Hi all, Aussie Legend here. This is a quick relatively spoiler free look at a recently to steam indie title called 'To The Moon' by Freebird studios (the one that Lorin mentioned on the latest episode of the Axe Factor). To The Moon, in a nutshell, is game which I prefer to call an 'interactive experience' rather than a game (similar to a Journey if I had to make a comparsion, although its not quite at the level to the almost spiritual experience that a lot of gamers, myself included, had with that game), a game where it's story is so central to what the game is about that the mechanics and gameplay are inconsequential in comparison.
This review is difficult for me to write, as I want to tell you every detail about this game, but if I were to do that it would ruin the experience you would, and should have playing this game and learning all the important narrative threads and plot twists for yourself. So I am trying to keep this spoiler free as humanly possible whilst still giving you my opinion so you are ultimately able to make a decision for yourself whether you want to pick this game up or not. I will go on record, that I do recommend you pick this up if you're into games like Journey, so if you don't want to know anything about the game (although I would question why you clicked on this if you didn't), know that I give it a hearty recommendation.
Here's a quick recap of the premise for those who didn't catch last week's show: A company by the name of "Sigmund Corporation: Agency of Life Generation" are in the business of what is, obstensively, memory re-allignment for a lack of a better term. Two doctors, Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene, go out to dying patients and are tasked with fulfilling their clients' lifelong wishes so they may pass away feeling happy and fulfilled. To do this, the doctors operate on the client using a special machine which allows them to jump through the ailing patient's memories to alter it so they are able to relive their entire life from beginning to end in a different manner. However, due to the severity of the operation, this newly lived life becomes the final memory that the patient remembers before succumbing to their illness (which is why the operation is only performed on patients on their deathbeds). Johnny, the patient in this game (and there are indications that there may be more games in the series) is an elderly man who's final wish is to, you guessed it, go to the moon.
As this is rather new technology, Neil and Eva are not able to jump that far into the past at a time, so they must jump back to several times throughout his life and sync these all up so that they may relive their life in the way they want to. You're probably getting an Inception vibe here at this point, and to be honest there are some slight surface similarities. The way the machine is set up, to jump back in to an earlier memory the patient must be able to pinpoint a distinct memory. To do this, they must use an item of importance, a momento, which contains a powerful memory they hold dear which will elicit the emotion required for them to travel back to that memory.
The game deals with some VERY heavy subject matter, which I would love to list for you but for the fear of spoilers I will withhold. Just trust me on this. The game is short however, about 3-4 hours or so, but I do think that's about the right length for it. I don't think you can maintain the level of emotion and engagement that this game is trying to make you feel in a much longer experience, so I think for this kind of game its short length definately works in its favour (which is why you see games like Journey at that length as well). I also think the way the gameplay is set up, which I'll get to in a second, it does become fairly formulaic after a while until it opens up a tiny bit in the last 2 acts so maybe not having it drag on also works in its favour. I will mention that I don't quite understand why they broke the game into acts, consider Act 1 lasts for maybe 2-3 hours and the final 2 acts last for half of that combined. That's not really a hit against the game, just a strange design choice.
Right off the bat, I must admit I had some graphical issues. Now keep in mind I'm playing this on a pretty mid-range laptop, so it's probably not the beast that many other peoples are, but I had some pretty horrendous screen tearing (which is one of my largest pet peeves in gaming, as it totally breaks immersion for me). I actually put off playing the game for a good 4 or so days until I could fix it, as I found that forcing Vsync in the usual ways was not working. I did eventually fix it (fiddled around with my refresh rate) but it was an annoyance. I've also heard of people having resolution problems but I didn't run into any of those. I do want to say though that you should not have any trouble running this on any computer really, as the game is cpu and gpu intensive at all.
The graphics are in a pixal art style, similar to a crisper, cleaning looking 16bit SNES RPG in the style of Final Fantasy 6 or Chrono Trigger. As someone who is a fan of pixal art and HD retro looking games such as Super Meat Boy, I think the art style is pretty damn nice, but I understand its not for everyone.
