To the Moon
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Strangers appear as faceless spectres...

Occasionally we come across a PC game that impresses us on so many levels, and yet we find it difficult to straight-out recommend. One example is The Path, a trippy horror title we reviewed way back in 2009, which was so sinister and surreal that we still occasionally mull it over - but to play, it was often frustrating and far too oblique for most tastes.

Which brings us to ‘To The Moon’, a new adventure from Freebird Games that bills itself as an RPG/Point ‘n’ Click hybrid. Truth be told, it’s neither of those things, and in fact barely qualifies as a game. However, it’s also one of the most exceptionally original and emotional titles we’ve played in recent memory, with a beautifully told story wrapped snugly in an intriguing and well-polished package.

Where to begin...

You play as Dr Rosalene and Dr Watts, a pair of memory-moulders who fulfil the dying wishes of clients by erasing their regrets, giving them the perfect life they dreamed of just before they draw their last breath. It’s a fascinating concept, which draws on sci-fi yarns of old and more recent fables such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If your life has been a disappointment, what would you give to change it all before you depart this ether?

To The Moon looks like a classic top-down RPG, and plays out with similar controls. It’s possible to point ‘n’ click your way around as you explore the world, but the good doctors often get stuck on scenery this way; instead, we preferred the keyboard controls. These are basic as they come: arrow keys to move, space to interact. Graphics are reminiscent of an old SNES game, but filled with lots of neat touches, such as greyed-out spectres representing faceless strangers.

A game that's not a game

As hinted, To The Moon is not strictly speaking a game. Instead, the emphasis is on characters and story, with you effectively steering the doctors from one piece of narrative to the next. Broken into three acts, the first act is the longest by far, taking around two hours to complete. You’re quickly introduced to the character of Johnny, an old man who decides on his death bed that he wants to visit the moon. The rest of the first act involves travelling back through Johnny’s memories, from old man to young whippersnapper, by finding important objects that link one memory to the next.

The concept a little hard to explain, but the crux is that you’ll be exploring different stages of Johnny’s life, witnessing important moments as you effectively travel back in time. Your interaction at each stage is highly limited - the doctors are merely witnesses, even though they have the power to influence if needed. The repetitive task of finding important objects does get a little tiresome towards the end of this act, but you’ll want to play on because of the characters and the story.

Something in my eye...

To The Moon may not have an Oscar-winning plot, but it’s an intriguing tale told in a smart and original manner. As you hop back through Johnny’s memories, you’ll discover how later events came to be, and we’ll be darned if our heart strings weren’t tugged on a good few times, even if the game does occasionally border on schmaltzy. Thankfully any cheesiness is often quashed by the fantastically realised characters. The conscientious and mild-mannered Dr Rosalene and the ever-tactless Dr Watts are brilliant protagonists, and the doctors’ constant squabbling adds some much-needed humour to what could have been a very dry game. In fact, there are some serious laugh-out-loud moments in To The Moon, including a failed stab at emulating a Japanese RPG, and the hapless attempts to encourage a younger Johnny to become an astronaut.

Between each memory in the first act, you have to complete a basic tile puzzle. It’s the same concept each time: simply flip rows and columns of tiles until all of the tiles are facing the right way up. After you’ve done one or two, the process becomes pretty obvious. Hardened puzzle veterans won’t find any kind of challenge, but at least your brain has a few seconds of exercise between digesting the pieces of plot. It’s just a shame that To The Moon keeps track of your progress, then does nothing with it at the end. There’s also an amusing ‘action’ sequence near the end, but it’ impossible to die and easy to complete.

Short but satisfying

The second and third acts of To The Moon are over in a flash, and you can expect around three hours of gameplay overall. There’s little reason to replay, but the journey is worth taking if you’re a fan of plot-driven games, and the post-credits sequence suggests we’ll see more of the good doctors in the future. Here’s looking forward to another episode of ‘sappy cheese,’ as Dr Watts himself puts it.

To The Moon system requirements

To The Moon has low system requirements thanks to its simple top-down engine, although we couldn’t get it running on our Windows 7 machine. Thankfully our clunky old Windows XP netbook ran it fine. The game comes with a copy of the soundtrack, which is hauntingly beautiful and worth repeated play.

Things get a little cer-razy at times