Mars with a side order of squid and insanity.
It’s nearly impossible to get away from the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in gaming. Even if a game isn’t directly tied to the man’s work, so many are inspired by the aesthetics of Lovecraft’s mythos. Moons of Madness, however, connects straight back to the author’s At the Mountains of Madness so directly, it’s basically a very far-flung sequel.
It makes sense to carry on that classic tale of madness and fear of the unknown straight into science fiction. Mars and its moons played a role in Lovecraft’s original work and are the focal point for this game, a narrative-focused horror game that leads players down a familiar, if otherworldly, path of madness.
Much like the Amnesia series, Layers of Fear and SOMA, Moons of Madness is more closely related to a walking game than Resident Evil. There’s no combat, mobility is limited (there’s no jumping or acrobatics here, though you can run), and the player is essentially there for the ride through the story. That’s not a negative though, as the story is fun if fairly cliched and there are several effective chase sequences that make it feel more like an action game at times.
Moons moves in fits and starts, between the mundane tasks of fixing things on a Mars base and surreal nightmarish visions of a creepy witch-like entity, giant tentacles, and black ooze. There’s no shortage of key hunts here – whether that key is an actual keycard or a device needed to complete a task.
Item gathering is a frequent task, but the game’s often vague about what exactly you’re doing or looking for. At one point, for instance, you need to find small chemical vials scattered throughout a medical lab. The lab isn’t even particularly large, but finding the tiny vials amidst the rest of the clutter took a lot of searching. It lets you scan the area to highlight objectives, but the feature seemed outright broken at times.
It would often either not show you an objective point at all or would highlight an objective you couldn’t actually complete yet, such as when you needed to find other items first. There are lots of terminals scattered through the base containing important information. Moons of Madness is big on the player reading emails and reports of other characters to help fill in some backstory.
Logic puzzles are another key part, and the most interesting and challenging ones at that. Most are presented with little to no context, frequently with required hints nearby but seldom advertised. This is the first game in years where players might actually want a pencil and paper nearby to jot down notes, codes, and other data necessary to find solutions. It’s a nice change of pace to not have a game handhold you through the toughest parts.
The rest is basically a linear trip through Martian hell. There’s little in the way of extraneous exploration since the game basically leads you with its locked doors and occasional instant death barriers. Death isn’t a major issue, though. For most of the game, you’d have to go out of your way to meet a grim end. Later on, death becomes potentially more of a threat, such as a sequence where you’re ‘fighting’ an entity in a clumsy quick-time event.
One especially frustrating bit at the end requires avoiding monsters under the sand by running from one rocky slab to the next. It’s a largely simple prospect save for the lack of jumping, which makes it easy to get caught up on tiny obstacles. Moons of Madness uses immovable obstacles to guide the player a lot and some of them are laughably artificial, like crates that any reasonable person would have just climbed over given the situation.
For all that, it’s easy to think Moons of Madness is a complete wash, but that’s not the case. Despite these flaws (and some outright glitches) and occasional frustration, it’s still an entertainingly creepy romp on the whole. The production values are excellent, from the sharp Unreal Engine-powered visuals to the eerie score and ambient effects. Even the voice acting is solid.
At five or six hours long, Moons of Madness creates an effectively scary atmosphere in which to tell its story. Lovecraft in space is a concept that works and this is one of the better games to use the mythos in an interesting fashion. Most importantly, the horror movie vibe was strong enough to keep us glued to the very bitter end (and then replay that last bit again to see the other bitter end).
[Reviewed on PC]