Update: Publisher Humble Games and Developer Black Mermaid have confirmed the progression blocking crash bug and have stated that a fix/patch will be released to the game “as soon as possible”
Moonscars is out today on Game Pass, and it is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and exhilarating games that I have played in a very long time. If you have played a Souls title, you’ll know that feeling, and the developers here have somehow integrated that Dark Souls experience into an otherwise excellent 2D action platformer. It isn’t always for the better though, and some technical issues cropped up as well. It is launching into Game Pass though, so let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it all and see if it’s worth your time.
You are Grey Irma, a Clayborne who has been grievously wounded and stranded from her team. Your goal throughout the game is to find your creator and unravel the mystery of your creation. This is a dark, miserable, dreary world full of plagues and pestilence. You’ll slowly traverse your way through various backdrops that all share one thing, a noticeable lack of many colors besides red. Still screenshots don’t look great, but in once in motion the game shines. The animation work on Grey Irma’s attacks are fantastic things that have been lovingly crafted. The story itself is quite Dark Souls-ish in how you don’t know much going in and have it slowly drip-fed to you in well-written dialogue interactions.
That Souls inspiration is everywhere, and you need to take this game slowly because it has one of the most infuriating death penalties in anything I have ever played. As the name of the game implies the Moon is a big thing here, and if you die it becomes hungry. This means that every enemy in the game deals at least double damage to you, and you routinely die in one or two hits. The only way to turn this off is to offer up a “gland” at the magic mirror bonfire equivalent, and unless I missed something those glands are exceedingly rare in the first half of the game. I like to think I’m not terrible at games, but after three hours in this one I hit a wall of a boss so hard due to the death mechanics that I was ready to quit. It took a luckily perfect run to finally get passed him and things felt easier the rest of the way, but I’m not sure others will have the patience for it. There is one thing I found later (and could have gotten earlier) that lets you take more damage at the cost of moving and attacking slower, but much like a Souls title, Moonscars happily tells you as little as possible at all times
I did quite enjoy the overall story of the game, though I sadly have been unable to see its conclusion due to the title crashing every single time I attempted the final boss fight, so I’ll try to keep things as spoiler free as possible. One of the main mechanics is the aforementioned Mirrors that act as your bonfires. These are where you can fast travel either around the main map or back to your home base, learn new Witchery skills (more on those in a bit), satiate that evil hungry Moon after you die, or learn more powerful special abilities (more on those in a bit, too). To unlock your Witchery skills, you’ll collect Bone Dust either as a map pick-up or an item dropped by defeated foes. To level up your Health, Ichor (Witchery energy), or damage though you’ll need to explore every section of the map to find a glowing pickup on the ground which is generally preceded by a difficult encounter.
My main issue with it all is that I don’t think this adherence to Dark Souls style mechanics benefits the title at all. The death penalty is wildly unfair, and the complete lack of any checkpoints outside of using the mirrors can lead to massive wastes of time. Mirrors can be off the beaten path at times, and I was 45 minutes into a play session without finding one because I took a left 20 minutes prior when I could have taken a right. Having to corpse run back to your grave to gain back your lost bone dust rarely feels worth it because unless you have a gland, which is a seemingly rare world pickup in a finite amount, everything can kill you in one or two hits. At least it’s really fun combat-wise though.
I just did a lot of complaining, but as mentioned at the start for every low the game has, I found at least one if not two highs. The combat is simple but plays well and feels fair. Normally Irma is quite fast and lithe. X is your main attack; Y is a special move earned upon defeating your doppelganger. Ah yes, the doppelgangers. They are created the first time you use a mirror to activate it and are sent back to base. After returning to that mirror, you must face a version of yourself that was created as a byproduct of the process. These fights are fun at first, then get a bit tedious in the latter half. After defeating yourself you get to choose from a handful of special moves which go to your Y button. These are lovingly animated and powerful moves that I rarely used because they always got me hit in the face, really hard. They can be spear thrusts, hammer swings, or sword swipes that also put debuffs on enemies.
B is your unbelievably powerful dodge and A is jump. Your bumpers are going to get a ton of use in this game, so here’s to hoping they hold up. Right bumper is your parry, there is a decently generous window on it, and every time an enemy’s attack pings with a red light it’s your indication that a parry-able move is incoming. If timed correctly Irma takes no damage, stuns the attacker, and automatically hits them with a high-damage sword swing. The left bumper is an always available heal that uses the Witcher Ichor energy. You get two Witchery spell slots which are on the left and right triggers respectively
The Witchery system is an interesting one. At first, you can barely use the spells and their long animation times can leave you rather vulnerable. As you play though you’ll notice a meter in the top left of the screen filling up. This is your spite meter, and every time it fills up you get to choose a perk from things such as 15% more healing power or 11% less Witchery costs. These are per-life perks that reset if you activate a new mirror or die. It’s a cool system though it does force you into grinding lower-level enemies to get a few perks on bosses if you’re trying to min-max. The other part of your character build are your three gemstone slots. These are passive buffs that allow you to tailor the game to match your preferred playstyle. I ended up sticking with a few specific ones, namely a main weapon damage enhancer and one that passively restored ichor.
All of these systems add up to what is, at times, an extremely satisfying combat system. When moonhunger is not a thing the game is fantastic to play, which makes it all the more frustrating when it is. It’s fast, fluid, well-balanced, and just damned fun, except when that accursed death mechanic is forced upon you.
Graphics and Music
I don’t think Moonscars is going to win any awards for beauty in still pictures. The animation is where it shines. Grey Irma’s animations on her special weapons attacks are flat-out gorgeous, and I wish I was better at using them just to see their smoothness more often. The backgrounds vary from plain and ugly to decent looking and varied. Enemy designs are solid and easy to read during a fight, and that is a theme overall. Despite a lot going on at once I rarely felt overwhelmed with visual information, and I knew where I was at all times. This helped a lot with the game’s platforming, of which there is a decent amount, only a few times did an object like a climbable chain blend into the background too much.
Sound-wise there is no voice acting but the music is well done. It’s low, melancholic, and rather pleasant most of the time. It never picks up in the operatic ways that the Souls games do, but it did get a little closer to that style in a few of the game’s more significant boss battles. Sound effects and monster growls are well done and overall, the soundscape is one of the highlights of the game for me.
The big issue I ran into, and I have no clue if it’ll be patched for launch is that I simply could not beat the game due to it crashing during the final boss fight. I played through on Series X and had zero technical issues until that last fight, where after 5 attempts and 5 crashes I finally had to throw my hands up and admit defeat with the game due to release only a day from the time of this writing.
Moonscars is really close to being a great game. The combat can be stupidly fun, the animations are fantastic, and I loved the story and music. Balancing issues with the death penalty and a too stringent adherence to older Dark Souls mechanics inevitably lead to immense frustration, though. As it is available on Day One on Game Pass, I still think it’s worth at least checking out and seeing if it can hook you with its occasional glimpses of brilliance.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Switch, Playstation, Xbox, PC|
|Release Date||September 27th, 2022|
|Rated||M for Mature|