Wot I Think: Finding Paradise (To The Moon 2)

To The Moon is one of my favourite gaming experiences. No game has made me blub as hard, or as often, and it earned those tears through a funny, passionate, emotionally complex story. Finding Paradise, a direct sequel after a number of smaller asides, didn’t make me cry. It made me laugh, think, wonder, and finish with a sad smile on my face, but no tears. But games aren’t measured by how much they make you cry, people, come on.

Once again we’re following doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts as they navigate the murky morality of adjusting a dying man’s final memories. Working for Sigmund Corp., their business is granting people their dying wish, by meddling in their minds to give them memories of moments that never happened, but they wish had. By working backward through key poignant memories, linked by pivotal mementos, they trace their way back through a person’s life, until they can thread together their memories such that new ideas or ideals are implanted.

It’s an excellent concept, its immediately benevolent-sounding notion belying a complex and morally dubious conceit. Does it matter that someone might find happiness in something that is wholly false? Are real memories more important? Do “real” memories even exist? The first game, To The Moon, explored this with exceptional deftness, as the seemingly simple wish to have memories of having travelled to the moon become embroiled in the complexities of a long, complex marriage, and unrecognised regrets.

Finding Paradise, which rather bravely/foolishly omits the “To The Moon 2” from its title, picks up some unspecified time after, with Rosalene and Watts heading off to a new client, another elderly man about to die, who signed up to the program. His wife is not pleased, his son bemused, but the contracts are signed and the patient’s wishes must be met. So after some confusions about paperwork, and the bickering back and forth between the leads fans of the series will be pleased to know remains central, they enter his mind and begin to explore.

Rosalene and Watts have very different perspectives on the nature of their job (such that to explain them in too much detail is too big of a spoiler for the first game), and this game explores their motivations alongside the core story of one Colin Reeds, a man whose motivations for hiring Sigmund are extremely unclear, seemingly hinged on a melancholy even he doesn’t quite understand. He loves his wife, his son, his life. He does not want to forget his family, or his life with them. But he feels a dissatisfaction, a notion that as much as he’s appreciated his life, it wasn’t to the fullness he had expected. You know, I immediately didn’t like Colin for this. Of course, it was always going to be more complicated.

Finding Paradise does what you might hope a sequel would do. It takes the original idea, and then throws in some surprises. I’m in that usual unenviable position of reviewing a game that is almost entirely story and little else, without being able to tell you what that story is. I think it’s fair to say the initial oddity is Colin’s memories don’t appear to be playing out in the correct order. Beyond that, I’ll keep shtum. What’s going wrong, and whether it’s to do with the patient, or the suspicious activity we’ve seen from Dr Watts in the previous minisodes and the start of this one, is wholly unclear. But anyone who’s finished To The Moon will know Watts is always far more complicated than his armour-like veneer of sarcasm and dismissiveness wants to suggest.

What follows is an eclectic mix of visual novel and point and click adventure, jam-packed with video game references via Watts’ obsession (and programming), philosophical musing, and emotional recollections. I feel certain saying that it absolutely doesn’t have the emotive heft of To The Moon, but I’m also not sure it aimed for it. Colin Reeds’ tale is more nuanced, less romantic, and not being quite sure where you are with him for a portion of the game seemingly deliberately keeps you at an emotional arm’s length. It makes for a less impactful finale, no doubt, but it was also significantly less bruising to play.

As it happens, I correctly (and not deliberately) guessed the twists and turns in Finding Paradise before they were telegraphed. I hate guessing, never try to, because it’s much more fun to be surprised than it is to smugly inform others you knew something was coming. I do wonder how different my overall experience of the game might have been if I’d been taken aback at any point. Being only one person, I’m not at all able to judge if this was my own bad luck, or the game’s.

