October 31, 2019, Halloween day. Snow falls for the first time in the year on the Illinois Tech campus, students are eating the candy they got from the Halloween RA floor event the day prior, and one Jack Hamilton dumps $25 on a four hour game from Rock Pocket Games under the promise of Lovecraftian horror on the surface of Mars. Not that there’s anything wrong with short games. I just happen to be a little sour that after I was done I realized I was $25 poorer. Regardless, neither has much to do with the quality of “Moons of Madness,” the reason for my lack of visits to 7-Eleven as of late.
“Moons of Madness” was the result of a misunderstanding surrounding the phrase “cosmic horror” as the game is about Lovecraftian nightmares in space. You play as Shane Newehart, chief engineer of the Mars base on which the game takes place, an all purpose dope who reacts to each happening of horror in the precise opposite reaction of a normal human. Accompanying him in ground zero for nightmare occurrences are his crewmates: Declan, the comic relief character; Lukas, the weird guy, Captain Wilcox, the hard boss lady, and Inna, the Russian obsessed scientist. And props to Rock Pocket Games for only using two of the most common horror trope characters, and taking the other two from the lineup of less common horror tropes.
Don’t be deceived by the whole “Lovecraftian Horror” pitch because it isn't strictly true. I can only imagine the board meeting where the developers spitballed ideas for their new game. I picture they settled on horror before the boss at the head of the table asked “okay, so what kind of horror?” before every other member sitting down shouted out a different horror subgenre and so because they could not narrow down to one kind, they settled on all of them. There is plenty of Lovecraftian cosmic evils, but also evil plants, evil plots, evil malfunctioning technology, evil lack of oxygen in space, evil conspiracies, evil corporations, evil tentacles, evil slime, evil robots, evil flickering lights, evil puzzles, evil flooding, evil workplaces, evil scientists, evil failed human experiment monsters, evil cults, evil symbols, evil pictures, and of course the evil backstory for the main character.
But aside from their indecisiveness, does Rock Pocket Games pull it off? Yeah. Mostly, anyway. The game opens with an evil dream that ends with an evil birthday party before the most evil thing of all happens: waking up bright and early for work. From there, the game actually does a pretty darn good job establishing pacing. The first full hour has the player repairing the station's solar panels and then fixing a leak in the plumbing, all the while learning about the strange happenings around the base, rampant nightmares, odd sights, and the like. From their the horror ramps up gradually until the player is wallowing in the promised doomsday cults, corporate conspiracies, and Lovecraftian introspections into the depths of the mind.
Where the game tends to fall behind is subtlety. While the pacing is good, when the horror actually begins happening it’s just kinda right in front of your face, doing a little dance rather than being the sneaking, corner-of-your eye doubt of more well crafted horror experiences. Perhaps the most damning example of this is when you find the first monster. It jumps up in front of you, unfurling itself right in your face, waving its tentacles all over the place while gurgling noisily. Again this strikes me as more of the over-excitement that seems to be so emblematic of this game.
Don’t get me wrong, excitement and passion is something so often lacking in games nowadays. But the flip side of that coin is restraint, and when developers get too excited to show everyone all the cool new monsters and animations they made they forget the all too important subtlety. “Moons of Madness” certainly tickles my fancy for cosmic horror, albeit less so than I would have liked, but I feel it could have been managed better.
The game is no more than five hours long, depending on how long the player takes on the main gameplay task of solving puzzles. And to the game’s credit, the is a far greater amount of depth to the puzzles than most if not all other horror games out there, varying from find the “key” to open the “door” to “Bioshock” style pipe alignment minigames and beyond. The animations are also of particular note for their fluidity, extent, and omnipresence. For instance, refilling your air capacity doesn’t just have a sound and a little blinking light to tell you it's done, you go through a full animation to do so. The game visually overall is very impressive, with the construction of environments lending well to the game’s immersion, particularly to the feel of the Martian surface. There is one moment in the game where you’re high up above the surface of the planet during a storm when a “thing” happens in the distance, and the way it’s set up combined with the animation gives the moment a lot of impact. Being a shorter game I would say actually works in its favor, as I couldn't imagine how one might go about extending the game any further.
Final Score: 6/10, a sweet little game if a little overpriced; but it feels like a rough draft even if it is a rough draft that is close to the final project. If they had given a bit more time and thought as to how some of the stuff in the game happens, I feel like they could have made something really special.