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In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Fairly well-realized setting
  • Needing to keep line of sight with certain monsters
  • Chapter title cards
  • End credits

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Came off as more Resident Evil than Lovecraft
  • Predictable plot
  • A few go-nowhere plot threads
  • Maze-like greenhouse level
  • Security cameras and androids
  • Missed almost all the attempted jump scares because my attention was somewhere else
  • Performance issues

Overall Impression : D
Falls flat at almost everything it tries to do

Moons of Madness - cover

Developer:
Rock Pocket Games &
Dreamloop Games

Publisher:
Funcom

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
coming soon to PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
22 October 2019 (PC),
24 March 2020 (consoles)

Genre:
First-person sci-fi horror

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
blood, violence, strong language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.moonsofmadness.com/

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.

There's some dangling plot threads that should have either been further developed, or cut entirely.

Then there's a few plot threads that come out of left field and don't go anywhere at all.The mental instability of the characters and their sense of isolation never manifests in any meaningful ways. Neither the player nor the character ever starts to distrust the other characters or fears that their judgement is compromised by going stir-crazy. The converse is also true: none of the threats are subtle enough that any of the other characters ever distrust the player's judgement or sanity. The corporation building an army of androids feels tacked on. At one point, you discover that the corporation has been cloning the researchers at the base, and the protagonist starts to wonder if he's the original version of himself. But this clone subplot is immediately dropped the moment you leave the room, and never comes up again.

Put simply, I feel like the entire underground lab idea (and all its associated plot threads) could have been cut, and the game would only have been the better for it.

A horrific chore

Most puzzles are exceedingly simple.

The actual act of playing the game doesn't do the game many favors. Moons of Madness can easily be waved away as one of the dreaded "walking simulators". The vast majority of gameplay is simply walking from place to place, doing chore-like puzzles when you get there. Most of the "puzzles" simply require reading a combination code off of something in the environment, finding a battery to plug into a socket, or turning a dial until it gets to the right number. Others involve manipulating an object in 3-D space, which feels a little bit like playing with a virtual Rubix Cube. None of it is particularly taxing, and they can all be brute forced if you get stuck.

The one mechanic that has the potential to be more engaging is the Mars-walks. You'll occasionally be required to put on a space suit and stroll around the surface of Mars. During these segments, your oxygen will gradually deplete, giving you only about 5 or 10 minutes of breathable air before you have to find an oxygen station to refill your supply. Sadly, the game lacks any exploratory mechanics or more sprawling, complex puzzles that might make balancing this resource feel meaningful. The linear nature of the game, and the high density of oxygen refill stations means that you can easily top off your oxygen supply without having to go out of your way, and so there's never any risk of running out. There was only one time, late in the game, in which I got stuck on a puzzle and had to actually drop what I was doing to return to a previous refill station.

Your oxygen supply is limited.

The game also expects you to have to go through the motions of putting on your helmet, refilling your oxygen, and decompressing the airlock every time you leave the safety a station or vehicle. I honestly didn't mind this, and I appreciated the slight attention to detail and immersive realism. In general, Moons of Madness has a well-realized setting, and the Martian research station feels reasonably well lived-in and believable. Immersing the player in the game world is always an important part of establishing a horror atmosphere, and Moons of Madness does well at this in the early chapters. The other characters are never around (even though they talk to you over the radio and intercomm), and so there is a building sense of isolation and loneliness as you explore the station and solve some of the early puzzles.

But this also kind of falls flat. I fully expected that later in the game, this process of going through the airlock would be subverted to create some kind of horror or panic moment. I was expecting something along the lines of escaping from a monster into an airlock, only to find the controls are broken and the entire facility is decompressed, forcing me to have to explore in a panic with a limited supply of oxygen, and to risk confronting the monster outside again if I ever need to refill oxygen. Nothing like that ever happens, and so the oxygen refill and airlock mechanics become yet another piece of mindless busy-work to do to keep the game going.

At one point, you have to make a run through Mars' atmosphere without a helmet at all.

In fact, there's one point in the game in which the helmets in the airlock are missing, and you have to make a run for another airlock without a helmet. But since you don't have a helmet, the oxygen mechanic isn't part of this set piece. This probably could have been easily reworked such that the helmet is still there, but the oxygen refill station is broken or destroyed. This would force you to have to make the run to the next airlock with only the oxygen remaining in your suit, which would have given a feeling that your previous decisions to top off you oxygen (or not, as the case may be) had some weight.

The monsters themselves are also mostly uninteresting. While they can kill you (thus establishing a legitimate threat), you are never given a weapon to fight back. However, there are a couple of moments that allow you to use a crowbar to fight back against a monster that is grappling you, but these are scripted moments. In all other cases, if the monster catches you, you die.

Perhaps the most creative concept for a monster is a tentacle creature that shies away whenever you look directly at it. At first, I thought this design was stupid. Horror games are usually best served to hide or obscure the creatures to let the player's imagination make them seem scarier than they actually are. But this game was forcing me to stare directly at a monster; thus, eliminating any mystery about what it is or how threatening it might be.

Having to stare down a shy tentacle monster means you can't focus on where you're going.

By the end of the first set piece using these monsters, however, I had changed my mind. The scenario is set up such that you have to solve minor puzzles while keeping a line of sight with the tentacles. You also can't look where you're going while your staring down the tentacles and have to kind of stumble along backwards hoping that you aren't walking right into something even worse. Later in the game, you have to fend off a large number of these tentacles at the same time. I had to repeatedly dart my head back and forth and grew increasingly paranoid that one might be sneaking up from behind me while I wasn't looking.

For the most part, you just kind of walk backwards down a linear corridor with no risk of danger or failure, so this idea still falls flat. With more clever environmental and puzzle design, and more open, exploratory gameplay, this idea could have worked really well.

Jump scares don't work

The few jump scares that Moons of Madness attempts to employ also just don't work at all. In most cases, my attention was on something else, and I missed the jump scare effect entirely. I'd hear an audio queue that something scary just happened, and I'd look around to see if it's anything cool, only to find that I'd completely missed whatever it was.

Other times, the jump scare just bugged out, and whatever was supposed to happen either didn't trigger or the model didn't render properly. In one case early in the game, a tentacle was supposed to pop out of the water of a flooded tunnel. The game failed to render the tentacle, and only rendered the ripples in the water where it was supposed to pop out. In another case, a creature that was supposed to jump out at me was apparently rendered before it was supposed to be, so I knew the creature was around the corner.

The biogage occasionally refused to scan the object I was pointing it at.

In general, my playthrough of this game on Steam was plagued with technical problems. Rendering issues, pop-in, and slow-down were all pervasive throughout the game (which otherwise looks good). Certain prompts (especially climbing prompts) wouldn't activate. The biogage scanner would occasionally refuse to work unless I turned around, activated it, and then turned back to the thing I was supposed to scan and press the "scan" button again.

Bugs and glitches aside, even when Moons of Madness is working as intended, I just didn't find it very effective at any of the things that it attempts to do.

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