- A wonderful story that works well in this medium
- Sharp writing that holds up, even when making specific cultural references
- The soundtrack is simple, but often beautiful and atmospheric
- The 16-bit aesthetic never gets old, no matter when or where it pops up
- Has the perfect length and subject matter to make it easy to recommend to just about anyone
- Emotional moments are always earned and completely devastating
- 1st playthrough: technical bugs everywhere, from crashes to sticky controls, to weird buzzing noises on the soundtrack
- 2nd playthrough: much smoother, yet some problems persist
- Objects meant to give a faux-3D effect like staircases don't play nicely in the environment
- Either you get this game's humor and references or you won't
To the Moon is worth playing no matter what platform you play on. Its emotional resonance is no joke; it makes people cry. Just don't let any technical issues you come across get you down.
A PATCHY PORT
I ended up playing To the Moon twice. While I wish I could say it was due to the walloping emotional experience provided by the game’s story, that would be lying. Instead, it happened because I was one of a select few Switch owners who hit a brick wall near the end, where the game would crash and there was nothing to be done. There were a host of other issues I had during this first playthrough as well, but by the time publisher X.D. Network fixed the crash a couple weeks later, they also fixed a majority of those issues. To see what had changed, I blew through the game again. This playthrough ended up feeling so different, I was left wondering if I should review my initial experience, or focus on the game as I last played it. This is an attempt to do both.
Some context is in order: To the Moon is a story-focused adventure game with a 16-bit RPG aesthetic. It initially released on the PC in 2011 using RPG Maker, and through the years has been ported to phones and remade in the Unity engine. It’s now on Switch – the first time it’s come to consoles. The game follows two doctors, Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene, who’re contracted to dive into the memories of a dying client to fulfill his dream of going to the moon. Though he won’t be going in real life, the trick is to make him believe he did.
What follows is a story that plays in reverse, kind of like a grand meeting between the Christopher Nolan movies Inception and Memento, but on a smaller scale. While To the Moon is light on traditional gameplay, it’s at its best when it uses the video game medium as an effective way to tell jokes and convey information. The game is set in the near future, but it’s hard to say exactly when. Through repeated references to things like the Animorphs series, and a sudden dive into Whack-a-Mole though, the game paints a picture of this future in ways traditional passive media cannot. In its lighter moments, it’ll even indulge in some RPG tropes, before quickly tossing them aside as a gag. Some of the references require a sense of what the original creator, Kan Gao, was into when he made the game, but it’s still easy to grasp without knowing much.
To the Moon‘s story is not light. The subject matter can be depressing, and its emotional impact is severe. I cried several times. However, the gameplay experience is simple enough that people can pick it up and complete it in a day. From its digestibility to its surprising twists, it’s an almost perfect package. The only area where this game falters is in its tech. Maybe the problem lies in its roots as an RPG Maker game, or perhaps some of it is due to the nature of Unity, but even after all the patches (up to Ver. 1.4), there were still issues that made the game slightly more fun to take in conceptually, than control myself.
One of the first things I noticed in my initial playthrough were the quirky issues with movement. Characters move as if on invisible grids and only in the four cardinal directions, no diagonals. If you’re trying to interact with something against a wall and you’re slightly off, you have to walk in a full circle and reorient the character instead of moving slightly one way. This isn’t unheard of in games, but it gets more frustrating when the controls stick and a character starts walking in a completely different direction without being told to. I sometimes fought hard against the controls to get my character moving the right way, and sometimes just pressing A would solve the problem, but no solution was foolproof. This was fixed by the time of my second playthrough, where it was replaced by the occasional moment where a character would stop moving randomly even though I was still pressing a direction.
After testing both the control stick and d-pad across the Joy-Cons and the Switch Pro Controller, I was surprised to find that the control stick always worked better. It makes the grid-based movement feel wonky, but whenever I used the d-pad, I kept running into more and more bugs. This makes To the Moon‘s Switch optimization feel undercooked, like the PC version is begging to be released from its cage. It became more obvious once I realized that selecting menu options with the Switch’s touch screen was easier than traditional sticks and buttons – it’s much closer to mimicking the use of a mouse.
These control issues aside, To the Moon gave me something new to enjoy around every corner. The core of this story is a journey of discovery; a mystery slowly pulled back by layers. Nothing is what it seems, and that applies to the graphics and music, too. Early on the game introduces an in-universe piano piece called “To the Moon” and allows it to become a leitmotif for the experience, changing in tone and instrumentation in subtle ways for the maximum emotional impact. Similarly, players might be lulled into thinking that the in-engine cutscenes are all they’ll see, but every once in a while, there’ll be a cutaway to a pixelated image or close-up that’s designed to underscore a particular moment. These are simple tricks that a ton of other games have used for decades, but their appearance here is more poignant than most. Likely due to the game’s overall brevity and impact.
When it comes to remakes like these, grading them is a little tricky. As an experience, To the Moon is a must-play. It’s kind of like reading a classic novella, like A Christmas Carol or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It can be beaten in a day, but it’s been stuck in my head ever since. But it’s all a question of where you feel most comfortable having that experience. I can’t speak to the PC or mobile versions, but there are three distinct ways to play this title. This is a story that could’ve only been told as a video game, and it’s so personal and emotional, it’s amazing to think that one person created most of it. This port isn’t the best, but To the Moon still shows why indie games can be powerful creatures. It hits in ways most big-budget games don’t.
Platform: Switch| Publisher: X.D. Network | Developer: Freebird Games
Release Date: 1/16/2020 | Rating: E for Everyone
This review was conducted using an original model Switch, both docked and undocked, using a digital copy of To the Moon I purchased from the Nintendo eShop. It is also available on PC and mobile phones. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter. You can also reach me via email at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com. For a look at what else I’ve published on Tilting Windmill Studios, you can look here.