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Memories of the Alhambra (2018) – Series Review

Memories of the Alhambra (2018)

The Augmented Reality (AR) game that was supposed to take the world by storm and make J One, the investment company Yoo Jin Woo (Hyun Bin) is a CEO, lots of money turns dangerous and deadly. When Yoo Jin Woo logs on and gives the game a whirl, it amazes him. It’s highly interactive and the special effects look and feel extremely realistic.

But it all changes when Yoo Jin Woo’s former-friend-now-business-rival, Cha Hyeong Seok (Park Hoon), is found dead in the position Yoo Jin Woo left him following a supposedly virtual battle between the two. To make the game deadlier and more dangerous, Cha Hyeong Seok appears again and again as an NPC (non-player character). It doesn’t matter that Yoo Jin Woo’s defeated Cha Hyeong Seok already or that Yoo Jin Woo’s logged out of the game or that he’s not wearing the contact lenses which is supposedly required to play the AR game.

This drama didn’t catch us from the start with the opening scenes seeing the game creator Jung Se Ju (EXO’s Chanyeol) being chased, Jung Se Ju giving Yoo Jin Woo a rushed call to meet at Hostal Bonita to discuss the sale of the AR game before hopping on a train to escape an unknown pursuer and being shot at. However, when Yoo Jin Woo ends up falling six floors because of a duel with NPC Cha Hyeong Seok, the drama starts to get interesting and a bit suspenseful.

The crazy, nightmare of an existence suggested by the opening scenes was becoming the existence of Yoo Jin Woo’s. And there seemed to be no way out of this for Yoo Jin Woo. Obstructions (like doors and people) and being out of range suspends the duel. Time running out for the duel cancels it. These rules suspends the duel for a short time, but another duel will always show up another time whether Yoo Jin Woo wants to play or not.

After miraculously surviving the massive fall with only fractures to his arm and legs and a rupture to his intestines (apparently him catching the handrails he fell over during his long fall saved him as it had slowed down the speed of his descent), NPC Cha Hyeong Seok made yet another appearance. Yoo Jin Woo is chased through the hospital. To a non-player, he’s just running through the place, fighting no one, swinging at nothing, appearing a bit insane.

For a while, Yoo Jin Woo is left in a rather fragile, frightened state as he would lock himself in enclosed spaces like a shower so that he wouldn’t have to engage in a duel with Cha Hyeong Seok.

It was kind of hard watching Yoo Jin Woo like this. When he first appeared on screen, he was full of life, confident and excited over the discovery of this AR game, which he hoped is the perfect game content for his company’s innovative smart contact lenses. Now, he’s just fighting to stay alive, feeling dread and fear whenever his environment darkens and the sound of rain and Spanish guitar music known as the “Memories of the Alhambra” is heard. This means Cha Hyeong is about to show to fight him yet again.

The scary atmospherics is not only for effect, but it’s actually a clue for Yoo Jin Woo to learn how this game turned so dangerous and potentially deadly. Some investigative work Yoo Jin Woo manages to do whilst fearing for his life had him on a lead to how this all started.

An address Yoo Jin Woo had his people look into got him to discover Marco Han (Lee Jae Wook), an online gaming buddy of Jung Se Ju. Marco was an international student who dropped out of school, was doing drugs and was being chased by creditors. This guy was in need of money, so it wasn’t surprising when Marco was shown to react poorly after Jung Se Ju offered him only 30% for the sale of the game. It’s a pretty good offering considering Marco had no part in the game’s development. Marco, though, felt so angry with his share, he stabbed Jung Se Ju with a real knife.

It happens right inside the Alcazaba Cafe in Granada, right before the eyes of an NPC called Emma (Park Shin Hye) who sits on stage strumming “Memories of the Alhambra” on her guitar. This Emma was designed by Jung Se Ju to maintain peace between players whilst under her presence. Any player who tries to duel in front of her—in fact any player who tries to fight within 20 metres’ radius of her will have their weapons confiscated and the duel suspended.

The sight of the stabbing and Emma not being able to do anything about it (since it’s a real knife) looks to have kicked off the error in the game. It seems virtual weapons stayed virtual when a player has yet to kill another real player. However, once they do, weapons become real and can hurt, injure and kill real players.

A silver lining Yoo Jin Woo found with having Cha Hyeong Seok showing up again and again is that with every win, Yoo Jin Woo levels up, making his duels easier and not as frightening. After leaving Granada and escaping to America, Yoo Jin Woo apparently spent a few months day and night dueling non-stop to level up to obtain more efficient weaponry like guns. It allowed him to defeat Cha Hyeong Seok quickly and without much threat to his own life.

