Welcome to life on Mars, or at least, something like it. Moons Of Madness, developed by Rock Pocket Games and published by Funcom, is a first-person sci-fi psychological horror adventure that’s packed with jump scares and puzzle-based problems. A deeply unsettling combination in more ways than one.
As Shane Newehart, an engineer based on the Trailblazer Alpha Mars research station, you’re given a first-person insight into your character’s struggle with his sanity amid increasingly strange and frightening situations on the red planet.
The opening sequences of Moons Of Madness make it clear that this is no ordinary space exploration game. Right from the off, you’re thrust into a truly dysfunctional scenario in the form of one of Shane’s nightmares. Claustrophobically dark space station corridors besieged by what looks like tentacles await you as you lurch from confined space to confined space until at last you’re greeted with some candles to blow out. I won’t spoil the birthday surprise, but I’m just glad I didn’t have to make Shane eat the cake.
After waking up in your room, you begin your adventure through Moons Of Madness solving the puzzle of how to escape your cubicle-like confines. There’s a lot of this problem-solving, battery-replacing, door unlocking kind of thing throughout the early parts of the game. It’s equal parts satisfying and annoying, to the point where there’s almost an over-reliance on realism that comes at the cost of enjoyment.
Do I really want to spend half an hour mooching around on the surface of Mars working out how to scan a control unit, then searching for a power cell to put into three different solar panel control units and then precisely tune each of these panels to the optimal percentage for powering up the base? No, not really. But Shane’s work is exactly that, mundane, utility-based problems that need solving before you can progress any further through Moons Of Madness.
Maybe this is part of the foreshadowing for the whole ‘man with mental illness on Mars’ concept, but for me, the omission of certain UI elements (what I wouldn’t have given for a mini-map) makes parts of these problem-based tasks quite frustrating.
Anyway, once you’ve done a few of your jobs, things start to get weird for Shane. Here’s where your space explorations in Moons Of Madness take a dark turn, complete with tech failures, system malfunctions, oh, and a horrific tentacle-type creature that terrorises you at varying intervals. Understandably, poor Shane’s a bit tormented by all of this.
Coupled with the fact our main man has some pretty heavy-duty emotional baggage to drag along with him while he tries to outrun his nightmares, there’s a lot to unpack here. Moons Of Madness combines slow-burning, surreal horror with the loneliness of being stranded on Mars and chucks in a strong dose of family turmoil for good measure, and the end result is a bit messy, to be honest.
There’s no question that Moons Of Madness is beautifully crafted. Visually, the artwork is smooth and satisfyingly futuristic whilst maintaining the dark, twisted aesthetic of H.P Lovecraft in the depictions of its horror elements. Darkness is one of the key words when describing the graphics of this game; you’ll spend a lot of time exploring in the dark, which only serves to enhance the sense of panic and claustrophobia Moons Of Madness wraps you in.
The interior design of the research base is clinical, slick and maze-like. The exterior surface design of Mars itself is really impressive, which makes it a bit of a shame that you can’t go off and explore it in a bit more of an open-world style. Graphics ran very smoothly on my Xbox One S with no issues or glitches.
The backing tracks and sound effects work really well to enhance the sensations of both exploring a planetary surface and compounding the growing paranoia and fear when exploring the dark recesses of Shane’s hallucinations. If that’s what they even are. The jump-scare sound effects aren’t over the top but provide a stark and fittingly loud contrast to the sci-fi bubbliness of the ambient background noise.
Moons Of Madness hits about the right amount of time for a game such as this, in my opinion. It could’ve gone on longer, but I think with such a strong depiction of cosmic horror, any more levels could make Shane’s journey begin to feel like a chore. The story is written well enough to retain your interest although there are some confusing parts of the game that leave you more frustrated than anything else.
This isn’t the kind of game you can’t put down, but it is an atmospheric experience that you’ll enjoy if you’re in the mood for it. One thing I will say is that there’s little to no combat in Moons Of Madness, but wandering around solving puzzles and trying to survive is equally, if not more challenging than fighting off monsters in this game.
I’ve never played a game like Moons Of Madness before, and to be honest, I’m still a little confused at the mix of tentacles and trauma, and whether or not it really works. On the whole though, I think it’ll be a hit with fans of the sci-fi horror genre. It’s well-designed, atmospherically intense and creepy in more well-rounded ways than I was expecting. Personally, it left me feeling a bit braver as a gamer as this is a genre I generally stay away from, but if I can outrun that horrible squid-beast, I can take on anything.
If puzzles, fear and psychodrama are your thing, then you’ll love this game. Moons Of Madness is a good, albeit quite frustrating game. However, I can’t help but be a bit impressed by a niche concept with enough narrative power to broach the barriers of those who tend to steer clear of horror games. For this reason, I’m giving Moons Of Madness a Thumb Culture a Silver Award.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.