Moons of Madness Review
You can tell that a lot of great Lovecraftian games are crafted with love for the 20th century writer’s vision of horror, but Moons of Madness often feels more like an interactive movie than a video game. And I can’t help but wonder if it could have been more successful if it were. The story is decent though unfocused, but it suffers from the presence of gameplay that’s rarely more than busywork and often left me feeling as cold as the planet it’s set on.
Lovecraft and the cosmic-horror genre have found a comfortable home in video games. The early 20th century Massachusetts writer’s ideas have formed the basis of plenty of them in recent years, including Bloodborne and The Sinking City, but in Moons of Madness, developer Rock Pocket Games takes the ideas of the Ancient Ones in space to its logical endpoint by just putting you on Mars.
The opening moments start strong enough. Protagonist Shane Newehart, an engineer for the space exploration company Orochi, awakens into a literal nightmare version of the space station he calls home. It’s a tense and short sequence that does a good job of setting the tone for Moons of Madness while introducing its primary motifs: tentacles, strange chanting, and a mysterious woman who seems to have a personal grudge against Shane. From there, you journey across the Orochi Mars Base as Shane tries to find the hidden meaning behind his dreams, and figure out if his fellow astronauts are who they seem.
I’m not trying to be vague for the sake of spoilers, here. Instead, Moons of Madness is a hodgepodge of different storylines that never gel together within its short five-hour playtime. Plotlines are introduced and dropped at a rapid pace and there’s no real conclusion for any of them: there’s an evil corporation, family drama, clones, and of course the omnipresent Lovecraftiness of it all. A lot of the storytelling is presented by computer logs you can find littered around the world, but even after reading all of them nothing really becomes any more interesting or complex.
Where the story runs all over the place and has some highs to balance out the lows, the gameplay is rote to a fault. The central mechanic in Moons of Madness is an ability that can be used to scan the environment and hack into machines. Once hacked into a device, you can solve a variety of puzzles like connecting pipelines and basic math problems. None of them are very challenging, and the puzzles only really serve to pad out the time between story dumps.
In fact, there’s a lot of that padding happening in Moons of Madness, and it goes beyond just the scanning of stuff. Environmental puzzles often boil down to finding an item and putting into the correct slot, or rotating a machine until it’s in the proper position. There are some other time-wasters like how you need to follow procedure and close space doors in the proper order, lest you suffocate, but there’s nothing interesting about this so it just becomes a simulation of a chore.
There are also several instances of showy interactivity. You can pick up mugs and fill them with coffee from the coffee machine, or reset your wristwatch with a pen, and other stuff that shows off the developers’ attention to detail. The best of these are tied to a limited air supply mechanic where you need to refill your air tank to stay alive, and even though I never had a situation where the air supply ran dangerously low, the resupply animation is the most satisfying to look at in all of Moons of Madness thanks to its smoothness and how it sometimes changes depending on your current air level.
Enemy encounters are, frankly, disappointing. Like many other modern horror games, Moons of Madness deprives you of weapons or other means of defending yourself to maximize the feeling of helplessness and fear when something spooky shows up. The only problem is that these portions aren’t very scary. All I ever had to do when an enemy showed up was make a bee-line to the nearest door, which very quickly deflated their ability to intimidate me.
Other times enemy encounters are similarly tame. One tentacle-like create is defeated by simply staring at them. It’s unclear if this is meant to create fear in the player, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting combat mechanic either way. The only notable enemy encounter comes late in the game when Shane has to sneak his way around murderous robots. This encounter combines the scanning mechanic with stealth and is one of the strongest moments during my playtime.
Moons of Madness does have an eye for cinematics, at least. The biggest moments are often the most interesting things about it, and extended sequences like a flashback to Shane’s childhood are often the most exciting parts. Sadly, these moments are separated by stretches of tedious gameplay. It makes me wish I’d just watched the cinematics strung together on YouTube rather than played through to see them.