What a relief to see Yoo Jin Woo show up a year since it all began, back in Seoul, and no longer fearful. He still hints at the psychological issues: he drinks a lot and admits to taking pills every day because of having to fight and kill every day, of seeing blood every day, being stabbed every day and worrying about dying every day; but he is in a lot more control of the duels and doesn’t appear so helpless. With a gun, the duels are more an annoyance than frightening.

Yoo Jin Woo returns focused on levelling up at this point. He believes it will lead him to Jung Se Jung as well as prove his theories about how this bug started and resolve the issue.

The level he must get to turns out to be Level 90. Upon reaching it, he is contacted by Jung Se Ju. Under the Game ID of “Master”, he is asked via a quest to return to Granada where he must complete said quest within 48 hours.

It’s one insanely tough quest as Yoo Jin Woo loses his secretary, Seo Jeong Hun (Min Jin Woong) before he even enters the main part of the quest. Seo Jeong Hun, who had started playing the game out of boredom back when they were both in America, requested Yoo Jin Woo let him join him as an ally so that he could level up more quickly. Unknown to either of them, once Seo Jeong Hun became his ally, there was no breaking it. What’s more, Seo Jeong Hun also inherited the ability to see Cha Hyeong Seok and the real possibility of being killed in the game by him and other NPCs.

That’s what happens. Upon arriving in Granada, Seo Jeong Hun gets separated from Yoo Jin Woo after stepping off the train before him. NPCs swarm in to attack him. Not as experienced as Yoo Jin Woo, Seo Jeong Hun is hit with arrows from all directions without the ability to fight them off of him. Yoo Jin Woo attempts to use his gun to shoot at the NPCs, but the train had begun to move, and not long, he was out of range to save Seo Jeong Hun. Ultimately, Seo Jeong Hun lost the battle against the swarm of NPCs and died.

Seo Jeong Hun gone, Yoo Jin Woo is left to go on with the quest alone, but not before trying to find out what happened to his secretary. He tries to take the first train back to Granada, but is made to wait as the next train was not available. He’s left with having station staff call Granada Station staff to see if they could help him look out for him. He also has pirates in the game look for him once back in Granada.

Unable to do anything more, Yoo Jin Woo makes his way into a dark dungeon which once served as an underground prison. It’s here Jung Se Ju had sent him. For what and why isn’t clear at this point, but later we learn it’s for a Gold Key known as the Key to Heaven Jung Se Ju had hidden there.

NPC after NPC they came, throwing hit after hit. It’s a quest which J One programmer Choi Yang Ju (Jo Hyun Chul) thinks requires at least two players to get through it. Yet, Yoo Jin Woo went in alone. As if being short on allies wasn’t bad enough, only weapons from Granada were allowed in the quest. So, no guns or any of the newly designed weapons Yoo Jin Woo equipped himself with back in Seoul are allowed. The restrictions saw Yoo Jin Woo at critical health with only 10%.

Unexpectedly, Seo Jeong Hun shows up to take down dozens of NPCs for him. The sight of the secretary had us pretty hopeful. We thought, maybe Seo Jeong Hun survived the attack. In the next scene, a call from Seo Jeong Hun is made to Yoo Jin Woo’s friend and fellow founder of J One, Park Seon Ho (Lee Seung Joon). The secretary might just be still alive.

But, no. It wasn’t the secretary. The call was from Granada Station staff, and they came with bad news: Seo Jeong Hun was found dead near the train station.

The guy who showed up to fight on behalf of Yoo Jin Woo was an NPC. Just like Cha Hyeong Seok who had turned into an NPC after being killed whilst playing the game, Seo Jeong Hun also turned into an NPC. The difference, Seo Jeong Hun shows up as Yoo Jin Woo’s ally. It seems that once an ally in real life, stays an ally in the game and will show up again to Yoo Jin Woo’s aid whenever he is most in danger.

With news that Seo Jeong Hun’s died and contact with Yoo Jin Woo unable to be made, Park Seon Ho makes the decision to shut down servers. It was the instructions Yoo Jin Woo emailed Park Seon Ho to take should such situation arise. Only, he’s alive thanks not only to Seo Jeong Hun but to Jung Hee Ju (Park Shin Hye).

