With a few key exceptions, it wasn't so long ago that the horror game genre swerved obnoxiously hard towards stealth-first gameplay that outright denied you the chance to face your fears head-on.
Brought about by Amnesia (The Dark Descent, not the condition), seemingly every noteworthy horror game out there blurred into the same kind of experience. Slender, Outlast and all the rest became haunted houses where you had to sneak or sprint your way around every obstacle. It feels like only recently that the genre has started to recover and return to a place where you fight back.
Within that larger context, Moons of Madness feels like it stands on the line between where the horror game genre was and where it’s going. There’s no combat but a rich sense of tension and danger. It’s less a fight-or-flight survival-horror and closer to something like an interactive first person horror flick.
Set in a future where a sinister megacorporation sends expeditions to Mars searching for the source of an enigmatic signal, you play as Shane Newehart, He’s just a lowly-engineer on extraterrestrial research base, forced to adapt once supernatural phenomena begins to take ahold of the site and the bodies start piling up.
You’re a small, insignificant cog in a larger bureaucratic machine forced to reckon with the consequences of its cosmic malfeasance. Like the game’s title might suggest, Moons of Madness blends together the smart survivalism of The Martian, the tinfoil tension of spaceship thrillers like Alien and the existential horror of the Lovecraft mythos.
There are a few fun ties and quiet connections to Funcom’s supernatural MMORPG The Secret World but Moons of Madness is very much intended to be enjoyed as its own thing.
As Shane, you explore environments looking for clues, traverse obstacles in your way and interact with objects to solve puzzles. There are a handful of situations where you’ll have to run away from or sneak past enemies but, for the most part, Moons of Madness is more concerned with building up an ambient atmosphere where it feels like anything could happen rather than just throwing jump scares at you. It’s simple in design but effective nonetheless.
Similar to Dead Space, a lot of the UI here is designed to keep you immersed in the experience. To that end, the biggest unique mechanic that Moons of Madness introduces is your wrist-mounted commlink.
Right clicking sends out a wireless pulse. If there are any nearby smart electronics, Shane’s wearable can then connect to and control them. Many puzzles are built around this and it’s all very user-friendly. It’s about as intuitive as controlling most modern smart tech using your something like Bluetooth - which only adds to the sense of realism.
Moons of Madness can be frightening but it's rarely frustrating. Everything works as you’d expect and the story is, in some ways, just as predictable. Sure, there were a few times where I got stuck because I missed or couldn’t locate a critical item at first glance. However, the most part, it's always apparent which way you need to go and what you need to do in order to progress.
Fortunately, Moons of Madness is a game that lives and dies on its atmosphere more than anything else and it’s incredibly effective at creating and maintaining a tension where it feels like everything could go to shit in seconds. Cleverly, the game lets you find your footing by exploring some of the base before things get spooky. Then, later, when you return to those locations, it plays on that foundational knowledge to great effect.
The one area where I found Moons of Madness frequently stumbled was how it communicated hazards to the player. Often-times, these obstacles aren’t clear and since combat is so rare, you never really have the chance to get a sense of how much damage Shane can take before he’s killed.
It doesn’t help that the animations that occur when you take damage don’t necessarily convey the degree of danger it feels like they should. Compared to the rest of the game, they come across as very clunky and immersion-breaking. They feel distinctly “video-gamey” in a way that so much of Moons of Madness just isn’t.
This one seam-spot aside, however, Moons of Madness is a fairly tight and linear romp. You can probably blow your way through it in about five or six hours. Again, the arc of the story more-or-less goes where anyone with any familiarity with the genre will expect. Of course, if you’re looking to buy a space horror game named Moons of Madness, there’s a good chance those familiar beats might be exactly what you’re after.
The Bottom Line
Moons of Madness takes a basketful of familiar ideas and serves up a delicious picnic of science fiction horror with plenty of tension and a handful of memorable close-encounters with malevolent cosmic deities.
It should go without saying that you’ll get more out of it if you’re familiar with the source materials and influences involved. Regardless, Moons of Madness is a clearly-conceived and tightly-constructed first-person adventure that accomplishes more-or-less exactly what it sets out to do.
It's light on filler and heavy on fear.
Moons of Madness is available on PC now via Steam.