"I've been playing video games for almost three decades now, and in that time only three or four video games have genuinely made me tear up while experiencing their storylines. To The Moon is one of them."
Freebird Games may not be the most prolific RPG Maker developer out right now, but they certainly have a loyal cult following. Quintessence – The Blighted Venom is not only one of the best freeware RPG Maker games out there, but it surpasses many commercial RPG Maker games that have been sold for profit. Quintessence has a compelling narrative, a signature visual style for the developer, great music, and loads of atmosphere – the latter being Freebird's trump card. The Mirror Lied, another of their releases, is a half-hour display of eerie atmosphere and one of the strangest (in a good way) games I've played. In any case, Freebird's reputation precedes its first commercial title, To The Moon, and the game goes a little something like this...
What if there were a medical procedure where, on the brink of death in your deathbed, your memories could be altered to include a unfulfilled dream, yearning, or desire you've held your entire life? When you've spent your entire life wondering, "What if?" you could die with that answer? Well, To The Moon reflects upon the unfulfilled dream of a dying old man to go to the moon. He is not entirely sure why this has been such a longstanding fervent desire, but Drs. Neil Watts and Eva Roseline are the people who can make this happen. To do so, the good doctors need to retrace the old man's memories, from his most recent back to his childhood. As they travel through these memories, the doctors need to search for clues as to why he wants to go to the moon and then manipulate the trajectory of his childhood memories so he becomes an astronaut and ultimately goes to the moon.
You know what they say about the best laid plans, of course, and the journey proves anything but routine. The old man's memories provide one of the more heartfelt and compelling narratives I've seen in a video game. As the doctors hunted for fragments of mementos within the memories to piece the old man's story together, I felt like I was right there with them, piecing together a puzzle. These occasionally fragmented memories weave a soulful tale in and of themselves, and the ways that the poignancies in the old man's life affected the doctors was great too, especially with their wildly different personalities. I became just as curious about the doctors as their client and it was great to see their development.
This is a game where simplicity and subtlety often speak the loudest. Who would have thought that a simple jar of pickled olives or a worn platypus plushie would hit me harder than a bombastic dragon or a meteor? This is the kind of story I would expect to read in a novel or see in an art film, so for this atypical video game story to translate so well to a video game format speaks volumes.
Not only do the text and dialogue speak volumes, but the graphics and music bring the vivid aesthetics of the man's memories to life. The game is one of the better-looking RPG Maker games out there, and it has a signature visual style that's unmistakably Freebird, especially in its use of earthy colors. I also like how the memories start out fuzzy like an old flickering television set before the doctors find and unlock the key memento. The details are what make the imagery so poignant, and that is very clear in scenes like the one where an animated female sprite fervently folds a room full of origami rabbits.
The soundtrack consists of piano driven compositions made emotionally stirring through their use of space when layering the other instruments. No piece of music is too busy – each one allows all elements of the game to breathe and to shine. There is also a vocal number by Laura Shigihara in the latter portion of the game that is truly beautiful. Just as the story doesn't need epic bombast to be compelling, the soundtrack doesn't need to be big, brash, and bold to move the listener. I could say more about the soundtrack, but I wouldn't do it justice. You'll just have to hear the music for yourself.
Because this game is driven so heavily by story and presentation, gameplay takes a back seat. Although the game was made using RPG Maker, it is not an RPG, but rather a graphic adventure or perhaps a digital novel. Gameplay consists primarily of exploring environments, finding objects, mild object manipulation, and some casual puzzle solving. There are no battles except for a cute "pseudo-battle" early on in the plot. As far as tried and true point-and-click gameplay goes, it suffers a minor control hiccup. In addition, as an RPG Maker game, mouse movement really isn't that smooth – players would do best to stick with using the keyboard to move and perform tasks.
The game is only about 4-6 hours long, but since when is length a yardstick for quality? Trace Memory was only 4-6 hours long as well, and it was a more satisfying and fulfilling experience than some games boasting 50+ hour play times. Sometimes a game that is short but truly amazing is better than a game that's lengthy but mediocre. To The Moon left me fulfilled, satisfied, and even a little bit tired after the emotional roller coaster it took me on. It was like a satisfying small-plate dish with a ton of flavor.
I've been playing video games for almost three decades now, and in that time, only three or four video games have genuinely made me tear up while experiencing their storylines. To The Moon is one of them. Because To The Moon is part of that small elite list video game to actually make this tough guy cry, it gets an Editor's Choice stamp. I encourage everyone to give To The Moon a shot, because $11.99 is a small price to pay for a priceless video game experience. If you are doubtful, then try one of Freebird games' freeware offerings like Quintessence – The Blighted Venom or The Mirror Lied. You'll be glad you did.