Watching the trailer for Moonscars made me excited to enter another 2D ‘Souls-like’, similarly to 2019’s Blasphemous. If the trailer was anything to go by, there would be tough yet exhilarating boss battles and Metroidvania elements; with a side of lore dished out ambiguously but showing depth to the world. I was right in my assumption, for the most part, but I can’t say that it was for the better.
Important Disclaimer: A game breaking bug is mentioned several times in this review. Developers Black Mermaid and Humble Games have identified the cause and are working on a patch. At the time of writing, there is no estimated time of arrival for that patch. As such, we are publishing this review alongside this message provided by the developers at their request:
“The day has come that you’ll finally get your hands on Moonscars! Unfortunately, an unforeseen critical bug in Moonscars was discovered in our final days of testing leading into launch which will affect some players. The team has identified the issue near the end of the game and is actively working on a fix/patch which will be released to the game as soon as possible. This is not how we wanted to launch the game and we would like to sincerely apologize to anyone who comes across this bug before the patch is released. We will announce the patch as soon as timing is confirmed for each platform. Thank you for your patience and continued support of Moonscars.”Humble Games and Black Mermaid
Amendment 30/9/22: Moonscars has now been patched. However, my main issues with the game were outside of it hard crashing on me. The same problems I had with the combat encounters in the late game overworld seep into the Boss Battles. Although it encourages you to play even more aggressively, it’s less skilled based. Especially when the final Boss has some RNG attached making it an absolute nightmare or just about doable. Ambiguous as endings go for this genre of games, this one may take the proverbial cake. There could be a lot of lore I’m missing from not scouring enough, it may even be fun for those who like to theorise, but for me it fell flat.
Looking into developer Black Mermaid proved difficult. They’ve either been buried by the headlines in the wake of the live action Little Mermaid trailer, or they’re not present in the first place outside of the @MoonscarsGame Twitter handle – in which there are only 11 tweets. Aloof and mysterious as their game, Black Mermaid have a strong premise on their hands, I just wish they worked on it a bit longer. Though as a potential debut they’ve come out swinging for the fences.
Rise, Foul Clayborn
Moonscars opens with a Sculptor talking tales of his creations being made of bone, clay and ichor – these would be the Clayborns. Ichor from what I gather is the essence of the soul. In Greek Mythology, ichor is a fluid like blood that flows through the Gods. But the Clayborn are far from Gods as they’re treated as puppets by their masters, and are considered abominations to the Pristines (humans). You play as Grey Irma – one of the Sculptors creations – who has lost their memory. She’s seeking out the Sculptor for answers and what unravels is a mystery of betrayal and revenge.
The story is told mostly through NPC dialogue – each being as cryptic as the other. It uses vernacular befitting of the world, but some of Grey Irma’s dialogue is usually met with an eye roll. A bit too on the nose and reactionary; sometimes it can even come off as a teenager telling their parent to get out of their room. I wish I could say that the decent set up of the world and characters comes to a satisfying conclusion. However, at the time of this writing my game crashes at what I believe to be the second to last boss. I’ve spent a good hour trying to speed run the boss to kill it before the crash, but alas I can’t.
Hopefully it gets a patch either day one or early on, as I’ve gotten really invested in Moonscars. The rich lore that has inspiration from the Souls series – namely Bloodborne – and a hint of Berserk, are all ticking boxes in the dark fantasy pantheon. Themes of humanity, corruption and power have plagued the landscape throughout the actions of Pristines. The dichotomy of Pristines and Clayborns is spoon-fed in an engrossing way that matches the tone of the world. The layered gameplay enhances the narrative. Fighting your doppelgänger may have grown tiresome after every new checkpoint, but the story significance makes it a bold choice of instilling the brutality of Moonscars.
It Was More Like A Large Hunk Of Iron
Grey Irma drags her sword across the floor before slicing her enemies. The swings are heavy, feeling impactful with every hit due to the haptic feedback in the PS5’s DualSense. Although you only play with the one weapon, every mould – which is essentially a new life – comes with a special attack after successfully slewing your aforementioned doppelgänger that wants you dead. The special attacks vary from a light sword with a swinging blow, to a pinwheel that acts as a clay killing buzzsaw. The choice of three comes with a random buff that improves your health or ichor. I never used them too much though and always chose a health boost over the ichor.
