To The Moon was far from a perfect game. Its disjointed pacing, rudimentary game mechanics and inability to deliver a compelling story until its final chapter are all things that I’ve dropped lesser games for. However those final moments of the game are where it finally finds its feet, bringing forth an emotional ending that I certainly wasn’t prepared for. That was enough to make it my game of the year for 2012, edging out many other worthy contenders. Since then I’ve wondered if the developer would ever return to this universe or would simply let To The Moon stand alone. Had it not been for the joke trailer that did the rounds a while back I may never have known that Finding Paradise was Freebird Games’ second instalment in the series and was due out before the end of the year. Just like last time however Finding Paradise stumbles its way through most of the story before finally finding its feet right at the end.
The two doctors (Dr Watts and Dr Rosaline) make a return in Finding Paradise however their no longer from “The Agency”, it’s now Sigmund Corporation. Their mission however is the same: to grant a dying patient’s last wishes in the form of memory manipulation. This client is different however, there’s no one thing they want. Instead their only request is that they make them happy, ensuring that they don’t change anything relating to his family. What starts out as a routine dig into the patient’s memories soon takes a strange twist and the two doctors struggle to find out just what exactly it is that will make their patient’s last moments everything they wished for.
Finding Paradise retains the same look and feel of its predecessor with the typical trappings of a RPG Maker based game. The colour palette is a lot more vibrant and bright this time around however which initially led me to think that the graphics were much higher fidelity than they previously were. Looking back over my screenshots however this is definitely not the case. Yet again the soundtrack to Finding Paradise is exceptional with the title track setting the scene beautifully for what is to come. The credit song is also a hauntingly beautiful track, one that would stand well on its own without the game to back it up. Overall the game manages to feel new but familiar which is certain to delight fans of Freebird’s games.
The overall game structure hasn’t changed at all with it following the same puzzle structure as its predecessor did. Each scene is essentially a small puzzle, requiring you to track down memory orbs which you then use to unlock a memento in order to travel through the patient’s memories. To unlock the memento you then have to complete a puzzle which now takes the form of a Bejewled-esque matching game with a number of ancillary mechanics to give you a little bit of a challenge. Most of them however won’t take you very long to solve, indeed even the ones that appear challenging typically only require a few moves to complete. Just like before however these are not the focus of the game and simply serve as organic progression blockers between the individual scenes.
Despite the game’s simplicity and ostensibly similar construction to its predecessor there’s a few areas which are lacking in polish. Some of the mechanics don’t trigger properly, either requiring a restart of the game or loading up of a checkpoint in order to get them working as expected. There’s been a few patches since launch day so some of the more glaring issues have been worked out but there’s still a few teething issues as at time of writing. I’m sure these will be addressed as time goes on but it’s one thing I don’t remember experiencing in its predecessor. These small issues don’t detract much from the game itself however, the story does a good enough job of that.
Just like its predecessor Finding Paradise meanders along during the early events of the story, spending a lot of time building up the backstory to a lot of the characters. The game also spends far, far too much time on throwing out red herrings and building up the greater world outside of the main story, ostensibly setting it up for a sequel with a much grander vision than the previous two games had. Whilst I’m all for developers building out a bigger world that a small story can exist in Finding Paradise goes out of its way to spend a lot of time on doing this long before its revealed what its ultimate intentions are for doing so. This means that the first 2 hours or so of game play are largely irrelevant to the core narrative as the core of the story doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The developers, who cheekily note on their website that they’re “Ruining sentimental moments, one badly timed joke after another”, manage to do that with surgical timing for about 75% of the games play time. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of levity in games like this, indeed sometimes it’s necessary to save you from being emotionally drained with topics like this, however there were several key moments that were utterly ruined by sequences that added absolutely nothing to the story, world or the characters themselves. At this point I understand that this is the developer’s style and is done deliberately but that doesn’t mean it’s a good way to tell a story like this. If there’s one bit of advice I can give them it’s this: don’t sacrifice the small emotional climaxes for a laugh. Those small moments will mean so much more if they’re not devastated by a juvenile joke the second after they’re told.
However, right at the end, is where Finding Paradise begins to find its legs. As you begin to discover the core of what the patient’s last wishes are the revelations start to come thick and fast. The final moments are, just like they were in To The Moon, incredibly bitter-sweet and are sure to bring a few tears forth for those whose hearts aren’t made of stone. Finding Paradise does lose a bit of cred for loudly screaming about the potential for a sequel right at the end but all shall be forgiven if they can take some lessons learned from their last few games to heart and build it into something truly sensational (and free of emotional moments ruined by jokes).
Finding Paradise keeps the same formula of what made To The Moon great and, unfortunately, many of the things that should have been left behind. The visual style and accompanying soundtrack are both stand out items of the game, each of them contributing greatly to the telling of the main narrative. The mechanics are largely the same with the new puzzle mechanic being a nice touch. However the disjointed pacing, sacrificing the story’s key moments for the sake of a joke and the attention given to building out the world for an impending sequel are missteps that Freebird Games should not look to repeat in future games. The ultimate conclusion does save the game from itself however but that doesn’t mean that the developers should simply look to repeat this yet again. Finding Paradise might not reach the same heights as its predecessor but it still managed to evoke the same bittersweet feelings that brought this old reviewer to tears.
