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Review

Moonscars Review

Shoot for the moon

Moonscars, the first game from new studio Black Mermaid and this year’s umpteenth attempt at an indie Soulslike, feels hungry. A 2D action-sidescroller with a non-linear world to explore with copious foes to slay, Moonscars is champing at the bit to show off its ideas. That eagerness is the game’s greatest strength and occasional weakness, a desire to differentiate itself from the pack that belies insecurity in its genuinely fantastic core systems. Given a chance though, Moonscars will instil in you that same hunger as you push yourself harder and faster to get another taste of its strange tale.

Grey Irma is having a rough one. Her creator, a man of immense power now given to prolonged existential chats with his overly large cat, has seemingly abandoned her. Her brothers and sisters are all varying degrees of annoyed with her antics, which she naturally can’t quite recall at the moment, and she’s got a nasty stomach ache. That last point probably owing to the fact that she is dead. Having fallen in battle, the great warrior Grey Irma has been supplanted by a clay recreation who is compelled to roam the fantasy wastes of the moon, slaying foes and trying to restore some semblance of normality to this ailing world.

Moonscars’ core combat is excellent

Moonscars has the fundamentals of combat absolutely nailed to the wall in a way that many other genre contenders struggle to achieve. The game just feels right, combining a swiftness of movement with immediately satisfying hit impact for a core experience that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best. When we talk about the how and why of FromSoftware’s best achievements we often reference the almost elusive impact moment of the parry, the ‘ka-chunk’ hit that you feel in your bones when you pull one off. Moonscars manages to emulate that visceral satisfaction in every standard blow. Grey Irma has a standard three hit sword attack that uses the exact balance of audio, visual and feedback signifiers to feel consistently great to do.

Core combat is rounded out nicely by a rapid movement system that sees Irma flying through stages like an apparition. You’re able to swiftly dodge out of and through attacks as well as jump up and through walls, often combining the two in short-burst platforming challenges. Much like the basic attack, these movements just work the way you feel they should, giving you a tightness of control over Irma that a game of this level of difficulty demands. Supplementing your core attacks, Moonscars gives you a fairly expansive tree of Witchery skills to use, a special weapon given at the beginning of a run and a host of passive boosts in the form of Spite powerups and trinkets.

Aesthetics for days

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Witchery skills, unique powers that can be used for both offense and defence, pull from a core resource pool that also fuels your ability to heal. This often makes for an active balancing act between self-preservation and all-out attack. Boss encounters are the only time in which that balance tilts, the game warning you that certain foes require Witchery attacks to harm, but if you’ve just healed before a fight, you’re not going to have much to pull from. The pool is refilled by striking foes, but when the giveback is incremental you can find yourself in pockets of mildly frustrating repetition trying to farm back some health. Witchery skills are unlocked using bone dust (souls) gathered in the world and early hours can be a little hard going here too as death comes quickly and skills are quite pricy.

Moonscars swings back in the other direction with its special weapons at least, a smaller but extravagantly animated selection of AOE attacks that require no resource to pull off. Rounding out the arsenal are the Spite powers, passive boosts to your combat and exploration that are gained at a fairly consistent pace over time. For every enemy slain, Irma’s Spite will grow, signified by a bar in the top of the screen. Once full, you’re prompted to choose from three boosts, often offering up better healing speeds, higher critical hit chances and so on.

Enemy and world design is fantastic

There’s a lot of to keep track of and, initially, the game doesn’t do the best job of helping you understand its interlocking gameplay modifiers. The opening twenty minutes throw a barrage of basic tutorials your way and while you’re trying to grasp any of the game’s systems, it’s likely another will slip by unnoticed. The thing that most stuck in my craw was Moonscars’ frustrating difficulty modifier, which led to hours of needlessly challenging combat. If you die too many times in the game, the moon’s hunger will grow cruel and the enemies in the world will become even harder to kill. This can be reversed by offering up tokens found in the world but a game of this genre punishing death two-fold feels unnecessary. Even Dark Souls II (the best of the trilogy, argue with a wall) pulls this stunt and it always strikes me as starkly anti-player.

Moonscars also attempts to blend in elements of rogue-like gameplay with the Soulslike genre. Upon returning to the game’s hub area through a magical mirror, Irma will forfeit her current slate of Spite powers and special weapon, leaving behind an aggressive clone in the world with that particular build. The latter is genuinely cool and an interesting riff on the game’s themes, but the former seems out of place in a game that otherwise does its best to equip you with satisfying combat options. Nothing fully undoes the experience, and Moonscars’ core loop remains a blast throughout, but there is maybe too much piled on the plate at times.

I found the poetic gargoyles funny but you might not

I’m not entirely sure if it is intentional but there is a deeply amusing vein of dark comedy running through the heart of Moonscars. The game opens with The Sculptor waxing poetic about the art of creation to a Disney-scale cat, his creations a ragtag assembly of equally poetically afflicted souls with the requisite tragic undertones. Elsewhere twin gargoyles, a brother and sister, watch over your hub area and will often poke and prod at you with ominous abandon. Given the genre the game is lifting from, this kind of ‘dark’ worldbuilding may in fact be sincere, and is at the very least never prone to overly edgy nonsense. But I often found myself chuckling at the self-seriousness of Moonscars’ many lost souls. An endearing, if possibly accidental, impact.

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This strangely compelling vibe is complemented by a near perfect art direction that has taken inspiration from classical pieces and remixed it with pixel-perfect fantasy ideas. Moonscars is often visually breathtaking, a murky colour palette contrasted with richly detailed locations and character design. The game’s clever use of pops of red and gleaming shafts of light strike through a grimdark world but in an almost sickly way. This is very much a world long lost to the dark but still wearing the rancid skin of gaudy architecture and lavish impulses. Irma herself is an immediately striking and effortlessly cool protagonist, her flowing hair and crimson dress making her stand out in a decaying, and often hardened, world.

Final Thoughts

Moonscars has the aesthetic bravado and mechanical confidence of a game that knows its entering into a bloody arena of a genre with a very sharp blade. Its overly dreary narrative and inelegant system splicing betray the studio’s relative youth but even in these missteps, I found charm, and others will likely find intrigue. This is a deeply satisfying experience in many ways though, perfectly encapsulating the core joy of Soulslike combat and jazzing it up with a gorgeous sense of style.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Moonscars Review
Another small step for man
Moonscars brings a deeply satisfying core combat loop and exciting art direction to the Soulslike genre, even if it has some teething issues with its overlapping systems and narrative.
The Good
Fun and satisfying core combat
Exploration is enjoyable thanks to smooth movement
Robust set of powerups and weapons
Gorgeous art direction
The Bad
Narrative is a bit dry
Rogue-like systems feel out of place
Minor balancing issues
Death amplifies difficulty
7.5
good
  • Black Mermaid
  • Humble Bundle
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
  • September 27, 2022

Moonscars Review
Another small step for man
Moonscars brings a deeply satisfying core combat loop and exciting art direction to the Soulslike genre, even if it has some teething issues with its overlapping systems and narrative.
The Good
Fun and satisfying core combat
Exploration is enjoyable thanks to smooth movement
Robust set of powerups and weapons
Gorgeous art direction
The Bad
Narrative is a bit dry
Rogue-like systems feel out of place
Minor balancing issues
Death amplifies difficulty
7.5
good
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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