Jung Hee Ju is Jung Se Ju’s older sister who Yoo Jin Woo met a year ago in Granada. They didn’t start off on the right foot because of Yoo Jin Woo’s uncomfortable stay at Jung Hee Ju’s hostel which saw him discover rodents, cob webs, a blocked toilet and only stairs to get to his room on the sixth floor. But then Yoo Jin fell six floors and was not himself. It had her worry over him. Her feelings didn’t develop much further since then at this point in the drama because he left her without so much as a word.

Still, the lack of communication from Yoo Jin Woo had her worried enough to rummage through a box in her bedroom to look for a phone number to a friend in Granada and have the friend help look for Yoo Jin Woo on her behalf. Fortunately, she did. Otherwise, he might not make it judging by how low in health he got.

Managing to come out of this alive, Yoo Jin Woo now wants the server kept running. The quest was still active and he must level up to Level 100 in order to use the Gold Key he found in the dungeon and get to the end of the quest.

Park Seon Ho doesn’t comply. He may have shut the server down, but it’s only as a precaution rather than genuinely believing the game is what Yoo Jin Woo claims. Park Seon Ho has been told there’s a way to prove it, and that is to become Yoo Jin Woo’s ally like Seo Jeong Hun did. But with Yoo Jin Woo unwilling to prove it in this way, only loyalty to his friend had him go along thus far.

But, enough was enough. Park Seon Ho’s visit to Granada sees him discover nothing suggesting the game was responsible for Seo Jeong Hun’s death. He was even told that Seo Jeong Hun wasn’t even wearing the contact lenses required to play the game when he was found. (But that’s one of the dangers of the game!) Yoo Jin Woo’s insistence on the server be turned back on only has Park Seon Ho believe even more that his friend has really gone insane and that Yoo Jin Woo’s addiction to the game is what’s making him act like this.

Seeing as everyone wants proof, Yoo Jin Woo ends up showing the one with the most power, the one who ends up wanting to bring Yoo Jin Woo down. That’s J One Chairperson and Cha Hyeon Seok’s father, Professor Cha Byeong Jun (Kim Eui Sung). The professor’s suggestion to the Board of Directors that Yoo Jin Woo be dismissed from his position as CEO and install Park Seon Ho as the new CEO sees Yoo Jin Woo propose Professor Cha play the game and join him as an ally.

The decision to prove it to Professor Cha will not only prove that Yoo Jin Woo is not insane or a killer, but it’ll save J One from going bankrupt. Yoo Jin Woo is actually the original founder of J One. He would hate to see the company he founded in ruins. So, for the sake of the company, the bug in the game must be resolved before the game can launch.

Professor Cha agrees to play the game and becomes Yoo Jin Woo’s ally. Within moments of Professor Cha putting on the smart lenses, his son appears before him. There’s no recognition of their father-son relationship when Cha Hyeong Seok responds to his father’s call. To Cha Hyeong Seok, Professor Cha is Yoo Jin Woo’s ally and must be killed. Fortunately for the Professor, Yoo Jin Woo sends a bullet through Cha Hyeong Seok before the Professor further learns of how true Yoo Jin Woo’s words are.

Now Professor Cha has proof he admits his actions have caused him to dig himself a grave. Before knowing how dangerous the game was, he had requested police reopen the case to investigate Cha Hyeong Seok’s death with Yoo Jin Woo as his target. As Park Seon Ho tells it, Professor Cha was going after Yoo Jin Woo. Whilst Yoo Jin Woo was on his quest in Granada, the Professor was with the Board looking to remove him as J One CEO. Successful, he moved onto plans to make Yoo Jin Woo answer to his crime of killing his son. Had he believed all of what Yoo Jin Woo was saying about the game being true, he wouldn’t now be risking J One’s future by having people discover the huge flaw in the game. Not only that, but there’s no breaking his alliance with Yoo Jin Woo. His life now depends on Yoo Jin Woo resolving this deadly bug in the game. Unsuccessful and the Professor might end up dead in the hands of his own son in the form of an NPC.

So, the server is allowed to run and Yoo Jin Woo is finally free to level up—with one hindrance: Go Yu Ra (Han Bo Reum). She is Yoo Jin Woo’s estranged wife who only married for money. She’s also someone Professor Cha teamed up with to try take the inheritance of Cha Hyeong Seok’s widow, Lee Su Jin (Lee Si Won). Go Yu Ra came out with nothing for the efforts she put in for Professor Cha. She didn’t get the shares she wanted. In retaliation, she went to the police and falsely provided a statement that Yoo Jin Woo confessed to her that he killed Cha Hyeong Seok, making Yoo Jin Woo a Wanted Man whilst he travelled the streets trying to level up.

