Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
That pause before you hang up. That frustration from honesty. That innocuous distraction that stealthily helps you open up. I’ve been through them all, and while my experience of paradoxically relying on the place and people that were harming me are more than decades old memories, Ustwos latest poignant and cathartic game brought them all back with a vengeance.
The UK based developer is best known for masterminding the physics bending yet sublime Monument Valley, as well as serene VR exploration adventure Lands End, the intimate Assemble with Care and cute, environmentally conscious Alba: A Wildlife adventure.
The team have a knack of combining experimental tech and intuitive gameplay concepts with a resonant, exploratory narrative style.
Desta: The Memories Between, then, is another first for the studio as it is currently a Netflix games exclusive on mobile platforms. It’s an amalgamation of a heartfelt story, trendy characters wrestling with identity, estranged relationships and ambition while providing a fun and addictive gameplay loop that is as nuanced as it is expansive.
Our protagonist Desta is dealing with a series of difficult conversations and memories via surreal dreams. As the character banter and retrospective confrontations begin to unfold, they provide a narrative backdrop for the core gameplay located within isometric dioramas reminiscent of Into the Breach or Bad North, with turn and grid based strategic movement similar to the GO games or Metal Gear Ac!d.
The kicker (or should I say, thrower (?)) is two fold. The crux of the turn based strategy? Rogue like and Dodgeball. Yep, you take turns against an opponent or a gang, picking up balls to pick off the opposing team one by one (or if you’re good enough, more) until the level is complete or “dream resolved“.
As you progress through interactions with various friends you’ve lost contact with or other people from your past, they can eventually be recruited and you’ll find out more about Destas struggles with family, loss and frustrations. Things that regretfully don’t or didn’t get said in waking life are candidly addressed in the dream space, and it’s never too late to reminisce or be honest.
So, similar to how conversations can flow and shift momentum, so does the planning and execution of attacks and defense, whether it be a gang of kids getting in your face or a giant brute of a man taking half of your energy meter in one lumbering shot.
To counter this, the rogue like elements kick in with narrative based abilities called insights and objects called memoria that can drag you across the entire map, build a crystal barricade or push opponents further away. In true genre style, these can be leveled up and lost upon failure (or in this case, waking up). Despite the risk of losing the power ups at the end of an unsuccessful run, there is a genuinely satisfying joy that comes from using the angles, rules and boundaries of dodgeball to become skilled at the game. Passing, catching or ricocheting off of multiple enemies is very cool, even if it can be a bit finicky on even a decent sized smartphone screen.
A special mention has to go to the contrast between the pastel aesthetic of the gameplay arenas and vivid, angular art style especially during cut scenes and the moody, ambient yet suitably shimmering soundtrack which perfectly fits the subconscious scenarios.
Repetition is a necessary evil in rogue likes, and while Desta is a very competent example of balancing progress with experience, the characters and particularly the dialogue suffers as a consequence. Arguing your case only to get the equally valid perspective is an interesting character back and forth in parallel with the gameplay, but unfortunately when you’ve heard the same conversation for the ump-teenth time, it loses its it’s impact.
Despite minor control irks and narrative repetition, so far Desta: The Memories Between is a heartfelt, resonant and well crafted title that strives to hit the same personal chords as Celeste and What Remains of Edith Finch while providing a fun, addictive and emotionally deep spin on the rogue like genre.
Review in progress.