Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
When it comes to love adventures, the first developer/publisher name that comes to my mind is KID. They ported many PC love adventures to consoles (both good and not so good titles). They also developed original series of their own, which have become highly acclaimed. One such series is the Infinity series, of which I am a tremendous fan. The other is Memories Off, which was first developed for the PlayStation in 1999. Memories Off has since evolved into a rather prolific series of games and has even spawned an anime OVA series. I recently had a chance to play through the 2001 Dreamcast update of this inaugural game, entitled Memories Off: Complete. The remake includes more than the regular Memories Off, as it contains one of the best easter eggs I’ve seen in a video game. Said easter egg is a game in and of itself – Memories Off: Pure. Memories Off: Pure was originally released for the Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld and its storyline is a prequel to the events that occur in Memories Off. From what I understand, the version found in Memories Off: Complete may be slightly modified from the Neo Geo Pocket Color original.
What makes Memories Off more interesting than other love adventures I’ve played is that it’s not about a hapless guy trying to woo the girl of his dreams. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet tale about a guy named Tomoya Mikami who actually was dating the girl of his dreams, Ayaka Hizuki, for a long time…only to have her die tragically a good while before the game starts. The game even begins with Tomoya having a flashback about Ayaka whilst walking to the train station to get to school. On the train, as usual, is Yue Imasaka – a close friend of Tomoya and Ayaka who pretty much grew up with them. The gist of the story is that Tomoya feels that he’s spent enough time grieving over the loss of Ayaka and is ready to try his hand at love again and hopefully find another wonderful girl to make beautiful memories with. There are five girls with whom Tomoya can have an ending with, and there’s also the requisite bad/alone ending. The five girls are Yue Imasaka; Kaoru Otowa, the new girl in school; Minamo Ibuki, a cute underclassman who’s friends with Yue; Shion Futami, the beautiful and mysterious classmate who has returned from abroad’ and Koyomi Kirishima, a college student who works part time at the bakery Tomoya frequents during his lunch breaks. Helping Tomoya along is his good buddy Shin Inaho. Unlike other love adventures where the requisite other male would be your rival, Shin is a well-meaning, if sometimes bumbling, buddy who tries to help Tomoya get the girl.
It should come as no surprise that Tomoya’s memories and flashbacks about Ayaka will play varying roles in his interactions with the girls. The character-driven story is quite solid for the genre, but some girls’ storylines are more interesting and dramatic than others. The personalities of the girls have a lot to do with the enjoyment of their storylines. Yue can be melodramatic at times, thus there was plenty of melodrama in her storyline. Kaoru’s storyline was quite boring and tedious to get through. It felt overly long and lacked any sort of drama or flair. Then again, what should I expect from a girl with the personality of stale, dry toast? Normally I tend to like the alluring mysterious girl in love adventures, but I just wasn’t feeling Shion and couldn’t get into her storyline at all. It just felt like a by-the-numbers “boy breaks down girl’s cold, aloof, distant hard shell exterior to find the sensitive, emotional soul inside” storyline. Most Memories Off fans would say hers is their favorite, though, and that I’m completely nuts. Minamo is a delightful character whose storyline was endearing from the beginning and got wonderfully dramatic towards the end. I really enjoyed her storyline. However, my personal favorite storyline was that of Koyomi Kirishima. She had an engaging, vibrant personality and the dynamic between her and Tomoya was the most unique one in the game. Going through all the storylines gives varying amounts of depth and insight into Tomoya’s past with Ayaka (some girls seem to bring it up more than others), which serves well to flesh out the amiable, and often reflective, protagonist. However, story progression may seem a bit repetitive since the game follows a typical school month (from mid October till mid November) for Tomoya; in other words, each day in the game will usually consist of taking the train to school, going to class, going to lunch, doing stuff after school, and occasionally an evening activity and/or Ayaka flashback. Since this is no summer romance tale, Tomoya not only has to interact with the heroines, but also deal with school-related stuff like the big exams everyone’s anxious about.