Yoo Jin Woo has no time to worry about police being after him. Leveling up, finding Jung Se Ju and resolving the bug in the game were more important.

Thanks to a map of all the places he could find high-level NPCs and some special weapons, it sees Yoo Jin Woo level up quickly to Level 100 and able to finally go on his way to using the key and finish the quest.

He wasn’t sure what exactly he was supposed to do to complete his quest before, but it becomes clear when a meeting with Jung Hee Ju has her mention how her visit to J One’s R&D Centre had her notice the bracelet and ring on Emma’s hand. It’s the same as the symbol on the Gate of Justice, and it reminded her of a legend which talks about the Hand of Fatima being the Key to Heaven. When the Key to Heaven (i.e. the Gold Key Yoo Jin Woo found) meets The Hand of Fatima (i.e. Emma’s Hand), the gate will open and the palace will crumble (i.e. the bugs are resolved, the quest ends and the game resets—we think).

Level 100 unlocked, the end of the quest is near, and so is the end of Memories of the Alhambra. It’s an ending which is a bit open-ended. The final part of the quest involves Yoo Jin Woo handing the Key to Heaven to Emma and after that she would be the one to set things right, resolve the bug in the game, reset it so real players aren’t in danger of dying when defeated by another player.

Apparently this involves deleting the bugs that is Cha Hyeong Seok and Seo Jeong Hun (no!)… and unexpectedly Yoo Jin Woo, too! Apparently, Yoo Jin Woo is a bug himself and must also be deleted!

So, right after Emma is given the key, the key is thrust into his heart to try kill him and reset the game. She fails, though, as the deletion of the bug that is Yoo Jin Woo stalls at 65%.

Key still in his heart, Yoo Jin Woo escapes the church Emma was located, right after avoiding getting caught by a group of police after him. Even in his state, Yoo Jin Woo still manages to fight off a few high-level NPCs. He is only one man against a group of high-level, gun-wielding NPCs; and our guess is he wouldn’t last the whole fight in his state. Luckily his ally, Seo Jeong Hun, shows up again to hold the NPCs off long enough for Yoo Jin Woo to take cover in a bathroom of a restaurant.

There, Yoo Jin Woo wrenches out the key from his heart with excruciating effort before he is logged out and passes out.

So, the key didn’t kill him like it should. It looks like it might have to do with the fact Professor Cha is still alive and an ally of Yoo Jin Woo. Yoo Jin Woo hints that for the issue in the game (as well as in real life) to be resolved, he and Professor Cha must be eliminated first. They must die together or live together.

It has Yoo Jin Woo in a dilemma on what to do when he regains consciousness. A restaurant owner had found him and helped call one of Professor Cha’s people to send Yoo Jin Woo to a hotel to recover as opposed to a doctor since, presumably, they wouldn’t be able to help since his injuries are… what’s the word? Supernatural? Not only that, doctors would probably have police called after going to them.

The dilemma doesn’t last long as Professor Cha goes and unwittingly makes the decision for him. In an attempt to get rid of Yoo Jin Woo, and dig himself out of this grave he created, the Professor decides to use the game’s high-level NPCs to kill Yoo Jin Woo. He’d then use the explanation of a panic attack and guilt as what had killed Yoo Jin Woo. What Professor Cha doesn’t seem to know is that even if the NPCs did manage to kill Yoo Jin Woo and ordered the servers to be shut off forever, the Professor’s life would still be pursued by Cha Hyeong Seok: NPCs native to the game disappear, but not real players-turned-NPCs like Cha Hyeong Seok. They don’t need active logins, running servers or smart lenses to be worn to appear. They appear regardless.

After hearing gun fire stop, the Professor makes a call from the locked bathroom where he hid to have the server turned off. He emerges and quickly makes his way out of the hotel after witnessing what he thinks is Yoo Jin Woo dead. (He’s not. He’s just unconscious.) He never escapes as Cha Hyeong Seok appears before him. With no experience and no weapon to defend himself, Professor Cha is at the mercy of his NPC son and is eliminated. Cha Hyeong Seok moves to end Yoo Jin Woo, too, but the latter barely regains consciousness to send a bullet through Cha Hyeong once again.

With Professor Cha dead, Yoo Jin Woo carries out the final act to end this once and for all. Servers are turned back on at Yoo Jin Woo’s request. He returns to the church for the second time and personally eliminates the three bugs with the Key to Heaven. First, he eliminates friend-turned-enemy Cha Hyeong Seok then the man who supposedly took him in and raised him, Professor Cha, is eliminated, and finally his dear secretary who saved him so many times in the game, Seo Jeong Hun, is eliminated.

