Imagine sitting on your deathbed, hopefully many years from now. Imagine remembering all of the joys of your life, all of the regrets, but especially the regrets. You always told yourself you’d do this one thing, fulfill this one dream, but there always seemed to be something in the way: family obligations, work, spending time with friends… but now you are out of time.
What if, for a fee, on your deathbed your memories could be altered so that, in your own dying mind, that dream had been fulfilled?
This is just the very tip of the iceberg for To The Moon, which I’m going to come out and say right up front is an absolute game changer for video game storytelling. Never before has the bar been raised so high.
You control Dr. Eva Roseline and Dr. Neil Watts, who provide the memory altering service described above. They have been assigned to a new case, an old man named Johnny who has built his home near a lighthouse. Johnny only has one or two days left to live, and has always wanted to go to the moon for reasons he can no longer remember. Dr. Eva and Dr. Neil have been contracted to make that happen in Johnny’s own memories so that he can die believing he fulfilled this dream.
The story is difficult to discuss without spoilers. But I’ll just say simply that if you are a person who cares about storytelling in video games, this game is required playing. Absolutely required. I am writing this review the morning after finishing this game, and my opinion may be influenced by the quick turnaround time, but right now I am pretty convinced that this is the best story I’ve ever seen in a video game. Ever. The dialogue is pitch perfect. Dr. Eva and Dr. Neil have the witty banter of a pair that has worked together for a long time, and hit all of the right notes providing the humor to break up an often a somber tale. The story of Johnny and his wife River unfolds with many twists and turns, some of it bittersweet, some of it absolutely soaring. But it isn’t all just humor mixed with sadness. There is joy – unabated joy in this game, the type of joy that makes a grown man like me cry in front of his computer. There is the type of wonder triggered by this game that only the best books and movies can provide, the types of things that make you look at life just a little bit differently for awhile, wondering how you ever took for granted how amazing it is to be alive, how amazing it is to exist. This game did that for me.
Aesthetically, the game reminded me immediately of Chrono Trigger. The graphics are not state of the art, but they are very beautifully done. My score reflects the fact that there are certainly games out there that look much more realistic, but these graphics serve the story well by never taking us out of the tale.
And the music – my goodness the music. This is the best soundtrack I’ve personally heard all year. Filled with wonderful piano melodies, the individual tracks shine on their own, but the different themes recur at choice moments in the story just like you’d expect of the best movies. Laura Shigihara of “Zombie On Your Lawn” fame from Plants vs. Zombies lends her considerable skill to the soundtrack, as well as her haunting voice in a candidate for video game song of the year in this author’s opinion. I can only hope she becomes better known for To The Moon after this performance. You’ll want to hear the tracks again and again, reminding you of the themes and choice moments in the game.
The game may look like Chrono Trigger, but it is decidedly not a traditional RPG. It is definitely more adventure game than anything else, as the doctors need to find various “memory triggers” inside Johnny’s memories in order to move backwards from his most recent memories to his earliest. You earn triggers by exploring and interacting with various things inside Johnny’s memories, but more of a gimmick to pull you through the story than it is pixel hunt. There is also a tile flipping game you’ll need to play several times when “priming” certain memories for jumping back. None of this gets in the way of the story at all and actually does play a very key element in keeping you involved. But anybody who needs Dark Souls levels of involvement will probably find themselves bored and annoyed by some of these sequences. Control is also a little dicey at times, and I found it a lot easier to move around with the keyboard instead of the mouse wherever possible as clicking repeatedly where you want go gets tiresome.
Against the scope of what has been accomplished here however, these are minor complaints. The game has been compared to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, Memento and of course Chrono Trigger, but what comes out of these influences is something amazing and utterly unique. Those with patience will find 4-5 hours of storytelling that will entrance and move all but the most hard hearted of gamers, and will come out of the experience with many things to think about. For this writer, the chill in the air this morning was a little bit crisper, the sun a little brighter, and his sleeping wife a little more mysterious and beautiful thanks to this game. If that isn’t worth $11.99, I’m not sure what is.