The indie scene in video games always has the capacity to surprise, whether it be an emotional rollercoaster ride or an adorable but addictive cult simulator. With Humble Games and Black Mermaid’s Moonscars now out in the wild, we can add another punishing but enjoyable 2D action-platformer to the list.
At first glance, it seems like Moonscars borrows heavily from the Souls series or contemporaries like Blasphemous, and that is not too far off. The narrative and storytelling are purposefully cryptic, the world is dark and foreboding, and there are enemies everywhere waiting to tear your face off. However, what the game does really well is leveraging its own gameplay systems to establish a clear identity of its own amongst similar titles.
Players take the role of Grey Irma, a clayborne warrior that is seeking to unravel the mystery of her existence, alive in a dreadful world devoid of life and full of darkness. The themes of doom and gloom permeate throughout the entire game, and as the narrative unfolds, somewhat slowly at the start, Moonscars manages to weave an intriguing tale about life and immortality, and the price to pay when the pied piper comes calling.
For anyone looking to get a clear gist of what’s going on, Moonscars is definitely intent on hooking players along with subtle teases and hints at the bigger picture instead of stating intentions outright. It is a risk, of course, banking on the fact that players will remain interested throughout, but in this case, it is one that pays off ultimately towards the end.
As an action-platformer, combat plays a huge role in the events of Moonscars, with Grey Irma having several tools in her arsenal to deal with the monsters scattered about. The ever-dependable sword is capable of quick and charged attacks, while special weapons let players tailor their approach with different attacks and bonuses.
The Harpoon can close the gap on enemies, a hammer can stun your foes, and when you add in other bonus effects like slowing or making enemies bleed, Grey Irma is certainly not defenceless. Of course, survival still requires players to attack strategically, knowing exactly when to launch special attacks that take a while to execute, and when to get out.
The dash is absolutely essential in Moonscars, not only for the platforming sections, but also keeping yourself out of danger. While it can be tempting to parry dangerous attacks in the hopes of getting a free hit, the precision required might actually make dodging a more reliable option. Combine all of that together, and combat becomes a delicate dance against a singular enemy, and a frenetic performance when multiple foes arrive on the scene.
Thankfully, the addition of Wizardry helps even the playing field a little more, with Grey Irma able to learn devastating spells to help with her journey. By collecting the bone powder from fallen foes, it can then be spent on a library of spells to augment your melee combat prowess. Naturally, the elevated power of some spells is balanced by longer casting time, once more instigating a risk and reward approach that can either save or doom you.
All of that mastery does not just come in handy against the oftentimes challenging bosses, but even the rank and file that roam the land. Get overconfident, and even the tiniest of foes can reduce Grey Irma to ashes, so it pays always to be prepared for ambushes and nasty tricks, especially if you are not looking to lose all your precious bone powder.
Unless you happen to be a savant, death is going to be a common theme in Moonscars, which then utilises the well-trodden mechanic of attempting to return to your body to recover resources and keep players moving forward always. Die too often, and Moonhunger strikes, upping the difficulty while rewarding more bone powder for slaying enemies. Sanctuary can be found by sacrificing a precious resource in Glands at save points masquerading as giant mirrors, but there’s still a further price to pay there as well.
Every new save point used will transport players to a hub area where more narrative exposition and gameplay elements like quests and shops are introduced. However, you will also lose your chosen special attack and weapon to a dangerous doppelganger. Only by slaying the reflection of yourself can you progress, forcing players then to choose one of three options for your next special weapon.
It is an interesting system, just like the simplified levelling system that grants certain buffs to the player as you kill enemies and up your Spite level. Should you perish, it all goes away, leaving you more susceptible to the increasing danger that lies ahead. While it may run the danger of becoming a slog, Moonscars’ focus on making sure everything is still quite balanced means progress is always possible.
It also helps that Moonscars looks absolutely stunning with its pixel art, animations, and purposeful lack of colours. The withdrawn colour palette brings the focus onto the details, whether it be the distinct areas players find themselves in, the terrifying enemies that rise from the ground, or the clever use of light and darkness to bring the world to life.
The heavy use of darker tones suits the game to a tee, and so does the music, which sets the tone well in engineering an unease in the player as you progress. Even in relatively peaceful surroundings, the way the game continues to keep you on the edge is quite unnerving and strangely, satisfying.
For all the light Moonscars manages to bring to the proceedings, there are still several niggling issues that can cloud your experience of the game. While the art is a feast for the eyes, it can be occasionally difficult to delineate between actual platforms versus background art, and the same goes for dangers like ground spikes and the like.
Certain areas might require all enemies to be vanquished before a gate is opened, but when foes are clipping through the walls and beyond range, it can be frustrating to restart from a recent save. Precise platforming is also going to be a problem for those just not used to pixel perfection in their execution. None of the issues is major, but it still stands in the way of true greatness.
Nonetheless, Moonscars remain an utterly impressive debut outing for Black Mermaid, an entertaining action-platformer that is full of atmosphere and cryptic worldbuilding, and a visual style that showcases just how awesome pixel art continues to be in modern gaming. At about 20-odd hours, it is a game not to be rushed but savoured, and the darkness never looked so enticing.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A triumphant debut for Black Mermaid, Moonscars is absolutely satisfying in combat and movement, while creating a dreadful world that intrigues and teases, hoping to lure another victim into the darkness. Time to strap in.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 8.5/10
Presentation - 9/10
Value - 8/10