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July 2019

Moons of Madness

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Funcom
Developer: Dreamloop Games (EU), Rock Pocket Games (US)
Release Date: Halloween 2019


PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'Moons of Madness'

by Thomas Wilde on June 27, 2019 @ 12:30 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.

A fundamental part of the video game medium is predicated on the idea that Martian colonization probably isn't going to work out that well for us. Ever since Doom (and probably the original version of Total Recall), we've all been operating on the pop-cultural assumption that we're going to get up there only to discover that there's a reason the planet was so trashed in the first place. It's just a question of what, why, and by whom.

Moons of Madness is another entry in that "don't go to Mars" sub-sub-genre. A first-person horror game from Norwegian studio Rock Pocket Games, Moons of Madness is nominally set in the same universe as Funcom's The Secret World MMORPG, but set more than 50 years in the future.

Like Conan Chop Chop, however, Moons of Madness was already in production before Funcom got involved as the publisher. If you're familiar with The Secret World, you'll see a lot of shout-outs in the game, like how your character works for the Orochi Group, but Moons of Madness is a stand-alone project.

You play Moons as Shane Newehart, a new father and contract employee. As far as the rest of Earth is concerned, Newehart and his co-workers are actually on assignment in an undersea base in the Marianas Trench, but they're actually stuck together in a small colony construct millions of kilometers away on the Martian surface.

The opening minutes of the game are straight-up hard science fiction, inspired by recent works such as "The Martian," with Newehart and company going about the day-to-day business of staying alive on an experimental, temperamental off-world colony. However, Newehart's been having nightmares, and he's not alone in that. There are forces on Mars that humans aren't equipped to understand (I was careful to establish, in a conversation with the game's creative director, that the game is "Lovecraftian," rather than a straight-up Lovecraft adaptation), and he's about to run straight into them.

The primary thrust of Moons of Madness's style of horror is to play on the fear of going insane. The beginning of the game is set in a nightmare as you explore the base in absolute darkness with a flickering flashlight, but once that's over and things go back to "normal," the game's still working to subtly gaslight you. Pictures change when you aren't looking, the base keeps breaking down in suspect ways, needed items go missing, and data comes back flawed. There's an early report in the lab you can read where one of the base's scientists is complaining that his sensors are clearly busted, as they're detecting both Deimos and Phobos, Mars's moons, are moving much faster and being much closer than they should be.

As a game, Moons of Madness skews closer to an explorative adventure game than anything else, at least at first. I was told at E3 2019 that there'll be combat in it eventually, but the opening 20 minutes or so are all about a slow build and basic problem-solving. One handy trick is that you can use Newehart's wrist computer to scan your environment and look for power sources, items you can interact with, and other useful features of the area, much like other games' detective/survival vision mechanic. The final product, I was told, is meant to be about eight hours long.

E3 isn't traditionally a great environment for horror games. Even in a quiet side room with a good set of noise-canceling headphones, there was a lot about Moons of Madness's atmosphere that I just couldn't get into, especially with a bunch of people laughing and playing Conan Chop Chop immediately to my right.

It does pass a few of the early obvious tests, though; the base is a realistically cluttered environment with just enough of a whiff of real science about it to be believable and explicable, and there's a lot to see and do if you wander around a bit. It's not a well-disguised linear corridor, which I've found is the first stumbling block for this sort of psychological horror game. The next one, of course, is the Outlast 2 problem, where I'm arbitrarily too scared to fight back against relatively weak enemies, and we'll see how that works out here. At least "cosmic horrors from deep beneath the Martian soil" are a slightly less opposable threat than "some dude with a pitchfork."

Appropriately enough, Moons of Madness is scheduled for a cross-platform release this coming Halloween.

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