – enemies and maps stay the same, and you’ve got to sit through identical dialogue as you progress.
It keeps in theme with Desta banging their head off the same dreams every night, but for the player, even the thoughtful combat isn’t enough to stop things getting a little stale. Supergiant‘s 2020 hit Hades proved that it was possible to weave a running narrative through the roguelike live-die-repeat formula, and it would’ve been nice to see ustwo explore more ways to harmonise The Memories Between‘s story and roguelike nature.
However, The Memories Between‘s repetition problem isn’t enough to make the game a nightmare. Beyond each level’s compelling combat loop, there’s plenty to enjoy – each map is outright gorgeous to behold, and The Memories Between does a sublime job at making Desta’s anxieties and relationship troubles feel all-too real. During their first encounter with childhood best friend Fran, Desta makes excuses for not staying in touch, arguing that Fran didn’t try either. Yet in a moment of frustration, Desta blurts out that they were secretly worried Fran wouldn’t want to be their friend anymore. It resolves the conflict with a natural and lifelike moment, and deflates the pair’s bottled-up tension with ease. When you’re fighting in a level’s boss fight, hashing it out with someone from Desta’s past, the game’s brilliantly authentic voice acting means these conversations can swing from trialing to touching in a heartbeat, just like a challenging heart-to-heart in the real world.
Despite issues with repetition, The Memories Between broaches emotional – often relatable – topics thoughtfully, and eloquently argues that with the right words, fixing a neglected relationship can be much simpler than we think.
Desta: The Memories Between launches on September 27 for mobile, with release dates for PC and consoles to be announced at a later date. This review was played on an Android phone.
Desta: The Memories Between manages to tackle a broach of relatable topics, in a way that feels very real thanks to a brilliant cast. Ustwo’s latest is a touching message about finding the right words Combat may look simple on the outside, but get to grips with the core concept and you’ll find considerable depth to explore.
- Gently-pastelled levels look gorgeous
- Relatable characters and story beats
- Each party member feels very unique to use
- The game’s roguelike nature can get in the way of telling a good story
- Levels don’t change enough to feel replayable