While it feels like I’ve played more Lovecraft-inspired games than Blizzard have had PR disasters in the past year, there’s something that keeps drawing me back to each new game that takes on the problematic writer’s mythos. While recent attempts such as Call of Cthulhu and Sinking City aimed at providing an authentically gritty and historically appropriate version, Moons of Madness gets extra credit for offering a fresh spin on things.
Setting the psychological breakdown of its protagonist on an expedition to Mars allows the cosmic side of Lovecraft’s horror to take centre stage and offers the kind of physical and mental isolation that the genre requires.
In direct contrast to more action-filled martian escapades like Doom, Moons of Madness owes more to the walking simulator genre than first person shooters. Much of the game’s style of horror operates through the steady sense of dread it establishes and maintains, aside from a few obligatory set-pieces. The lack of weaponry and fighting ability differentiates Shane Newehart from Doom Guy or Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke – even if he shares the job of engineer with the latter. You’ll spend most of your time exploring and solving environmental puzzles rather than fighting off aliens. Fortunately, these puzzles are generally challenging without becoming frustrating.
Moons of Madness initially takes is graphic design cues from the sterile and clinical stylings of Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones’ Moon, but it’s a style that quickly gives way to tentacle-like roots and inky black ooze. In typical sci-fi fashion, the early parts of your Martian experience feature the kind of mundane activities that would make actual space travel feel like janitor work. This approach slowly eases you into life on Mars and gives you a chance to get a feel for the layout of the base in a threat-free fashion before the poop hits the fan. Much of your early time is spent locating batteries and activating switches, although the atmosphere and scene-setting makes this far more enjoyable than that description makes it sound.
Once things take a turn for the cosmic horror, however, the pace of the game also changes. This is most clearly seen in obligatory chase sequences that feature so heavily in so many horror games. These are often the bane of otherwise well-crafted atmospheric experiences and, to some extent, they are here as well. Fortunately, they are relatively infrequent, but the first main one is so dependent on trial and error that it could easily put players off. The sudden intrusion of instant death and a lack clear signposting elicited a deep sigh, but it is certainly worth persevering through this obstacle.
The story also takes a series of interesting turns that simultaneously open the action out to a more cosmic scale and focus inward to Newehart’s own family traumas. The hints at his missing mother develop into a characteristically Lovecraftian tale of scientific breakthroughs that have horrifying consequences.
As the game deepens and the peril grows, Moons of Madness becomes a tremendously atmospheric experience. The sci-fi setting and cosmic weirdness combine to regain the unsettling feeling that is lost through the initially frustrating chases. There are a couple of other roadblocks, however, including a QTE boss fight that seems to be straight out of an entirely different game. Luckily the checkpointing in these parts is relatively generous, so it is perfectly possible to brute force your way through with a little patience.