Review: To The Moon01 Jun 2017 2
Review: To The Moon
Released 10 May 2017
If ever a game deserves to be likened to Marmite, then To The Moon fits the bill perfectly. Not because it is a brown and sticky by-product of the brewing industry, but because folks seem to either love it or hate it. At the time of writing, a quick look at the App Store revealed a bunch of five star rave reviews facing off against a number of one-star loathers, with no one taking the middle ground. What is it about this game that splits opinion so passionately?
The opening scene of To The Moon features John, an old man on his deathbed, who is recalling a lifetime of cherished memories and unfulfilled dreams. Enter stage left two agents, Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, whose job is to ensure that the dreams of the terminally ill come true. It all sounds a bit like a cheesy TV show, but in this instance their patient has a budget-busting dream, namely, to visit the moon. However, John doesn’t actually have to head off into space; all that the agents have to do is convince him that he achieved his dream by manipulating his thoughts. The process raises a few moral/ethical questions, as the agents probe his private thoughts and implant false memories.
To help John think that he has achieved his lofty ambition the agents jump into his head and travel back through his memories, influencing his life at key stages. The player’s role is to guide the agents as they trawl through John’s life. Beginning with his most recent recollections, the pair skip back to various stages of his life. They experience his highs and lows in their efforts to discover motivations for the wish at the very top of John’s bucket list.
To The Moon is a relatively old game, having initially been released on the PC way back in 2011. It was originally created using an off the shelf game development application called RPG Creator, but has been completely updated for touchscreen. Although produced using a role playing development tool, the game is far from a traditional role-playing game. To The Moon is all about the story, actual gameplay being as threadbare as a much-loved stuffed platypus. You travel around the small play area collecting mementoes of John’s life, which are then used to trigger a key memory. Memories are then completed by solving puzzles that sometimes feature origami rabbits. These rabbits are everywhere, they must breed like, well, rabbits. The creator of these paper bunnies is John’s wife, River, whose mysterious illness serves as an integral and intriguing driving force throughout the story.
Unfortunately, the actual gameplay turns out to be a lot less interesting than it sounds. The simple tile-flipping puzzles do not provide much of a challenge, nor do they advance in complexity. In addition, collecting the mementoes usually involves just wandering around and waiting for them to drop into your lap. There are a couple of mini-games thrown into the mix, but they are very basic and only a scant relief from the tedium. The sluggish scrolling, and the need to tap the screen after every few steps to keep the agents moving also chips away at your patience. The maps also have invisible walls and some less than obvious exits, which adds to the frustration factor.
The chemistry between the two doctors works quite well, in a Mulder and Scully kind of way. Eva is both sensible and sensitive, whilst Neil is rather crass and immature. This personality clash leads to loads of back and forth chitchat. This interaction, although a bit hit-and-miss, provides some welcome light relief from the game’s sombre and sometimes downright morbid atmosphere. Thankfully, the game is not afraid to poke fun at itself from time to time, at one point launching into a typical role-playing game battle introduction and at other times acknowledging the rather clichéd storyline.
Graphics are pretty basic and repetitive, the same locations turning up time and time again at different points in John’s life. The small character sprites aren’t really that distinctive, but a neat touch is that incidental bystanders who didn’t have an impact on John’s life are portrayed as mere fuzzy outlines. The basic nature of the graphics, a legacy of the native development system, and the truncated narrative means that it is down to the music to provide the emotive hook. Happily, it does this beautifully, with some heart-tugging and emotive pieces. The melancholy piano themes sweep in on cue to set the mood perfectly. Whilst the tempo escalates at dramatic moments, as Eva and Neil battle against time and each other to complete their mission before John passes on. It works wonderfully and puts me in mind of a soundtrack from a classic Studio Ghibli film; there is even a breathy female singer to accompany the final retrospective scenes.
It is not going to take you long to complete To The Moon, there is no real challenge and replay value is minimal. Gameplay is so slight that it could blow away in a summer’s breeze. There is no sense of increasing challenge, or satisfaction in improving your characters. The only real sense of involvement comes from collecting memories and gradually unravelling John’s past. At least the plot serves as an intriguing narrative trick that should provide the more patient amongst us with enough motivation to get through the dull memento collecting sequences.
As I made my way through the first few scenes I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was just a fuzzy bystander rubbernecking a sick old man’s intimate thoughts. I wasn’t really influencing the flow of proceedings, or experiencing any real sense of satisfaction. At one point a character makes a reference to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, which seems a really apt comparison. To The Moon proudly parades itself, naked of any gameplay finery, yet on some level, it still managed to earn my admiration. There are some genuinely touching moments, but I could never kick the feeling that the game falls rather uncomfortably between two stools. If I want to experience a good story with minimal interaction then I would rather watch a film or curl up with a good book. If I feel like playing a game then I want to experience a much deeper sense of challenge and involvement.
Scoring this one is tough, especially since I have painted myself into a corner with my earlier Marmite comparison. Sensitive souls will be content to chill out and enjoy the story, maybe with a box of tissues close at hand. They will call the game’s detractors soulless wretches who are missing the point. So do we have a touching and emotive exploration of the human condition? Or is it an overly sentimental and mawkish cliché that doesn’t even qualify to be called a game? Personally, I'm certainly not the type of guy who thinks To The Moon is a pointless drivel, but neither am I convinced that it is the best thing since sliced bread - with or without marmite.