Metroidvanias are surging in popularity. With simple mechanics that feature abilities, upgrades, backtracking, and exploration, two things serve to make one of these titles stand out amongst the crowd – world design and rewarding combat. This is what I paid the closest attention to when playing Moonscars, the début entry from developers Black Mermaid. Will it strike the right notes, or fade into the deluge of uninspired indie metroidvanias?
With Moonscars, what we have is a 2D, non-linear game of slick combat, ruthless foes, and an ever more winding world. Set in a gloomy, fantasy universe, death and success both come with their own risk and reward.
The Moonscarred Mystery
If there’s one thing to be said for the plot of Moonscars, it’s that it’s very obtuse. Now, that isn’t a bad thing. NPCs speak in riddles and from the jump-off, things are not as they seem. You take control of the heroine, Grey Irma. She is a being constructed out of clay by the world’s deity – The Sculptor. Awakening in a desolate, eerie land, Grey Irma has no memories of how she ended up where she is and sets off on a quest to find the Sculptor for answers. All the while, one must fight through other sculpted beings called Clayborn – pale imitations of human life. There are a whole host of NPCs who seem to have clues as to Grey Irma’s situation but never give clear answers. This drives you forward, on an ever more elaborate journey to seek out whatever truth this corrupted world may host.
In keeping with the obscure nature of the story, the art style itself has a very specific, otherworldly feel. The color scheme is overwhelmingly red and black, almost as if to make a sharp distinction between living blood and rotting earth. Personally, I found this game very interesting to look at. Moonscars definitely nods to titles such as Dark Souls or Blasphemous, but it maintains something wholly unique. “Vibrant” is definitely not a term one could use to describe the aesthetic. More like “miserable” – in the most thematically fitting sense of the word. The levels themselves are sprawling, with maps leading you in a number of directions that utilize well-designed shortcuts to wrap you back on yourself.
All-in-all, the story and the world are both wonderfully mysterious and this is matched in tone by a dark artistic direction.
The Spiteful Witch
Moonscars, on the face of it, features a daunting list of related mechanics. However, they’re implemented so flawlessly that you can quickly get to grips with it all. There’s the basic combat, consisting of swift sword attacks or a charged swing. Eventually, you’ll unlock Special Attacks which cause different effects or ‘build-up’ You can supplement your attacks with different amulets, which all have their own auxiliary bonuses. As you defeat enemies, you’ll collect bone dust, which is the main resource of the game. Along the way, you will also build up ‘spite’. This is a roguelike element, whereby each level of spite you acquire gives you a choice between three passive bonuses. Upon death, you lose your bone dust and your spite bonuses – though if you return to the spot you died, you can retrieve your bone dust. Oh and, the more you die, the higher the chance of activating a debuff called “Moon Hunger” – the Icon in the top left will glow crimson, meaning enemies have more health and hit harder. To satiate the hunger, you need to defeat a boss or perform a rite at the save points (“Dark Mirrors”).
I genuinely loved the spite mechanic. Another interesting touch to combat is the Ichor bar. This is built up by hitting foes and is used to cast Witchery spells. The grey Ichor bar is consumed by the use of spells. However, you’ll retain a purple “spoilt” Ichor bar, which you can still use to heal even when you don’t have sufficient Ichor to cast.
Speaking of Witchery, there are some extremely fun ways to progress your casts. Spells are laid out in a tree and as you retain more bone dust, you can unlock more powerful tiers of spells. I generally ran with a nuke called Burst and Corrosive Touch which applies a powerful poison to your weapon for a brief period. There’s a lot to choose from though, from setting up clay decoys to attract enemies or making corpses explode. Moonscars offers a good amount of variation with its Witchery tree.
Of course, one of the draws of any game of this nature are the boss battles. Moonscars generally delivers here too. Learning movesets and parry windows, adapting strategy, and staying mobile are key. Conceptually, the bosses are awesome too! One particular example that stood out for me was the Royal Infant: a creepy baby with an octopus form and an absolutely relentless barrage of attacks.
