I feel like I’ve played Moons of Madness a hundred times before. The “walk down hallways and get scared” genre has been a favorite of small indie teams and big studios alike, all looking to jump on a trend and, if I had to guess, build something that isn’t too daunting. I don’t blame anyone for trying—hell, I’m no game developer and even I feel the draw to try to invent my own haunted house game—but as the genre overflows, so do the expectations.
It doesn’t help that Moons of Madness stakes a claim within another crowded genre: Lovecraftian horror. Set on a Mars colony in the near future, it blends hard scifi with Cthulhu-inspired aesthetics. Regardless of the unique angle, it joins a sea of similar games. Hell, it plays a lot like a game that’s literally called Call of Cthulhu.
Every time I start one of these haunted house horror games I go through the same process. I poke and prod at the gameplay, trying to figure how many obstacles there will be between myself and the end credits. Each game gives little hints to how it will annoy you. When a crowbar went into my puzzle inventory rather than becoming a weapon, I knew Moons of Madness would not present me with combat. Would it try to kill me in other ways?
As I played through the opening act, I got the sense that I was playing a puzzle game with some linear exploration and jump scares. I started to hope that’s all the game was. Without a combat system, how would this game try to kill me? Would I play for hours, only to run into a sequence inspired by Slender Man? Would I be forced through punitive, trial-and-error sequences of stealth, a la Outlast? There’s always some bullshit in these kinds of games, but I held out hope that Moons of Madness would be different.
This is not a good way to feel about a game that hasn’t shown its cards yet, and yet it’s a symptom of the genre. I just wanted to solve puzzles, walk around, and get spooked, but I knew the “Game Over” screens would come eventually. I dreaded every second of anticipation.
So let’s just peel the band-aid off now: Moons of Madness does eventually try to kill you. It is annoying too, ranging from cheap QTEs to touchy chase and stealth sequences. It even features a take on the “don’t touch the floor” bit from Amnesia, although not nearly as effective. Thankfully, none of these sequences are catastrophic, but they come with long loading screens upon death, adding to some already poor pacing.
The biggest issue with Moons of Madness (outside of being another entry in a very tired genre) is the pacing. It feels like an eternity of walking around reading dull journal entries, playing Mr. Fix-it on Mars, and listening to stiff unlikable characters banter before anything exciting happens. Then, suddenly, the pacing shifts completely. A stream of relentless horror sequences and tonal shifts comes out of nowhere, eventually snapping back to dreary space station environments. There is no build-up and no easing back into the quiet moments.
It’s an odd choice considering the inspiration. Lovecraft is all about the little hints that build and build until bumps in the dark become ancient unknowable gods. Even Bloodborne, a game that starts at an 11-out-of-10 on the ugly monster scale, slowly builds to an 18 or so, working towards the perfect Cthulhu-inspired reveal.
Comparisons to Bloodborne may be unfair, but it’s those comparisons that make this type of game seem so flawed. I dread any challenge or obstacle in these walking games, because I know that overcoming those challenges will be a hassle. I’ll never finish a difficult sequence and get the satisfaction I get from defeating a boss in Bloodborne, or escaping Mr. X in Resident Evil 2. If anything, succeeding in a game like Moons of Madness just makes me think, “so glad I never have to do THAT again!”
For some, Moons of Madness will suit a mood or work as a palette cleanser between larger, more complicated games. For others, it may be their first exposure to a linear horror game like this. For those folks I think it is important to say that this is a competent, polished game. Often it can feel like a big ask for these kinds of horror games to function at all, and I’m happy to say that Moons of Madness is pretty damn good in that regard.
But I wish more developers in this genre would just pick a lane: interactive story or video game-ass video game. Tell a good story, creep me out, but don’t throw a game over screen in my face. That, or make gameplay worth being challenged by, worth enduring a game over screen and a loss of progress. Moons of Madness tries to walk a line between those two lanes, and in doing so, it’s just another game in an almost infinite pile of flawed horror experiences.