“The rule of two is an exciting concept. When we discover one example of a phenomenon in the cosmos, it is an anomaly. Given the vastness of the universe, if two examples are found, it implies there are many more – millions, billions, trillions. As of now, we are only certain of life on Earth. An anomaly…. All we have to do is get two”. Unfortunately we don’t get to decide what or how that second one appears. We also don’t decide the millions, billions, or trillions that follow. This is what is fascinating about Moons of Madness.
Cosmic horror is something that is infamously hard to get right in video game form. It benefits greatly from your own imagination. “The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. This means the most terrifying way to introduce a horror is to not show one at all. Moons of Madness plays with this concept well in the opening hours.
In Moons of Madness, you play the role of Shane Newehart, a technician at a state of the art Mars research outpost. Being one of those “things go wrong in space” games has fairly obvious expectations here, doesn’t it? This brings one to the story. In Moons of Madness, after a fairly cliche jumpscare opening, we are greeted with the familiar site of Shane waking up. After picking up a torch and pouring seven cups of coffee to see if the game will let you (it does) you can start to explore the base.
The base and visuals, as a whole, feel directly inspired by Alien’s USCSS Nostromo. They are clean, sterile and almost, dare I say, alien. After picking up gaming’s favourite melee weapon, a crowbar, you may now take on your first objective. You hear very little from the team, and someone or something keeps displacing the solar panels and removing power cells. You must fix them. The gameplay loop is reasonably simplistic but works for the most part, with the game split up into four main modes of gameplay.
The first is that of exploration. You must search around for parts, go through shafts, doors and tunnels, and you may look through logs to attempt to piece together the story. These offer a rewarding insight into the universe but aren’t necessary to understand the story. The second mode is stealth; the most underused form of the game yet the gameplay is all the better as a result. As the central controls are almost walking simulator-esque, forced stealth might end up grating rather than tense. Moons of Madness though achieves this in a different way.
The third major style of gameplay is running away. This is something you will do a lot in Moons of Madness. Nothing you go up against feels weak and that is part of the charm of cosmic horror. If you fight back, you lose that fear. In Moons of Madness, DO NOT FIGHT BACK. And then the final gameplay system is the largest and most in-depth – the puzzles. This is fairly broad but entails a multitude of activities through the game such as logic puzzles, maths puzzles and lateral thinking challenges. The puzzles often get very conceptual too, in a rewarding way, with a welcoming amount of challenge that is never frustrating enough to make you feel “stuck”.
You must do things like triangulate a broadcast to fit your objective, “hack” into systems through a logic puzzle and use basic algebra to get specific numbers to a set amount. None of these are wholly original ideas but they are used in novel ways and don’t feel stale.
For all the good though, Moons of Madness features a plethora of small ideas that don’t feel as explored as the developers might have originally planned. It has a heartbeat monitor that minorly affects some actions such as the animation to fill up oxygen. The oxygen meter is another micromanagement mechanic that you don’t really have to engage with. You see, for the most part, oxygen refills itself where necessary, often making the option to refill totally unimportant. This feels like some remnant from a survival horror game that never came to fruition, and Moons of Madness is better without it.
By this point, you might be thinking “Is it scary?”. Yes, yes it is. Its scares aren’t always the most well thought out though, with a slight over-reliance on jump scares, but Moons of Madness works at its best when relying on atmospheric horror, or when those scares are due to your own actions such as being caught in stealth sections. Unfortunately, the latter half of the title relies too much on being big and bold rather than working with the tight atmosphere evoked beforehand.
I believe this could be in response to the starting segments being rather slow. As a fan of slow-burn horror, I enjoyed the slow, methodical, almost normal, start as you take part in everyday activities waiting for things to slowly fall apart. I could understand how someone could see this as just boring rather than setting up the madness, but personally I’d say the last few chapters are far more disappointing. Furthermore, the story doesn’t stay consistently interesting. It occasionally throws objectives at you that feel like they are padding out the game time and could be almost entirely removed. Unfortunately, this would make the already small five hour or so playtime even smaller.
Overall, Moons of Madness on Xbox One offers some fascinating slow-burn horror and nostalgic Alien-esque visuals, but it lets that down by bogging down playtime with arbitrary objectives and attempts to go much bigger than the story should be. If you are a fan of cosmic or slow-burn horror, Moons of Madness is certainly worth checking out, but it won’t be forging any new fans for the genre.