When To The Moon came out in November 2011 (gosh, eleven years ago!), we thought it would usher in a new breed of games. Those games wouldn’t care for visual fidelity or flare, and they would be fine with borrowing assets from Game Maker libraries and other construction kits. What they would focus on was the juicy narrative stuff: fantastic stories, told interactively, with actual emotional responses from its situations and characters. To The Moon did this brilliantly, and we hoped for more To The Moons.
It never materialised. Games didn’t stop telling fantastic stories – The Last of Us, Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch? are all testament to that – but there’s still that unspoken expectation that a well-told story has to look sensational. In all honesty, do they? We want more indie storytellers using basic tools to tell brilliant stories.
Enter stage left: Newfound Courage. We were not expecting much from this humble indie narrative game, but it unexpectedly answered our call. While it may not quite reach the heights of To The Moon, it still shoots for the moon, and in doing so constructs something achingly emotional and entirely worth playing.
There are two stories here, but one flows so directly from the other that you can consider them a single narrative. They centre on Alex, formally Alexander, who has abandoned their home town in the ‘Otherwere’ (there’s a fantasy world at play here, which looks and sounds like ours but with fundamental differences) to make a home in Silverpine. They have done so to escape their family, whose neglect turned to hatred when Alex came out to them.
We find Alex as they are attempting a new start, staying in the house of Nora, a local who is eager for them to fit in. They form a quick bond with a boy called Jake, and Alex feels the butterflies in their stomach: they like Jake, but there are echoes of a doomed relationship that they had back in Otherwere. Alex isn’t sure whether to open up fully to this new boy.
Meanwhile, Jake introduces Alex to the town, which is the setting for almost all of the action in the first chapter of Newfound Courage. At the northernmost point of the town is The Vault, a mysterious building that seems to act as many things: a library, a school and the seat of leadership of the town. It’s also swarming with Sendings, little jawa-like creatures who place and replace books, as well as get under the feet. They’re helpless little things, and the community mostly just puts up with them.
But soon, things go astray. Books go missing, and people start going missing too. The Sendings behave oddly, and four pivotal tomes are taken, one by one, from the library. There are questions about why this is happening at the same time as your arrival, but mostly people trust you enough to involve you in the effort of getting them back. And as you do so, the town’s mysteries – and its history of Houses and wars – emerge from the fog.
Newfound Courage may look like a JRPG, but it’s probably best described as a walking simulator with a sprinkling of Zelda-like combat and puzzles. It’s about eighty-percent narrative, and twenty-percent the other stuff.
Some examples help: you are often tasked with replacing books on the shelves of The Vault, so you’re looking for gaps in the shelves and slotting in ten or so at a time. It’s not exactly onerous. There are memory puzzles; moments where you have to find objects hidden in the environment; and small-scale mazes. Occasionally the gears might shift up a little, and you are doing some pint-sized stealth sections, while another minigame has you button-mashing to suppress a scream. But overall, you could do most of these sequences with one arm tied behind your back.
Combat is the nobbliest of the bunch. You know combat is coming, as the HUD changes and you’re suddenly looking at all of your abilities, laid across the bottom of the screen. There’s a melee attack, a ranged blast, a decoy, a heal and a kind of blink left or right, which might be more nuance than you expect from a game of this type, and there are extremely limited opportunities to level them up, with four moments to do so across the four games.
If there’s a criticism of Newfound Courage, it’s the combat. Already a bit of a sore thumb among the narrative, it is an ungainly beast. Attacks are slow, and they have a habit of nudging you in a direction that you might not want to go. Hit something with your sword, and you might sidle into the enemy itself. Fire a blast, and you might walk into a tentacle trap. It’s also surprisingly difficult in places, an unwelcome spike that’s there mostly because of that slowness and inaccuracy. We often died because healing and decoys took too flipping long. There’s a safety net here, as difficulty is decreased with each death, but that reduction can feel cheap.
But, as we mentioned, combat is a thankfully small part of Newfound Courage, as it focuses on the stuff it does extremely well: the tale it has to tell. Or, more specifically, the two tales it has to tell. Because Newfound Courage has a personal story, and it has another, world-ending story, and they are both as winning and affecting as the other.
Alex is one of those people who has a surplus of care and love for other people. They are looking for somewhere to direct it, and that can lead them to problems of over-familiarity, or seeing love reflected in others when it’s just not there. It makes them incredibly flawed but equally endearing, which is a hard balance to strike. But strike it Newfound Courage does, and it leads to heart-rending moments that will have you reaching for a new box of Kleenex. We won’t reveal too much of their personal plight, but know that it has the same sense of longing that To the Moon had. And it warms the heart to see a gay story told without any tokenism or generalisation. It’s as genuine as they come.
The other tale is more mythical and far-reaching, but we still heartily enjoyed it. There’s a keen eye for worldbuilding in Newfound Courage, and the magic-realism of its world feels new and refreshing. The Sendings are the game’s big question mark, and solving them is a carrot that pulls you along for the full five or six hours. We’d have taken a bit more interaction (Newfound Courage has a habit of locking you into cutscenes when it could easily have been a manual interaction), but it moves at speed and has plenty of secrets to offload.
It gives us great pleasure to wholeheartedly recommend Newfound Courage. You will struggle to find a more likeable and relatable narrative adventure. It’s exceptionally well-written, unashamedly gay, and will appeal to absolutely anyone who felt their lip trembling while playing To The Moon. It’s a triumph that wears its heart very much on its sleeve.
You can buy Newfound Courage from the Xbox Store