Moons of Madness Preview - E3 2019
We experience some deep space horrors in this new title
It's been fun seeing Funcom stretch their arms as a publisher. While I didn't love last year's Mutant Year Zero, I appreciated seeing the company taking risks on small studios trying something fun and new. That definitely seems like the case with Moons of Madness, a sophomore effort from developer Rock Pocket Games. After getting my hands on this eldritch horror adventure space game, it's easy to see how Funcom would have been easily convinced to publish the title. In my short time with Moons of Madness, I was quickly reminded of other terrifying games like Soma and Outlast - impressive company to keep.
The demo began with the main character, Shane, waking up in the middle of the night. We are aboard a space station, but of course, the lights don't seem to be working. Shane stumbles to his feet and feels his way around the bunk. Opening the door, I direct Shane deeper into the space station, but it's immediately clear that something is horribly wrong. Again, the lights don't seem to be working, but there's a feeling of abandonment, like the people that should be here have fled something terrible, or were killed.
As I start to poke around, I find a flashlight. I then begin to find post-it notes left around the main atrium, with haunting messages. Someone asks what has been chewing on the power cords and wonders if it isn't a test specimen that's gotten loose. Another note asks people to please keep the noise down because everything can be heard through the vents. There's also an ominous message scribbled on a whiteboard, with two circles linked together, like a Venn diagram. But the worst thing is that out of the corner of my eye I catch the quick flash of movement in the dark. I know I'm not alone in here.
I find an unlocked door and enter into a laboratory. The lighting doesn't work much better here, but I catch another glimpse of the creature or person that is in the space station with me. I slowly make my way through the dark halls - the movement of the game is slow and deliberate, the pacing adding to the dread that is beginning to build inside of me. I start to notice the strong sound design, the eerie noises that fill my headphones.
There's a locked door, but it's broken and with the right leverage, I think I could break in. I look around the space station and find a locker to open, causing the contents to spill out, one of which is a crowbar. I go back to the door and pry it open. And that's when my flashlight stops working.
I don't need the flashlight though, as the room is lit by candles. Birthday candles, to be exact. In the middle of the room is a woman, sitting over a cake. She wishes Shane a happy birthday, then disappears. I slowly approach the cake and suddenly the woman re-appears from below the screen and leaps at me!
Shane wakes up again, except now it is morning and he is hung over from a long night of drinking. He receives a radio call from a crewmate who asks him to login and get started with his day. I guide Shane out of bed and find the computer I'm supposed to log into. It's not exactly straightforward. I first have to go to a locker and find my ID card, then find my login password, which has been scribbled on a post-it note behind a picture.
It's worth calling out the smart design to these puzzles. At its core, Moons of Madness is an adventure game, but as the puzzles are so incidental to the world, it doesn't ostensibly feel like one. The puzzles aren't the obvious kind you'd see in a game like Monkey Island or Broken Age. Random characters aren't asking for a weirdly obscure tool; it's much more about the daily activities that feel a 'slice of life' - finding a mug for your coffee, or hiding a pair of underwear left in your room from a hook up last night (both are actual examples from the demo). It helps that Rock Pocket do a solid job of pointing out what can be interacted with, giving you a clear idea of what you can find and what might be able to help.
After getting some coffee and doing a light workout, Shane realizes that in his drunken shenanigans from the night before, he lost his biometer, which is used to track objectives and record data. It acts a lot like a Pip-Boy from Fallout. I return to what looks like the laboratory from the dream Shane had at the beginning of the game, I even use a crowbar to access the area because one of the doors isn't working.
Once I've found the biometer, I realize it doesn't work and needs a pen to reset. I search the laboratory to find one, and then finally get the gadget up and running, attached to my arm. At this point, I have to skip ahead to the end of the demo, where Shane needs to turn on the water. I slowly approach the breaker and flip the switch.
Here the eldrich influence of the game truly comes through as black tendrils extend from below the water switch, menacingly flicking in the air. From the black mess emerges a monster which screams at Shane and leaps at him. With this, the demo ends.
I'm interested to see more of the horror sections in Moons of Madness. Talking to a team member of Rock Pockets Studio, he touched on the pacing and how the team wanted to have moments of mundanity to break up the tension, which has been missing in most recent horror games. Still, a lot of whether or not these games work depends on how well the chase/hiding sequences go once the monsters start running the show. You can find out for yourself if the horrors of this station are too much, when Moons of Madness launches on Halloween 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.