Space exploration is sheer nightmare fuel. Outer Wilds knew it and now it’s Moons of Madness‘ turn to pile on the terror.
It’s the overwhelming sense of isolation that makes this Lovecraftian horror outing so unsettling. It’s never pleasant being stranded on a gloomy island, populated with people who might turn on you at the slightest drop of a hat, but on an island there’s always the slim possibility you could make it to the mainland.
Not so in Moons of Madness which, at every turn, drives home the message that no-one is coming to the rescue.
Just gazing out of your cabin window will give you the shivers, as you behold the largely featureless surface of Mars. What if the window were to crack, leaving you choking as the Martian “air” pours in? When the game tasks you with fixing a minor flood, there’s an unpleasant thought at the back of your head… what if you manage to disable the entire facility’s water supply? Even before everything kicks off, Moons of Madness has you thoroughly on edge.
The game takes place in the same universe as Funcom’s Secret World, though you won’t lose out for not having dabbled in that MMO. The real benefit of this is that, through mining the MMO’s mythos, H.P. Lovecraft doesn’t get a look in. There’s an easter egg where you stumble across a couple of Cthulhu statues – but Moons of Madness is all the better for not name-checking Lovecraft’s otherworldly entities every five minutes. Instead, you’re up against mutated plants, burrowing monsters, robots and more.
With no means of defending yourself against these enemies, running or hiding is your only option. Thankfully, these encounters are spaced out enough that the tension is given time to build. You’re never technically alone in space, but Moons of Madness continually comes up with credibility-stretching excuses to separate you from your fellow crew members. Without a shipmate in sight, the hallucinations and other scripted sequences have a more profound and disturbing effect, with some “blink and you’ll miss it” moments that are more disturbing than Moons of Madness‘ in-your-face encounters.
Puzzles, not combat, are the meat of the game, and while a few stretch the bounds of credibility (even for a game set on Mars) they’re mostly logical, unobtrusive and pleasingly rewarding. And at no point are you required to collect a set of chess pieces just to pass through a door that sees regular use.
The locations you explore are superbly detailed; Moons of Madness follows the dictionary definition of alien, something that is “unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful”. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t drive the game’s martian buggy, but you are allowed to roam around outside (oxygen and geography permitting), further underlining just how alone you are. Moons of Madness is relatively linear but with an appealingly episodic structure; once you’ve solved one crisis, you’re onto the next, so you’re never trying to deal with too many problems at one time.
It’s an approach that works surprisingly well; as each new issue to overcome arises, you’re acutely aware that there’s something bigger lurking behind the scenes, saving itself for the game’s finale. The writing’s also extremely sharp; there was one twist I spotted a mile off, but for the most part, Moons of Madness is full of horrifying surprises. What makes the story especially strong – and disturbing – is the way it taps into certain astronomical phenomenon.
I was sure that that game’s creators had made something up but, upon checking, I discovered that it was scientific fact. I won’t give away the specific plot point, but just thinking about it gives me the chills. There are, nevertheless, a couple of points where Moons of Madness risks outstaying its welcome, one near the end of its eight-hour runtime, and there was a particularly obtuse puzzle that had me scratching my head until I could feel brain matter on my fingers.
That aside, Moons of Madness is a wonderfully chilling outing that blends horror and sci-fi to excellent effect, delivering a palpable sense of dread. Most pleasingly, it channels the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft without yelling “CTHULHU!” in your ear every five minutes.