“Time passes, people move. Like a river’s flow, it never ends. A childish mind will turn to noble ambition. Young love will become deep affection. The clear water’s surface reflects growth…” ~ Sheik
This quote happens to be from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, when the cryptic Sheik teaches Link the melody of the Serenade of Water. As much as I like what she says, it always seemed a bit vague to me, and it never really resonated with me in terms of that particularly game. However, I believe this quote nearly perfectly describes To the Moon, produced by the indie developers at Freebird Games.
What if it were possible to delve back into your memories and alter them so that you could live out any of your unfulfilled lifelong dreams? Such an operation exists in To the Moon, but the problem is, the process alters the mind so much that it causes serious damage to the brain. For this reason, this operation is only possible when the patient is on his deathbed. If you’ve ever played Eternal Sonata or watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the premise of mind alteration and exploration will be quite familiar. In this particular game, you follow two doctors, the serious Eva Rosalene and the sarcastic Neil Watts, as they travel through the main character Johnny’s life memories to grant his dying wish of going to the moon. However, Johnny has no idea why he has such a desire, leaving it up to our duo of doctors to leap backwards in his memories, from adulthood to adolescence, to search for the truth. With each leap through time, mysteries will gradually unravel themselves, love will be lost and gained, and a ubiquitous platypus will reappear again and again.
The game takes on a visual novel style, with the story driven mostly by text, but unlike many visual novels, To the Moon allows you to take control of the doctors and actually walk around while interacting with the surroundings. The story is divided up into three main Acts, with the 1st Act being devoted to the exposition and exploration of Johnny’s memories. In this Act, the doctors experience his memories as he remembers them and collect items called “memory links.” These are used to power important items, “mementos,” which allow the doctors to jump further back into Johnny’s memories. With this process comes the only non-reading mechanic in the game, which are little puzzles that require you to flip panels so that they all face upwards. Personally, I found these puzzles to be slightly superfluous and slowed the pace of the game too much. I would have been personally fine with a full-on visual novel type experience, but for those who are not too into the genre, I’m sure the puzzles add a welcome level of interaction. The puzzles also stretch out the length of the game a bit, which clocks in at about 4 hours of gameplay.
The entire game is made on RPG Maker XP, giving off the aesthetic feel of a 16-bit SNES JRPG, which I personally like. However, by today’s standards, the game can look a bit dated to some, and my big graphical complaint is that it’s difficult to tell what is what at times. In terms of the environment, a lot of the plant textures tend to blend together, and for the character sprites, the details of age can sometimes be lost. Minor concerns aside, a serious amount of detail was put into each environment, and the beautiful flora and the scurrying fauna add a breath of life to the game.
Each revelation in the story brings with it a loop in the emotional roller coaster, and much of this is only possible through the use of the game’s amazing soundtrack, composed by the game’s creator Kan Gao. Music plays a pivotal role in the story, as our main character composes a piece for his wife River and entitles it “For River.” The piece appropriately features an ostinato that persists throughout the piece, expressing the eternality of memories and perhaps even love – whether we realize it or not. A song, entitled “Everything’s Alright,” was written for the game and was performed by Laura Shigihara (Plants vs. Zombies). This song and its variations serve as a musical representation of John and River’s relationship.
I really love the narrative style employed in To the Moon. You watch the characters grow younger, experiencing the same things they did, and with each revelation, you begin to realize why things ended up the way they did. While I feel that the dialogue was spread a little thin at times, parly due to the nature of River’s character, the delivery of the lines is very well done overall. However, the doctor duo, Eva and Neil, really steal the show with their great dialogue and hilarious character dynamic. Their inclusion prevents the game from becoming too emotionally overbearing and maudlin. Also, I’ve never met a fictional character that more resembles my personality than Neil Watts, which is a huge plus for me.
- The limitation of sprites is sometimes evident, and I think the inclusion of character portraits could have alleviated this issue.
- The dialogue from the characters, excluding Eva and Neil, can be lacking at times.
- The puzzles slow the pacing of the plot, especially if you’re bad at them like me.
- Unique premise and narrative style. Masterfully combines elements of time-travel, romance, and comedy.
- A beautiful story about love, ambitions, and the significance of lighthouses.
- Amazing, emotive soundtrack that really drives the story forward. Download available on Freebird’s website for $5, and 50% of proceeds go to autism research!
- The game takes an artistic approach to storytelling, utilizing an old-school style sprite engine and essentially reducing it to its purest form.