For my first review on this site, I thought I would start with one of the emotional games I played in the last year. To The Moon is an indie game by Freebird Games about two people exploring the memories of an old man.
The set up is that the two characters you control, Dr Watts and Dr Rosalene, are paid by those on their death bed to fulfil their dream. This man, Johnny, wants to go to the moon (where the name of the game came from is a mystery). In order to fulfil this wish, they have a machine that allows them to explore and edit people's memories. However, the machine doesn't allow you to access them at will. In a sort of reverse Assassin's Creed, you start at the most recent important memory and travel backwards. The idea is to implant the want to travel to the moon in the mind of the child Johnny, hopefully leading to him to become an astronaut in his mind.
The game is incredibly written. I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to effectively write a story backwards, yet it works. The story focusses on Johnny, while the doctors commentate on the events. This combination of view points is used powerfully. It manages to be reasonably comedic while also delivering some of the saddest and most beautifully written scenes I've personally witnessed, with neither case ever feeling out of place.
The style of the game is generally comedic. A lot of the interaction with objects in the world is quite light hearted or silly, particularly at the beginning. A fair amount of this is due to the interaction between the duo you control, and the commentary they add to events. However the events that are being witnessed tend to be far more sombre, and are often downright depressing. This dichotomy of styles leads to a few situations where the commentary interferes with the mood set by the events. While this commentary reveals certain facets of the characters, I'm not sure this justifies disrupting the atmosphere of the scene. Fortunately most of the time the two gel nicely however, and the overall experience is greatly enhanced by it.
There are two main relationships that are explored in the game. The first one is that between the characters you control. Dr Watts is a fairly relaxed person, who has probably been working this job too long. He often seems to care about things more than he lets on. Dr Rosalene, his partner, is much more professional about her work. Similarly to Dr Watts, she often uses this to disguise how much she cares. While never stated it's clear through their dialogue that they've known each other, and probably worked together, for a long time. This leads to a lot of entertaining banter between the two of them.
The game itself plays somewhere between an interactive novel, a point and click adventure game, and a puzzle game. The mechanism by which you hop to the previous memory involves finding memory orbs in the level, and using them to unlock the memento that links the two memories together. Memory orbs are gained by finding things that important to Johnny's memory of the scene, usually taking the form of items or conversations. For instance, if someone had given him a gift that level it will probably give up an orb. The memento will be an item that exists in both the current memory and the next important memory. This means that most of the game is spent exploring each scene and witnessing the conversations he has with people. When you get to the point where you're ready to travel to the previous, the memento has to be prepared. This involves a small puzzle where you have to make a tiled image show the full picture. You can only flip one row, column or diagonal at a time and not all pieces are the wrong way up. These tend to be well thought out, but I'm not really sure what those sections achieve and make up a tiny proportion of the game.
Almost everything in the game is interacted with by pointing and clicking. This includes movement. It is undeniably horrible. If it wasn't for how well written the game is, I wouldn't have been able to put up with it for long enough to finish the game. It doesn't help that where you have to click to interact with an item isn't necessarily obvious, this can lead to some very annoying situations. For instance, I was attempting to talk to someone in a market stall. Even though the icon for dialogue showed, after clicking on them the doctors decided instead that they really wanted to see the other side of the stall.
The interface is generally fine, the HUD gives you all the information useful for you currently and the menu is functional. A nice touch is that the item descriptions and notes are often amusing. There's one instance where the note for Dr Watts is "village idiot" after he gets himself stuck in a silly situation. If you check the note later he's changed it to something far more flattering. However it does occasionally screw up, for example when action choices don't actually fit on the screen. This never happens in a way that actually disrupts gameplay, but it does make the game feel very unpolished at times.
The aesthetics of To The Moon are for the most part excellent. The music in particular is wonderful, and is matched excellently to the scene it's in. The sprites for important characters are detailed and fit the feel of the game well. It's impressive how expressive the faces of the main characters can be given the entire face is about 3 pixels. I feel at times the designers were more impressed with their sprites than they had any right to be, like one time where they felt the need to do a close up of Dr Rosalene's face. There are also a few stills used throughout the game for some of the most important scenes, and they are beautifully done and don't feel out of place. However, the sprites for other characters and objects are somewhat lacking. Some go as far as looking grainy, and it's very obvious that a lot of sprites are taken from free resources.
One particular issue with the graphics is while it is quite pretty, in a retro kind of way, it isn't always easy to determine what a sprite represents. This can be frustrating, but never to the point of actually getting in the way of the game. One example of this is one of the sprites for what I think is a bed, I should not be unable to tell if the sprite represents a bed. The second, more annoying, problem is that while the game is tile based it isn't clear where tiles end. This can lead to the irritating situation where you try to go one route only to discover that you can't actually pass through a sizeable gap due to where the game thinks the blocking objects are. Paired with the atrocious controls, this makes certain levels actively painful to navigate.
Despite some of the major flaws this game has, I would still recommend To The Moon to everyone. It's wonderfully well written, with a good blend of comedic and emotional sequences. While interacting with it can be frustrating, the story and the music more than make up for the pitfalls elsewhere. This is a game that everyone should experience.