Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Memories Off: 2nd is the second game in KID’s highly acclaimed Memories Off series. Objectively speaking, it is a better game than its predecessor. Subjectively speaking, I found it worse. It has better graphics, better music, more girls, more endings, longer gameplay, and slightly darker plotlines. However, I did not find the new cast of characters very endearing this time around and if I cannot connect with the characters in a completely character driven game, I will not enjoy it as much. Want details? Then read on.
Memories Off: 2nd features an all new cast of characters with all new storylines. There are quite a few nods to the first game that fans will enjoy, but knowledge of the first game’s storyline is not required to play this one. The pace of the game at the beginning is pretty leisurely, but the storylines do pick up as the game goes on. Although the various events and situations the characters get into are more dynamic and interesting than those in the first game, I was not as fond of the characters this time around, although admittedly some did slightly grow on me.
Your avatar is 17-year-old student Ken Inami, a soccer loving dude who aspires to go to film school. His girlfriend Hotaru Shirakawa also has high aspirations; having played piano ever since she was a child, she aims to go to music school. Ken and Hotaru have been dating for a spell and are at a rocky juncture in their relationship. This is where the game gets interesting. You can either make decisions to salvage Ken’s relationship with Hotaru or chase after another girl. With any given girl, you can either get a good ending or a bad ending, usually involving a break up. The girls Ken can have endings with in addition to Hotaru are 17 year old Tomoe Tobise (Ken’s childhood friend), 17 year old Takano Suzuna (a swim team member with a chip on her shoulder about guys), 17 year old Megumi Soma (a clumsy but cheerful girl who works part time at the same restaurant as Ken does), 21 year old Shizuru Shirakawa (Hotaru’s older sister), and 23 year old Tsubame Minami (a substitute teacher at Ken’s school.) All the girls fall into typical love adventure archetypes (i.e. childhood friend, klutz, mysterious woman, tough girl, etc.), and though they’re not portrayed badly, they seem to be by-the-numbers archetypes and therefore feel more like cardboard cutouts than real people. It also goes without saying that some girls have more engaging storylines than others.
The whole notion of starting the game in the middle of a relationship and incorporating break-ups makes Memories Off: 2nd more dynamic than other love adventures I’ve played. Some of the break-up scenarios are messier than others, but I found them among the more entertaining scenes. I also found the ways Hotaru would react to Ken’s behavior in various girls’ scenarios entertaining as well. The whole dynamic regarding break ups and going behind your girlfriend’s back is something that many gamers may not like. It can be too easy to write off Ken as a jerk who doesn’t care about his relationship, but what guy hasn’t had a wandering eye and “the grass is greener” thoughts when his current relationship hits a rocky patch? What if you have a girlfriend, but then you end up meeting the girl of your dreams while you’re still involved with her? Such themes are what Memories Off: 2nd explores, and it’s rare for me to find these kinds of themes in video games. Besides having to play as a protagonist who is not always warm and fuzzy, some may just generally dislike the idea of break ups and betrayal in a game whose genre is based around starting and building relationships. Of course, if you find yourself feeling guilty for making choices such as blowing off Hotaru in favor of another girl, just keep reminding yourself that this is only a video game.
The gameplay interface is the tried and true interface seen in most any love adventure: look at pretty pictures, read text, make decisions. However, the option menu to change various game settings was difficult to navigate. The menu’s neon green background color and the tiny light-gray text made me have to squint to read it properly. Thankfully, all other text boxes in the game had large, easy to read text. There is no hint option like in the previous game, where a chibi portrait of a girl pops up during decisions to indicate whether it’s good or bad. However, the game is not that difficult, and I found it surprisingly easier to stumble my way to a good ending than a bad one. A single scenario can be completed in about 12 hours, give or take, and with multiple girls, 12 endings, and a clear list for completionists to keep track of their progress, there is plenty of content in this game for ample play time.
In addition, there is an option to fast forward over previously seen scenarios during subsequent playthroughs, and any choice you’ve already made is grayed-out so you know where you’ve been. You can also replay the game starting from various “shortcut” checkpoints so you don’t have to play the beginning all over again whilst exploring alternate paths. Solid Japanese reading skills are a must in this game due to a lot of kanji text and Japanese wordplay that’s culture and context specific. A cursory knowledge of kana will not get you far in the game. I muddled my way through the game and got somewhere, but I missed out on a LOT of the plotlines because of my less-than-stellar Japanese reading skills.
The graphics and sound are a step up from the game’s predecessor. It’s not a revolutionary step up, but it’s noticeable. The introductory sequence utilizes some CG imagery and has a very good vocal song. The rest of the graphics are the standard fare of character portraits over backdrops, and these graphics have more vivid colors and detailing than the first game. There is no more washed-out look, and many backdrops utilize lighting effects rather nicely. The more cinematically drawn event scenes also employ a more extensive color palette and have some really nice shading. Still, however, I think the visuals could be crisper, glossier, and even more detailed given the Dreamcast’s power.
On the other hand, the character designs are aesthetically pleasing, but mostly what I would expect from the genre. Most importantly, all the girls look cute and pretty. The game also has improved sound. The music is much better this time around with plenty of new compositions and remixes of old pieces, although the older pieces played throughout the game more often than the newer ones. However, I did like how characters’ cell phone ring tones had 8-bit versions of various Memories Off themes (remember, this is 2001- well before cell phones were advanced enough to use real music ring tones.) The voice acting is not much improved from its predecessor. There is still overuse of the cutesy voices and some of the voice acting comes off as flat. However, the sound reproduction of the voice acting is cleaner and crisper than before. Tomoe had the best seiyuu in the game by far; she sounded youthful without sounding like a little girl, and there was a nice authority to her voice.
Overall, Memories Off: 2nd is a good game. I respect the risks it took to create a more mature, dynamic, slightly darker narrative and peruse difficult themes that other, more play-it-safe examples of the genre probably wouldn’t touch. Finding and asking out your dream girl is one thing (it’s the premise of most love adventures), but finding your dream girl while you’re still in a relationship? That’s a theme I would not expect to see in a typical love adventure. I probably would have liked the game a lot better had I been able to better connect with the characters, but perhaps other gamers may connect with this game better than I did.