While it ends up a satisfying cosmic horror tale, the slow and derivative gameplay, combined with a few too many bugs, leaves Moons of Madness an inconsistent game.
Space is scary. It’s big, dark, and full of cosmic beings who want to either destroy or enslave us. That is if you follow the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
Developer Rock Pocket Games does, so they created Moons of Madness. It is a cosmic horror tale of an astronaut, slowly succumbing to the influence of madness and unknown entities called The Dreamers. Or at least I think that’s what it’s about…
The Secrets of Mars
In Moons of Madness, you are Shane Newehart – an engineer on a secret research base on Mars. Your job is to keep the lights on and the oxygen scrubbers scrubbing while the real scientists do the science. You’re a space maintenance man, is what I’m trying to say.
It doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing to do in a game (even if you do it on Mars), but things quickly go sideways, and the real horror begins. Things start breaking down suddenly, black vines appear everywhere, your crew is all MIA, and someone drank all the dark roast coffee.
To make matters worse, you can’t seem to distinguish dream from reality. It’s all very confusing, and often not in a mystery-to-be-solved kind of way.
Moons of Madness is a little all over the place. There’s goo that turns plants to monsters, an evil book from your childhood, ancient alien ruins, and something about the moons waking up (among many other things). While it’s not hard to follow what’s going on at any given moment, I couldn’t really understand how it all comes together. If you squint and tilt your head, you may see how all the story bits fit into place, but even then, it’s a bit of a stretch.
However, we are talking about a Lovecraftian story here, so an unreliable narrator and ambiguity are part of the course. And the Lovecraftian bits are the best part of the game. The story slowly lets you in on more and more secrets, but you keep feeling you’re only scratching the surface. By the time you realize what’s happening, you’re already in too deep. This sense of morbid curiosity, mixed with impending doom, fits perfectly with the atmosphere Moons of Madness is going for.
The story might be a “slow burner,” but it moves in the speed of light compared to the gameplay. You spend the first hour or so just doing the job of a space maintenance man. You restore power to sections of the base, align solar panels, and fix the plumbing. It teaches you some basic mechanics and introduces puzzles you’ll need to master later on, but not in a particularly exciting way.
Everything you do also involves a lot of busywork and extra steps. You need to press multiple buttons to move from one area to another or scan something before you can interact with it. These steps are all very short and trivial on their own, but they pile up. I almost killed myself countless times because I forgot to circulate the airlock before removing my helmet. This attention to detail adds a layer of realism to the game, but it also gets tedious at some point.
These “extra steps” are sometimes very literal. You’re often confined to one location where you slowly walk back and forth between the same few areas. Outside, you slowly hike up hills or slowly run for your life across Mars’ dunes. Everything is designed to slow you down at first, which, again, gets tiresome. You just want to get to the good parts.
Luckily, once you do, Moons of Madness picks up the pace. The game eventually breaks the Martian routine with more intricate puzzles, chase sequences, and even some stealth. The puzzles specifically tend to change and evolve throughout and don’t repeat themselves too often. The variety in gameplay makes each chapter feel fresh and always pushes you forward, something I always appreciate in slow horror games such as this one.
Whether you’re strolling across the red sand or running away from a tentacle monster, Moons of Madness always makes sure you know there’s something bigger going on. The documents you find or weird voices in your head always hint that everything you do serves a purpose – there’s something terrible coming, and you need to stop it. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Shane’s hallucinations and dreamlike visions.
It’s what you see, not necessarily what you do, that make Moons of Madness a scary game. I’m not talking about gore or the horrible monsters, although I do really love how they look. I’m referring to how you can’t trust your own eyes.
Shane suffers from nightmares and visions, brought about by who-knows-what. Are they the delusions of a homesick astronaut, or is there an unknown entity influencing your mind? At some point, it becomes almost impossible to tell, and the game’s visuals do a fantastic job conveying Shane’s instability. One small touch I really enjoyed was how all of Shane’s animations slightly change whenever he is panicking. How his hands shake when you try and fill your oxygen tanks, and how he keeps pressing a button over and over again to try and speed up a door-opening mechanism.
The game manages to create a real sense of panic and dread on multiple occasions. A big part of it is thanks to the voices actors who, for the most part, do a terrific job. I will say that some of Shane’s dialogue feels a bit off at times, but I think that’s mostly due to poor editing and not the actor’s performance.
Unfortunately, I’ve encountered several bugs that broke the game’s illusion of fear. At one point, I had to restart a checkpoint multiple times because an in-game cutscene kept spawning behind me, and I couldn’t see what was happening.
Moons of Madness is an inconsistent horror game. The story, direction, and visuals come together to create a satisfying but disorienting cosmic horror tale. However, the gameplay doesn’t complement the Lovecraftian themes and slows the game even further.
But the more you progress, the better the game gets, with intense moments and a few genuine scares. I enjoyed exploring this even more alien version of Mars, even if it wasn’t everything I dreamed it would be when I first played Moons of Madness in 2017.
Developer: Rock Pocket Games
Release Date: Oct. 22, 2019
Our Moons of Madness review copy was supplied by the publisher.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.