So, as I mentioned at the start of this summary, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of mechanics. That said, they’re never too complicated. In fact, I had been playing for around 45-60 minutes when I realized what type of approach I wanted to take with Grey Irma. Quick attacks that build up poison, Special attacks that built up hex (also a damage over time status), supplemented by amulets that bolstered my critical attack chance and damage. It proved to be a lethal combination! Not only does Moonscars offer freedom to explore, but also freedom of play style – an excellent marriage of mechanics.
A Radiant Moon
Moonscars may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s so much to love about this game. Artistically original, mechanically rewarding, and well-balanced! The difficulty is certainly here. However, it’s the kind of challenge that never feels insurmountable. Grey Irma has everything she requires to progress. Of particular note, the combat in Moonscars is actually fun! Taking the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master approach, the options in battle are focused in such a way that putting them together does take time to learn. That said, once you’ve mastered your approach, the effects are devastating. Movement feels smooth and responsive, which of course equates to Moonscars just being downright fun to play.
I adored the way the story unfolded. Everything is paced just right such that you as a player feel the creeping sense of confusion that Grey Irma must be experiencing. The levels are a joy to explore. They’re well-designed, from the look to the platforming, and all accompanied by a luscious soundtrack.
Something else of merit? Enemy design! There’s a good variety of enemies on display. Visually distinct but also presenting their own dangers, requiring different strategies to overcome. Coupled with the genuinely engaging Spite Bonus feature and the Ichor refills, engaging with enemies comes with a large amount of risk but meaningful payoffs as well.
A number of seemingly distinct gameplay aspects just mesh so fluidly in Moonscars that despite its difficulty at times, it is a game that I found hard to put down.
A Hungry Moon
Despite Moonscars showcasing high-quality game design, there are things that definitely hold the game back. It’s clear from what I have said that I do, on the whole, appreciate the visual design of Moonscars. Counter to this, on occasion, the dreary color palette can be a drawback. Spike traps are difficult to see but this is minor. In certain areas or situations, even Grey Irma is difficult to keep track of. In keeping with such a specific visual motif, the levels can become a little indistinct. By this, I mean that it’s clear the developers have stood their ground on how their game should look. In so doing, they have sacrificed the opportunity to add a depth of character to the maps. Only a pinch though!
Whilst Moonscars is generally well-balanced, sometimes the game falls into the Metroidvania trope of increasing difficulty by increasing the number of annoying enemies. Oftentimes, this happens just before a new save point or shortcut. If you perish to the mob, the run back to that spot can become tedious.
The bosses in Moonscars vary wildly in quality. Not to say that they aren’t all conceptually brilliant. Just to point out that movesets and attack patterns sometimes furnish you with a boss you need to strategize for. On the other hand, a few bosses come down to dumb luck and one boss in particular is outright annoying. Being ceaselessly chased around by an octo-baby at an absurd speed, whilst a boss clone fires off projectiles got a little much for me. At that point, I beat that boss out of pure spite (no pun intended).
I always appreciate a good parry in games like this. I have to say though, I couldn’t gel with the parry in Moonscars. A red flash indicates a parry-able attack, but the window for the successful parry is a few frames after the flash. An ever so slightly longer window would make the parry a lot more viable in combat, albeit I’m willing to admit that perhaps I just needed to practice that more.
For the vast majority of my hours spent in-game, performance was good. Though even with a 1080ti and 64GB of RAM, when there were a ton of enemies on screen, I did experience the odd dropped frame.
Minor blemishes aside, I had a thoroughly great time with Moonscars. When all is said and done, Moonscars is an example of what makes indie developers so brilliant. Risks have been taken here, in terms of artstyle and approach, but a masterful understanding of what makes such games engaging makes Moonscars one of the more stand-out titles in this genre.
MOONSCARS IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Humble Games for a PC review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.