To The Moon: review

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Imagine. Imagine a videogame that deals intelligently with subjects such as mental illness, death, regret, love, trauma, failure, and much more besides. Imagine a videogame that deals with all of this without once succumbing to pretentiousness or farce. Imagine a videogame that makes you laugh and – yes – cry in exactly the right places for precisely the right reasons. Imagine a masterpiece.

Ladies and gentlemen, may we introduce To The Moon.

Dr Eva Rosalene and Dr Neil Watts sell dreams – literally. They work for an agency that has developed technology with the power to change a person’s memories spanning their entire life. These altered memories clash with the real ones in such a way, however, that the conflict rapidly destroys a person’s mind. People contact the agency on their deathbeds, therefore, signing contracts that promise them memories of a life they never lived. A life somehow better; a life where they lived their dream.

The player joins Dr Rosalene and Dr Watts as they arrive for their latest job. A bedridden old man called Johnny, with just a few short days to live, has requested that he be given the memory of fulfilling a dream he never chased. Johnny wants to have been to the moon.

Visually all of this takes place in a world that is perhaps best described, as you can see from the screenshots, as ‘SNES RPG’. It’s astonishing that something with such retro, lo-res styling is able to present such a touching and realistic game (though does go some way to explain how we convinced a ten year old laptop to run it comfortably). Very little of the game’s emotional depth comes from visual representations. The sound, on the other hand, is a whole new story.

The soundtrack is quite frankly gorgeous, and never fails to match the mood of the script and the tone of the on-screen events perfectly. This is doubtless in no small part due to the fact that it was co-written (with Laura Shigihara) by the driving force behind the script and gameplay, Kan Gao. Even the happier pieces are never far away from the sadder piano chords, or carry mournful strings in the background. There is an ever-present sadness; even considered holistically, the soundtrack (included on a separate CD in this retail release) matches the game perfectly.

Over 90% of the game can be played with just the mouse but, despite this, you’ll find that To The Moon throws a brief gameplay surprise your way whenever you’re least expecting it, keeping the experience fresh. The basics revolve around kickstarting the desire to travel to the moon way back in Johnny’s childhood memories. This involves hopping from memory to memory, travelling further and further back in Johnny’s life until finally reaching his early childhood. Each memory – sometimes consisting of just one or two rooms – contains five ‘memory links’ (usually objects you need to find, meaning it sometimes strays dangerously close to being a hidden object game) that you need to collect before connecting them to the ‘memento’.

The memento will be an object in the current memory that links back to an earlier one, each time a seemingly unremarkable object that you will later discover has a heart-rending significance. With all five memory links collected and the memento activated, there’s a simple yet satisfying picture puzzle of the memento to complete before hopping over to the next memory. In truth this exploration, collection and brief puzzle-solving makes up most of the gameplay – apart from the brilliant exceptions we frustratingly can’t tell you about.

What we haven’t told you is that each memory holds a lot of conversation. Some between the two doctors, much between people in Johnny’s memories that the doctors eavesdrop on unseen, and – on rare occasions – between the doctors and people in the memories. If it sounds like there’s an awful lot of the story leading the player around here, that’s because there is – and that’s the whole point. You will at first approach this as just another game, as the doctors initially approach Johnny as just another client. Very quickly, however, you will find yourself even more emotionally invested than the doctors. This game reaches through your heart and touches your soul in a way that David Cage can only dream of.

To The Moon starts off as a story about an old man’s dying wish. It gradually becomes more and more about someone else, as you follow a trail of clues to discover who this person was in every meaning of the phrase. Seemingly innocuous phrases and events take on drastic new meanings later on and, even when you’ve seen the end screen after 4-5 hours play, you’ll still be poring over details and discovering revelations as you piece through the journey in your head days later.

There are niggles besides the relatively short play time. The game can become briefly unfocussed during the rare occasions the player is given a little more room to explore, and a little less guidance as to how to progress. Your determination to find the solution will be fuelled by an unquenchable desire to see what happens next however, meaning you’ll never be stuck for long. More unfortunate is the baffling decision to, just once, rub a plot twist in the player’s face – which threatens to cripple the moment of discovery. Why trust the player to have the intelligence to make connections everywhere else in the story, but not here?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We want to tell you why we were initially unsure of the ending, but later realised it was an excellent decision; how the significance of a recurring object hit us like a lightning bolt the day after we saw the end credits, and overwhelmed us with sadness; how the final screen hints at a whole new subtext. But we won’t. Why?

To The Moon is beautiful. We won’t deny you this experience, and you shouldn’t deny yourself it either.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

3 comments

  1. Madhatters13 /

    This sounds like the perfect game to make a return to PC gaming with. I’ll definitely be picking it up in the near future.

  2. KrazyFace /

    Scorching review Luke, sounds like it’s one of hidden Gem thingies this site does? I’ll be looking for this at a reasonable price, what’s my chances of finding this in say, Game for under a tenner?

    • Luke K /

      RRP is £14.99 which it’s easily worth, especially with the soundtrack. I know some online retailers are selling it for less than ten of the queen’s British pounds; but GAME selling a new release for more than 8p under the RRP? Highly unlikely.

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