Review – Moons of Madness

Mars sucks

PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

A brief note from our editor on publishing amid national crisis.

Developer: Rock Pocket Games
Publisher: Funcom
Genre: Sci-fi, Horror
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Rating: M for Mature
Price: $24.99 (PC), $29.99 (PS4, Xbox One)

In Moons of Madness, you play as Shane Newehart, an engineer employed by a company called Orochi while stationed on Mars. Shane and the rest of the crew have been suffering from nightmares and hallucinations brought on by periods of extended isolation due to their assignments. To make matters worse, a monster gets loose in the base after an experiment goes too far, and it’s up to Shane to find a way to fix the problem. But as Shane works toward a solution, the hallucinations grow worse, throwing his perception of reality into question.

Never try to take on the horrors of Mars without caffeine.

Content Guide

Language: H***, G**, S***,  and F*** all appear frequently. B****ing (as in complaining) and d**k show up too.

Alcohol/Drugs: A document describes a character as having a history of substance abuse.

Violence: Throughout the game, you find blood on walls and floors, sometimes used to draw the two moons. There are discussions of gory experiments. Reports mention kidnappings, sexual assaults, and mutilations. A character is found dead, stuck to a wall with plant-like tentacles protruding from various places of his body, including his mouth. Another character becomes fused bodily to a tree, and the player has to kill them by injecting a plant poison into that character’s head.

Hold on. There’s something familiar about this…

Sexual Themes: A female monster is naked, with her head hair as her only covering for certain areas. There are mentions of nude statuettes believed to be somehow related to fertility.

Spiritual Content: There are a ton of supernatural elements inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work, as well as things taken straight from it, such as the Necronomicon. At a couple of points, you interact with an altar to some entity, complete with a human skull decoration. On the altar is the Necronomicon, bearing the symbol for the occult philosophy Thelema on the cover. Conversely, you can find a KJV Bible in a bookcase, surrounded by books that, judging by the titles, are theological in nature. A group is building a city called “New Eden,” and Genesis 3:23 appears on a plaque.

At least someone has their priorities right.

Review

Moons of Madness starts off with a bang: the lights in the Mars base are out, the walls are covered with slimy black tendrils, and you see movement in the shadows, only to find nothing there. To top it off, you’re alone. It feels like a combination of Dead Space and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, which is a big plus for me. The atmosphere is suitably intense, making for a strong intro. However, the sequence ends with a failed attempt at a jump scare, and that’s where the problems start.

The intro is revealed to have been a dream as you wake up in your bed to radio chatter from your coworkers. At this point, the pacing slows to a crawl as you go about your daily activities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the goal seems to be to slowly build tension. Your first task is to readjust solar panels that a sandstorm messed up the night before.

Chores on Mars are not to be taken lightly.

To get to where you need to go, you have to take a rover called the MYRCAT (pronounced meerkat). You’ll use it a lot throughout the game. Unfortunately, it’s a little on-the-nose and gets tedious, as there isn’t enough reward for the work. After pressing the button to open the back door/ramp, you have to push another button to close it behind you, go through a second door, sit in the driver’s seat, and hit a button to start the engine. But after that, you don’t get the payoff of actually getting to drive it. The game takes it from there for about fifteen seconds before fading to black to cut to the destination.

I didn’t like not being able to control the rover. It could have expanded the exploration element and helped the immersion, even if you were limited in where you could go. After doing everything else step by step, to not be able to drive yourself seems anticlimactic, especially at a point later in the game when you’re on the run from monsters.

Deimos and Phobos alone are signs of impending doom.

While you’re out on the surface, you have to keep an eye on your suit’s oxygen levels. Sprinting uses up oxygen faster, and running out means a quick death. If you stray too far outside the game’s borders, your oxygen drains even faster. Thankfully, there are plenty of stations to refill your oxygen tanks. Something I found to be a nice touch is that the suit also has a BPM monitor. Running increases Shane’s heart rate, which the BPM reflects. It doesn’t otherwise do anything for the gameplay, but it’s the first of many small details Rock Pocket Games included.

The level of detail is admirable.

You can interact with a lot of electronic devices by using the device on your arm called a biogage. Scanning the environments with it sometimes allows you to connect to things like security cameras or control panels, and from there you can solve whatever puzzle is necessitating the connection. If you ever get lost, scanning the environment also brings up a destination marker and, if the option for it is active, a faint trail moves in the direction you’re supposed to go.

After fixing the solar panels, you learn that the greenhouse has flooded, so your next objective is to fix the water system in the base. Puzzles are a major part of the game, and you encounter the first of many in the water reclamation area. First, you collect three color-coded batteries needed to operate the machine, and you have to adjust the settings so that the right amount of power is going to each part. It’s not particularly difficult if you’re careful to put the batteries in their corresponding color slots. I wasn’t at first, resulting in a mathematically impossible solution.