What is unquestionably the game’s bad luck is the engine. RPG Maker is a creaky old beast at the best of times, and pretty much every negative I have to say about the game falls at its feet. It doesn’t scale up well, and with only the option to play in a tiny postage stamp window, or full screen, it really began to strain when stretched to 3440×1440 (albeit with large tramlines either side). I’d love to have played it in a 3 or 4x window, which also would have removed the issues I had with hotspots not being correctly placed. (When I ran the game in a tiny window, these worked fine, but the game was too small to play.) And while we’ve seen RPGM used to extraordinary effect in games like OneShot, and even to some extent this year’s Rakuen, I’m not sure it really benefited Finding Paradise. Dear god, just to have been able to walk in a diagonal line…

However, it’s used to its capacity. There are some lovely moments of mixed graphical styles, even a scene in which the scenery breaks away into a shattered hole, which I was very surprised the engine could be bent to do. And the pixel art and animations are absolutely beautiful throughout, including the best rendition of gloat-dancing gaming has ever seen. And the music – just wonderful. When two major characters play piano and cello, you know it’s going places. And of course ends with a lovely song by Laura Shigihara.

The whole game is packed with lovely moments, and while for some mad-brained reason developer Kan Gao is determined to include arcade sequences, they’re done with some wit this time, perhaps even self-referentially, and they’re skippable for the fainthearted. Talking of self-critiques, there’s a great reference to the weaker reception the ‘minisode’ entry A Bird Story received (a game I disliked). This isn’t done archly, and absolutely not sneeringly, but a deprecatingly sincere way. A character sadly refers to how that story about an injured bird from his childhood never goes down well when he tells it. His friend replies, “Maybe the bird was something different to you than it was to them?” Fair enough, you know? Maybe that really was it.

“Or,” adds the friend, “maybe you just sucked at telling that story.”

My only criticism of how the story was told is the slightly bloated middle. There comes a point in the game where the process of changing memory, then listening to the various conversations taking place to gather the memory orbs necessary to start the next, then changing memory, becomes a touch routine. All the story you’re gathering is interesting, vital to the arc, but it’s here the folly of the game’s interaction becomes a little too obvious – this is, really, a performance of a story where you move your characters around the screen to trigger the next act. When it’s varied enough, you don’t notice or don’t mind.

Finding Paradise is a considered story, and by the end there’s a great deal of looking back and musing to do. If it had been the first game, if I’d not played the triumphant To The Moon before it, to inescapably compare it to, I think I’d be raving. It’s not quite as good, but it’s vital not to let that be the only measure. It, itself, is a lovely story well told, with great humour, moments of genuine pathos, and plenty of intrigue. It hasn’t made an impact on me like its predecessor did, it doesn’t have the same weight, but it remains a superb time. You absolutely should play it if you’ve played To The Moon. If you haven’t, you should blooming well go and play that, and then this.

Finding Paradise is out now for £7/$9/9€ on Windows, Mac and Linux, via GOG, Steam and soon Humble.

24 Comments

  1. Faldrath says:

    Oh! It’s out! Thanks, John, I promise I’ll read the review later, time to go buy it!

  2. TheBetterStory says:

    Thank you for setting my expectations. I’ll be happy to play through a game that’s nearly as lovely as To the Moon, if not quite.

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    Dios says:

    Is Old Man Walker growing hard-hearted in his golden years? Not even a single sniffle! Scandalous!

  4. Oasx says:

    The JRPG look and dumb anime cliches almost ruined an otherwise good story in the first game, it is a shame they kept that in this one.

    • Heimdall2061 says:

      I agree. And furthermore, Bob Cratchit can surely afford his own anime! It’s outrageous what the humble gamer is subjected to. Bah! Humbug!

  5. Kefren says:

    I bought the original because of RPS but couldn’t stick it for more than an hour. It was an hour that made me grind my teeth. I couldn’t find anything to like. Maybe I should have stuck it out longer but if I’m having no fun at that point I don’t want to risk wasting more time. :-(

    • punkass says:

      I stuck it out to the end. I did not enjoy it.

      Partly my own fault – I had been excited by all the claims that the game was a work of art, which made all the childish dialogue stick in my craw. This made me angry, but that’s silly. It was just a rather boring, ill-written game that dealt with actual proper adult themes.

      Maybe it will come to be seen as a landmark, but I have to hope that games move to a place where the writing could be judged against novels or (at least) films, and if you watched a film of To The Moon the dialogue would make you cringe. Hard.

