It’s a bit of an old, deep cut, but Strong Moon took us back to Homestar Runner, the animated web series from 1996 (twenty six years ago!) that introduced us to Strong Bad and Homestar Runner himself. It’s there in Strong Moon’s title, which immediately invoked Strong Bad, but also in the art and gameplay, which feels – for better and definitely worse – like a Flash game from that period.
Created by four developers as their debut game, we desperately wanted to enjoy Strong Moon. We wanted to be transported back to the Flash games of the early internet. We wanted to be blowing our bugles and celebrate the tiny team that made it, as we do know how difficult it is to make a modern game. But we just can’t. No matter how you slice it, Strong Moon is as lackluster as they come.
Things start with a web-comicky intro, which is appropriately bizarre. You are Strong Moon, a self-proclaimed gym-head who hates his butter-obsessed brother. But when the brother goes outside and gets crushed by a meteor, smooshing him into an actual slab of butter, Strong Moon takes umbrage. He goes after the dark wizard who lived inside the meteor, but said wizard hides in a castle that needs four keys, guarded by four guardians, etc.
It’s messy and poorly translated, and hides behind a couple of cliches, but it’s got a rickety charm that we were on board with. We were willing it to continue walking its wacky, web comic path.
But Strong Moon took a swan-dive off a cliff after its opening cutscenes. This is an action-platformer where you take control of Strong Moon and his arsenal of moves, which includes a jump, crouch, punch and flying kick, and none of them work as you’d want.
Our nose wrinkled up as soon as we started playing with them. There’s no animation to the jump, so it’s more of a pogo, as Strong Moon launches himself into the air without a bend of the leg.
But the stinkers are the combat moves. You can punch, but it’s got an extremely limited range and has zero visual or audio cues about whether you’ve hit something. The flying kick is more of a foot-based uppercut, and shares the same issues. The combat moves are so terrible that even the lowliest enemy – a flying pig, for example – becomes as difficult as an end of game boss. There is a precise, tiny window in which you can hit them, and it’s a roll of the dice if you do, even then. The enemy needs to approach at a very particular angle, as your moves can’t handle a direct approach from the top or bottom. Some enemies just blitzkrieg through your attacks, even if you manage to hit them. Other enemies can’t be hit at all, and there’s no rhyme or reason to which is which.
A better game would fix this, obviously, but a mediocre game would at least hand you a surfeit of lives and health in a kind of apology. But no, Strong Moon is an exceptionally unforgiving game that pours salt on any wounds. You have a limited amount of life in Strong Moon, and bandages – the health pickup – are extremely rare. In a Metroidvania-style, there are camps where you can save, and death returns you to these camps. But there are only a couple of camps per level, so you can see tens of minutes-worth of progress reversed with a death.
Strong Moon goes back to the larder to get even more salt. Each level is a collect-a-thon, where you have to locate and punch a dozen flashing lights in the level, which in turn opens a door. But these lights are guarded by tons of enemies, and dying before or after activating the light takes you back to the camp and undoes any progress you’ve made. It’s a gauntlet of random enemies, with twelve horcruxes to collect in almost one go, and it’s no fun at all.
Now, this might sound a bit like difficulty-whining. Sometimes, a journalist just needs to git gud. But we challenge you to stomach four worlds of stubby little attacks, random enemies that often bypass your defences, and a save system that asks you to make huge chunks of progress in a single runthrough. When you bring all of that together in one game, it’s a crap collage.
In fairness to the four devs who made Strong Moon, there are flashes of the game it could have been. Characters pop up along the way, and chatting to them is an occasionally surreal, often rewarding experience, as they combine bandages to make you upgrades (alas, you will have used the bandages on janky combat), or reveal tidbits of the story. Secrets, too, are strewn about the game in the form of journals.
The journals are hidden in sections of wall, and they shine a light on another big issue with Strong Moon. It’s so buggy that knowing what is intended or unintended is a guessing game. We fell through the floor several times, but we couldn’t tell you whether we were meant to. Enemies attacked us through walls. Bosses were cheesable by standing on specific spots. Other enemies glitched into walls and floors, desperate to attack us, leaving us feeling safe until they found another glitch and came for our jugular. It’s a royal mess.
Strong Moon is not a game you play for pleasure. Every time we finished a level or put down the pad, we felt like we had done twelve rounds with Strong Moon himself. We were bruised, broken and never wanted to get in the ring again.
Strong Moon is an action platformer that is too broken, too clumsy to reward skill. Instead, you’re exploiting its issues to make progress, and that’s no way to enjoy a game.
You can buy Strong Moon from the Xbox Store