The games plot is told entirely through text, as there is no voice acting in the game. The story is very well told, and is serious in tone for the most part as the game's narrative deals with some DEEP themes such as mortality, the value of human life, mental illness, abandonment issues, segregation among a range of other things. The game also has this humorous sensibility that I was expecting when I picked up the game if I'm quite honest. I think this is pretty hit or miss for the most part and is probably the only major problem I have with the writing.
The banter between the two main characters for the most part is pretty endearing, fleshing out each characters in a positive way and some of the humour works very well (for anyone who has played the game, I point to the scene at the bar very early on as one done pretty much perfectly. There are a few others too which I genuinely chuckled at such as the horse scene and the majority of the scenes that occur at the school). Whilst I don't mind them juxtaposing the rather heavy material being explored in the game with humour every now and again, I think in this case it was done a little too frequently and little too heavy handedly, which broke immersion for me more than once. Whilst I ultimately liked Neil's character, he in particular tried far too hard especially early on in the game to be a comic relief character in a game which didn't require one; I can even picture a few potentially touching scenes he pretty much ruined by saying something utterly stupid. His character did grow later in the game (especially in Act 3), and he actually ended up being my favourite character. But man, he was really getting on my nerves early on but thankfully about the end of Act 1 he became much more tolerable and his dialogue improved vastly (his jokes also began to stick too... mostly).
The out of place humor wasn't the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way at times, another culprit is the 'referencial humor' in the game, which for all but one exception, felt horribly out of place and out of line with the rest of the game. Some of the game references that the characters (mostly Neil) spurt out every now and again were not clever and reminded me that I was playing a video game, which broke the mindset the game was so desperately trying to put me in multiple times. If they were subtle and well woven into the story I wouldn't have minded so much, but they were very blantant and didn't really fit in with the off key sarcastic banter between the two main leads, just came off as a little desperate to me. Just my opinion though, but I would have much preferred it without them, as I think the narrative in this game is so strong that the writing didn't have to rely on this in my opinion, I think they could have purveyed the same message more effectively if they played the characters straight with just a few sarcastic comments here and there. I will give them credit though, whilst I feel they go too far on a few occasions, for the most part the writing is pretty exemplery, so credit where credit is due Freebird, and the humor they put in isn't too disasterous just a little changes the tone ever so slightly in the wrong direction sometimes.
Obviously if you're coming in here expecting big set piece moment, explosions and character customization then you are in completely and utterly the wrong mindset for this game. The 'game part' of the game, the gameplay, is really only there to supplement the narrative. The game has a very graphic novel feel to it with its minimalistic gameplay, but there is enough interaction and exploration that you feel apart of the world you are playing in. Although it is technically a Point and Click game, don't expect too many Secret of Monkey Island style puzzles or anything of the sort.
In summary, the gameplay consists of going into an area and finding 5 key memories which allow you to activating a momento to jump to the next memory. Some momentos jump you further back then others. In between and during, you will find information both through exploration and through dialogue about the man's life, his experience's, his thoughts, his pain, his dreams. Whilst the gameplay isn't anything to write home about, at all really (you do have to remember this is an indie game made by basically one person however). I think it does a reasonable job at making the puzzles as un-intrusive as possible so as to not break your immersion. The point and click is more about exploration and learning more about the world and its characters; the few puzzles that are there amount to no more than simplistic environmental puzzles and some also some basic sliding puzzles when you are preparing mementos. Whilst in another game this may be thought as a negative, I feel that in a game such as this the puzzles aren't there to block progression for any large amount of time, they're there to add a little flavour so the difficulty is something of a non issue. Just saying to expect any Portal or Braid style head scratchers.
