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Review: Moons of Madness Brings Lovecraft to Mars

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

Minor story spoilers follow

It’s the best time of year to play spooky games (not that we need an excuse) and Moons of Madness released perfectly on-time for the occasion. For those unfamiliar, Moons of Madness is a sci-fi horror game that actually takes place inside the broader Secret World universe—a Lovecraft-inspired horror world that looks like ours, but with hidden supernatural machinations, often of the tentacle-kind.

I played a little bit of the Secret World around the time it came out, and while I enjoyed my time with it, that was so long ago I struggle to recall much beyond the basic premise of the setting. That did not negatively affect my time with Moons of Madness—basically; you don’t need knowledge of the setting to enjoy yourself.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

Moons of Madness takes place on a Mars base that has been suffering complications for the previous few weeks. You play as Shane Newehart, an engineer for the Orochi Group, which seems like your typical evil corporation. Shane, and a few other crew members, are suffering from nightmares and ghastly visions.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

Moons of Madness throws you right into it—straight away the Mars habitat you occupy is converted into a writhing, tentacled mess with visions of ghostly crew members. I was okay with being thrust right into it, but after the beginning sequence is revealed to be a dream, I felt like the beginning reveal was a disservice to the slow build-up that follows.

Moons of Madness is essentially a puzzle game with horror elements, driven forward by its story. And while it technically meets the criteria of “walking simulator” you can think of it as more of a long-rom escape room. Throughout the game you’ll have several objectives to complete—usually to compensate for the systems that are failing around the Mars bases. The puzzles are satisfactory, even if they are not the most clever. Most of them involve reorganizing equipment, flipping switches and pulling levers to produce the desired effects. I’m always a sucker for mechanics that are tactilely satisfying, and this hits the mark.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

These satisfying mechanics are often accompanied by equally satisfying character animations. Most everything is accompanied by a high quality character animation; from opening and closing doors on the rover that gets you around the surface of Mars to filling your O2 with oxygen tanks that are conveniently scattered around the various locations.

Despite its great animations for your character, presentation lacks in general, with the voice acting being the worst offender.  There are very few animated character models—something that Moons of Madness actually manages to hide pretty well. There are few creatures you encounter—a few robots, and a few tentacle creatures, but most of the horror is conveyed through the story telling and atmosphere.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

Unfortunately, I felt the atmosphere in Moons of Madness was lacking. The story doesn’t help, with its lackluster building of tension. But with all the potential that was there, Moons of Madness never really feels that scary. It’s certainly interesting, and I’m a sucker for exploring abandoned/malfunctioning/horror-filled space stuff, but aside from a few cheap jump scares, my heart rate never increased.

With such a narrative-forward game, you would expect Moons of Madness to elicit horror and intrigue with its story. While it presents a good mystery, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done dozens of times before.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness.

Appropriate for a game in the Secret World universe, there is a vast dark conspiracy to be discovered, but the conspiracy ends up feeling a bit far-fetched, especially given what we see before. Still, when the veil is lifted, I couldn’t help but feel like my suspension of disbelief was lifted a bit too. Not to get too spoiler-y, but you go from walking around a surface operation on Mars, to exploring vast underground facilities that the characters had no knowledge of—hidden right under their feet.

Even if the premise isn’t original, it’s potentially fun—but it just doesn’t pan out in a satisfying way. There is an awful lot of “telling” and not showing, especially during a rushed feeling and horrible end sequence where you’re forced to catch up with some of your crew mates as they’re getting to the finale encounter before you. It could have been a great moment to induce horror—to hear your crewmates suffer and die while you can’t save them, etc. But instead it turns into a long game of catch-up as you listen to them experience everything interesting before you can get there, as if you were playing a multiplayer game with friends that wouldn’t let you catch up to see the story parts.

Screenshot: Moons of Madness

Moons of Madness is great for a single playthrough, but it won’t have any staying power—and it isn’t destined to be a classic. Still, if you like horror sci-fi, and if you’re a sucker for horror in space (like I am) Moons of Madness isn’t the worst way to spend your time. Moons of Madness is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows.

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