Review: To the Moon Engages Without Heavy Action
At a Glance
To the Moon
Despite its sobering lack of heavy action, To the Moon is a thought-provoking experience that'll keep you engaged from beginning to end.
To the Moon isn't a game that will have you glued to your seat. It doesn't have the pacing and action of a first-person shooter, it doesn't have the stylized cut-scenes of a blockbuster adventure title, and it doesn't see you through the mind-intensive challenges of a Layton-style puzzler. As an indie title, it doesn't have the fame and recognition of JRPGs like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, although it does try to emulate the 16-bit charm of RPGs from the SNES generation.
What To the Moon does have is an excellent story that will take you on a fantastic voyage into the memories of a dying man. In its most basic form, the game is one developer's exploration in storytelling using a video game as the medium. Ken Gao's latest entry in the Freebird Games' library is an engrossing point-and-click adventure, and one that's successful at weaving silver screen allusions, video game references, and affectionate nods to literature into a charming and engaging plot, ripe with themes -- dreams, love, romance, commitment, promises kept, regret, and death -- that will resonate with you long after the game's conclusion.
I was captivated as I moved the story along with a click of my mouse, leading two doctors through a particularly challenging day at work. Dr. Eva Rosalind and Dr. Neil Watts are assigned to Johnny, a widowed man living through his final moments, tasked with infiltrating his mind and replacing existing memories with artificial ones, thus granting their client a realistic illusion and providing him the ability to see out his dying wish, a trip to the moon.
The subject is delicate, but from start to finish, the game's story twists and turns between important moments in Johnny's life and the doctors finding pathways into his earlier memories. Johnny's memories serve as the setting, specifically his less-than-perfect relationship to his late wife River, and this relationship explores a bevy of potent themes. Meanwhile, Eva and Neil's contract to their client serves as the plot-driving device, poking and prodding through Johnny's grey matter, digging deeper with special tokens called mementos in order to implant the unyielding desire to become an astronaut.
Taking note from films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and Inception, To the Moon uses science fiction to craft an interesting story, and stellar character dialogue to bring the story to life. Looking closely at Eva and Neil, we see that they play the perfect odd couple, almost as if they were brother and sister, and this relationship provides a constant back-and-forth that helps lighten up even the heaviest in-game scenarios, and is especially helpful in balancing the dramatic tone that fills Johnny's later years. Eva is always professional, acting as the serious counterweight to Neil's constant judgments, which provide the necessary light-hearted humor to tip the story's scale away from being overly sentimental. The characters are what help To the Moon feel like a relatable story, despite the fictional artificial memory procedure. It was as if I had met all the characters before as people in my own life. They made the story feel real.
As I immersed myself in the story, I also welcomed its constant references to classic RPGs, iconic moments in video games, and the tween sci-fi book franchise Animorphs, a series I devoured like candy during middle school. I was reminded of decorating the walls of my room with everything I ever thought was cool and fresh and exciting, and it's impossible to play through To the Moon without feeling like it does the exact same thing, only the walls are instead the ambiance inside a video game. This presents itself as an encouraging statement from the writer himself, as if he's saying, "I love video games, too!" with every pixel in the game's 16-bit graphics. It feels like a true labor of love, but it never comes across as pretentious.
What's more, the game's beautifully composed original soundtrack is present at every shift in tone to help keep you engaged in the story. From the melody that greets you in the game's opening moments to the thoughtful, now familiar notes that bring the story to its conclusion, there is not a sound that feels out of place throughout the entire experience.
To the Moon is a rare treat in this current crop of game releases. It doesn't break new ground with its storytelling, and it won't drop jaws with its unfolding action, but that's exactly what makes it a different kind of game. It calls for a moment of your time, and your undivided attention. It involves a lot of reading and a very little strategy. It explores a human concept -- the dying wish -- and invites you to come along. It's simple, poignant, and full of heart.