Appearances can be deceiving, is one of those phrases we learn as children. We learn it before we know what deceit is, before we really grasp the why of appearances beyond the most basic of costuming. And it's one of those lessons that we often strive to take to heart, but all too often fail.

When the review code and trailer came down for To The Moon, I took one glance at it and expected something not unlike what I'd have made if I'd gotten deep into game design as a teen instead of a screenwriting phase. Something built in RPG Maker to be a wacky spoof of classic JRPGs, full of snark and references and roughly hewn sight-gags.

What I got, when I sat down to play it...Was not that.

It was not that at all.

Premise

To The Moon does that thing that sci-fi can do, where it uses a fairly wild concept to wrap around a deeply core idea. That core idea here, is one of regret.

Your protagonists are here at this cliff side house, where a man faces the natural end of his life. A life full of choices he wishes he'd made, things he wishes he'd changed. And your characters work for a for-profit memory alteration firm. The idea is simple and insane, all at once: You're going to go into his mind, you're going to work through his past, and you're going to set everything up so he remembers living the life he wishes he did. And thus, he can die happy.

Yeah.

Not exactly the late-2000s meme machine I came in expecting.

Gameplay

Though To The Moon is indeed clearly made in RPG Maker, it would be inaccurate to call it an RPG. After all, the sort of 16-bit styled JRPG that RPG Maker is honed for making are heavily defined by their combat engines, and To The Moon rather notably lacks any sort of combat encounters in its setup at all.

It would also be somewhat incorrect to label this an adventure game. The way we use that phrase colloquially tends to present a focus on puzzle solving and exploration, often in that order. But the only major puzzles that the game has, are the simple flip puzzles you complete to jump into a new memory.

So what I'm left with, is to put To The Moon in one of two places. Either it's a 2D 'walking simulator', if we've hit the point of reclaiming that descriptor from its origins as an insult to the field...Or, absent that, we can call it another specific game type that came out of specific quirks of the Japanese gaming industry.

The visual novel.

With its linear story, smooth progression, and focus on character dialogue and interaction over the more mechanical side, visual novel feels like the right fit. Which makes To The Moon an interesting creature in its own right, striving and straining to fit its ambition into a, perhaps, awkwardly fitting structure. The gameplay loop is thoroughly based on simply speaking to characters, or watching their speech play out while you observe from the sidelines, to learn more about the people in this man's life and how things ultimately played out.

But of course, we've talked about visual novels before. And we've said that the genre needs to be judged more on its design and story. So let's talk about those.

Design & Story

From a design perspective, To The Moon is interesting. Working within its structural limitations leaves it a lot of room to have to figure out interesting solutions to problems. Custom menu systems, NPC pathfinding, what I have to assume are some very detailed and elaborate behind-the-scenes cues to make all the pieces on the board work right...

And in here, I do have to really make an effort to talk about the music. If there's one single piece that stands out in this game, that shows the whole thing as a labor of love, it's the music. Carefully crafted, the game's soundtrack favors a lot of naturalistic piano work, rather unlike most of what you'd hear from most games made this way. There's a reason that the game highly recommends headphones right at the start.

There are details, as well, that stand out. Things that suggest there's a lot about this story that's deeply personal, possibly even internal. The most obvious one is how several of the characters are clearly neuroatypical, somewhere on the spectrum, and have spent their entire lives working through the gap between how they naturally communicate and how others around them expect to be communicated with. It's a key area of the game that's shown without humor, without exaggeration, but also without melodrama or turning this into a Very Special Episode.

It's just...There. Part of the reality of the situation.

Of course, the tone doesn't always walk that line. Which gets me into the quibbles.

Quibbling

At times, the tone of To The Moon can be all over the place. It'll tackle some really genuine, heavy stuff, and then it'll cut right into goof-em-ups from one of our protagonists being extra loud and bombastic and just...Acting like he's from the sort of game that To The Moon looks like it is at a glance. And, sure, there are reasons for it, he has actual character motivation and not just wacky humor, but it feels a bit...much, compared to the lower key tone of much of the rest of the game.

On the more technical front, there's also some fussing with the game's underlying structure. Triggering the right things to investigate, and even just walking around, can be fussy. And while there's clearly touchscreen controls for movement, I was never able to get anything consistent enough out of them to be worth trying to make them work when the d-pad is right there. (Though the d-pad also suffers from the game utterly refusing to acknowledge diagonals, making something as simple as going up a staircase into a strange slithering snake operation.)

The technical stuff is what patching is for, of course. At least, I hope so. But the tonal troubles are kind of baked in.

Still, where does that leave us?

Final verdict

To The Moon is a flawed game, I won't lie. It has some of those weird hitches that you get in even a skilled person's first stab at making something like this, those little stumbles you don't know to watch out for until you've hit them a few times.

But something I've said before, especially with indies, kept coming back to me as I played it. That it's better for a game's reach to exceed its grasp, to try something out there and see what happens, than to play it safe and be some sort of extruded gaming product.

And To The Moon definitely doesn't play it safe. Nobody tries to make a contemporary-setting visual novel in RPG Maker if they want to 'play it safe'.

So what I come down to is...Yeah. Yeah, this is something worth trying, worth playing. It's not quite as refined as a lot of stuff I've reviewed, as polished as the big AAA games, but then, what hand-crafted thing is? Hell, lacking those things is why we buy hand-crafted goods, isn't it?

Give it a shot. Like I said at the start, appearances can be deceiving.