The ichor bar is your ability to perform Witchery or heal. There’s a risk reward mechanic which really influences the flow of combat. You can use ichor to kneel down and heal your heath over time, but it leaves you open to attack. To regain ichor you’ll need to output damage with your sword. This made the combat so satisfying and with a parry that has a generous window; it felt like a great way to encourage frenetic, yet measured gameplay.
Witchery consists of special abilities that range from a blast dealing high damage to summoning your own doppelgänger to help with the fight. On paper it should make for a good variety in gameplay, but I never managed to utilise it outside of bursting walls open to secret rooms. There’s an extensive skill tree where you spend Bone Powder (currency) that drops from foes. The abilities became far too expensive and for a relatively short game – around 10 hours – coupled with the distribution of Bone Powder being so slight; you’ll be grinding a good while if you want to experiment with abilities. This then effects the late game stages as if you’ve bought certain abilities over others you may have a hard time fighting what should be ok battles.
You can equip three amulets that give random buffs to damage output or intake. Some of them come at a cost to your health or ichor and others may even break upon death. But like the Witchery, it’s a much of a muchness. I opted to use one that gives health from successful parries and another that grants you two dashes instead of one. It feels like everything was thrown at the kitchen sink outside of combat as all the other mechanics don’t equate to anything of use.
Praise The… Moon?
The ties between gameplay mechanics and lore are some of the strongest aspects of Moonscars. You fight under a Moon that’s only satiated when given a Gland (heart). If the Moon is satisfied, foes are a little easier to fight and drop more Bone Powder. However, if you die the Moon becomes ravenous. Enemies also become ravenous, making them hit harder and take more damage. As far as I got with the story due to the crashes, I’m not yet quite sure what the significance the Moon plays in its role but NPCs tend to pray for it whilst others detest the existence. Again this just fills out the richness the story – up to this point – has provided.
You don’t necessarily level up, but the more you kill, the higher your Spite level raises. Every Spite level offers you a random buff on your healing, Witchery use or effect build up – sound familiar? You lose this upon death however, but it’s not too hard to regain. This is yet another example of something that sounds good but matching it with all the systems just seems like way too much. Thankfully all of the added mechanics are something to be mindful of the whole time, otherwise it would have made for an overwhelming experience.
My. Great. Guilt.
The interior may come across ugly, but so does the exterior! In the best way possible. The art and animation by Stefan S. Valerian (@stefanvlr) on Twitter sets such a miserable tone in the world. Devoid of much colour outside of Grey Irma’s red dress. The world consists of greys, yellows and blacks which may sound unappealing but the consistent colour palette in line with those made of clay, bone and ichor just suits the bleak nature of Moonscars. The 2D pixel art and intricate animations tied to Grey Irma are so detailed and perfectly executed, it’s a great visual that never gets old when in combat.
Whilst the levels never stray too far from a castle much like Dark Souls’ Anor Londo in its gothic architecture; or a battlefield where only the dead now reside. They do a good job of being distinct enough from each other like other games with a labyrinthian map for you to explore and back track. Traversal across them all seems light as it only starts to switch it up in the last third of the game, but the design is incredible.
Enemy designs may be the weaker part as they recycle the enemy types across the game, with slight differences in look the further you go. But Grey Irma looks great roaming the decrepit land, as well as the NPCs you meet along the way. All have a distinctive look to them that says so much about their place in the world with one look. The dreaded drone in the music adds to the atmosphere. Whilst it’s not necessarily one that will stick with me after I’m done. It serves the world perfectly by filling such an empty place sonically.
Overall, Moonscars hooked me with its combat, world design and art style. The game has a difficulty spike near the start that may throw people off, that then becomes manageable – until the inevitable late game. The enemies just have their damage sliders turned all the way up, with less room to fight in and more of them to contest with. It feels poorly designed in that aspect and is unnecessarily difficult to the point of frustration.
With better game design choices and no hard crashes – Moonscars would be a great addition to the 2D Soulstroidvania genre. It’s hard to enjoy the bleak aesthetics and the rich lore of the world when the game doesn’t let you finish it however. The combat is fresh yet familiar but every mechanic outside of that isn’t really needed. But this may be one to perserve with, if you need that Souls itch scratched.
Moonscars is out now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series S|X, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC (Steam)
Developer: Black Mermaid
Publisher: Humble Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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