Adventure Gamers Awards
When I’m asked to name my favorite games, To the Moon is near the top of my list. It has almost everything I look for in an interactive narrative: a well-structured, character-driven plot with a dash of humor, gameplay that doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling, a gorgeous soundtrack that bolsters the emotional themes. Six years after that short but sweet love story turned me into a blubbering mess at my keyboard, Freebird Games has finally released the long-promised sequel—and I was nervous to play it. Would it live up to expectations? Could it possibly be as good as the first game I love so much?
I won’t leave you in suspense: While it doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, I had a great time with Finding Paradise and wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if you loved To the Moon. (In fact, if you loved To the Moon there’s really no reason to keep reading. Go play Finding Paradise, right now, then come back and see if you agree with the rest of what I have to say!)
Like the previous game, Finding Paradise is a gameplay-lite narrative game that looks like a retro RPG. You play as doctors Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene, employees of the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation, who give dying patients a last chance at happiness by plugging into the patient’s brain and manipulating old memories to change a key aspect of their life. If all goes well, when the patient lets go and life flashes before their eyes, they remember it with the doctors’ alterations and their dying wish is fulfilled, if only in their mind.
This time the patient is Colin Reeds, a retired airline pilot with a wife and grown son. In contrast to Watts and Rosalene’s last patient, who knew exactly what he wanted but didn’t know why, Colin can’t articulate what he wants beyond a vague sense that his life, while no means a bad one, could have been better somehow. He wants to be able to say he’s lived a happy life with few regrets, but he also doesn’t want any of what he’s been through to change. Unable to name a specific wish, he has given Sigmund’s doctors permission to travel through his memories and enhance his life however they see fit, with one stipulation: his family must not be affected. However Watts and Rosalene decide to help him, his memories of his wife Sofia and son Asher must not be erased or degraded in any way.
Once they’ve set up their equipment and taken a quick look around Colin’s apartment for clues about what he wants, the quest begins with his most recent accessible memory. The doctors expect to work backward through Colin’s life until they reach his first accessible memory, at which point they’ll make a tweak that changes how his entire life plays out—at least, that’s how it’s always gone in the past. Traveling between memories involves finding glowing orbs called memory links, as well as significant items that connect back to earlier memories, called mementos. You need to collect between one and five memory links per scene, depending on its complexity, and then use them to smash through the memento’s protective barrier so it can serve as a portal to the next memory back.
This sounds like more work than it is. Finding memory links is as simple as clicking on appropriate hotspots (usually Colin himself or a nearby object), which triggers a brief replay of a moment from Colin’s life. Smashing the barrier really just means clicking on each collected orb, displayed at the bottom of the screen, so the doctors can hurl it at the memento and break the barrier. Then you’ll solve a quick slider-type grid puzzle that involves lining up matching icons, in order to activate the memento and travel to the next scene. The rules of the slider puzzles get more complicated as the game goes on, but I have to admit I easily brute-forced most of them without completely understanding the conditions for solving them. By the end of the game these started to get repetitive, but since they can be clicked through so easily, at least they’re never more than a few seconds’ annoyance.
Finding Paradise can be played with the keyboard and mouse or with a gamepad, and your choice may impact your playing experience slightly. You can navigate the characters entirely with the mouse via simple point-and-click, or in combination with the arrow or WASD keys to move the doctors around and the mouse to explore the scene. When the cursor moves over certain characters or items, an icon appears on screen to tip you off that you can interact. You can then click to move the player characters directly to that spot. With these controls, finding memory links is mainly a matter of sweeping the cursor around the screen and clicking on anything you can, though usually the likely candidates are fairly obvious. Sometimes even this isn’t necessary, as certain hotspots are marked with an asterisk or twinkle faintly to draw your attention, though not all are highlighted in this way.
If you play with the gamepad, as I did, moving is comfortable with the left analog stick or D-pad, but finding hotspots is trickier because there’s no cursor, and therefore no icons appear on interactive items. This makes finding hotspots much more of a pixel hunt—without a visual indication of what’s clickable, you can only get close to something that looks interesting, press A, and hope for the best. If the character isn’t quite close enough when you try to click, you’ll get no result, which led me to do a bit of aimless wandering before I realized what I was missing. I also had trouble during a series of arcade-style minigames designed to use the WASD keys (the gamepad controls were sluggish and sometimes stopped responding completely), but luckily you can still progress if you fail at these sequences, and it’s easy enough to switch to the keyboard temporarily. Even with these quibbles, I wouldn’t have traded sitting back on the couch with a gamepad for sitting at my computer with the mouse and keyboard, but the lack of controller optimization is a shame considering how natural a gamepad is with the RPG style.
I love the concept of working backward through a person’s memories to locate the root cause of their dissatisfaction, but in Finding Paradise this process takes on a distracting complexity when Colin’s memories deviate from their expected structure. Instead of following a straight line backward through time, his memories bounce around, which the doctors make clear is not normal even if the player doesn’t have enough context to grasp why. Jumping back and forth through time makes for a more mysterious story, raising questions about both what Colin wants and why his memories aren’t following the usual format, but this structure gets convoluted as the story progresses, particularly whenever the doctors pause to point out to each other how unusual it is. It’s a testament to the writing that I fully believe these characters understand more about their world and their memory machine than I do, merely tagging along on this one case (and one other case six years ago), but whenever they riffed on what they believed was going on in Colin’s brain, I could barely follow their logic. The capable Rosalene and oddball Watts have a funny rapport and I enjoyed their banter even when their theories went over my head, but like Colin unable to specify what he wanted to change in his life, at points I also felt like I should understand what was going on but just couldn’t quite explain it.Continued on the next page...