When I was a kid, I never wanted to be an astronaut. I loved space, I loved learning about the different planets, and I loved imagining what kind of life forms can evolve on each one of them. But I never wanted to go up there. Space may be fascinating, but it’s also utterly terrifying.

Maybe that’s why I absolutely love the cosmic horror genre, pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft. That’s also the reason why I enjoyed playing through the short demo of Moons of Madness at Gamescom 2017.

This slow-burning indie horror title aims to blend hard science with equal parts Lovecraftian horror and mental illness. It’s a tragic story about coping mental illness in the family, wrapped in a sci-fi adventure on Mars, set in in a universe where humankind is just specks of dust in a cosmic storm. Kind of like our universe, but with more tentacles.

Actually, I didn’t see any tentacles during my playthrough. However I did get stabbed by my dead mother, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Moons of Madness annabelle

The demo is based on a vertical slice from the game. I am astronaut Shane Newehart, out and about on the surface of Mars, when my rover stalls and breaks down. Luckily, I have my helpful buddy on comms to assure me these things happen, and I can easily fix the issue by charging the rover’s power cell at a nearby station.

As I’m taking to this buddy, that for the life of me I can’t remember his name, I have to choose to answer him and continue the conversation. Kind of like the conversation prompts in Firewatch. I don’t get to choose what to say – just to “press X” to say something. The developers from Rock Pocket Games mention that later in the game, this turns into a much bigger deal, as I choose how much I want to reveal to my colleagues about my past and family history. As always – silence is a valid response.

I don my spacesuit and jump out of the rover. Mars, as you might expect, isn’t a hospitable place. I immediately notice the oxygen meter starting to count down the second I jump out of the rover. Once again, the devs step in to reassure me that refilling my air supply won’t be a nuisance. And from what I’ve experienced, they seem to be right. I only had to refill my oxygen once during the demo, and I did it on the way from point A to B, without thinking about it too much.

Moons of Madness red planet

Using my arm mounted scanner, I scan the rover, find out the problem and locate the power cell. The scanner lets you gather information about certain machines, but also allows you to interact with some of them from afar. Object the scanner can interface with glow in on the scanner’s screen, which can be pretty handy when you’re feeling stuck. I unlock the rover’s rear compartment, grab the power cell and head out.

As I carry the cell up a steep hill to the recharging station, my character’s breath starts to get heavy, fogging up the visor. Moons of Madness never lets you forget you’re on another planet, millions of miles from home. All that stands between Shane and instant death is a sheet of slightly worn plastic. I absolutely love little details like this one that help the game’s world feel more real; more believable. Especially in a horror game.

I plug in the power cell, and turn on the machine. Nothing. The recharge station isn’t getting any juice. I’m informed by my ever-helpful buddy that I need to go and realign some solar panels so power up the station. I half walk, half run down a shallow canyon, where the demo’s first puzzle awaits me. I needed to interact with a console, and use the thumbsticks to move the panels to the optimal position. 3 separate times. Each time presented a different challenge; the puzzle itself was the same, but the different consoles I had to interact with weren’t always easy to get to. One needed its own power cell, which I found in an abandoned rover nearby, while the other was up some scaffolding I couldn’t reach. The devs had to remind me to use the scanner I kept forgetting I had.

Moons of Madness solar panels

With the solar panels aligned, I go back to recharge my power cell. I press a few buttons, and nothing happens. Suddenly something horrible flashes across the screen, as if to remind me I’m playing a horror game. Comms go out, and a dust storm rises up to block the sun. As I start making my way back, I spot a dark cave in the mountain that wasn’t there before. A strange noise emanates from the dark tunnel, beckoning me to explore it. “Sure,” I think to myself, “I’ll head into that spooky cave”.

In the final version of Moons of Madness, the scary part won’t just appear out of nowhere. But this is demo designed to show me what’s Moons of Madness is all about, so I press on, ignoring the urge to turn back and find the first shuttle back to Earth.

I soon come across a puddle of black goo in the middle of a room. As I approach, a figure of a deformed astronaut climbs out of the pool, flashing in an out of existence. I give the pool a wide berth and continue down the tunnel. The rough stone walls give way to stone arches, as the voice of my mother echoes in my ears. She calms me down, telling me and who I think is my sibling, to go and play and that everything is going to be OK. Somehow, I’m not reassured.

Moons of Madness black goo

Further down the tunnel, I find myself standing in a room. On a desk in front of me there a letter from my mom. I pick it up, read it, and turn to leave. But the tunnel I can through is no longer there. Instead I keep going down a corridor, led by the noise of a woman crying. There, I see here. My mother stands with her back to me. I approach her, hoping to comfort her.

My hand on her shoulder startles her, and she quickly turn around waving her arms. The screen flashes red, and I as I look down, I see the knife sticking from my chest. I fall, and suddenly I’m back on Mars surface, with a shard of a solar panel sticking out of me. There was no cave, no knife, and no dead mother. As I lay there with my buddy screaming into my ear, the demo ends.

It seems like the scares in Moons of Madness won’t come from some space monster chasing you all across the red planet. Although that shambling astronaut did not seem friendly at all.

No, the horror will stem from an all too familiar place – your own mind. The game wants us to know that no matter how far we travel, and what great things we achieve, we can never escape our inner demons. And that’s a frightening thought.

Moons of Madness will launch on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2018.

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