There’s an approach to relationship counselling where there’s a ball, and whoever is holding the ball gets to speak. Having said your piece, you toss the ball to another person and they get their chance to express themselves without interruption. But here’s an idea: what if you just threw the ball as hard as you could at the other person’s face? Okay, let’s tone it down a little: a friendly game of dodgeball in the safe space of a dream. Add a roguelike twist of turn-based, team-based strategy and you have Desta: The Memories Between.
Desta is the latest offering from Ustwo Games, creators of, among other things, 2014 mobile hit Monument Valley and 2021’s peaceful camera-and-scrapbook game Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Originally launching in 2022 as a Netflix game and now arriving on Switch in an enhanced and expanded form (although minus touch support), it tells the story of Desta, who is returning to the family home in preparation for it to be sold. Desta lost their father sometime before and didn’t leave things in a positive place with their mum. The anxiety about facing their mother needs to be unpicked in a dream space, letting an imagined conversation play out so that Desta can face the real-life situation constructively. However, the journey to that conversation is full of old friends, and it turns out Desta didn’t leave things sitting tidily with any of them when they went away. Exploring your feelings in dream dodgeball, you must work through tricky conversations compassionately, all while enjoying a bit of semi-violent sport.
The gameplay mainly involves leading Desta and two teammates to wipe out a team of enemies in a small arena peppered with obstacles. Characters each have two action points per turn, which can be spent on movement, throwing a ball, or triggering a special ability. The balls start off positioned around the stage and must be collected before they can be thrown, and your opponents are going for the same balls, so controlling them becomes a critical element of strategy. A simple physics system lets you rebound cool trick shots off the scenery or catch a ball again after pummelling an opponent, just to rub it in.
Each chapter focuses on a relationship with one key person from Desta’s past, working through a series of battles until facing off with that person head-on. Beating stages builds experience points, increases your level, and unlocks new special abilities. Finally, flattening the main opponent with the dodgeball three times breaks the tension and resolves the dream, leading to that new companion joining the squad for subsequent chapters.
Losing a battle, however, wakes Desta up from their dream and requires a roguelike-style restart where special abilities and teammates are lost but experience and HP are maintained. There’s the option to skip to the latest chapter, but you’ll have to take a chance with just one randomly selected special. Rerunning through each chapter can make the journey long and hard work. On the plus side, that adds weight to the story, as each little slice of dialogue – all voiced and brilliantly performed – must be earned through struggle and conflict. Unfortunately, it also creates a very repetitive experience as new starts are eventually met with a sigh rather than a hunger for another go.
But despite the potential slog to progress – and the aggressive bombardment of dodgeball-style gameplay – the game flows with a very chill respect for the player. It begins by respecting your time, launching straight into the gameplay after just one line of exposition and before even showing the title screen. You are dipped immediately into the mellow but snappy soundtrack by Mansur Brown and given the chance to drink in the precise, characterful visuals, with their smooth edges punctuated helpfully by the vivid, cel-shaded characters.
The willingness to accommodate the player doesn’t stop there. During play, there is the option to rewind movements if they don’t work out and, in the pause menu, settings to adjust difficulty in different ways. These can be changed at any time and with no penalty or judgment. Interface colours can be tweaked for accessibility and there is an option to adjust the dialogue in one chapter of the game, for which there is a content warning about themes of misgendering. Impressively, rather than just skipping the potentially challenging lines, entirely new lines have been written to provide an alternative version of the chapter and not break the flow of the game.
The respect for the player is thoroughgoing, then, but don’t be tempted to grumble that games should be allowed to be hard: this Dream Team Edition on Switch includes a new Nightmare Mode difficulty that takes the difficulty far in the opposite direction. Getting through the later levels of Desta is already no pushover and Nightmare is a serious test. The Dream Team Edition also introduces a Challenge Mode which includes brand new levels and new special abilities, rounding out a package that expands on the mobile original and provides hours of additional play beyond the five or so we took to complete the main campaign. While all the options and extras are appreciated, we did wish the game was better balanced in its default mode to make restarts less tedious and the easy modes less tempting.
Apart from the gameplay, Desta tells its story well. Ustwo has amazingly managed to make a game of dodgeball about relationships. The story beats aren’t simply tacked on, either; they align perfectly with the mounting challenge of beating a level. When an opponent is defeated and joins your team, it makes for a feeling of overcoming the two-way complications of a relationship, rather than simply vanquishing an enemy. Without being overly wordy, and despite a very measured pace of line delivery by the voice cast, the story runs along elegantly, enhancing the action rather than interrupting it.
With charm and polish and great respect for the player’s time and ability, Desta: The Memories Between manages to land a clever and touching concept. The story and voice acting keep the levels ticking by and elevate what could have been a very rote affair. The dodgeball gameplay does let the story do the heavy lifting after about halfway, becoming rather repetitive, but it also provides a realistic touch of conflict and aggression whenever the dialogue leans into super-niceness, and the roguelike strategy plays smoothly enough to be a pleasant delivery mechanism for the tale of Desta unpacking and coming to terms with their emotional conflicts.
Never heard of this before, but it seems like the sort of game I might enjoy, so thanks for reviewing it. It's also great to see a game which has a non-binary protagonist. Enby human characters are still very rare in games, and even when they appear, they're usually only a minor or supporting character.
"Successfully tells an emotional story via the medium of dodgeball"
Okay?!?"?!... Did they get that idea from the marketing department, because I do get the link.
"Successfully tells an emotional story via the medium of dodgeball" every bullied kid knows what kind of emotional story can be told about dodgeball
"Successfully tells an emotional story via the medium of dodgeball"
I already saw Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story all those years ago so guess I can pass on this.
Without wishing to get philosophical about it (well, maybe a little…), Dodgeball is an emotional film about dodgeball, whereas Desta is a game of dodgeball about emotions
Turn-based tactical dodgeball with a story eh. Well since Knockout City is on its way to non-existence soon I guess I could always jump onto this one.
I really like the look of this one, but that is rather a short runtime for the price, especially because I think I'll be veering towards the easier mode which would make it even shorter. We'll see how this month plays out though, there's a lot to choose from in it but I may end up caving and picking it up.
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