Last month I wrote about an indie gem ‘Dear Esther’ – a visual story with absolutely no gameplay but my overriding conclusion was that I loved it despite its flaws.
To the Moon is a similar game that I very recently picked up, it’s been on my ‘to play’ list for a while but it was just a few days ago that I eventually got around to booting up its glorious 2D, retro JPRG graphical goodness.
The game makes use of some pretty unsettling technology which allows the two main characters to traverse and alter a person’s memories. John, an old dickhead on his death bed hires them to artificially fulfill his wish of visiting the moon. John’s wife, River, passed away a few years ago and you’ll travel through his memories to get to know them and their story a little better.
I love a well-told story. I love 2D graphics. I love a game that tries something a little different. That touches on subjects that aren’t regularly touched upon in the industry. When I pick up a game like To the Moon, Dear Esther or Gone Home – I’m not so much bothered by the lack of gameplay. A good, well told story is plenty enough for my simple mind and tastes.
So, with those boxes ticked, I expected to love the game. I wanted to love it. But I didn’t.
During the early part of the first act, I made some notes and wrote things like ‘Full of heart’, ‘Funny’, ‘Reverse traversing of Johnny’s memory is a great narrative vehicle’. By the end, these very very good notes felt like a distant memory.
In truth, I interspersed a few slightly more negative notes within those. ‘Rinse-and-repeat gameplay’, ‘Half-arsed puzzles, ‘Over-the-top pop culture references’. I was willing to forgive because the writing was doing a good job of pulling me in. Sharing just enough to keep me guessing, not so little as to frustrate me. But, when a game’s main selling point is its narrative – it has to be at 100% for a huge majority of the time. When that fades, the forgivable negatives become unforgivable. For To the Moon, that downward spiral begins before Act 2 of the game and boy does it fall off fast.
Let’s tackle the game’s biggest problem. Gameplay. So when I said I’m not so bothered about the gameplay in these types of games? It turns out that actually, I kind of am. To The Moon doesn’t know what it is, gameplay elements are tacked on for the sake of it. Forgive me for going back to Dear Esther but as an experience it was much stronger because of its focus. It knew its purpose – to tell a story. To the Moon should share that same focus and conviction but the weak gameplay elements are simply there to say – “yes, this is definitely a video game, folks!” – and as a result, it suffers.
Most of the game’s ‘levels’ consist of you walking around randomly clicking items in the hope that it will trigger a ‘memory link’ which will help drive the plot forward. At the end of said levels, you get to solve some incredibly uninspired puzzles. So uninspired as to make me ask why they’re even there in the first place. Tacked on. I genuinely cared so little that I clicked around and solved all the puzzles, barring the first and maybe second, with no trouble – or thought – whatsoever.
That’s pretty much all the game consists of. Oh, and then you’ll be asked to dodge some zombies.
It’s one of the most out-of-place scenes I can ever remember in, well, anything, ever. It’s moments like this that cheapens the whole effort. The game starts out with a strong focus on comedy – the pop culture quotes feel forced and out-of-place but it’s light-hearted, sarcastic humour makes for a good start. However, by the end, as the mood changes – the comedy quickly becomes tired and as out-of-place as the zombies. The characters stay firmly committed to their schtick despite the increasingly urgent need to finish the job before old John croaks it (he has about a day left when they start).
The game’s concept is great, hell the overall story is great but the execution and story-telling leave a lot to be desired.
The real shame though, is that there are a few moments of greatness – it executes ‘creepiness’ as well as any 2D you’ll play. The story features a couple of really nice moments, which I won’t spoil for you here. It features one of the finest RPG battles I’ve ever witnessed.
With more focus and less of the mood-breaking ‘funnies’ – To the Moon could have been a seriously terrific game.
Nice music though.
A few moments of greatness are let down by a sense that To The Moon doesn't itself understand what it is. Poor gameplay, out-of-place scenes and forced humour can be forgiven if the story-telling is good enough but ultimately To The Moon fails on all points. A great shame because the concept gave us high hopes.
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Funny (to a point)
- Features one of the finest RPG battles I've ever witnessed (think squirrel!)
- Forced comedy
- Out-of-place and mood-breaking scenes
- Doesn't quite know what it is