‘To The Moon’ Review: A Superlative Sci-Fi Tearjerker, Now On Switch
To the Moon looks like a game out of time. Originally created by Freebird Games using the RPG Maker XP toolset-cum-engine, and released on PC in 2011, its pixel-art visuals are vividly reminiscent of Super Nintendo-era role-playing games like Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger. Only, how it plays is nowhere near as slick as those 16-bit classics.
As you play through To the Moon's four-hour story, you see assets repeat regularly, your characters will get caught on parts of the environment, and what you're actually meant to do next isn't always communicated effectively. Sometimes you'll try to speak with an NPC and instead get a description of an item next to them. Walking up stairs can be a chore as you wiggle your avatar - one of two doctors, but more on them in a moment - in a zig-zag pattern because the game doesn't do diagonal movements.
But none of these minor gripes really matter. To the Moon is less about form and more about purpose - and playing absolute havoc with your emotions. Its brand-new Switch port, released on January 16th and (re)made by X.D. Network Inc using Unity rather than RPG Maker, is my first time with the game. And yes, reader, there was a small lump in my throat as the credits rolled.
This is exemplary storytelling in the video gaming medium, where interactivity is always subtle but vital to the experience, and any mechanical frustrations are almost immediately put aside as the next heart-squeezing moment hits. And because the greatest strength of To the Moon is its story, it's hard to truly sell to a newcomer without wandering into spoiler territory. But, I'll try.
Two doctors - we'll call them Eva and Neil, as those are their names - show up to a big mansion on a cliffside, where a character called Johnny is on his deathbed. The doctors work for a company called Sigmund Corp, which specialises in memory alteration. They've been called because Johnny wants to pass on thinking he's achieved something his real life never managed: to go to the Moon.
Cue: a whole lot of diving into and digging through Johnny's actual memories, and finding specific mementos to leap between points in his life, in an attempt to seed the ambition in childhood Johnny to become an astronaut and, yep, go to the Moon.
But there are, let's say, complications. There's River, Johnny's wife. Her presence through his life isn't as black and white as Neil and Eva were initially led to believe. To reveal any more about her role in the story is a big no-can-do, likewise any further details on the mansion, its other inhabitants, Johnny's mother and anyone else that he may or may not be related to.
'To the Moon' is that rare breed of sci-fi story that focuses on people and places, relationships and repercussions, more than futuristic technology.
How the doctors jump from memory to memory involves some very light puzzling - you have to turn panels on an image of the memento in question, to complete a picture, in as few moves as possible. Unlocking each memento, in each scenario, requires the discovery of five other objects of significance. This means there's exploring to do, and the doctors will need to converse with Johnny's memory's version of former friends and peers.
And that's really it for the gameplay. It's almost bewilderingly elemental, back-to-basics of design as a very purposeful feature, so as to let the story shine through like a lighthouse in a midnight sea. And when its plot threads begin to tie together, in its final two acts (of five, in total), you'll be struck by just how smart, how tender, and how accomplished Freebird's work here is.
To the Moon was written by one person, Kan Gao (who also designed the game, and composed its beautiful, piano-led soundtrack), inspired by his own grandfather's final days. And if Charlie Brooker hasn't got in touch with him for some Black Mirror ideas, well, he really should.
Because that's where my mind wanders off to, after finally seeing this game through: to thoughts of how To the Moon would be perfect for a television or motion picture adaptation. It's that rare breed of sci-fi story that focuses on people and places, relationships and repercussions, more than futuristic technology. Ergo: it's more 'San Junipero' than it is 'Crocodile'.
That most of the game takes place in a virtual world constructed from a dying man's fading memories, accessed via high-tech headsets and computer programs, is purely a background element in a fulfilling, affecting experience that will leave most players solemn and silent at its end, but happy, too. Because while To the Moon is definitely a sad game, warm and generous humour runs through it, especially in the interactions between the two doctors.
To the Moon is also available on iOS and Android, PC and Mac, and Linux, with this Switch version marking its overdue debut on console. (Weirdly, at the time of writing, it's been removed from the Nintendo eShop, but hopefully that's a temporary thing.) Basically, if you've got something to play this game on, go and play it. Don't wait for most of a decade like I did. It really is too special to sleep on.
We tested To the Moon using Nintendo Switch code supplied by X.D. Network (XD Inc.). Older versions of the game are available now for platforms listed above. A guide to GAMINGbible's review scores can be found here.
Featured Image Credit: Freebird Games / X.D. Network (XD Inc.)