Finding Paradise is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The renaissance that pixel-art styled games are undergoing currently, mostly thanks to the indie development scene, has produced some pretty spectacular works. Just last year I was introduced to Gemini Rue, a game that captured my primarily because of the nostalgia aspect. Of course the game stood alone in terms of game play and story, enough so that playing it didn’t feel like I was simply taking a trip down memory lane. It seems Wadjet Eye has a thing for pixel art styled games and late last year I was sent an email with a trailer for an upcoming game, To The Moon, from one of their partner developers Freebird Games. I’ll be honest when I first saw it I wasn’t particularly interested in playing it but after a strong recommendation from a friend (and watching the trailer) I thought it was worth a shot, even if it was just for the review.
You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two employees from a company simply called “The Agency” that specializes in memory altering technologies. This technology can be used to change events that happened in a person’s past which then allows them to alter the course of history within the patients mind. Due to the way this works it can only be performed on patients who a near death with the idea that they could have their memories altered to what they wanted and, upon awaking for the last time, enjoy that moment of fulfilment they longed for in life. Shortly after they would pass away. To The Moon follows a story of one patient named Johnny and his wish to journey to the moon.
To The Moon features some gorgeous pixel art scenes paying homage to the many games that used a similar style decades ago. Like Gemini Rue before it each of the scenes does an amazing job at evoking a certain atmosphere, something that plays a critical role in developing the characters. This goes hand in hand with the original sound track that was composed specifically for To The Moon and the combination elevates this simple pixel art adventure well above its expected station.
Like many games of its era To The Moon is primarily driven through character interactions that take place in the form of bite sized chunks of text that appear on screen. Initially the story works in reverse chronological order as you step back through Johnny’s memories in order to unlock his past and plant the idea of him going to the moon. It’s not a new plot mechanic but it was definitely an effective one, since all the characters can allude to the upcoming back story without it being hacky or cumbersome. Indeed the storytelling of To The Moon is what makes this game so compelling and every thing else in it is just ancillary to this purpose.
The game play of To The Moon is very simplistic, verging on the edge of being non-existent. This isn’t a bad thing, especially considering how good next-to-nothing game play games like Heavy Rain have been, just that if you’re the kind of person that enjoys the game play more than the story then To The Moon doesn’t have a lot to offer you. Indeed going into this I was worried that it was going to be another “combine this item with that item and use it there” kind of games, where most of the play time comes from constant iteration instead of enjoyable game play, but thankfully it’s nothing like that.
Between the dialogue scenes you’ll be put into control of one of the two doctors and it’s then your job to find a way back to another memory. This is done by finding a memento in the scene that links the current memory to one in the past. Once you’ve found that you then need to find memory links in order to unlock it. These usually take familiar forms, something which Dr. Watts remarks on during one of the scenes, but it’s basically a game of find the item on the screen. There are some puzzles that mix this up a little bit by throwing in dialogue options and asking you to type things but there’s not many of them, so the core game mechanic is pretty consistent throughout To The Moon.
After unlocking the memento you’ll have to prepare it in order to be able to jump back to another memory. This takes the form of a flip puzzle that you see above. If there’s anything of a game score to compare with your friends this is the only place you’ll find it as each puzzle has an “ideal” number of moves to solve it and there’s a running total of how you went at the bottom. Again these aren’t particularly hard with the most complicated puzzle still only requiring a single digits worth of moves so they’re more there to be a break from the motonity of the dialogue and the find the clue core game mechanics.
At the start I found it somewhat difficult to get into the story of To The Moon. The main characters, the two doctors, function as both the main protagonists in the story as well as being the comic relief. The comic relief sections felt boring and uninspired to me and at the start that’s what constitutes most of the story. After the first couple hours though its easy to put them aside in favour of the main story and on my second session I was instantly hooked back in. After a while though the story started to peter out a bit, with there being no solid plot developments for an hour or more. It was at this point that I got really worried and I got that horrible feeling in the back of my head that I was only playing this game all the way to the end for the review.
Indeed if there is one criticism I’ll level at To The Moon it is the disjointed pacing . There are some scenes that progress the story as much as 4 other scenes do which is what lead to me almost losing all interest in the game from about the half way to three quarters through mark. Whilst I don’t believe there are any excess scenes, indeed the story’s multiple plot lines do wrap up well, tying together some of the more dull scenes instead of having to go through the whole find the clues, unlocking the memento, do the puzzle routine could go a long way to ensure the balance between plot progression and player engagement is kept.
Having said that though it speaks volumes for a game that can turn from a boring slog to a heart arching drama almost at the drop of the hat. I can vividly remember sitting there, verging on the edge of giving up on the game when a couple key plot points were revealed to me. It was at that point that something happened to me that hadn’t happened with a game for a long time: I started crying. Not your typical single tear man cry, I lost it completely. I can’t say what it was that did it (to do so would ruin it and also render me an emotional wreck for the next hour, seriously) but suffice to say that once I had completed it I felt compelled to go and be manly for the next couple hours in order to recover. Working out the tears seemed to do the trick.
And that’s the reason why To The Moon is such an incredible story. Sure the game mechanics are simplistic and the pacing is troublesome but anything that can make me care about the characters deeply enough to bring me to tears at the end of it deserves every accolade that has been heaped on it. It shows that games as a story telling medium, no matter their game play or graphics, are joining the ranks of the traditional mediums. To The Moon is just another great example of a story transcending its medium, one that is a must play for anyone seeking a deep and engrossing drama.
To The Moon is available on PC right now for $12. Game was completed with around 5 hours total play time.