When I first watched the trailer for Moonscars, I was immediately enamoured with its foreboding visual presentation. I quickly jumped at the opportunity to play through the demo, and in doing so, was left in eager anticipation of the full release. That leads us too today.
Developed by Black Mermaid, and published by Humble Games, Moonscars is a 2D, Souls-like, Metroidvania side scroller. Inspired by the likes of Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, this grim fantasy release is an entertaining romp, if a little confused.
Grey Irma, a Clayborne warrior, spontaneously revives decades after falling in battle. Understandably confused, she desires to meet with a divine being referred to as, ‘The Sculptor.’ This entity, who is supposedly responsible for her existence and current predicament, is the only hope she has of uncovering her past. Fuelled with anger and resentment, she begins her arduous journey to confront him at Castle Apex.
It’s abundantly clear that From Software’s storytelling philosophies influenced the abstract structure of Moonscars. Unfortunately, due to the extremely equivocal execution, the latter’s attempts to mimic this style doesn’t quite fit the bill.
Narrative explanations are shrouded within wordy and convoluted riddles. Trying to uncover them only punishes the player with more vague and indiscernible descriptions. Worst of all though, you’re immediately expected to be knowledgeable of the lore from the moment you boot up the game. Not only is this a ridiculously notion, it’s alienating and downright stupid.
Having said that, I can at least appreciate what the developers were going for here. Imitating Hidetaka Miyazaki’s writing methods is a Herculean task, so I don’t blame them for their shortcomings. Hopefully they can take what they’ve learned here an iterate upon it for their future projects.
Simple, but effective gameplay.
When boiled down to its core components, the gameplay loop of Moonscars is fairly straightforward. Irma has the ability to perform combos with her sword, cast powerful spells (which this game calls Witchery’s), dash in a horizontal direction, and parry attacks into a riposte. All of these can be deliberately interrupted into one another, making the combat feel engaging and responsive.
Regaining health and Ichor, AKA mana, requires you to rest at a Mirror. For all intense and purposes, this is Moonscars version of the Dark Souls bonfire. You can teleport from Mirror to Mirror freely, making backtracking a less strenuous task. Mirrors also act as the gateway to the safe zone. In there, you’re able to buy items and additional Witchery’s, though you’ll need to spend Bone Powder (souls/money) to do so.
Speaking of navigating, Moonscars world is, partially, free to explore. The game doesn’t dictate which route you should take, instead opting to let you make your own decisions. It’s worth noting here that storylines are linked to specific areas. If you don’t want to risk losing a plotline, then I’d probably recommend that look up a guide. Keep in mind though, it isn’t actually possible to complete all storylines in one playthrough. If you want to do that, then you’ll have to do multiple runs.
A word to the wise, if you’re used to melee based Metroidvania games, then Moonscars won’t be that much of a challenge for you. Even the bosses aren’t that difficult to defeat, although I can attest that they are fun to fight. There isn’t anything wrong with this of course, but if you’re seeking a game that will test your limits, then you may want to skip out this one.
Customisation a’ plenty.
There are a few different ways to permanently upgrade your character in Moonscars. To begin with, trinkets are equipable items that provide Irma with different buffs. These can be subtle improvements like additional knockback range on a parry. Or, more noticeable ones, like extra damage in exchange for slower movement speed. To boost baseline attributes such as health and Ichor, you have to find rare essences. Locating them is no easy task though, as they are hidden throughout the world in secret locations.
Finally, as I mentioned before, interacting with any Mirror will allow you to buy Witchery’s. There is a staggeringly high number of spells to purchase in the game, although some of them are clearly more overpowered than others. Altogether, the options available here are fairly diverse. I can’t lie and say they are on the level of Elden Ring or any other AAA game. But they are transformative enough to foster a players creative spark.
Lukewarm Rougelike mechanics.
On top of the standard upgrades, Moonscars has a few Rougelike mechanics you can take advantage of as well. Sprite Bonuses allow you to gain additional passives as you slay enemies out in the wild. These can be pretty game changing, ranging from refunding your Witchery costs, to gaining a second life. You only lose your active passives upon dying, or when you rest at a newly discovered Mirror.
