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January 2021

Moons of Madness

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Funcom
Developer: Rock Pocket Games
Release Date: Oct. 22, 2019

About Jared Hall

Jared started playing computer games in the '80s on a Commodore 64, moving over to PC gaming in the era of Wolf3D and Doom. Favorites include Dark Souls, Mass Effect and Civilization.


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PC Review - 'Moons of Madness'

by Jared Hall on March 27, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Moons of Madness is a first-person, story-driven cosmic horror game where the scientific exploration of Mars meets the supernatural dread of Lovecraft.

Tentacled monsters? Check.

Morally ambiguous mad scientist? Check.

Random plot about communication failures? Check.

Completely useless team? Dormant evil being awakened? Childhood trauma? Check, check and check.

The result is Moons of Madness by Rock Pocket Games, a horror game that combines Lovecraftian madness with science fiction. The title's overt use of tropes is only slightly outpaced by its steady stream of jump-scares.

You play as an engineer on a crew in the midst of a mission on Mars. Moons of Madness starts off on a high note and immediately demonstrates what's in store for the rest of the game. You should have a pretty good idea if this game is for you in the first 20-30 minutes. After that begins the slow burn, which I found to be a bit tedious hour. You basically go around fixing damaged hardware on the Mars base, which doesn't necessarily have to be boring, but in this case, it's really about walking from A to B to C and clicking things.

While I don't expect games in this genre to have brain-twisting puzzles that prevent you from progressing, the puzzles in Moons of Madness were too easy and too removed from the interface. You have a wrist computer, like a Pip Boy or an Omni-tool, and most of the puzzles are solved on it in the form of minigames. They aren't terribly fun by their own merits; they aren't scary, and they take you out of the game atmosphere more often than not. It's feels like they were included because games like this have puzzles, not because they had good ideas for puzzles that should be in the game.

Squeezing in things because that's how these games are supposed to go basically sums up the plot. I don't want to be so specific that I'm spoiling it, but there are a few cases where you can't help but roll your eyes. The mad scientist lady is so obviously crazy. A giant something breaks out of a cage and breaks a huge pane of glass, but your team asks you to fix the glass, and they'll check it out later. How about I leave until everyone is here and armed to the teeth?! There's a litany of reasons for why you're always alone and why communications keep cutting out. The overall plot, true to Lovecraft tales, is basically handwaved with "because ancient evil."

If the cliché plot and average puzzles aren't a deal-breaker, you may get some enjoyment out of Moons of Madness. It definitely has scares. The sound effects, ambient sound, and visuals are done well and can be very engrossing. Like Ripley singing "Lucky Star" at the end of Alien, I found myself quietly singing "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" to quiet my nerves so I could proceed, despite being sure there was another jump-scare around every corner. After a while, my breathing is shallow, my back and arms are tense, I'm sweating, hit a checkpoint and immediately hit exit the game. "All right! Time to hug a kitten, eat cookies, and quietly sob!"

Unfortunately, those high points did not last the whole game, and the foibles piled up. The title puts the baddies directly in front of the camera for far too long in a number of cases, which dramatically reduces how scary they are. The unknown is scary, but once you get a prolonged view of the polygon model of the creature, its horror is diminished. That's Horror 101. The checkpoint system also makes you replay certain bits when you die. Repetition isn't scary, especially when your character keeps repeating the same lines. Speaking of dialogue, it's hit and miss. Sometimes your character's reactions seem appropriate and build tension, but more often than not, they fall flat. I'm not sure that hearing him say, "Damnit!" every time a box falls over or a door shuts adds anything to the atmosphere.

Chekhov's Gun is a well-known dramatic principle that insists that if a gun is shown in the first act, the gun should be fired in the second act, or it shouldn't be there at all. This game repeatedly breaks that rule. All lot of information is presented but doesn't factor into the gameplay. The most obvious example is the oxygen resource when you're outside or in an otherwise unpressurized area. Why does your space suit only have 20 minutes of oxygen? I'm nitpicking; I understand that it's a game, and it's a time pressure mechanic, but it never becomes an issue. I don't think I ever fell below 60%, and oxygen tanks were always close at hand. I kept expecting a section that would enforce this mechanic in some way, but it never happened.

Additionally, some items in the station seemed like they should have been significant in some way, but they turned out to be window dressing. It's not even particularly nice window dressing, as many of the plot details are revealed through yet another trope: going to different computer terminals and reading people's emails. I'm going to nitpick again. Every terminal you go to, even if you log in as the same person, has different messages. Aren't these computers networked? Fine, they needed a way to include some exposition. The majority of the notes aren't terribly interesting. There are a handful of cases where you'll need a four-digit code from the computers, but otherwise, they're just for plot details. 

Last but not least, the game is entirely linear, so there's no reason to replay it. Your playthrough will take around eight hours. There are two marginally different endings, so once you finish the game, you can return to the menu, hit resume, and play out the final sequence for the other ending. Make sure you do that before you start a new game (if you're going to start a new game), as this game has only one save spot. Do you know what having only one save spot does to teenage brothers? It's linear in gameplay as well as structure. There is exactly one path at all times, and there are no secrets. There are no resources to manage or secrets to find. You don't go around looking for health, tinderboxes, batteries for your flashlight, or any other kind of resource. Everything you pick up is mandatory. Everywhere you go is mandatory. You walk the path, and there are jump-scares, like some high school Halloween haunted house.

At the end of the day, if you feel like getting startled and wandering around a horror atmosphere for a few hours, Moons of Madness will serve adequately. The visuals and sounds are well crafted and immersive. Just be aware that the game itself is mainly a walking simulator with a B-movie plot and some minigame puzzles mixed in.

Score: 6.8/10

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