He then walks up to the altar where Emma continues to be and greets her the second time. She asks why Yoo Jin Woo took the key after giving it to her the first time. He tells her he was afraid to die. We don’t see Emma thrust the key into his heart this time round, though. We only see Emma ask he give the key for her to hold on to.

This is the last time we see of Yoo Jin Woo alive. Scenes say he’s been eliminated like Cha Hyeong Seok, Professor Cha and Seo Jeong Hun was. Death of real player NPCs leave a pile of sparkly white granules. Park Seon Ho’s entrance into the church saw him see three piles around the places where Yoo Jin Woo eliminated them. If Yoo Jin Woo was eliminated, too, there should be one at the altar where Emma is still seen. There is a forth pile of sparkly white granules.

Whether he actually died is still not clear. The drama certainly tries to say he did, as the sparkly white granules suggests and so do the emails Park Seon Ho sends Yoo Jin Woo, too. The emails go unanswered and unread days, weeks, months after the quest’s end which saw Jung Se Ju’s game reset and finally launched to huge success.

However, there are small clues suggesting that Yoo Jin Woo might be alive. Jung Se Ju, who finally reappears after Yoo Jin Woo’s successful completion of the quest mentions an instance dungeon where he was able to hide when he was running from Marco. Apparently, this Instance Dungeon can only be created by the Master of the game in times of danger. It’s a place in the game which only the master knows and can hide. The master can see the enemy, but the enemy can’t see him/her. It was like existing in a different dimension Jung Se Ju had explained, which is the reason he wasn’t able to make contact with anyone to let people know he was alive.

Yoo Jin Woo was made the new master when he completed the quest. It could that Yoo Jin Woo somehow was able to use the Instance Dungeon to escape dying and is actually is alive, but unable to communicate with anyone, just like Jung Se Ju.

Then in the final scenes, in a café, players of the AR game talk about an amazing, high-level player coming to their aid, firing guns at enemies. They swear he’s not an NPC but a user. Could it be Yoo Woo Jin?

Jung Hee Ju overhears the players and immediately runs to the location of this high-level player with her smart lenses on and logs in. Only his silhouette is seen, but it looks a lot like Yoo Jin Woo.

We don’t know. Is he just an NPC? Is he alive but exists in a different dimension? What about that pile of sparkly white granules on the church floor? If he was alive, those sparkly white granules shouldn’t be there, right. And why can’t Yoo Jin Woo just return like Jung Se Ju did after Yoo Jin Woo completed the quest? The only thing we can think of is now that Yoo Jin Woo is the master, perhaps Yoo Jin Woo has Marco after him and can’t return. We didn’t actually see Yoo Jin Woo eliminate Marco. He should be a bug, too. Still, could he not have Emma eliminate Marco?

Still so many questions at the end of this drama, fantastical, but it was a good watch. Very interesting and mysterious. It’s the first drama from Hyun Bin and Park Shin Hye we really like since Secret Garden and You’re Beautiful (respectively).

An interesting bit of trivia we discovered while reading articles on the drama: Memories of the Alhambra was inspired by Pokémon Go. Remember that AR mobile game that was a global phenomenon in 2016, which saw lots of people roaming the streets in search of Pokémon?

Funnily, when we were watching Memories of the Alhambra, we were thinking Pokémon Go might be the game behind the drama’s story. We’ve only ever signed up to play Pokémon Go, but never went to actually search for Pokémon. Apparently, you don’t even have to duel the Pokémon to capture it. So, Memories of the Alhambra’s AR game is not at all like Pokémon Go. It’s more interactive. It’s in the action, fighting game genre we think. But, what had us connecting Memories of the Alhambra’s AR game to the Pokémon AR game is the roaming around streets looking for fights and Yoo Jin Woo saying how huge the AR game was going to be.

Right at the end of the drama there was even a reference to the safety issues and concerns Pokémon Go had. In the drama, they showed players being so into their duels, they forgot to watch what they were doing, where they were walking and consequently suffered injuries like falls and ran into poles. The drama also talked about disruption in people’s work and studies and going into dangerous spots. These were all references to some of the issues and concerns we read Pokémon Go had, too, when players were looking for Pokémon. We now can see for sure that Memories of the Alhambra was inspired by the hugely popular mobile game after seeing this part of the drama.

If you haven’t watched this drama, give it a go and see what you make of the ending. If you’ve watched this drama, what did you think of the ending?

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