Moons Of Madness: An Enjoyable Adventure
With it’s opening scene, and with no warning, Moons of Madness immediately thrusts you into the terror of being trapped in the cramped and limited habitable areas of a human outpost on Mars. As a transmission comes in over radio offering you the name of your employers, the “Manticore Research Group”, your character awakens panting in a dark and cold room. Turning to face your living quarter’s window you’re greeted with handwritten notes on the location of Mars’ moons, your character’s distance from home, and a mention of your own birthday.
The scene immediately sets forth the tone of being alone, concerned, and entirely unsure of what is unfolding in a foreign place. Upon exiting your personal room, you see a shadowy figure down the hallway backlit by ominous red light, a television with a broken signal, and notes hastily scribbled in black ink and blood on a whiteboard that say, “They Never Turn Away”. So begins this hellish nightmare on Mars with little explanation as to why this is happening, leaving the player to piece together the mess and find a way to bring some normal back to the facility before a new support crew arrives.
Moons of Madness is a linear, story driven horror game clocking it at approximately eight hours. There are plenty of notes, books, and handwritten logs you can scour the game for to fill in the lore. However, the framework of it can be pieced together from the conversations you have over radio with your fellow researchers as you learn the secrets of what is really happening here. Playing as Shane Newhart, you’ve signed an uncomfortably extensive Non-disclosure agreement with Manticore to work on Mars and have led your family and friends to believe you’re working at a remote research outpost on Antarctica. Throughout the facility you find the aforementioned notes and personal entries detailing various crew members’ lack of comfort about lying to their family regarding the nature of their work. Handwritten scribblings and repeated sentences on walls in the style of “The Shinning”, about supernatural research into alien technology and Martian monsters begin to evoke an ancient civilization vibe, hinting at Manticore’s desires to control an incredible power. Shane himself begins to question his own thoughts and wonders if what he is seeing is real, as his childhood memories begin to intersperse themselves into the story through hallucinations. Bouncing between those childhood memories while investigating Martian disturbances lends itself well to a quickly unraveling reality surrounded by literal alien technology.
The game consists primarily of solving a handful of moderately challenging puzzles via a wrist attached “biogage” device, evading creatures taking over the facility, and running between different outposts to try and stitch the facility back together after what is believed to be a small tremor or quake. There are a handful of simple quick time events when dealing with a few main enemies, but the game is essentially devoid of any direct combat. Instead, you are provided a decent story that ensures it gets your heart racing with a few jump scares, ominous ambient sounds, terrified evasion among tight hallways, and an overall atmosphere of timid discovery and revelation. Puzzles themselves provide a moment of calm, but none of them are entirely too challenging. If you’re even remotely interested in survival horror with puzzle elements, you’ll be able to handle the game and make your way through rather quickly.
Where Moons of Madness really shines is its environment and narrative. The sense of tight, claustrophobic environments lend themselves well to the horror with a legitimate reason for their existence. The padded walls, wires and lines running throughout, and the modular construct evoke a wonderful sense of not entirely out of reach science fiction. As the only places on Mars a human can survive limited by money, fuel, and the cost of transport and construction, there is a distinct lack of wide-open spaces beyond stepping onto the Martian surface. Even so, the compressed nature of the helmet and small gauges near the lower edge of your suit offer a continued sense of crushing surroundings. Stepping out onto the soil is a rather impressive moment as the red sand seems to stretch to infinity, deep chasms lead to almost certain death, and the landscape is entirely devoid of any sense of humanity beyond each outpost. Both interior and exterior environments are beautifully rendered and littered with the typical debris and discarded materials you would expect of both humans working for months on end, and an apocalyptic takeover that slowly transforms the place.
All of this is framed by Shane’s mind as he wrestles with how to reveal his lie when he gets home. The more he ponders home however, the more it becomes evident that his childhood, his struggles, and overall life were impacted by current events on Mars long before humans arrived. It becomes clear that Mars and its secrets have always been tied into his life, due in large part to his mother’s incessant research into the space between dreams and reality. Slowly he learns what drove him to Mars and why he can’t simply walk away from what is happening with the goal of getting home.
Delving further into the story of Shane and his mother reveals a much more sinister nature behind Manticore, revealing the fact that the place is far more than just a few habitat pods and satellite dishes. Going deep into the Martian underground, slinking through lava tubes, and learning about ancient technology really scratches that science-fiction itch. Unfortunately, characters are forgettable with minimal onscreen time, plenty of searching and reading is needed to get genuinely deep details as to what is occurring, and just as things begin to heat up, they begin winding down.
The sounds throughout the game offer a continual sense of danger that is just slightly beyond arm’s length. Whether it’s a creature slinking down the hallway or the rush of air on the surface of the Red Planet, it is very evident that every element of this place is out to end your life. The continually deep and dark music highlights the unknown nature of the world you’re in, and moments of action kicking up the score with excitement and thrill. Even entering the pause menu has an enjoyably rough and shrill entry sound that reminds you of the terrifying nature of what you’re going through, just so you don’t forget.
Doors, airlocks, donning and doffing a helmet, and environment exchange all have the satisfying clunk, hiss, snap, and heft you would expect of systems designed to keep humans alive in a place devoid of oxygen. Doors feel like they have genuine heft to them, the airlock system announces it’s oxygen exchange with a computerized voice and a wonderfully obnoxious hiss, and your helmet clicks into place both on the rack and on your suit in a manner reflective of heavy duty material. Even something as simple as entering and exiting the rover is exciting almost every time based purely on the sound alone.
Movement in the game is handled well as your character moves with a true sense of weight and purpose that can add to the stress in moments of evasion. You can get a sense of the bulkiness of the suit, the lack of an Earth scale of gravity, and the cumbersome and frustrating movements that one would experience in such an environment. This can, at times, be an unnecessary frustration though. Climbing a ledge, dropping down from it, removing test tubes from a centrifuge and more become unnecessarily slow to do. While that sense of weight lends itself well to the environment, it’s frustrating walking up and down stairs or traversing air ducts when you feel like melted silly putty rolling down heated asphalt. While frustrating, it isn’t game breaking and is entirely bearable. But the thought of it sits in the back of your mind as you play.
Overall the game presents itself well and is a wonderful ride. The movement is a minor issue, but one that nags, and as much as I enjoyed the story and its take on Shane’s past, it’s the kind of “ancient Martian alien” story that has been told before. There is nothing groundbreaking or game changing here, but that doesn’t stop this title from shinning. At $20 it is a solid, well done eight hours of gameplay that I think any horror or science-fiction lover would enjoy.