Scroll down to watch the video version of this review!
People talk about To The Moon in an almost hushed whisper. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to who has played it not only loves it, but they are so careful not to give anything away so as not to spoil the sacred experience. It even placed as one of our best games of the decade, an impressive feat for a tiny indie game that’s almost 10 years old. I’ll admit that all the talk made me a little afraid to approach To The Moon; how could anything be that good? Well, I finally fired the game up a few weeks ago on my PC and discovered that yes, it actually is that good.
Finally, To The Moon is on home consoles. And it’s on the Switch, no less, making it even more enticing with its portability and touchscreen functionality. It sports updated graphics and UI systems with the narrative otherwise entirely intact. At first blush, the Switch seems like an excellent place to play To The Moon. Regrettably, the transition to consoles has not been entirely smooth, and you’re likely better off playing the PC or mobile versions if possible.
The Switch version of To The Moon is built on the same Unity engine as the mobile versions. This iteration has been billed as an “HD” upgrade to the PC version, which means the game looks sharper and features many “upgrades” to the UI and text boxes. Other new features include a logbook that tracks the items you’ve collected, different events throughout the game, and causes bubbles to pop up when you’re close to items important to your progression. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these are actually upgrades. The transition to the Unity engine introduces load times as you move from room to room, slowing the experience considerably. The UI is a little clunky and unintuitive, and it took me a while to get used to it. The new text boxes lose a lot of charm from the original sepia colored ones. While most of the flavor of the original graphical presentation is still here, the smoothing of the graphics causes some small details to be lost in the background, and the sprites are less expressive as a result. It’s not a huge issue on either front, but some of the game’s nuance is lost in translation.
While these issues aren’t deal-breakers for the port, the controls nearly are. The original PC version mostly worked via point and click, asking your characters to move and interact with the environment by clicking on locations and items. You also had the option to move the character with the directional keys. On the Switch, the way to move the character is either to tap the Switch screen or to use the D-Pad. Tapping the screen works well if you’re playing in handheld, but if you’re playing docked or don’t like touching your screen, the D-Pad is the only option, which just doesn’t work well. Characters frequently moved without input, and the controls lagged even when they did function. In a game where it’s important to stand in just the right spot to interact with the environment, the controls sometimes make it nearly unplayable. My sincere hope is that Freebird patches the game to fix the controls, because as they are now, they easily make this the worst version of this otherwise fabulous game.
Luckily, the rest of the experience is untouched in this version, and if you’ve played To The Moon, you know that’s a good thing. The story, dialogue, and characters are the same. The narrative follows two doctors, Dr. Rosalene and Dr. Watts, who alter people’s memories in their final moments and have been contracted to help Johnny achieve his dream of going To The Moon. Throughout most of the game, you control the two doctors as they go backward through Johnny’s memories to help plant the seeds to adjust the course of Johnny’s life, if only in his memory.
Outside of some simple puzzle sequences, there really isn’t much gameplay, so the story has to carry the day. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it tells perhaps the most nuanced love story I’ve encountered in video games. Love is often hard, it is often confusing, and it’s sometimes incredibly painful. But in those bleak moments some of the greatest acts of love are possible. Starting at the end of Johnny’s life and working backward is a brilliant narrative technique, because it allows us to see the difficulties Johnny experiences because of who he loves. But it also allows us to see how tiny moments of grace resonate through the rest of his life, and are what really defined it. If that all sounds a little maudlin, that’s my fault; Kan Gao, the writer and developer of To The Moon, steers away from sentimentality by keeping his narrative grounded in the small details of his characters’ lives, and the game is all the more moving for it. The delightfully witty character interactions also add a dose of levity without damaging the tone of the narrative. To The Moon is a stunning achievement in storytelling, and one I won’t soon forget.
Supplementing the outstanding narrative is an equally impressive soundtrack. At the beginning of the game, the screen flashes a note saying that To The Moon is best experienced with headphones on. Yes, yes it is. Driven mostly by hauntingly melodic piano tracks, the music achieves the same thing the narrative does: beauty in simplicity. Themes are subtly remixed throughout, always matching and adding layers of emotion to an already heartfelt narrative.
I know I haven’t talked much about the gameplay at this point, because there simply isn’t much of it, but what’s here does effectively underline the thematic concerns of the game. In each memory you’re asked to find different items to help you move on to the next memory. Once you’ve found those items, you use them to break the seal on the next memory, then complete a fairly simple puzzle. I’m sure a number of people will find the lack of gameplay frustrating, but I like that Gao leaned into what he does well: music and storytelling. Both of those things more than make up for the paucity of gameplay mechanics in To The Moon.
To The Moon absolutely lives up to the hype, but it’s approachable as well. Despite its reputation, it has a surprisingly simple narrative, filled with amusing and relatable characters. Don’t let that fool you, though: it’s an incredible game that caused me to rethink different moments of my own life and (more than a few times) almost moved me to tears. The problems with the Switch port, even the glitchy controls, only dull an otherwise overwhelming emotional experience, rather than mar it.