Since I initially played it a few years ago, To The Moon has remained in my mind as one of the most emotionally gripping games I’ve ever played. A truly heartwarming tale that I was eager to recommend after experiencing it myself, but as is the case with many things I adore, I like to revisit them and determine whether or not a game is truly remarkable, or if past-me has less refined tastes than present-me. With To The Moon, it’s unfortunately the latter.
To The Moon Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Freebird Games
To The Moon is the story of John Wyles, a man on his deathbed who commissioned a pair of scientists to reconstruct his memories within his final hours on this earth in order to pass away with a sense of fulfillment that his life was unable to give him. Which, for reasons that perplex John himself, involve going to the moon. What entails is a trek backwards through John’s life as the two scientists, Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, examine the circumstances that gave John such a dream, learning more about him in the process, and about his late wife, River.
The story itself has some very strong high points, managing to take this premise and use it to create a poignant and riveting tale of loss, regret, love, selfishness, and so forth. The story’s primary aim, from what I can tell, is to provide an emotionally captivating experience and on that note, it succeeds. Some moments of the game are wrought with sadness, and the atmosphere of the game reinforces the powerful emotions the narrative is trying to evoke. However, it never becomes oppressive in its emotional intensity, and features an appropriate amount of snark from the two memory hopping scientists.
It is certainly engaging, and even manages to feel relatable to me in a way that games actually rarely do. With John’s selfish motivations throughout the story striking alarmingly close to ones I’ve had throughout my life and River’s entire character being among the most relatable I’ve stumbled upon in a game, as she is an autistic red haired woman with a degree of social and communication issues who somehow manages to find love. In a sense, this makes the story something special to me, but as I went on with my second playthrough I began examining the story more critically, making note of the how the characters of John and River are portrayed throughout the story, and the level of detail afforded to them throughout the three hour duration of this story.
A lot of the initial appeal of these characters is that they are grounded. They don’t lead extraordinary lives, have seemingly simple desires, and while possessing their own quirks, both River and John feel like believable people for the majority of the game. They reach a certain point in their characterization where they cease feeling like actualized people, and begin resembling characters with extremities that happened throughout their lives as part of an attempt to, I guess, make them more interesting, when it really makes them more boring.
I mentioned that River is autistic, and her level of autism is portrayed as an utter extremity throughout the story, to the point where she does not understand fairly basic ideas about human interaction or how to properly behave in a conversation. To further compound things, it is revealed that her disorder was not addressed until early adulthood, which is simply outlandish to me, and paints both a very negative perspective of the place she and John live in and the parents who raised River. As for John, he is eventually revealed to be a tragic character, and in a way that is so heavily driven by chance that I find it difficult to believe.
The presentation of all of this was also not as vivid or rich as I remembered when I played the game three years ago, with a lot of the reasoning being the fact that the game’s engine, RPG Maker VX, and feels almost needlessly restricted by it. The game only has one resolution setting that does little to show the detail of the pixel art on display. General movement feels clunky, even as a grid based movement system, and especially when coupled with sometimes cluttered environments and an emphasis on mouse movement. There are also these awful black bars placed on the top and bottom of the screen in order to make the story more “cinematic” but do so in the worse way, by limiting what the player can see when trying to move vertically in this overhead 2D game.
As for the sprite art itself, it’s actually rather mixed. Areas tend to either be starkly detailed and aesthetically uninteresting or be so lavishly detailed that they seem inappropriate in a grounded setting. Characters sprites can express a good deal of emotions, but they are obscured when playing in fullscreen and difficult to make out when played in a window. Some environmental items are crafted with excruciating care, while the sprites for cars and horses look like they were never properly finished. When portraying the past, many scenes are doused in a gaudy filter that diminishes the care that was placed into every sprite, but the concept of obscuring more and more people as the doctors go further back in John’s life is kind of brilliant from a visual and narrative perspective.
As for the soundtrack of To The Moon, it easily manages to carry the most emotional resonance of any aspect of the game. The melancholy, dread, and slight optimism evoked by some of these tracks is truly abrasive, and each song selection seems to have been thought out to maximize the emotional impact of every scene. To the point where I’d actually say that the music may very well be the most important part of the game, and will easily call it one of the most impactful scores I’ve ever heard from a game.
Before concluding, I should probably talk about the gameplay of To The Moon, which is effectively wandering around and solving one type of puzzle about a dozen or so times before the adventure comes to a close. It is incredibly simple mechanically, aside from one questionable scene at the end that could have easily been removed. I don’t view any of these things as having much mechanical value, and given how I did not really enjoy the navigation elements of this game, everything could have been presented as a kinetic visual novel.
While I certainly want to be able to praise To The Moon as I did years ago, my second playthrough revealed more than a few shortcomings with the story and visuals that would make me less inclined to call it a masterpiece, or some such thing. It is still an well told and distinct story that I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting, but one that has enough visual and technical blemishes for me to prevent putting it up on a higher podium and make it seem far more dated than it has any reason to be.