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Moons of Madness (XOne)

Moons of Madness (XOne) - Review

by Lee Mehr , posted on 03 April 2020 / 2,951 Views

Eldritch horror has been making a comeback.  While zombie outbreaks may remain the most popular in the horror genre, I'd argue there's a tangible creative reason for Lovecraftian concepts slithering back more prominently into the public subconscious: the fear of the unknown.  Both in respect of color & alien design, the idea of mentally comprehending otherworldly entities can be terrifying on its own.  Combine this with a sci-fi setting and one can appreciate Rock Pocket Games' enthusiasm for exploring such daunting territory—especially with new narrative expectations for them.  And though Moons of Madness is bolstered by slick production values and some interesting concepts, the overall experience doesn't worm its way into your memory like its inspiration.

You play as Shane Newehart, an engineer secretly stationed on Mars.  The suspicious Orochi Group has gone through the effort to search for alien life on the red planet.  A mysterious message is what initially lured them there.  The motives are of little concern for you.  Just keep everything tip-top while waiting for the shuttle Cyrano to arrive.  But, as these stories tend to go, it's not that simple once Shane's recurring hallucinations begin to prophesy continual malfunctions.  Could isolation be driving him mad or is there more to these visions?


As tantalizing as such a question may be, you’re not doing a story any favors by hastily propping it up.  No less than a couple of minutes in, we're yanked into a tentacle-bedecked hallucination of Shane's main outpost.  Two intersecting rings, also conveniently branded onto his hand, are a prominent symbol throughout and strange words are etched like graffiti amongst these terrible vines.  Then, you're plopped back into the real world and tasked with managing some technical issues across Trailblazer Alpha and its distant power array.  On its own, the early busywork complements the tone quite well, but the problem is that the rushed introduction exposes an unevenly-compounded narrative structure.

Whether it’s exploring the dangers of isolation, unfettered capitalist ventures at the disregard for human life, familial loss, and more, Moons never centralizes these themes.  You're doing the equivalent of menial janitorial work in a high-tech context, only periodically hearing the voices of your likeable comms guy, stern commander, pompous scientist, or dim-witted assistant (who’s just asking to die first), and those hallucinatory moments can give you temporary pause.  But, as with most Lovecraftian material today, the unfathomable questions become known enemies, their drive easier to digest. 

Having monsters of the week isn't bad per se, but how it's coupled in with disregarding the previous 'dream world' buildup makes everything more predictable.  And this focus also takes away from building up a good cast.  Speaking as a fan of collectibles, one shouldn't rely on accessible computer logs to build up side characters.  Aside from some brief banter with Declan (comms), there's little in the way of development.  In a way, the shifty narrative ground harms the protagonist's growth towards heroism as well.  The deliberate pace of Shane's backstory offers enough interesting ideas.  Topics of maternal detachment & the power of spoken language are well-utilized, but the occasionally-unbelievable actions driving the plot forward confuse the primary conflict.


I can't overstate how... profuse the game is in doling out plot too.  Since what seems like the main resolution is finished in the second act, Moons clamors for a grander dénouement that pushes it past the limits.  The arc about Orochi devolves into "how can we outdo Weyland-Yutani?"  What's uncovered in this scenic route has unsettling implications, but they’re disregarded in the next chapter.  And since this sprint to the finish follows such a strict checklist, everything winds up in a predictable fashion.  Which is a shame too because I feel like it robs the few cinematic and genuinely creative moments found in the early acts. 

Even with potholed writing, it's a shame some frustration falls back on the presentation as well.  Not on atmosphere and sound design, mind you.  While not striving for unique soundscapes, Simon Poole’s composing adequately captures the cosmic horror and sci-fi tones.  It's funny to notice some of the somber scores remind me of Draugen; lo and behold, he worked on that too.  My criticisms are narrowed to the voice acting.  For starters, two people voiced the majority of characters here and… it was quite noticeable.  And David Stanbra's Shane followed the uninspired trend of overreacting horror protagonist relying on "oh shit!" or "no no no..." to convey the situation.  No offense to him but there's something about the way he conveyed his lines that didn't click for me either.


Moons fairs consistently better in conveying terror visually.  Although its true Lovecraftian horror comes with prerequisite tentacles and whatnot, the production values are nonetheless impressive & gross.  The environment artists & designers took fastidious care in making the outposts feel lived-in and authentic.  Even the extra animation here and there made the world feel more tactile.  The adrenaline-fueled, post-chase shaking Shane does when refilling his O2 tank or opening an airlock feels so tangible.  Even the—admitted—busywork of fixing expensive equipment or opening & closing the rover door feel suitable.  Without question, graphics are its greatest asset.

All is not perfect in respect to this tech.  As of right now, Moons has some major graphical glitches.  Prepare to see the expanse of Mars inside your base thanks to textures which haven’t loaded in properly!  In regards to gameplay, a strange instance of loading a checkpoint set me back to a previous chapter and on the brink of death.  A couple of times the next objective failed to load.  All of my experience is on an Xbox One X too, so I can't say if it’ll be worse on an original console SKU.  It's not bad enough to the point of feeling unfinished, but enough to suggest this port was rushed (despite already having a two-month delay). 

Gameplay follows what could be considered a "tactical walking sim with puzzles."  There are times you're simply trudging around the barren wastelands of Mars to complete a task, but your suit's limited oxygen supply forces you to keep it in mind; then again, the depletion rate is nominal.  Early on, you retrieve an electronic wristband that’s necessary to complete puzzles.  Outside of the environmental conundrum or two, most work involves adjusting panels or manipulating power grids, a la pipe adjustment mini-games.  They become humdrum after a while, which is a shame considering the few good ones that incorporate both the device and surroundings.


The most disappointing element is the chase sequences.  I'll give you an honest account to emphasize how underwhelming they are: I legitimately didn't know there was a sprint button until halfway through and I still escaped each one without dying.  Which is even more surprising given how default walking retains the same speed as trudging through wet cement.  Can we please stop exasperating the average audience with this nonsense?  I'd rather take in the scenery at my own leisure, not because someone wants make me gawk at their Unreal Engine 4 expertise. 

The last noteworthy quality is also one of my favorite sequences throughout: the stealth section.  This momentary intermission is one of the few moments of going against humanoid threats too.  Having to use your wristband to reposition nearby cameras while also dodging patrols felt engaging.  Granted, this has to be taken with considerations that I later discovered can be exploited: the ambiguous detection meter, no tangible sound detection system (that I noticed), and a quick back-to-normal patrol routine. 

These are the issues in keeping with Moons too: momentary challenges that feel complimentary to the larger world that lose their bite in the face of repetition and lesser gameplay elements.  What’s worse is those distractive staples feel like the team’s method of artificially padding out this four-to-five-hour runtime for its $30 price point.


Rock Pocket Games’ first attempt at a story-driven adventure is about as clumsy as Lovecraft's prose.  I'm sure copious amounts of work went into the detailed environment and atmosphere.  Which is why it's annoying how often uneven game design and storytelling interrupt them; moreover, the current Xbox One version has notable visual & gameplay hitches that forced me to restart a few times.  Flawed port aside, Moons of Madness demonstrates adaptation mismanagement of Lovecraft's special method to leave you haunted with his best story's implications weeks later.


VGChartz Verdict


5
Acceptable

This review is based on a digital copy of Moons of Madness for the XOne, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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