Spanning time, space and multiple dimensions, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is an intricate fictional creation that ushered in the term cosmic horror. It’s a term that Norwegian developers Rock Pocket Games have taken quite literally with Moons of Madness, a Lovecraft-inspired blend of horror and science fiction set on Mars about forty years from now. It’s a smart choice of setting, although in execution the game doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its clearly well-thought-out premise.
Loosely tied to publisher Funcom’s The Secret World, Moons of Madness transports players to a private research base (funded by the Orochi group) on the Red Planet. A secret mission is underway to prove the Rule of Two: essentially, if just one example of alien life can be found, it means humanity isn’t an anomaly in the universe and other sentient species must exist. In this first-person game, you experience the mission through the eyes of engineer Shane Newehart and, from the start, things go wrong. While the tetchy five-man team waits to be relieved of their duties, crucial machinery keeps breaking, power cells vanish and the group has been having collective visions of something they call The Witch.
After a slow burn start in which you complete a string of real-world maintenance tasks à la The Martian, the weird ramps up quickly. Shane uncovers disturbing truths about what has really been happening on the base, as well as shocking revelations about the greatest trauma in his life.
Much like the sanity of Lovecraft protagonists, Moons of Madness starts to disintegrate in its final few scenes, with gaping plot holes and character inconsistencies opening up. Until the game careens towards its one of two endings, though, Moons of Madness is an engaging and atmospheric effort that feels like a Love(craftian) child of Half-Life and Dead Space.
Not that Moons of Madness has you madly swinging a crowbar at wall-scuttling face-huggers. Gameplay focuses on puzzle-solving as you try to quarantine the spreading “Filth” and get yourself far away from bizarre tentacled creatures now loose on the base. There’s a pleasing diversity of challenges, ranging from pattern matching to navigation trials and the puzzle-adventure tradition of investigating environments for clues that will help you access classified information and systems.
With the game’s sci-fi setting, you spend a lot of time working with various consoles, recalibrating solar panel alignment, tuning radio frequencies, bypassing broken circuits in fuse boxes and even mixing chemicals in a laboratory centrifuge. Tasks are never repetitive in Moons of Madness, although a couple of stealth sections in the second part of the game dial up the frustration by forcing section replays. It’s one of the few times you die in an otherwise on-rails experience that shepherds you away from the most dangerous threats.
Even though its concept and visual execution will brand your memory, Moons of Madness sadly doesn’t really get under your skin. Barring a few jump scares, breathless pursuits and visceral monster encounters, the game’s pleasures are more cerebral than emotional. The greatest of these is how the game’s writers – backed by the striking efforts of the artists and level designers – have managed to seamlessly combine space exploration science and the Cosmicism at the core of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Fans absolutely have to play Moons of Madness, which is one of the strongest recent games (unlike this one) to draw inspiration from Lovecraft’s nihilistic universe.
It’s just that it’s rare for the player to feel vicariously scared. You may startle, you’ll probably be repulsed by all the sticky oozing tendrils and pustules, but you never freeze up, sweaty palm hovering over your mouse, at the prospect of entering an ominously quiet area like you would in Dead Space or DOOM.
One of the reasons for this is that story-wise, Moons of Madness strangely doesn’t question its protagonist’s sanity. There’s no question that what Shane and his crew are experiencing is real. Also, unlike Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and pretty much every Cthulhu tabletop game ever made, Shane’s fracturing mental state does not bleed into and impact the gameplay.
That said, there are some nice touches that relate Shane’s mounting panic. If the engineer dashes to the airlock after a terrifying encounter, he fumbles with the oxygen tank refiller, his helmet steams up and his heartrate spikes on his biogage.
But while such details draw you in, there’s something about the vocal performance of David Stanbra as Shane that sucks you back out of the game. Shane swears and yells but there’s a crisp detachment that keeps you at arm’s length, especially once he starts giving puzzle-solving hints to the player. It doesn’t help that the everyman character is also the blandest of the mission crew, all of whom have their own dark secrets.
Much like the monsters that regularly flit around corners in the game, Moons of Madness provides glimpses of something emotionally meatier to match the substance of its story. You’re just served it in nibbles, and then a dollop of slop at the very end. All this said, Moons of Madness is still a solid genre effort and worth the nine to ten hours of playtime. Right now the game is also 20% off on Steam until after Halloween.
Out now for PC, Moons of Madness releases for console (Xbox One and PS4) on 21 January 2020.
Last Updated: October 29, 2019