To the Moon review

By Jeff Mattas, Nov 02, 2011 12:00pm PDT

Indie developer Freebird Games' latest title is a quirky adventure game called To the Moon, which tells the story of two scientists hired to manipulate a dying man's memories in a way that enable him to fulfill one of his life's unrealized wishes. Players take on the roles of scientists--Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts--and must delve deep into their bed-ridden subject Johnny's mind to first discover the meaning of his last wish, and then make it come true.

To the Moon's beautiful tile-based pixel art may first give the impression that the game is of the old-school Japanese role-playing variety. Truth be told, those similarities are primarily cosmetic. To the Moon is most definitely an adventure game, and as with all good adventures, narrative is king.

In each of old Johnny's memories, there is a relic that enables the scientists to travel further into Johnny's past recollections. These relics must be activated by locating and using a number of relevant objects in the given scene. Once the keys to each relic are found, the completion of a sliding tile picture-puzzle transports the doctors to an older memory. These puzzle-like gameplay conceits are present to keep the player involved as an active participant in the story (and in that sense, they work well), but they're not very challenging. Given how much I liked the narrative, f you're looking for a unique and interesting story infused with emotional resonance that just happens to be told in video game form, To the Moon will pleasantly surprise you.

You can probably tell by now that I found the tale the game tells to be extraordinarily compelling. Part of this is due to the high-concept premise of manipulating someone's memories in order to eliminate life's regrets--which would be right at home on the silver screen--but a lot of the game's draw comes from its cast of well-rounded and likable characters, and unraveling the mysteries of their relationships. I'd love to tell you about some of my favorite character arcs and plot points, but doing so would be a disservice to what the game does best: tell a great story.

Despite the somber nature of the game's premise, Freebird's founder Kan Gao has also managed to infuse a great deal of humor into the proceedings that may take some by surprise. The humor is most obvious in the banter between Dr.'s Watts and Rosalene, but it's present throughout. What most impressed me about the writing is how it was able to engage me in the mystery of the story and the relationships of its characters--both of which contain plenty of dramatic opportunities--but that it never took itself so seriously as to forego providing the occasional laugh. The quirkiness and emotional peaks and valleys of To the Moon keep it from feeling heavy-handed, even with its persistent undercurrents of regret and bittersweet melancholy.

On top of crafting a surprisingly deep story that spans an entire lifetime of memories traversed in reverse-chronological order, developer Gao has also composed a completely original soundtrack that compliments the on-screen action fantastically. In fact, I attribute my emotional responses to some of the more touching moments of the game to the music itself, as much as the story. While mostly instrumental, the OST also features some vocal contributions by vocalist Laura Shigihara, known for the song Zombies on My Lawn in the game Plants vs. Zombies. Aurally, To the Moon is a real treat.

To the Moon's story is one of the most memorable I've experienced in a video game in recent memory, and I wholeheartedly recommend that folks looking for a great story check it out. Gao has revealed that the game is the first in a series that will star Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts as they work their dream-saving magic on other (as of yet unannounced) subjects. I'm already looking forward to Freebird Games' next effort.

To the Moon is now available for $11.99 from the developer's website, or there's a one-hour free trial that you can check out, if you're still undecided.

[This To the Moon review is based on a 99% complete PC press-build of the game, furnished by the developer.]

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