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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (386)

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Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5
The Messenger 3.5/5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 G... 2/5

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To the Moon   PC (Steam) 

Tell Me a Story    4/5 stars

“To the Moon” is an Indie Adventure game created by Freebird Games, a small Canadian development team lead by Kan Gao (who also did most of the work on the game). Unlike most startup Indie developers, Gao and Freebird had been working on their particular breed of game design for 4 years before releasing “To the Moon” in 2011, releasing 3 other titles before finally entering the public zeitgeist with their fourth. 2011 was right around the time my eyes were opened to the new vision of PC gaming brought on by the client-driven ecosystems of Steam and GOG. It was likewise around the time when I discovered that the Indie games movement was injecting a much-needed dose of fresh blood into a Games Industry that had been stagnating under the yolk of “AAA” publishers for the better part of a decade.

Thus, “To the Moon” caught my eye, as I gazed lustfully at the smorgasbord of 16-bit styled games created in RPG Maker that were flooding the PC gaming market. I had yet to sample many (if any) of these wares, and was yet blissfully unaware of their overly broad range of quality. I snagged “To the Moon” during a sale when it was less than $3, but my overall disappointment with the other RPG Maker projects I had played saw me pushing it to the bottom of my backlog. However, Chris did play it fairly soon after release and joined his voice with so many other critics heaping praise upon it. He liked it so much that he decided to force me to acknowledge it during MeltedJoystick’s 2020 Backlog Ablutions challenge. And, ultimately, “To the Moon” deserves most of the praise it receives.

Presentation
“To the Moon” fully embraces the typically lo-fi, retro aesthetic of the average Indie game. It’s made in RPG Maker XP, which isn’t even one of the newer or fuller-featured releases, and was old even at the time Freebird came together as a studio. This is somewhat problematic in that games made in RPG Maker XP only run at 480p and tend to surround the gameplay ‘window’ with copious letterboxing on higher-resolution screens (and 1080p was already standard in 2011). Some of the sprite-work in “To the Moon” is custom, but much of it relies on canned RPG Maker resources, which really prevents the game from developing a unique visual style of its own. It’s admirable what Gao and his team were able to do with such limited resources and capabilities, but the limitations are truly noticeable, and in a mostly-story-driven game like “To the Moon” makes the whole thing feel kind of cheap.

Audiowise, though, “To the Moon” is stellar, featuring fantastic original compositions in the soundtrack. Other sound effects are recognizable as canned RPG Maker assets, but they are used appropriately and effectively. Personally, the fact that the game is unvoiced comes across as a significant let-down, considering that, when all you’ve really got going on is story-telling, having vocal narration and dialog would really help to sell the story being told.

Technically, “To the Moon” is alright. RPG Maker XP games do support Xinput out of the box, but tend to do so in a weird way, with unorthodox button mappings that don’t jibe with what most gamers are used to. “To the Moon” seems to be designed for mouse and typewriter play, with hateful click-to-move movement as default and only typewriter key pop-ups when explaining new controls. “To the Moon” provides a large number of save slots and auto-saves at frequent intervals, meaning that losing progress due to a crash is never an issue… but the game also never crashed on me, so the whole thing is moot.

Story
“To the Moon” is a near-future science fiction story about two doctors who work for the Sigmund Corporation. Their business? Providing comfort to people on their death beds by implanting false memories that help their dying patients get over their greatest regrets.

In the story detailed in “To the Moon,” the case workers from Sigmund Corp. are Dr. Eva Rosalene (an uptight, get-things-done type) and Dr. Neil Watts (a goofball always on the verge of being fired). Their patient is one John Wyles, an aged man who has fallen into a coma since calling for Sigmund Corp’s assistance. Rosalene and Watts use their memory-alteration technology to enter John’s mind and ask him what his final wish is. The answer? To go to the Moon.

What follows is a trip backward through interconnecting points in John’s life, as he remembers them, as the Sigmund doctors endeavor to implant a desire to become an astronaut into the young Johnny. But it turns out that the reason John wants to go to the Moon and the reason he never became an astronaut are deeply intertwined.

In general, “To the Moon” is filled with emotion, drama, and mystery. The plot is well-conceived, excellently-written, and manages to pluck at the heart strings, in spite of the game’s presentational limitations.

However, the story of John’s final wish isn’t the whole of what “To the Moon” has to offer, as there is a larger overarching framework involving the near-future sci-fi setting and the inter-office relationships happening at Sigmund Corp. itself that hint at a deeper, unfolding narrative. And, of course, this deeper, underlying narrative will be explored further in future Freebird games because, as we have learned in the years since “To the Moon’s” original release, the game is part of an episodic series.

Personally, I get frustrated by episodic game releases because, invariably, the episodes either come too far apart – thus losing continuity and punch – or they get canceled altogether, leaving a perpetually-unresolved cliffhanger. So far, “To the Moon” has received one sequel, “Finding Paradise” (which is next up on my playlist) after a 6-year development period. Future sequels are still a complete mystery.

“To the Moon” is also, by itself, an incredibly short experience. It can be completed in around 4 hours, and, as a primarily story-driven experience, the replay value is incredibly low (there’s only one achievement, and it pops just for finishing the game).

Gameplay
It’s an RPG Maker XP game! Surely it must play like a Super Nintendo JAY-ARR-PEE-GEE, right? No. It’s nothing like a SNES RPG, but is more like the trendy hipster subgenre of Adventure game known as the Walking Simulator.

The core gameplay in “To the Moon” consists almost entirely of walking around in small-ish environments, reading dialog boxes, and inspecting environmental objects for clues. These “clues” typically take the form of a note or a colored sphere. These colored spheres are essential in progressing through the game, as collecting 5 of them from a given point in John’s memory of his life is required to move on to a connecting memory further in his personal past.

“To the Moon” is divided into three Acts. In Act 1, moving backward through John’s memory involves collecting 5 spheres, then solving a simple flip-board puzzle. In Acts 2 and 3, though, these puzzles largely disappear, with Act 2 featuring little-to-nothing resembling gameplay and Act 3 featuring a couple of navigational puzzles (with poorly explained controls). The Act 1 puzzles each have a Par score for completing them with the minimum number of moves, and the game keeps track of the total moves to solve all of these puzzles, but I didn’t see anything to indicate that poor performance would be punished or great performance would be rewarded. It’s like these metrics are just ‘there’ for players who want to challenge themselves.

Overall
It’s obvious that Kan Gao and his team at Freebird games have a knack for thoughtful, emotional storytelling. If that’s all you want out of a game, then “To the Moon” is fantastic. However, its bare-bones gameplay and lo-fi presentation are kind of a drag. Still, the unique narrative holds the type of creativity we don’t see too often in any form of media these days, and I’m genuinely interested in seeing how the rest of this episodic series plays out.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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