The unlockable Memories Off: Pure game takes place a few years prior to the events in Memories Off. Tomoya and Ayaka are neighbors who communicate with each other through their bedroom windows and who attend the same junior high school with Yue. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the story was, given the younger ages of the characters. It was very sweet, often funny, and it was wonderful seeing Tomoya’s friendship with Ayaka and Yue, and seeing the events that led up to Tomoya’s beloved memory of that first date with Ayaka at the amusement park (an event that Tomoya reflects on in every scenario of Memories Off). There was even a what-if scenario regarding Yue that was excellent. Some back story regarding Minamo was even presented, though it would have been nice to visit her in Pure. One playthrough of Pure takes about 3-4 hours, but it has replay value through a pair of endings and during subsequent runthroughs to re-experience second-half scenarios from Ayaka’s and Yue’s points of view. Even though I was on the fence regarding whether or not I liked Yue in Memories Off, I grew quite fond of her in Memories Off: Pure. Of course, Ayaka was totally awesome. It’s no wonder Tomoya spent such a long time grieving her loss. The writers for Memories Off: Pure did a fantastic job.
Since this is a visual novel, the storyline you experience is determined by various choices you make throughout the narrative. The interface is the tried and true Choose Your Own Adventure style interface where you look at pretty pictures and read text until a decision pops up. The decisions you make will determine which of the multiple endings you will get. You can access the interface menu at any time to save, load, and do other important functions. What is cool about the interface is the Hint option. When you turn on the Hint option, every time you come to a major decision, a small portrait of one of the girls will either make an approving or disapproving gesture when you highlight a choice. This is definitely a nice feature and aids in import friendliness; that said, note that mere knowledge of kana will not get you through this game. There’s a lot of dialogue with copious kanji text, so a solid grasp of Japanese reading ability is required to get the full experience out of the game. As for me, my Japanese reading skill is not very good, so I mostly just muddled my way through the narrative picking out the words and phrases I knew and heavily utilized the Hint system. And, yes, the Hint option can be switched on or off because it can make the game really easy. In addition, the game is a good length for the genre (a single scenario can take around 10 hours) and with the replay value (enhanced by the ability to fast forward through any scenes you’ve already done) and addition of the Memories Off: Pure game, you certainly get a lot of game for the money.
The visuals are nice, but could definitely have been better. Although this game was originally released on the PlayStation, I would have liked this Dreamcast upgrade to have used a brighter color palette. As it stands now, both the static backdrops and 2D anime portraits overlaid on top of them look rather plain, even a tad washed out. The more cinematic stills that get saved to the omake mode gallery look good, though. Since there aren’t too many locations in the game, the backdrops get quite repetitive, especially the classroom one. The character designs are aesthetically pleasing, but fairly standard anime designs you’d see in a typical bishoujo teen beat anime.
The voice acting is decent, but unremarkable. It’s typical of what I’d expect in the genre, although I found some of the voice acting flat at times and most of the girls had very similar sounding “cutesy” voices. Takeshi Abo graces the game with his tuneful synth-based compositions. The music in the game is definitely solid and there are some standout musical numbers, but I personally think Abo’s compositions for the Infinity series are more dynamic and interesting. In addition, there aren’t that many individual tracks in the game so the music can be rather repetitive. Many of the event themes used in the game are good, especially the dramatic piano pieces during climactic scenes, but you don’t hear these event themes as often as the character and location themes, which I thought were generic. The classroom theme was especially dull. However, Shion’s theme “With Lonesome and Calm Mind” was really good; that emotional piano piece with smoothly integrated synths is the Abo I’ve come to like. I also liked the instrumental theme, entitled “Memories Off” that played during Memories Off: Pure’s credits. The ending vocal song in the game proper, “This May be the Last Time We Meet,” was rather boring to me.
The bottom line regarding Memories Off is that it is a genre classic, and rightfully so. Although this title is not the most polished love adventure in the world, it is still a gem and I’m sure many modern love adventures have taken a cue or two from this title. And because the graphical design and interface used in love adventures hasn’t evolved much (if at all) since Memories Off, this game has aged surprisingly well. In any case, the game has proven to be a rock solid start to one of KID’s flagship series that has only gotten more popular and oftentimes more dynamic over the years. Although main Memories Off sequels have utilized all-new casts of characters, the cast of this inaugural title has proven itself endearing enough to warrant multiple spin-offs such as Memories Off: Pure, Memories Off: After Rain, and others. Despite my reservations regarding some aspects of Memories Off: Complete, it did more than enough right to get a thumbs-up from me and earn a spot as one of my favorite love adventures.