"This is the perfect game for a sceptic of dating games, like myself, to play – not only has it shown me the possibilities of the genre, but also reminded me never to judge a visual novel by its digital cover."
Otome games in the West have accrued a small niche of fans, filling a gap in the market this side of Japan. In a year where visual novels are ever increasing in popularity, I came to this type of game as a newbie, unconvinced that I might find enjoyment in talking to a chocolate-box variety of suitors for however many hours – but Amnesia: Memories has proven me wrong. This isn't your typical otome game; as you delve deeper, you'll be rewarded with many enjoyable trips down the heroine's memory lanes – yes, plural. As Amnesia marks the series' first foray to the West, I was worried about missing out on key details from the rest of the series, but it quite easily stands as its own title, and the wait for the series proves worthwhile.
Amnesia places you in the shoes of a heroine who loses her memories as a result of a collision with Orion, a spirit. To help recover from her supernatural memory loss, the two work together to rediscover her scattered past. It sounds familiar, but the game quickly distances itself from cliché, and sets itself apart from other otome games: boyfriend hunting isn't necessary, because you're assigned a partner depending on which "world" you choose. The lucky fellows available to date are: Shin, the mature high school student; Ikki, the playboy; Kent, the graduate (my personal favourite); and Toma, the elder brother figure. After fulfilling certain conditions, a fifth world opens up, enriching the heroine's story further. Because your relationship is predetermined when you enter each world, you must try and rebuild her memories without her partner or friends unearthing her secret. Of course, things don't always go to plan: love rivals, work, and injury impede your progress. These parallel stories weave together to create a rounded picture, and a well-thought out narrative. Each character is distinctive from one another, and their Japanese voices convey their personalities wonderfully: pair this with the multiple worlds, and you're able to see numerous sides to them. It's a great concept, and one that works, but only if you follow through each story.
Relationships are the focal point, but never do they feel too sappy, as love serves more than just a romantic purpose. The heroine's relationships provide the keys to her development, from every memory she recollects to every kiss she shares. One instance, where the heroine re-enacts a playful scene with Shin, triggers her memory of an accident and leads to the truth. I'm a sucker for cute relationships anyway, but because these moments are spread between twists, turns, and surprising incidents, you appreciate them more. Romance serves an important role other than mere titillation, which adds depth to what could have been simple dating scenarios. The most important relationship, though, is the heroine's platonic one with Orion. He's exactly what you need in a spiritual companion: he's helpful, funny, and with a cute design to boot, you'll never tire of his assistance. It's easy to feel assaulted by too much information, but with Orion at your side, the muddle begins to straighten out with each playthrough. Some extra care could have been executed in the translation, but these errors don't detract from the experience too much.
The task of rebuilding our heroine's memories is accomplished via choice-making, a standard visual novel mechanic, and additional options exist to streamline the process. You can retrace a day's previous conversations and events during the story, with previous choices highlighted in green. Minigames make an appearance too, where you can play rock, paper, scissors or air hockey with your love interests. They add simple amusement to the game, but are too easy, complete with awkward touch screen controls in air hockey. Their presence just adds achievements and trophies to the game. Lastly, despite opportunities to include the minigames in each story, the developer opted to make them playable only from the start menu.
Amnesia also adds another string to the otome bow: the parameters screen. Here, three gauges represent affection, trust, and suspicion, and highlight the heroine's relationship with her partner. Trust and affection are pivotal to reach the better endings, whereas doubt leads to potential disaster. This feature leads to over 20 endings, which come in "good," "normal," and "bad" varieties. The bad conclusions are the epitome of bad – never does a story end with a simple break up, and often life and death teeter on the edge. They made me value just how sweet the good endings are. However, the road to each good ending is almost as complicated as our heroine's memory loss: because you are required to make specific choices, you may be tempted to reach for a guide. My first attempts to rebuild her memories led to three normal ends and a bad one – a testament to my poor dating skills and my inability to hide amnesia, but I'll leave you to judge. A quick save feature eases the game's difficulty, but knowing when to utilize this feature is hard to judge. Otherwise, three hours of text later, you may unwittingly arrive at the same fate. There are options to skip any pre-read text, but there's no way to track which choices lead to which endings. Yet, as I look back on my time with Amnesia, I realize this difficulty is justified – not only are the good endings worth the effort because they're adorable, each bad end serves as a hefty punishment for failure. Be ready to work hard; eventually you'll spot bad ending traps, so when you work out what makes each character tick, all your effort feels worthwhile.
The adorable endings I mention come complete with gorgeous artwork, my favourite aspect of the game. Backgrounds are sketched with one or two colors and act as a canvas for character portraits, which are highly detailed, each one as distinctive and quirky as their personalities. Mine's portrait is suggestive of her flirtatious, playful, and sometimes jealous personality, whereas Sawa's invokes the cute tomboy trope. I never tired of the game's soft palettes of color, detailed character outfits, and cute facial expressions. Especially beautiful snapshots of the heroine's relationships and memories crop up in each path, some harrowing, some setting hearts aflutter. Each image allows you to construct a more rounded view of the plot and the heroine. Some instances become uncomfortable, especially in one world in particular, but over-sexualization is at a minimum. I won't say I glossed over these moments, but I felt like they weren't there for pleasure; rather, they exist remind you what might happen if things don't go the way you want them to.
Even after completion, Amnesia still feels like your standard visual novel with dating elements championed at the forefront. I don't mean this as a criticism, because there's not much worth changing in the core visual novel elements, but what Idea Factory has added to this is enough to draw new fans in, and satisfy old ones too. This was the perfect game for a sceptic of dating games, like myself, to play – not only has it shown me the possibilities of the genre, but also reminded me never to judge a visual novel by its digital cover. Amnesia won't satisfy everyone with its romantic basis or fluffy appearance, but it has enough charm to win me over.