Unfortunately, I’m not a botanist.

After that point is when you encounter your first monster. You have no way to fight back, so you’re left with escaping the base. You’re alone, so there’s no need to get anyone else out, but the comms are down and you can’t warn the others not to return.

This guy is given the scientific name “The Thing in the Mist”

While running from “The Thing in the Mist,” I took a wrong turn and came face to face with it, and it killed me. That’s when I ran into one of the last bugs you want to find. After hitting “restart from checkpoint,” the screen went black as it loaded for at least fifteen minutes, at which point I gave up and closed the application. I haven’t encountered an infinite loading bug like that since Fallout: New Vegas.

Picture taken seconds before disaster

Overall, the puzzles can be complicated enough to make you slow down and think, which usually I like. The problem I found, though, is that more often than not, they’re unnecessarily tedious. It’s really easy to miss most clues, making things harder than they need to be.

One such example involves rotating a satellite dish to bring comms back up. The power is off, so you need to complete a series of smaller puzzles in order to restore power to the dish’s control console. Those small puzzles are, in practice, exactly like ones you find in Spider-Man, just not done as well.

I know I’ve seen this somewhere.

Once those are done, you need to use your biogage to adjust the dish’s position. The key to solving it is a little abstract and easy to miss if you aren’t careful. You have to divert the power away from the satellite to the desktop in the room to find the clue, then switch the power again. As I said: tedious.

Mars can be surprisingly pleasant to look at.

After fixing the dish, I came across another aggravating bug. I encountered an enemy, and he grabbed and threw me. Then, before I could have a chance to get away, he grabbed and threw me again, nearly killing me. But this time I somehow landed between a rock wall and the scaffolding we were standing on, and I ended up stuck. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get out. I had to let my oxygen run out so I could die and restart. To make it worse, the enemy was walking around on the steps above me, unable to get to me to finish the job.

“Come on, kill me, I’m here! Come on, do it now!”

One major source of frustration for me is the lack of defensive abilities. I get that Shane’s an engineer, not a soldier, but fight-or-flight instinct should push him to do something when he’s cornered or grabbed. Instead, he just lets whatever is in front of him have its way. At one point, you have to sneak past android guards in the dark, and if they see you, they kill you and you have to restart from the last checkpoint.

About halfway through the game, you occasionally encounter an enemy that appears as nothing but an empty space suit. In and of itself, it’s a creepy thing to have chasing you, but I don’t recall there ever being an explanation for what it is, or what its point is. It seems to be nothing more than a “because plot” device, and I think the game would have benefited from its exclusion.

Did Tony Stark fund this base?

Later in the game, toxic plants infest the entire base. You learn what happens by logging into computers in various areas, and reading the communications between the other scientists. It turns out that the plant problem –and possibly the Thing in the Mist– are a result of the botanist crew member going too far with her experiments.

The RE7 vibe is strong with this one.

The two most frustrating things for me story-wise is the “mad scientist” bit, and the late game plot twist. The scientist that won’t abandon his or her experiments because of some “it’s my baby” delusion, despite the obvious danger to everyone by continuing, is overdone and cliché. I won’t spoil the plot twist, but it was one I was able to call in the first act, and I can’t abide stories that predictable.

The more I played Moons of Madness, the less fun I had. It was exciting and fun at the beginning, and a chore later on. A bright spot is that the characters, particularly Declan, are likeable and have good personalities. If Shane had been the only character in the game, it would have been worse. Mind you Shane isn’t a bad character. But he’s no Isaac Clarke and isn’t strong enough to carry the game on his own.

Another issue I encountered was the audio. Subtitles are a must. All too often, the audio would cut off what someone was saying to play the next character’s dialogue, and sometimes it wouldn’t even play the audio. The subtitles would come up, and the next character would respond accordingly, even though nothing was technically said.

The game sure can be beautiful, though.

Despite my many complaints, the game isn’t devoid of good things. The environments are beautiful, and there is an impressive level of attention to detail, such as a lion’s face and mane on a doorknob. Some of the worldbuilding and lore are ripped straight from Lovecraft, like the Old Ones, the Necronomicon, and the “language” of the chants, complete with “Fhtagn” at the end. If you’re a fan of Lovecraft, then you might enjoy those elements.

With its dark atmosphere, the feeling of isolation, and the grotesque monsters, Moons of Madness has all the right elements that could have made it a great horror experience. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by bugs, predictable plot points, and annoying puzzles. While it’s not the worst game out there, it’s not great either. But it has made me more interested in Lovecraft’s work, so at least there’s that.

“Rule #32: enjoy the little things.”

The Bottom Line

 

If you're looking for a good horror experience, you'd be better served looking beyond Moons of Madness.

 

6.0

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David Koury

Writer and gamer residing in the wasteland that is Nevada.

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