Back when I last checked up on Moons of Madness during this year’s E3, you might recall that I was very impressed by the demo. I really liked the more mundane aspects of the game, and that for as little as it was shown, the horror seemed to be on point, especially because it was more psychological on the protagonist’s part than purely graphic. I finally got to play the final build of Moons of Madness, and although it hits all the points that you’d expect in a first-person highly atmospheric horror game set in space, it never quite manages to climb out of its box.
As one astronaut in a research group aboard a top secret research facility on Mars called Trailblazer Alpha, your in-game life seems to be as mundane as it comes. After a very tense dream, you wake up in your room for yet another day of doing routine maintenance on the base, while your co-worker quips at you via the radio. First, you figure out how to get out of your room since security protocols have changed since the day before, then you proceed to go get your coffee and your proteins for yet another boring day at work. It’s the routine nature of Moons of Madness’ first few minutes that were surprisingly gripping to me, someone who usually avoids menial task games.
Things get a little crazier the more you move about the base. You’re basically alone since the rest of the group is busy at another section of the research center, and when a part of it gets flooded due to an earthquake — or should we call it, Mars-quake — it’s up to you to go and fix it, along with some of the solar panels along the surface of the planet. Turn some nobs here, insert a battery there, and boom, everything seems to get in order. But hey, what was that thing that just popped into your peripheral vision just then? Hm. Wait, what’s up with all the plants taking over the flooded botanical lab? Oh. And why is all of this a lot like the dream you just had last night? Weird!
It’s after your character comes to grips that something is not right that Moons of Madness dives straight into the kooky territory. It quickly becomes clear that Rock Pocket Games are fans of space horror of the cosmic variety, as everything that goes on from that point on is brought in straight from the annals of Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s seminal works on Cthulhu and the likes, the kind of terror that drove his characters insane, manifesting in the form of tentacles and such. You know, the same damn flavor of horror that videogame developers have been drawing inspiration upon a lot in the last few years. And it’s exactly in this regard that Moons of Madness falls short. It hits all the notes you’d expect, but it doesn’t go beyond that in any way.
I don’t consider myself an expert in horror fiction in any way, but shortly into the game, I could tell where it was going, and basically nailed all of its beats along the way as I approached its conclusion a few hours afterwards. The scares are purely of the jump variety, lacking the insanity effects that you’d expect from a game drawing from Lovecraft’s source material. There’s no direct combat, but the little that you do in defending yourself is done through middling quick-time events that are very easy to miss and fail, and the little tension that’s built when being chased around the base is muted due to the fact that whatever it is that is going after you is extremely slow and well, very polite, since it waits for you to fumble around towards the scripted exit. I also was a little disappointed with the overall pacing of how the horrific things that go on unfold throughout Moons of Madness. I missed having more in the way of feeling like time had passed in between my character’s job routine and all hell breaking loose, or more of a development in the way of breaking apart reality and throwing us into the deep end.
Sure, the space theme is really well put together all throughout the game, and being able to walk around the surface of Mars is always a joy, along with the terrific opening moments just doing menial work, but it feels like Moons of Madness could’ve been so much more if it had tried to creep out of the box, and tried to develop its horror beyond merely relying on the same tired tropes we’ve seen in a bunch of other media before. It would’ve been the bow on top of an otherwise solid, extremely atmospheric first-person experience.
Like I mentioned before, everything else in Moons of Madness is really well put together. The interactions all over the base are suitably engrossing, as well as the exchanges between the protagonist and his buddy, even though the rest of the crew is somewhat less so since there’s so little in the way of talking from them, other than the telegraphed tropes from some of them. The texts that you sift through as you click through in various terminals is full of technical mumbo-jumbo that fits into the reality of the research base, although the personal e-mails and missives that serve as story development hit it a little on the nose trying to build on what led to the events in the game when the actual playing of Moons of Madness is so by-the-books once it turns the horror dial.
Moons of Madness isn’t terrible in any way. If you’re looking to be spooked, it’ll certainly do that for you quite well. Otherwise, when it comes to doing horror of the more deeper kind, I feel that a game like SOMA did a much better job at conveying the messed up psychological gameplay that Moons of Madness attempts, merely dips its toe into. Sure, both games play very similarly if you analyse them for all the bits that make up their wholes, but it’s exactly in the way that they are built that makes Frictional Games’ master work such a stronger overall experience than Rock Pocket Games’.