My review of Trace Memory (2005)

Recently, I played Trace Memory on my lovely new (used, but new to me) DS I got on ebay for $25. Using that DS was a great experience, but could I say the same about my experience with the game? Read on to find out.
Before we begin, a bit of background. For those who don’t know, Trace Memory (also known as Another Code: Two Memories in Japan and Europe) is a 2005 adventure game developed by CiNG for the Nintendo DS about a soon-to-be-14-year-old girl named Ashley Mizuki Robbins, who travels to the mysterious Blood Edward Island to meet her long-lost father. It takes place over the span of about a day and the average playtime is about 6-7 hours.

First, my expectations. When I first heard about this game, I’d just come off the high of doing the forensics segments of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, and I wanted more. This game was recommended to me, and it sounded pretty similar, so I went in expecting more of the same. And let me just say this right now: there are no forensics in this game at all. This is by no means a dealbreaker, and certainly doesn’t make it a “bad game”, but anyone going in expecting this is bound to be disappointed. On a personal level, it also meant I still have yet to find my “dream game” where I can do all the detecting and forensics I want throughout (what can I say? I wanted to be a detective when I was a little girl).

What it DOES have is a variety of puzzles, which are pretty darn fun. When you’re doing puzzles, it’s super hands-on and you really feel like you’re in the story; and the little story breadcrumbs they leave you allow you figure stuff out for yourself. And they’re usually intuitive as well, even the slide puzzle, allowing me to finally beat my old archenemy! (I’m normally so awful at those that the victory made me feel powerful, and I will confess that I gloated a bit.) The mysteries you are presented with are intellectually stimulating: Where is Ashley’s father? How did Ashley’s new ghost friend die? What’s the secret of Blood Edward Island and the Edward Family? I won’t give anything away, but I appreciate that there is far less hand-holding than expected, making the player feel like they’re solving a real mystery… when the game works.

Now, when I say “works”, I do not mean “physically functions without bugs or glitches.” It does that just fine, no complaints there. But here’s the thing: Remember when I said “when” you’re doing puzzles? Well, about that…
My biggest criticism of the game is that most of the puzzles and interactivity is in the first half of the game.
At the start, pretty much everything you do is connected to a puzzle or little minigame in some way. Want to fix a bridge crank? You have to do it by hand. Dust off a soot-covered placard? Use the touchscreen to clean it! It could be a little bit frustrating at times, but finishing them is immensely satisfying. And they really pile up in the first half, too; at one point, you’re basically trying to figure out things to figure out other things to solve another puzzle to advance the story to a new area. My brain thrives on that sort of complexity, so it left me feeling giddy.
And then… that was practically it. The game never gets that complex ever again. From that point forward (perhaps around a third to half of its 6-7 hour playtime), the number of puzzles drops off exponentially, and the game feels a little bit more like a visual novel with walking controls, becoming far more linear and directed. Mind, I don’t have a problem with visual novels (in fact, I rather enjoy them), but after the thrill of the first half it felt like a massive step down. The game starts doing things for you instead of letting you do them yourself.
When you investigated in the first half, it seemed like Ashley or her friend had a little comment for nearly anything you looked at. This stops in the second half, and the game only lets you touch things it considers relevant, which can lead to the player just tapping around hoping to find something rather than actually investigating, something that can get pretty mind-numbing after a while.

Now, there is one thing I must note: I failed to get the good ending on my first playthrough. Maybe if I’d actually worked at solving that darn reflection puzzle that’s required to get the good ending instead of thinking I could leave it until later, there would have been more puzzles and the game would have been more satisfying. As such, perhaps the lackluster nature of my experience is in part my own fault.
Still, this does not account for all of the issues I have with the game. Even if there had been more puzzles, I still would likely have found it somewhat lacking, and that brings me to my biggest problem with it…

And that is the fact that the game feels incomplete. It feels like the most thought and care went into the first few parts, leaving the rest of it as an afterthought. The puzzles and even the character interactions in the later parts of the game feel rushed and limited, like the game just wants to get to the end as fast as it can, even if the player doesn’t feel the same way. And ironically, the accelerated pace made the latter half feel like a bit of a slog to get through, as it didn’t feel as engaging.

Now, this problem is one that is by no means exclusive to this game, nor even to video games in general. It is a very easy trap to fall into when creating any work of fiction or art, whether it be game design, narrative-writing, visual art, or songwriting; especially if working on a deadline. The more you focus on the earlier parts, the better and more polished they will be… but the less energy, drive, and time you will have to complete everything that comes after that point. One partial workaround to this problem is creating a work in a nonlinear fashion; but while this solves the problem of having the good bits all at the beginning, it still can lead to plenty of problems of its own. I will say that it is a problem I see quite a lot in games, especially in this type of game.
In fact, I have yet to find a game of this type that doesn’t feel at least a little bit rushed and/or unfinished, especially where gameplay is concerned. Fun, creative gimmicks get introduced, only to be used a few times (sometimes as few as only once or twice!) and then discarded, never to be heard from again. They never really let the player, well, play with the mechanics and the world they’ve been dropped into anywhere near as much as I wish they did. This is one side of the coin that is the challenge of creating a heavily narrative-driven mystery adventure game.
The other side of the challenge is one that plagues pretty much all mysteries, not just games: once you’ve discovered the secrets for the first time, there is no longer that joy of discovery there; you already know how it ends, which leads to very limited replayability.

Trace Memory suffers from both these issues. In fact, when I finished the game for the first time, I realized that a) I hadn’t done what I needed to do to get the good ending, and b) I saved after going to the point of no return (which is another problem still: the fact that you have reached the point of no return isn’t nearly as clear as it should have been, as the only indication is rather cryptic); so if I wanted the good ending, I had to start completely over from the beginning. Faced with this, I didn’t want to replay it, I just felt exhausted.

All this criticism I’ve heaped upon the game may give the impression I hated it. In actuality however, I don’t; in fact, I rather liked it, for when it was good, it was very good. In fact, reflecting on the earlier parts of the game while writing this review actually reignited my interest in playing through them again. Sure, I may have felt bitter in the moment, but that was primarily because I had just sat through about 2-3 hours of playing straight and the idea of doing it all again to get the good ending compounded my feelings of fatigue; in that moment all I wanted was to just be DONE already so I could rest.
Removed from those feelings, however, I can see the game for what it really is: an imperfect but fun game with some great puzzles, a beautiful art style, a plot with lots of interesting twists and turns, a small but memorable cast, and an interesting gameplay premise, even if that premise wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked.

While my quest for “the perfect mystery game” continues and will likely never be fulfilled, I can recommend Trace Memory to anyone who likes mystery and/or DS games that try to find creative ways to use the touch screen.
However, I would recommend that any prospective players keep a few things in mind to avoid falling into the same pitfalls I did:
1. Keep your expectations reasonable, and avoid overhyping yourself about it expecting it to be mindblowingly amazing.
2. Take the time to do the mirror puzzle when you find it, even if it takes you quite a while. It’s the only way to get the good ending. This isn’t even a spoiler, because to this day I still don’t have the slightest idea what the heck it’s supposed to be or how to solve it. (And please nobody reading this spoil the solution for me as I’d like to figure it out myself)
3. Don’t save after getting to the lab unless you’re really sure you finished all the puzzles. This one is a teeny bit of a spoiler, but it’s something I really wish I had known going into it.
4. Play in spurts of maybe 1-2 hours to avoid fatigue, and don’t expect to beat it in one to two days.

And that’s all there is to it! I hope my review was interesting and informative. Happy gaming, everyone!

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