    • Fleko81 says:

      I 100% support encourage the people of RPS to voice their opinions… however wrong they are (that was a joke before someone calls poes law…. ;) )
      I LOVED TTM bit for me the bit the made it great in a way was not always the actually process of progressing in the game (though it made me blub at appropriate points) but the thoughts and implications it conjured beyong the game itself. To me (and this is a very personal thing) the world established and the impact you extrapolate yourself from that is in many ways more important than the game though clearly the latter feed the former. I haven’t played yet but will do

      • Kefren says:

        It’s also why I support games that have an impact on other people. Even if it didn’t work for me (and I should have listened to my gut more than the praise), it obviously affected enough people in ways that made it an important and valuable game.

    • soul4sale says:

      I had to wonder how much the reviewers who praised To The Moon have actually read anything that isn’t Star Wars novels. The writing was TERRIBLE. The dialogue was juvenile to the point of self-parody. The themes were … nice? A bit different from the usual vidya game power fantasy escapism?

      When I read lines like, “No game has made me blub as hard, or as often, and it earned those tears through a funny, passionate, emotionally complex story,” I have to wonder if we experienced the same thing.

      • Juan Carlo says:

        I agree, it was saccharine, maudlin, and its ending completely undermined its own story and themes. But it benefited from debuting in that first phase of the indie gaming boom where art games were still a novelty, so anything that would try to do anything even remotely different would be praised to the heavens by critics. If “To the Moon” were released today I doubt it would get half the attention it did.

  6. RuySan says:

    “but devs CCCP suggest on Steam that both games take place in the same world:”

    Is this world called by any chance “Planet Earth”? Impressed…

  7. lancelot says:

    I cried, but it was on the words “Yet you come here, on the day of my own daughter’s flight exam…”

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    alison says:

    I actually preferred A Bird Story to To The Moon, mainly because it felt like it had stripped To The Moon back to its core essence, which was a walking sim. It’s been a long time since i played it, but i recall To The Moon as having slightly cringey dialog and a string of annoyingly arbitrary fetch quests. I had hoped this new one would take its lead from the tighter plotting and subtlety of A Bird Story, but the talk of gathering orbs isn’t leaving me optimistic.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      Its core essence was a surprisingly nuanced exploration of very human emotions and experiences, which expertly knit together a much bigger story than it puts directly in front of your eyes.

      That is why it worked for so many people, in spite of its simplistic presentation (which, frankly, acts as an emotional counterweight to pretty weighty subject matter). Obviously not everyone is going to emotionally invest enough to care about what is happening, and if someone sees ‘fetch quests’ where I see ‘moments where something is revealed about the character’ then there’s nothing to be done.

      There’s nothing wrong with not liking a game or a story, but your ‘core essence’ of the game reads more like ‘here’s some things I didn’t like.’ By all means, criticize the things you don’t like. But the game as written could exist in a plethora of different game styles, and its strongest elements – the things that people love about the game – would remain virtually intact. Nobody who played To the Moon was excitedly skipping dialogue to get to the next orb. That should be a clue that the ‘core essence’ lies somewhere other than with the elements of the game that prevented you from playing/enjoying it.

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        alison says:

        You are reading a lot into my comment that i didn’t write. I enjoyed To The Moon and i am glad i played it. All i said was that i enjoyed A Bird Story more, mainly because it removed aspects of To The Moon that i found tedious. To me A Bird Story was better paced and i felt more invested in the story as a result. I am a big fan of adventure games, walking sims and “art games”, so i am looking forward to playing Finding Paradise. I was just hoping the dev would have built more on what i thought they did better in A Bird Story rather than sticking to the To The Moon formula. It seems they did not, so i have adjusted my expectations accordingly. I’m sure i will still enjoy it when i get around to playing it. Not sure why you are getting so defensive.

        • Hyena Grin says:

          I was responding to your ‘core essence’ comment, which struck me as flippant, since the term is generally used flippantly. I apologize if I read more into that than was intended.

          I still disagree that the ‘core essence’ of the game is a walking sim, however, and that’s what I was trying to address. The game is a vehicle to tell a story. It’s a narrative game. That’s the core essence; the narrative. Calling it a walking sim, I think, does the game a disservice.

