The Red And Black Planet

HIGH Routine Martian maintenance.

LOW Stunlock-happy killbots.

WTF Are we ever going to get to the fireworks factory?

The horror in Moons of Madness is fine. I’m not complaining about the horror. There’s a forest of Shoggoths, some Cthonians, and a few other strange creatures on display. Running away and brewing poisons to inject into them all works perfectly fine. This stuff isn’t what Moons of Madness does best, though.

No, its greatest strength is in its presentation of offworld living conditions. The domes, the suits, the rovers… it’s all crafted with such breathtaking verisimilitude that it managed to entertain by simply giving me maintenance tasks to accomplish. It may seem strange that I found myself less interested when monsters started popping up, but that’s a statement on just how good the all of the pre-horror content is.

Set in the near future, Moons of Madness takes place on Mars where a totally not-evil corporation has set up a secret research base. Five scientists have traveled there and have been tasked with doing research that will allow the rock to be colonized — things like locating water sources, crossbreeding plants to thrive in Martian soil, and unlocking the mysteries of strange, cyclopean temples. Standard research stuff, really.

If I’m being glib about the story, it’s only because it never manages to do anything particularly fresh or interesting. Discovering ancient sinister structures beneath the soil of Mars is such a well-worn subject that there’s a 30-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about it, and Moons doesn’t do much to elevate the premise. One big problem? This is the type of narrative where other characters are only interacted with through brief radio chats setting up the next objective — there’s no time spent getting to know any of the cast, so it’s difficult to care when they start getting torn apart by tentacle monsters.

Another issue is just how ludicrous parts of the premise are. It’s set in a small base where only five people live and work, and the player is asked to believe that no one noticed when one of those people grew a a crop of monstrous tentacle trees in the greenhouse that handles all of the oxygen production?

It also doesn’t help that the main character is oddly incurious about his situation — when one of his coworkers explains that he’s been having nightmares about aliens screaming at him before waking up to discover that he’s scrawled bizarre symbols all over his living space, the main character can’t muster anything more than a ‘”huh.”

The mechanics of play are fine, at least. All story objectives are clearly flagged, and the puzzles – while a little challenging at times – are always easy to find and interact with. Even the handful of chase scenes work well. Unlike many other first-person horror titles, it’s always clear which way the player is supposed to run when there’s some kind of a beast hot on their trail, so the action scenes stay thrilling and avoid frustration.

The environment, though, is something else entirely — every bit of the art design is impressive. From the sleek, high-tech space suits to the blocky, modular corridors, it all feels authentic. I’ve rarely seen such thought and care put into making a sci-fi setting so completely grounded and plausible. This extends to the depiction of Mars as a red wasteland of dirt and rocks. The color of the light and shape of the outcroppings are just strange enough to make the whole place feel uncomfortable and alien, so even performing routine tasks feels like a bold accomplishment.

As Moons of Madness began, my character was asked to head out to a solar array and perform some minor repairs. It was the kind of busywork that developers use to establish a placid tone before waves of horror start crashing over everything. I’d done this kind of stuff a hundred times before, but every mechanical detail of operating the machinery and interacting with the technology was so completely fascinating that I found myself wishing that the section wouldn’t end.

The developers have built themselves a Martian base that would be a pleasure to live and work in — it’s just a shame they couldn’t craft a game that was as enjoyable as their setting.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Rock Pocket Games and published by Funcom. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but is easily an M. It contains Blood and Gore, Violence, and Mature Themes. Keep kids far from this one. In addition to the intense horror, there’s cosmic horror that will unsettle the younger ones, and references to child abuse and sexual assault.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played a decent amount of the game without sound, and had no real troubles. A few times enemies were able to sneak up on me and those resulted in a few game overs, but the checkpoints are frequent enough that it wasn’t a huge problem. All dialogue is subtitled, and font size cannot be adjusted.

Remappable Controls: The game does not offer remappable controls. There is no control diagram. The game uses standard first-person controls. Left thumbstick for moving, right for camera, with face buttons for interacting and crouching, and clicking a thumbstick to sprint.

Daniel Weissenberger
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