This routine does become somewhat formulaic, but by the end of Act 1 this all but disappears and the puzzles sort of stop and the story takes over, which I think is a nice change of pace. From memory I don't think there is a puzzle in the entire Act 2 (though I may be wrong), In Act 3 they do introduce some new mechanics as some fun little mini-games, which is a nice change of pace but don't evolve pass a mini-game as they don't stick around for more than scene each.
The score to this game is phenominal. I don't have much else to say, its fantastic and fits the game perfectly.
MY IMPRESSIONS (as few spoilers as possible)
I really did end up liking all the characters (even Neil after a while), I thought they were well written and for the most part well characterised and developed. Most of the questions that were brought up were answered within the narrative (some weren't however, which frustrates me). I think the majority of Act 1 was done very well and had me gripped pretty good, the majority of the scenes are done (especially when Neil keeps his mouth shut) and it ends about the time when the gameplay starts to drag on. I think Act 2 by contrast, was underwhelming, and very short actually when compared to the other two. By the time Act 3 comes around and revelations start happening, you will be glued to the screen to see what it all means.
The story is VERY intesting. If you are any kind of story whore like me pick it up no questions asked, the story alone should sell you one this one. Near the end the story does get more bizarre and more bizarre as it goes on however, which personally I am never a fan of (Uncharted 3 did this for me too). I would have liked that they kept it as realistic as possible within the confines of its premise but again that's just my opinion. I just feel like I would have been more immersed if it hadn't got so fantastical at some points as I like consistency in my narrative.
I must say though, the game on occasion has some very weird and sudden shifts in tone. I can't really expand upon that further sadly for fear of spoilers, but just know that in one scene you go from a heartfelt reunion, crushing loss, and then to running from zombies all in the space of about a 2 minutes. This is probably my biggest problem with the game, its not very self consistent and seems to change tone at will almost (which also ties into the out of place humor I mentioned previously). I just wish the game was a little bit more consistent, keeping its emotionally charges sections segregated from its humorous ones (and drop the zombies entirely, that was stupid). The final 10 minutes and ending were very well done in my opinion, and actually explains some of the weird tonal shifting I talked about earlier, which was very much appreciated cause they lost me for a little while there.
The gameplay I enjoyed for what it was. It was never designed to be a Monkey Island or anything like that, but it did service your progression in a way which I thought was well done, so I'll give them a pass even if there wasn't a whole lot of variety shown off. I really do like that we are getting more of these games lately (I'm gonna bring up Journey again, for what seems to be the billionth time already). Not every game has to be about the most headshots, the highest score, or in truth even be fun to play to be a worth-while and engaging experience; and I think game developers I finally beginning to realise this. Gaming is special in that we are the only truely interactive medium, we can pull off things that the film industry just simply cannot (see the Mass Effect series for some good examples of this) in ways we are only now just coming to terms with. Whilst I think the game's industry still has a lot to learn (for the most part human drama is still the domain of film and television industries, although Spec Ops the Line recently made a very valiant effort in that space which I very much recommend). I definately think that the writers are learning, evolving their craft, and we will be much better for it going forward.
If anything you have read here or heard from Lorin last week has you even remotely interested please do not hestitate to pick the game up. Despite the slight problems I have with the shift in tone and the writing, they pale in comparison to all the things this game gets so right. Coming in at $10 (even cheaper as its on sale at the moment), the financial barrier to entry is disproportionate to the point of ludicrousy. If you go in with the right mindset, you will not regret the $8-10 you spend on this game. I thoroughly recommend this game for anyone who is looking for a good story well told.
On the subject of price though, I would also like to recommend the soundtrack, as it is very atmospheric and just beautiful music to listen to if I'm frank. They are all instrumental tracks (mostly piano work) with the exception of one (amazing) track which is used in one of the games more emotionally driven scenes (which was sung by Laura Shigihara, which some of you may know from that quirky Plants VS Zombies song).
Feel free to leave me a comment or shoot me a quick message if you want some clarification on an issue or any questions you may have. Thankyou :)