moonscars review: bad moon rising

PC review code provided by Humble Games.

Souls-likes and Metroidvanias are like chocolate and strawberries; they’re great on their own, and work great in combination! Except rather than eating dessert, you’re being brutally killed over and over again. A number of titles have combined the mechanics seamlessly to great effect. Hollow Knight and Blasphemous both made a great success of titles that meld the two. The latest developer attempting to give their own spin on the concept is Black Mermaid with their grim adventure Moonscars, published by Humble Games.

Story

 		 		 		moonscars review: bad moon rising

The world of Moonscars is a dark, grim place, populated by soulless golems known as Clayborns. These have been created by an individual known as The Sculptor.

The game places you in the steel-plated shoes of Grey Irma, a warrior searching for The Sculptor, who apparently created her also, though she is eager to distinguish herself from the average clay-bone-blood monster. In a break from what you might expect in gamers of this kind, Irma is not a silent protagonist. She’s hot-headed, confused, and generally sick of the other NPC’s cryptic nonsense a lot of the time. That doesn’t mean she’s not above engaging in some souls-esque context-free lore rambling, but it’s very refreshing to see a protagonist who has a defined personality.

In the vein of this kind of setting, everything is very sparsely explained. If you like to understand your hero’s motivations from the outset, you may feel unsatisfied with what you are presented with. Irma seems to have some idea of who the people she is up against are and why she needs to go places, but she won’t deign to tell you. A lot of the NPCs are your usual riddle-speaking assortment of weirdos. You can bring some of them back to the hub where they’ll continue to talk about moons and clay and generally act weird but will make themselves useful at least.

Gameplay

 		 		 		moonscars review: bad moon rising

If you’ve spent a lot of time playing Metroidvanias you will understand the basic idea of the gameplay easily enough. You run around a 2D, multi-leveled world. You explore, fight enemies, and conquer area bosses to proceed. In advancing, you gain skills and advantages that can help you later on.

Combat is fun. It’s fast-paced, smooth, and relies on good timing of dodges and parries. The enemies will happily wipe the floor with you if you let them, so staying mobile is absolutely crucial. It’s hard but never felt unfair. You have special attacks which you swap out at each checkpoint unlock, and spells powered by ichor. In a nod to Hollow Knight, this is also your healing pool.

The Souls-like mechanics also factor in. If you die, you will drop your ‘bone powder’, which is your currency. To recover it you must return to the place you died and pick it up, before dying again.

Moonscars introduces its own spins on the genre, which is a welcome innovation, even if the results are mixed. One of these is the moon system. ‘Full Moon’ is the normal difficulty and is what you start the game with. ‘Ravenous Moon’ is a harder difficulty. Enemies are tougher, there are more of them, and they drop more bone powder. Ravenous Moon is activated after the player gets killed. It can only be reversed through sacrificing an ichor gland, a rare item, at Dark Mirrors, which serves as the game’s checkpoint.

This is in some ways evocative of other games punishing the player for failure. Hollowing in Dark Souls 2, for example, reduced the overall health of the player. It’s not without merit, but it feels a little unfair. Punishing failure by making it much harder to advance seems more likely to push an inexperienced Metroidvania player to give up entirely, especially as it can take a while to get the item to return to Full Moon, and it can be lost again soon after.

Another addition is the doppelganger. When you find a new checkpoint you are warped back to the hub area, and lose your previous clay body. The body objects to this and will attack you when you warp back to that checkpoint. Even worse for you, the double has your special attack, and you don’t. The doppelganger fights are not bad fights, but it does start to become a bit of a chore after a while. You need to kill the other you to get a choice of special attacks, but it may mean having to go right back to the mirror after your health has taken a beating.

Visuals And Audio

 		 		 		moonscars review: bad moon rising

Moonscars takes stylization and runs with it. The visual style is very distinctive and interesting and suits the mood very well. Realized through pixel graphics, the world is rendered in moody greys and reds. The sprites are somewhat vague in their details, though this is a matter of art direction, rather than graphical fidelity.

The style has necessitated some visuals, like tells for enemy attacks be emphasized with effects, to avoid them becoming confusing to read. Enemies’ eyes will flare red just before a strike, making it easy to see when you need to dodge.

The parallax backgrounds look bleak and beautiful, detailing distant trees and a strange crescent moon in the sky. Any shot of it could be a desktop wallpaper.

The audio hits all the right notes for the game’s atmosphere. Opting for church choirs and sorrowful violins in some of the backing tracks, it nails the generally gothic atmosphere. Effects sound meaty and satisfying and convey the sickening violence you’re perpetrating very well.

Replayability

While progression is relatively straightforward in Moonscars, there’s a great deal of customization that can change the nature of runs quite significantly. Different special attacks, spells, and talismans, as well as the moon phases, can make drastic changes in terms of the feel and struggle of particular areas.

There are a lot of areas to explore, with the good use of verticality in the design. This means there’s quite likely to be something you missed on your first go that makes a place worth giving a second visit. A lot of useful items are tucked away in obscure places.

What It Could Have Done Better

 		 		 		moonscars review: bad moon rising

Moonscars sets out to try and distinguish itself from other similar titles with new ideas. This is admirable and shows real thought put into the design. Sadly, these are a little hit-and-miss. The moon phase system and doppelgangers appearing are different from other games, but they also become a bit of a chore.

There are a few balance issues. Some special attacks seem utterly broken, and some spells will make a lot of foes trivial later on. Depending on the surroundings, it can be shockingly easy to cheese your way through groups of enemies through long-range specials, or baiting them off platforms.

I did notice a few bugs also. Sometimes my bone powder would drop somewhere like a fading platform, or near something else that was interactable, and I would lose it all through no fault of my own. Sometimes large flying enemies would fly too far up and get stuck on things. There was nothing utterly game-breaking, but there were issues that I noticed.

Verdict

Moonscars is an enjoyable game. It’s worth a play and I did have fun with it. That said, I could see how it could be immensely frustrating to anyone with a lower tolerance for being punished by a game. Its tendency to kick you when your down might put people off. It’s not quite on the level of the games that have inspired it, but it’s still a good-looking, fun, and very solid adventure.

Moonscars is available to purchase for Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam. It’s also available for subscribers of Game Pass.

 		 		 		moonscars review: bad moon rising

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