Moons of Madness - title

It's hard to make a good Lovecraftian horror game. The key to Lovecraft's horror was the mysterious intractability of his cosmic abominations. It wasn't just that they were ugly or deadly; the horror came from the realization that these monsters were part of a much greater cosmos that humans can barely comprehend, and that we are little more than ants to these god-like beings who could snuff us out of existence at a whim -- if they even cared enough about us to do so. In the century since Lovecraft wrote his stories, Lovecraft's monsters have become so iconic that Cthulhu is pretty much a universally-recognized, cliche monster along with the likes of Dracula and the Xenomorph. The closer a story adheres to Lovecraft's ideas, the more familiar it becomes, and the harder it is to create that sense of being overwhelmed with unfathomable knowledge that drives a person insane.

That is why I think that FromSoftware's Bloodborne is perhaps the best video game adaptation of Lovecraft's concepts (even though it is not a direct adaptation of any of his stories). Bloodborne's esoteric and arcane lore, and the indirect nature in which it communicates its backstory, actually does create that sense that the player is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle that you will never fully comprehend. And the difficult nature of the game means that the player certainly feels like you can be snuffed out of existence at any moment.

Moons of Madness isn't mysterious, or arcane, or particularly threatening. It's cliche and predictable to a fault.

Flatline

I saw almost every plot point coming from a mile away, and if you don't want spoilers, then I suggest you skip ahead to the next section. I didn't expect there to be a full-on underground lab complex akin to Resident Evil 2, but it wasn't something that came off as very surprising considering how telegraphed the corporate conspiracy "twist" was from the start. All the other twists, however, came off as rote and stale. The science experiment gone haywire, the relief ship crashing, the reveals about the protagonist's family history, the multiple betrayals ... none of it came off as even remotely surprising, and the whole game degraded to simply waiting for the next shoe to drop. The game isn't very long, but the predictable nature of its plot made it feel like it was dragging on for much longer than its six-ish hour playtime.

The secret lab was not a surprise and only distracted from the cosmic horror.

Worse yet, the corporate conspiracy stuff ended up distracting from, and drowning out, the Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The monsters don't feel mysterious because they're all the results of experiments being done at the request of the evil corporation. The Lovecraftian temple complex and "dreamers" fall flat because their existence is spoiled much earlier in the game. Heck, the other characters visit the temple and tell you all about it over the radio, while you're fumbling about the silly underground lab, so by the time you get to the temple, it's not mysterious at all. I think the point was to try to convey the awe and wonder of the NPC characters in the hopes that it would instill a sense of awe and wonder within the player, but all I could think was "I'd much rather be playing as those other characters right now!"

When all is said and done, I feel like Observation (despite not being directly inspired by Lovecraft's mythos) pulls off the cosmic horror shtick much better because its alien influences remain mysterious and intractable all the way through the end -- perhaps to that game's fault.

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Well I'll be damned. This winter, I was pleasantly surprised by The Mandalorian seeming to pull the Star Wars franchise back from the brink of the abyss. And now I'm also pleasantly surprised to see that perhaps Star Trek might be pulled out from circling the toilet bowl as well. The first episode of CBS All Access' new Picard series was surprisingly "not bad".

Now, I do still have some serious reservations about the directions that I think the show might be going later in the season. And I'll get to that later. But first, I want to sit and bask in the delight of having just watched a new piece of Star Trek media that I didn't hate. After slogging through the first season of Discovery (I have yet to watch the second season), I was left with zero faith in CBS's ability to re-capture the spirit and soul of Star Trek.

Picard shows some good faith right from the start by opening with a clip of the Enterprise-D. Not some re-designed Franken-ship monstrosity like the "original" Enterprise in the 2009 Trek reboot, or as seen in Discovery. But the honest-to-goodness Galaxy-class Enterprise-D, pretty much exactly as we remember and love her -- and looking mighty gorgeous, might I add! We then zoom into Ten Forward, where Picard is playing a hand of poker with an unconvincingly digitally de-aged Brent Spiner reprising the role of Data. This scene pays homage to the beautiful final scene of the Next Generation finale "All Good Things...", and Picard laments that he's stalling going all-in against Data's hand because he "doesn't want the game to end".

Picard is a return (and continuation) of Star Trek as fans knew it almost 20 years ago.

We didn't want the game to end either...

The first few scenes of the episode then go on to show Picard giving brief (but impassioned) speeches about the decline of Starfleet ideals, the civil rights of sentient androids, and the moral imperative to provide aid and relief to the Romulan refugees whose home planet was destroyed by the [somehow unexpected?] supernova of the Romulan sun. And he's also trying to do some social justice for pit bull dogs, which (as my choice of pets should suggest) is something that I approve very strongly of. It's respectful and faithful (and reverent) to what came before. "Holy shit", I thought, "this is actually looking and feeling like the Star Trek that I know and love."

