To the Moon
- Street Date:
- November 1st, 2011
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- January 4th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Freebird Games
- Freebird Games
Portions of this review also appear on the Bonus View. The review features some minor spoilers.
In 2011, Freebird Games, with Kan Gao at its center, released 'To the Moon,' a story-intensive game built using the SNES-looking RPG Maker engine. As an independent title, the game's persistence in finding players is a credit to the indie scene. While Freebird Games has been teasing a sequel for some time, the tiny company is still working to release the tangentially related 'A Bird Story.' Even so, Freebird Games recently released free story DLC for 'To the Moon,' making this a perfect time to revisit the title.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
To be clear, 'To the Moon' is ostensibly an adventure game. Its gameplay consists mainly of clicking to move the character around and to locate interactive objects in the environment. All of this is done from a bird's eye view, which when combined with the game's pixel art, is visually reminiscent of a Super Nintendo-era RPG. The presentation of the game's story is paramount, followed by the charming visuals, and that leaves gameplay a distant third. The de-emphasis of gameplay (even for an adventure game) will unfortunately limit the game's audience, but the game's other story-telling elements kept me involved.
'To the Moon' tells the story of two technicians who, in their latest assignment, seek to fulfill the last wish of an old man just before he shuffles off this mortal coil.
As the game begins, the two player characters (and de facto protagonists) arrive at the estate of one deathbed-bound Johnny Wiles. The characters, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, are in the employ of Sigmund Corp, a company that specializes in granting those near death with new memories that are tailored to the customer's greatest unfulfilled ambition. Quickly, the game introduces one of its go-to themes: extreme sentimentality.
The player is given enough freedom to traipse through the terminally ill gentleman's estate, poke around his mementos and curiosities, and see the gravesite of his late wife, just adjacent to a derelict lighthouse. Fortunately, the game is also quick to introduce another one of its themes, an ever-present and often juvenile humor that's used as a coping mechanism for the aforementioned sentimentality. To this point, the game has been mostly a tutorial and an introduction to the characters. Once it's revealed that in order to manufacture and gift their customer a new set of memories, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts must enter the dying man's memories, the game's hook has been clearly baited.
The client, who is alive but not lucid, states that his wish is to, "Go to the Moon." As the doctors try to ascertain the best way to navigate his memories, they also begin to take a more pointed note of his strange estate. Specifically disturbing are the mysterious rooms full of paper rabbits, which are clearly meant to be kept secret. Facing the mystery, the two doctors decide to visit the client's most recent memory. Their plan is to use the memories fed from the client into their computer to create virtual worlds they can explore. In his most recent accessible memory, they question the computer's recreation of their client, wanting to understand how best to reconcile the devoted husband and lighthouse owner with would-be astronaut and lunatic.
Quickly, a gameplay trend forms. The player enters a memory and witnesses key scenes from the client's life in order to understand how relatively mundane objects, such as a favorite backpack, can be the link to another older memory or could link to the new false memories. While several complications arise as various characters demonstrate their motivations through the course of years between memory jumps, navigating the game is different from, say, reading a thriller. The player is responsible for moving the story along. That is, if the story stops, or the two doctors' mission is thwarted, the client dies, or the secrets are not brought to light, that's the player's fault.
Despite the well-crafted and touching story, there are some gameplay related issues. The tempo is uneven, the dialogue is awkward in places, collision detection is less than perfect, etc. Yet the game achieves much that's worthy of discussion. 'To the Moon' is so difficult to explain, because trying to express where the story takes you is a poor substitute for going there. While the content might be more expected and thereby less significant in a novel or film, the level of interaction that the game gives you whenever the plot twists or thickens is something those other mediums couldn't achieve.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
RPG Maker visual style, which hearkens back to SNES era RPGs like 'Final Fantasy II & III' (or really IV-VI) is a joy for fans of that style. The main story setting is the most impressive, but various memory settings are also executed well. The game runs in a low 640 x 480 resolution but scales quite effectively, even up to 2560 x 1440. HUD elements and menus are rare. With such a stylized look, the game may not be attractive to younger gamers. Likewise, the game lacks for the colorful monsters and labyrinths usually found in games of a similar visual style.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
As with the visuals, the audio follows a style template of early 90's RPGs. There is not any voice acting, and sound effects are minimal. Instead the game features Kan Gao's compositions, a clear source of pride for the developer. Without the battle screens and dungeons of similarly styled games, the music is left to punctuate the story, which it does well.
The replay value of such a story-intensive title is small, but not inconsequential. Fans could replay the game once a year, but most are served by just a single playthrough. Once the series grows, (as it now has with the mini episode) the motivation to reaply the game will increase.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Unless you purchase the OST, the only bonus content is the recently (December 2013) released free Holiday mini episode. Freebird Games released this short DLC as a fun lead-in to the upcoming sequel, which will involve the still unreleased 'A Bird Story.' The DLC is intended for those who have played completely through 'To the Moon,' and I can hardly imagine someone who hasn't played the core game getting much out of the DLC.
First of all, let me explain how to play the DLC, which is not immediately obvious as there is no direct link inside the main game. The DLC has its own executable and directory located in the game's root folder under 'SigCorp - Holiday Special (Bonus Game).' It has no in-game menu, save function, or even a quit option (aside from Alt + F4) unless it's played all the way though.
The DLC is something of a tease. Not unlike the full game, there is a moment when you sadly realize that scope will be limited, but ultimately the story pulls together and leaves you wanting more.
Oddly enough, while the DLC takes place at the Sigmund Corp. holiday party, there seem to be a number of allusions to potential critics of 'To the Moon,' with comments about gameplay (or lack of), finishing the game, and the effort of development all mixed into the comparatively light-hearted affair. The DLC does a nice job of refreshing several details from the 'To the Moon' without rehashing anything aside from some silly puns.
While the DLC's story is short, the avenues it opens up speak of a promising future for the sequel.
Revisiting 'To the Moon' is an easy to way to recall how delightful the game and its story was the first time around. Many find Pixar movies to be the end-all be-all of sentimental story-telling, but 'To the Moon' scores a point for indie video games. On the one hand, just highlighting the story or the visuals can rob the game of significance, but consider the game as a whole and its experience is laudably unique. Hopefully the sequel makes it our way soon.
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