Besides Sprite Bonuses, you also have Special Weapons. In theory, these are powerful secondary attacks that can be used in between your regular combos. The problem is, they aren’t very good. Obtaining a Special Weapon involves unlocking a new Mirror, and, after you’ve rested, defeating the evil Doppelganger that spawns out of it. Essentially, the Doppelganger is a 1:1 clone of your current build. Defeating it will allow you to select a new Special Weapon, or keep your old one.
In truth, the entire Doppelganger mechanic, whilst assuredly interesting, felt a bit flat. The constant requirement to reobtain a reward that you’d already unlocked proved to be rather annoying. If Black Mermaid took the time to flesh this system out, then it might have felt less dull and repetitive. But, in its current form, it really isn’t anything to write home about.
Hollowing for the moon.
Much like hollowing in DS3, dying too many times plunges the world into a state called ‘Moonhunger’. This makes the game more challenging by increasing the strength and durability of your enemies. However, as a trade-off, you’ll also be able to earn additional Bone Powder during this time.
Thankfully, you do have the ability to revert the world back to normal should you wish. To do so, you’ll either need to spend a limited resource called Glands, or defeat one of the named bosses. However, I would honestly recommend just keeping the Moonhunger state active. Why? Well, the challenge increase was completely negligible, but, oppositely, the additional Bone Powder drop rate was very apparent. I never really found a good enough reason to not self-inflict Moonhunger, meaning you can freely abuse it ad nauseum.
A hauntingly beautiful art direction.
Moonscars has been deliberately stylised to appear dark and messy. The washed-out colour scheme, comprising mainly of greys and browns, flawlessly echoes the brooding narrative. This is contrasted by the colour red, which remains vibrant to highlight the gruesome gameplay elements such as blood. It genuinely looks like a gothic horror painting come to life at times.
The character and monster designs are astonishingly intricate. Considering the art style, this isn’t exactly the easiest thing to pull off. Yet, details like armour pieces, weaponry, and battle wounds, are all instantly noticeable. By the same token, the animations are smooth, and, most importantly, identifiable. The latter is especially important for gameplay purposes like parrying.
I did have some issues with Moonscar’s art direction. To be specific, the lack of foreground and, to a lesser extent, background variations made the whole game feel a bit samey. Again, the scenery itself is stellar. However, if you’re expecting to find diverse locations like the ones in Blasphemous, then you may be disappointed.
DYATHON takes centre stage with their dark compositions.
For the most part, Moonscars OST doesn’t draw attention to itself. Composer DYATHON understood the assignment of allowing the music to be spacious, opting for simplistic melodies and sparse instrumentation. In doing so, the soundtrack expertly matches the games thematic, and fosters an eerie, melancholy vibe.
In a similar manner, the SFX are reserved, yet punchy. Noises like disembowelled guts spilling out onto the floor are subtle, but most assuredly discernible. Stylistically, it isn’t exactly cartoony, but it isn’t realistic either. It’s a nice balance between the two methods and works well for the game. Practically speaking, this is everything I wanted the sound effects to be in No Place for Bravery.
Moonscars has a lot of things going for it, but it does fall a little short at times. The combat and platforming elements are fun and engaging, though the additional mechanics placed on top of it aren’t particularly dynamic. Graphically, the washed-out colours mixed with the bright and bodacious reds make for an absolutely stunning visual display. Composer DYATHON complements the art direction and gloomy aesthetics by creating a spacious, yet melancholy soundtrack. Sadly, the single biggest drawback here is the narrative. Whilst it’s certainly interesting, it remains largely incoherent. Subsequent playthroughs, which are mandatory to experience all the game has to offer, don’t really clear up any of the confusion either. Still, Moonscars does offer something worth playing. If you’re in the market for a new Metroidvania or Souls-like game, then I’d recommend giving this one a shot.