For a moment, I thought the soul of Star Trek is there, in those early scenes, even though it is shallow and lacks the idealism that has always underpinned Trek.

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My biggest concern going into this new Twilight Zone reboot was with the hour-long format of its premiere. The first episode, "The Comedian" (which was available on YouTube for free as a preview of the show to come), was a bit overlong and dragged considerably in the second half. It had made its point by about halfway through, we could all see where the episode was going, and it insisted on going on for another 20 minutes despite not really having anything left to say.

OK, yeah sure, in the past I've complained about shows like Fox's Cosmos reboot being too short. Commercials cutting Niel DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot to only 45-ish minutes was simply not enough time for Tyson to give more than an elementary overview of the grandeur of nature or science.

However, The Twilight Zone isn't an educational show about "all that is, or ever was, or ever will be"; it's an anthology of science fiction parables and allegories. Parables and allegories are usually short and simple stories intended to convey a moral or lesson or insight into the human condition. The Twilight Zone doesn't really need a full hour to tell its stories. The twists are easy enough to see coming. This isn't The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club, or American Psycho, or Se7en, or something similar that actually needs a two-hour runtime to build up suspense and intrigue and dot the entire runtime with clues for its twist ending.

The pilot episode "The Comedian" felt over-long.

I was happy to see that episodes later in the first season have variable runtimes. The second episode, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" (which is actually a totally different story than the "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" classic that it is homaging with its title), is under 40 minutes, filled out its runtime better, and enjoyed much tighter overall pacing. The following episode, "Replay", clocked in at 45 minutes, and also enjoyed a much tighter script.

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

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Terraforming Mars

Steam recently released a digital version of the board game Terraforming Mars. I haven't played the digital version (which is getting "mixed" and negative reviews at the time of this writing), but I have played the board game version. It's pretty fun, and in celebration of the latest NASA probe landing on the surface of Mars, I thought I'd launch a review of the board game.

Terraforming Mars has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, which makes it kind of difficult to clearly categorize it. It also makes it a little difficult to teach the game to new players efficiently. It's not an overly-complicated game, however. It's just a lot of different concepts that you have to explain. Regardless, I've been able to get through learning games with new players in about three or three-and-a-half hours (including the rules explanation). So it's not overly burdensome to learn and play. It's also not terribly hard to simply play a sample round to teach the game flow, and then mulligan the game if any players feel they dug themselves into a hole.

Terraforming Mars has multiple distinct mechanics, ranging from tableau-building to tile-placement.

There's tile placement with adjacency bonuses. There's resource management. There's action economy. There's a little bit of tableau building and hand management. There's even a certain degree of bluffing. Playing with the non-basic corporations adds variable player powers, You can even optionally play with card drafting! Pretty much the only thing that we're not doing is loyalty / betrayal mechanics. Despite including so many varying game mechanics, nothing feels out of place, and everything fits together well.

The rulebook includes footnotes explaining the scientific basis for the rules and mechanics.

Depending on how you play, however, the actual game board and your tableau of cards can sometimes feel very disparate. If you're not actively placing tiles on the board, then the whole board can pretty much boil down to a score and prerequisite tracker. However, if you're avoiding placing tiles on the board, then you're probably going to lose, as I've yet to see a predominantly card-based strategy win the game.

The board itself includes a map of Mars' surface, and has notable landmarks on Mars clearly labeled. Unfortunately, the board only covers one half of Mars' surface, so there's some notable landmarks that are not included at all (perhaps the other side of the planet is an expansion?). The resource cubes are very shiny and pretty, and have an appropriately sci-fi aesthetic to them. The rulebook also includes little footnotes that explain some of the scientific bases for the game's rules and mechanics. it's like the kind of thing you might expect if Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote a board game. Science and space nerds will probably really appreciate these efforts at scientific accuracy.

The resource cubes are pretty, but shift around very easily on the flimsy, card stock economy boards.

Other components besides the resource cubes are kind of cheap and flimsy though. The player economy boards are printed out on basic card stock. There aren't any slots or grooves for the production cubes to sit in, so they slide around very easily if the table is jostled, or if the economy board is shifted around. You may want to invest in some third-party replacements or overlays in order to solve this problem.

The box also doesn't have any inserts of any kind for storing components -- just a handful of plastic, zip-lock bags. They expect you to just drop all the cards in a plastic baggie and just toss them in the box haphazardly along with all the other pieces!

At a price point of $70 (USD), I expect more from a game's components! Fortunately, where the game lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in entertainment value!

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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