A lovely story that is a joy to experience
- Absolutely beautiful soundtrack
- Charming 16-bit "RPG" style graphics
- Fantastic, emotionally riveting story
- Lots of interesting plot twists
- Gameplay elements seem unnecessarily tacked on
- Walking from place to place can be boring and uninteresting
- Very short (3-4 hours, no replay value)
- Story is good but seems to back off just short of being magnificent
- I can't decide if the ending is perfect or just mediocre
To The Moon is an extremely story driven experience
To The Moon is not really a video game, at least not by standard conventions. Yes, it's an interactive piece of computer software designed for pleasure. Yes, it looks very much like an SNES (or PS1) era pixelated JRPG. And yes, it does have some puzzles, adventure game elements, and even a weird duel-joystick shooter-esque part (which is thankfully very short). But in reality, To The Moon is simply "game as story." It's a tale that chooses to use, instead of words on paper or actors on screen, video games as its medium of choice. It's probably the closest thing to an "art game" I've reviewed on this blog, and might actually be the first "art game" I've actually played all the way to completion.
It's a not-so-distant future. Through technology, we are able to grant a person on their deathbed one final wish, by going into their minds and altering their memories to add the thing they want most. You assume the role of two scientists tasked with fulfilling a dying man's final wish: he wants to go to the moon, but he doesn't know why. Thus begins a journey starting at but a few hours before his death, and spanning all the way back through an entire life of love, loss, mysteries and mistakes. All with the hope of finding the reason why he wanted to go to the moon, and making his final dream possible.
If this sounds a bit like the plot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Inception, you aren't far off. The game is very similar in these regards, almost uncannily so. Luckily it forges its own path relatively quickly, providing a story that is both unique, touching, and very much relevant to everyone.
Even though I had an "RPG Maker" vibe coming from it, I can't knock the impressive visuals
In terms of actual gameplay, To the Moon is a hybrid adventure/puzzle game. Without spoiling the story, the general gist is that in each block of memories you experience there are five objects that are especially pertinent to the patient (Johnny's) past. Once you find these five object (usually accompanied by short scenes explaining their importance), you apply them to a final object that will allow you to warp to a different memory. In order to warp you have solve a simple block-turning puzzle, which is usually not easy enough to cakewalk through and not hard enough to actually provide any mental stimulation. You have to do about a dozen or so of these puzzles across the course of the game, and by the end they feel more like unnecessary roadblocks to continuing the adventure rather than actual important parts of the story.
There is another weird moment where the game sort of turns into a duel-stick shooter mixed with...I don't know, dodging stuff? Is that a genre? It feels extremely out of place and while I can understand it was perhaps put there to lighten a particularly dark series of events, it feels extremely contrived.
Seriously, this game is very pretty
Speaking of contrived, let's talk about the story. Now don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed the vast majority of the story here. Seeing Johnny's relationship with his wife River play out in total reverse, from her death all the way back to when they first met was absolutely beautiful, and even though I knew (generally) what was going to happen next, it was carried out with such care and craft I didn't mind being proven right.
That being said, the story still has a few hang-ups. The two scientists - who are essentially silent watchers of this man's past - are extremely dry, insensitive, and off-putting. I understand that as a part of their job they'd have to distance themselves from their clients, but some of the remarks they make are downright spiteful, and it really pulled me from the story. The attempts at humor, as well, were low-brow or just simply uninspired, and they were a sharp contrast to the soft drama that was taking place throughout the rest of the game. Again, I can understand the need for humor to help keep things from getting too dark, but I really think their lines could have gone with another edit.
My other issue was with the ending, which I will not spoil here. Needless to say, I'm glad an issue that I thought wasn't going to be addressed did, and the final scene is absolutely jaw-dropping. However, the events that play up to it don't seem in line with the rest of the story. When you are talking about someone's life, you are talking about an extremely complex and deep event. There are millions of threads, all knit together, and there is no easy way to take it all apart and then put it back together again (which the ending somewhat attempts to do). The ending presented just seemed...shallow. Like we'd had this massive amount of buildup over the previous two and a half acts, and now they chose the easiest way to end it. It wasn't bad, and again the ending scene was beautiful, but it did seem a little too...safe. After such an elaborate, excellent story, I was really hoping for an ending that matched. I didn't feel like I got it.
The soundtrack is downright beautiful
The music in the game is mellow, slow, and absolutely perfect. It kicks in at just the right time, using only a few unique tunes and then variating on them throughout. It works, and works very well. The graphics also, despite looking like they should be in a JRPG, are well drawn and animated and work well to put this haunting, somber story together. All the pieces fit, making the experience an excellent one.
There are very few games like To The Moon, and again that is mostly because it isn't really a game. As an interactive story it is quite good, though it does falter a bit in spots. As it stands, the game is $12 from Freebird's website, but you can play an hour of the game for free to decide if you like their style of storytelling. The game is only 3-4 hours long at the very most, which makes that asking price seem...a bit high (though $12 really isn't a lot of money, I think dropping $5 from the price would be more reasonable).
This is also an extremely difficult game to score, as it doesn't follow any other gaming conventions. I'd probably give it three stars as a game, but four stars as an overall experience. So I'll give it the benefit of the doubt (as I seem to so often do) and say it's four out of five.
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