          But I realize now that your point is that the game doesn’t need to shoehorn in game conventions, and that’s a fair criticism. I would tentatively argue that even rote interactivity can help engender engagement and investment in the process, otherwise you might as well just be pressing X to turn the page. I didn’t find the bits of interactivity in Finding Paradise to be invasive. There’s more variety, and it’s playing on its criticism a little.

          But the orbs. The orbs are just there to make sure you’ve gotten the narrative beats you need to make sense of the story. That’s all it is. If players could just rush to the memento and move to the next memory without seeing important exchanges, or learning about the significance of things, then the story would fall pretty flat.

          I will say though that having finished the game very recently, compared to To the Moon (where most of the orbs were just clicking objects in the environment), far more are granted when you witness an event, or listen to dialogue. Again, it’s just gating you from leaving before you’ve seen the important stuff.

          • Hyena Grin says:

            Er, the term ‘walking sim’ is generally used flippantly, not ‘core essence.’ =P

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            alison says:

            I am surprised you see walking sim as negative term when stuff like Firewatch, Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero has been so highly praised. Plenty of devs embrace the label, and here on RPS and in mainstream media like the Graun i don’t think i’ve ever seen it used negatively. I adore walking sims and think they are the best thing that has ever happened to gaming. To me they indicate the medium has finally matured to the point that people understand you can tell a compelling story or create a world worth visiting without having to shoehorn in arbitrary puzzles and quests. I guess your concern is just semantics because your description of a “narrative game” is exactly what i consider most walking sims to be.

            With regard to To The Moon, as i said i played it years ago so i don’t remember much of the story. Something about old people and an awkward relationship and some kid getting hit by a car? I do remember it tugged the heartstrings. But mostly i remember having to hunt around looking for orbs to unlock a teleporter or something, and there was nothing left to do on the level because i had already talked to everyone and interacted with everything. This was tedious to me. In A Bird Story, not only did the dev remove that mechanic, but they also created a more surreal environment and streamlined the path to make each scene a pleasure to explore in the first place. To me that was a big step forward in storytelling.

            I will buy this game, since it sounds like the story is still decent enough to be worth the price of admission. Being an adventure game fan, i am used to mechanics occasionally hurting the pacing, so i’ll deal. Just recently i bought a pack that includes several other RPG Maker games by the devs who wrote Space Pilgrim – which i thought was excellent – so i’ll probably loop back to this one after that.

  9. Hyena Grin says:

    I had pretty much the same response as John to Finding Paradise (and To the Moon as well, really). It’s a good game with a good story, but not as good as To the Moon. I also guessed the ‘twists’ well before the reveal, and in that sense I don’t think it was as well crafted. I would’ve liked to be surprised, but the game invites you to guess at a twist too early, and then drops too many hints to miss.

    I enjoyed the heck out of it, it was still very emotive and touching, and it got me pretty misty eyed in places, even if I don’t feel anything like as wrecked as I did after TtM. And also like John, I suspect that Kan Gao was not trying to repeat that heavy emotional impact, and suspect that it was a Wise Choice, because trying and failing to fall too close to TtM would have been a disaster. Better to aim for something adjacent, and avoid some of the risk of comparison.

    So ‘disappointed’ is the wrong word, but there was a significant part of me that was hoping that Kan would break my heart again. =(

    • lancelot says:

      Wait, you guys have actually correctly guessed about Faye? (I’m midway through the game now, and I realize that it’s hard to discuss clues without a spoiler tag.) But I’m surprised. Although it’s perhaps similar to how Pip has correctly called several of the reveals in Life Is Strange as apparently those plot devices are pretty stereotypical in teen fiction.

      • Hyena Grin says:

        (spoilers ahead, but probably not for the comment I’m responding to)

        I’m jealous of you if it hit you as a surprise, as I bet the game hit a little harder for it!

        I might have guessed it because I am always actively looking for some kind of mental health angle in a story. The game drops some pretty obvious hints that Faye isn’t real if you’ve got your eyes out for it. I wasn’t sure if she was an hallucination or an imaginary friend, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t real, yeah.

  10. Don Reba says:

    Didn’t think I would cry at the end of this one mid-way through playing it, but I did.