Old-school horror gameplay meets new-school storytelling.
Can you explore mental illness on Mars? That’s what Rock Pocket Games hope to do in their upcoming first-person horror game Moons of Madness.
While I can’t say how much Moons of Madness succeeds on that front based on my brief 20-minute demo, its surreal tale of isolation and familial troubles – set against a hard sci-fi backdrop with some Lovecraftian inspirations mixed in for good measure – serves as an interesting foundation so far.
Moons of Madness is a horror game with a personal story to tell.
What stands out to me almost immediately during my demo of Moons of Madness are the problem-solving elements. More recent first-person horror games like Outlast 2 and Layers of Fear have largely ditched puzzles — a survival horror staple that I dearly miss — in favor of a haunted house-style approach. It’s possible to strike a balance between hopping from one scripted event to the next and trying to think straight enough to solve problems in the face of looming danger, and Moons of Madness seems to be on that path.
As my character Shane Newehart’s rover comes creaking to a halt on the dusty surface of Mars, a voice over the radio — Shane’s research partner, Orson — tells me to scan it with something called a Biogage to locate the source of the problem. After stumbling around the rover, opening cabinets and at one point finding a family photo of Shane’s, I figure out how to activate the arm-mounted scanning system Orson was talking about and identified the issue: faulty power distribution.
The scanning system could have some interesting uses.
Being able to catch glimpses of Shane’s personal life while grappling with his rover’s technical issues, combined with the option to speak with Orson or ignore his transmissions, reminds me of Firewatch, with a little SOMA mixed in. Shane is a professional, stationed at the first research outpost on Mars, but he has a family life and a personality outside of being a scared horror game protagonist. (Just moments before the rover shut down, he was bickering with Orson about the musical merits of The Rolling Stones vs. David Bowie.) I ponder the family photo and the message scrawled on the back as I tug the power cable from the back of the rover loose and set out on foot to find an outlet to attach it to. Orson says something sarcastic about my “radio silence” — moments earlier, I had accidentally cut him off as I exited the rover, and found it amusing he’d noticed.
Glancing down at Shane’s Biogage lets me know what the power outlet I’m looking for actually looks like, and can highlight interactive objects in the immediate vicinity. The scanning mechanic seems like it will come in handy if Moons of Madness chooses to ramp up the puzzle difficulty, which could be a good thing. Puzzles are good in horror games, but the main argument against them is how obtuse they can get. I don’t mind a built-in hint system as an option.
Managing your oxygen levels could make for some tense scenarios.
While I’m investigating a nearby power station, Shane gets his first “vision.” It’s a momentary flickering in the fabric of reality, like a glitch in the Matrix — one moment, a power cell is there, plugged into its console, and the next it’s gone. Orson assures me there are more around, so I go out hunting. The ridge I’m on is a wide, umber cliffside where dozens of massive solar panels stand tall, raised up to the sun that hangs high over the valley below. As I wander around and take in the sights, I make sure to swing by a nearby filling station to refill my oxygen supply. Glancing down lets you check your air levels, displayed on the HUD built into Shane’s helmet, which keeps the screen free of any intrusive UI. I never had to deal with running low on air, but having a constant resource like that to manage in the middle of a horror game has to be stressful, and I look forward to seeing how Moons of Madness explores it more fully.
There are three solar panel stations to attend to in order to get the power back on. I reposition one section of panels already equipped with a power cell before heading back out to find the missing one, which I eventually find in an abandoned construction rover at the corner of the ridge. After I grab it, Shane begins to openly reminisce about his mother as I fix the second set of panels.
“There’s a lot about this place that reminds me of my mother,” he says. After Orson mocks him, he elaborates, “It’s the vast emptiness, I suppose, the silence and solitude of it all,” before explaining that his mother could stand in a room with one hundred people and still be completely alone.
If Moons of Madness is a game about loneliness, the desolation of Mars already feels like an apt setting.
The last panel control station is collapsed, so I use my Biogage to link in and reposition the panels remotely. Then things get weird.
Everything immediately goes dim — the solar panels, the machinery, and even the sky — and a collection of broken voices I haven’t heard before start stuttering on the radio. Things blink back to normal for a moment, but attempting to interact with the main power console triggers whatever episode had started earlier, and I’m submerged in a hazy darkness once again. I start to stumble back down the hill towards the ridge as the machinery around me blinks into non-existence, and at the bottom of the path I spot a cave that wasn’t there before.
Feels more Firewatch than Amnesia.
In the cave, Shane hears his mother calling to him. I walk through the tunnel and eventually come out into a wider area, where I see a figure clawing itself out from a circular marking at the center of the room. The thing (which appears to be wearing an astronaut suit and proceeds to blink around the room for a moment) is less unsettling to me than what I stumble on next — an entire section of the cave, carved out and constructed to look like a broken corner of a home. A mess of wooden floor boards act as a jagged path up to the collapsing living quarters, complete with patterned wallpaper, pictures, lighting fixtures, and a table with a letter of some importance to Shane, who gasps when he sees it. When I pick it up, what I believe is Shane’s mother’s voice begins to read it. I put the letter down assuming the narration would continue, but it unfortunately cuts off — I’ll have to wait until the full game to know what it says.
Once I put the letter down, there’s a jump scare. Not a very good one, but I don’t get startled easily, so I’m not the best judge of jump scares. More interesting to me are the weird, otherworldly tendrils, like the roots of some alien tree, that I see boring into the cave from the roof. I follow a path through and eventually come to another piece of Shane’s home, carved into the cave. His mother stands there whimpering, and when I go to approach her, she stabs me with a kitchen knife.
Shane awakens outside, gripping a piece of broken glass next to a collapsed solar panel, with the voice of Orson calling to him. The demo ends.
While I was put off by the seemingly supernatural creature wandering the cave system, Shane’s visions of his mother and the way he has clearly carried some trauma involving her 33.9 miles away from home could make for a sci-fi horror story that’s more Firewatch than it is Amnesia, and I’m completely on board with that.
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.
Source: IGN Video Games