In Desta: The Memories Between, you play as Desta, who takes on the unenviable but relatable task of overthinking future conversations you don’t want to have. This anxiety manifests as a game of tactical dodgeball in your dreams where you think of the worst possible conversation scenarios with old friends and family while visiting your home for the first time in years. Turning that familiar human experience into a grid-based dodgeball game sounds strange on paper, but in practice, it works and offers solid tactical gameplay that makes good use of the mobile platform.
Interpreting this future conversation essay as tactical dream dodgeball works well because it feels as normal as your average anxiety dream. It really only makes sense while it’s happening and only falls apart when you try to explain it later. In this way, Desta nails the feeling of a dream, something difficult to achieve in any entertainment medium.
As a video game, it also works well as a fun game of tactics. Each person in your life that you fear a confrontation with appears in your dreams (along with some nobodies who serve as cannon fodder) in a layout of squares with random barriers. Old friends show up berating you for what’s troubling you, manifesting your worst case scenario. You take turns moving positions, picking up dodgeballs and throwing the ball at them to deal damage and reduce their health while making sure you’re in position to not take the same punishment. The core idea is familiar to anyone who has played a comparable strategy game, but dodgeball adds an element of action and finesse that works well on a touch screen.
Once in position, you pull your character back to launch the dodgeball like a slingshot, making sure to release it at the right time to increase speed. You can bounce the ball off enemies to hit other enemies or bounce the ball into the hands of your teammates. You can even throw the ball against a wall so it bounces around a corner, or make sure it bounces back to you so the ball is in your hand for the next turn. Throwing the ball is a fun system that gives you a lot of extra options in the arena, and when the bounces work in your favor, it feels great.
Unfortunately, it can also hurt you in ways that don’t always feel fair. Sometimes the physics don’t quite work and the shot I thought was perfectly lined up bounced off unexpectedly and damagingly. With the touchscreen, I’ve also occasionally accidentally thrown a ball when just trying to rotate the camera, which was frustrating. Most moves can be undone without any penalty, which is great, but for understandable reasons, once you throw the ball, that turn is over.
Special abilities are unlocked as you play, but are randomized each time you attempt a run. For example, one allows you to use all your action points to deal more damage with a single cast, while another allows you to switch stances with an enemy to give yourself an advantage. This randomization is a good way to introduce you to abilities you may like but might not otherwise have tried, but it also locks you into some abilities that don’t feel particularly useful. If you use a skill enough and level it up, you can keep it through runs, which is great, but early in the game you’re at the mercy of whatever you get and there were some that I just never found much use for. by.
Desta is a roguelike, which means you have to restart a race when you wake up from a dream after being hit by a dodgeball one too many times. You level up and gain more health and movement slots per turn as you progress, just like the teammates you add to your team throughout the game. Leveling up you and your friends, even with races that don’t go well, is great, and it encouraged me to experiment when things weren’t going my way.
The downside of approaching the game through a series of runs is the repeated conversations. The dialogue changes a bit every time you meet the character you’ve been dreading talking to again and again, but I can only hear my childhood friend yelling at me for not approaching her as many times. She could even feel Desta getting angry because they had to go over the conversation with her high school teacher and never properly thanked her for her support for the fifth time. The dialogue is well written, the characters are fully realized and well acted, and I was moved to see Desta overcome her anxieties; that excitement just faded when she did it over and over again with the same people.
Desta: The Memories Between is an interesting follow-up to developer Ustwo’s smash hit, Monument Valley. Trade the abstract but emotional narrative for something more open, but still dreamlike. The overall setting, visual aesthetic, and soundtrack are great and the tactical combat is fun, but the repeated conversations make some of the racing feel like a chore, and sometimes the dodgeball feels more like loose cannon. Desta’s journey, however, is a familiar one and helping them complete it, even in a dream, was a cathartic experience that made me want to text that friend I hadn’t spoken to in years.