Moonscars is hard and frustrating and cryptic and I felt like the game was daring me to finish it. And you know what? I did. I finished it. Out of spite.
- Title: Moonscars
- Release Date: September 27, 2023
- Price: $19.99
- Suggested Audience Age: Rated T for Teen by the ESRB
- Availability: Switch (Reviewed), Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, GOG, Humble Bundle
- Recommended for fans of: Metroidvanias, Punishing Games, and Grim Dark Visuals
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
I don't like Moonscars. It looks fantastic the first time I saw it, but all the descriptions were about how hardcore and brutal the game was, and I knew it wouldn't be for me. It's true that I'm still pretty deep into the Dark Souls kick I started last year, but I'll usually opt for an easy game over a difficult one any day of the week.
When I got in a review code for Moonscars, I spent hours just in the first area of the game and pretty much hated every moment of it. Then, after I finished Elderand, I decided to give it a go and found the combat clicking for me way better. I had a great time for about an hour, then hit a wall of frustration that lasted through the next of my begrudging playthrough.
I dislike just about every single aspect of Moonscars, but I beat the dang game out of spite… and I can absolutely understand why some folks would love it.
Before picking up Moonscars, the toughest Metroidvania game I'd played was Blasphemous. I backed that release on Kickstarter years before it came out, and it was only looking forward to it for so long that pulled me through its insanely tough platforming and combat. Moonscars blows that game out of the water.
Like a Souls game, a lot of progress in Moonscars comes in fighting your way through a bunch of basic enemies to find the next bonfire, or in this case magic mirror. Despite the 2D gameplay making exploration a lot more straightforward it felt like it took me way longer to find those checkpoints in Moonscars than it has any other Souls-like because the most basic enemies are insanely punishing. You basically cannot progress through the start of this game without perfecting the counter system. There is a dodge-roll that can help you avoid attacks, but without countering you won't find big enough enemies to take out even the most simple foes.
Then, later on, the game amps the difficulty up even more by making you face off against enemies who are impervious to physical attacks. That means you still have to counter or dodge to stay alive, but then you have to use your limited spells to defeat them. It's really frustrating to master a skill like countering, only to have the game undercut its significance in the second half.
So yeah, Moonscars combat is hard. Very hard. It's up there as some of the most difficult combat I've come across. But it gets worse, because the game also punishes you for dying more than most other capital H “Hard” games. Naturally, when you die you drop the bone dust that you use to level up your magic spells, but since you can only have two spells equipped at a time and each one only has three levels, I stopped caring about that currency pretty early.
No, the bigger issue is that Moonscars has a sort of momentum system, where killing a certain number of enemies lets you pick from a random set of three boons. These can increase your chance of critical hits, make your spells cheaper, increase your ability to heal… it's a pretty cool variety, and unlocking a full set of those upgrades before a boss is crucial. Unfortunately, when you die those upgrades disappear and you start from scratch.
What that ends up meaning is that each time you lose to a boss, you put yourself at a disadvantage by running straight back to fight them again. Instead, the smart move is to spend 5 or 10 minutes running around and knocking out goons to get yourself specced out.
That gets really old really fast.
Outside of gameplay, Moonscars big selling point is its vibes. The game really has a stunning art style, with a world that is almost entirely in grayscale except for splashes of red. It looks fantastic, and the detailed pixel art is surprisingly readable, even on a Switch Lite. Unfortunately, the menus don't feel like they have been adjusted for handheld. Nothing was unreadable, but every single bit of text in the game was tough to read.
And this is a game with a lot of text. Moonscars is story dense, with tons of weird conversations with a variety of weird, spooky NPCs who tell you just enough about a bunch of Proper Nouns for none of it to make any sense. I think Moonscars is about a world where clay zombies were invented to save the world but instead ruined it, but there were so many intense details that I don't feel like I really understand most of it.
The biggest issue I ran into with the story was when I found an NPC at a dead end who said the same sort of cryptic nonsense to me that everyone else did. I ran off from that conversation and wandered the map looking for where to go until I ended up back at that same dead end, and she said something else. Then I did it again. And again.
I don't know how many times I had to talk to her to trigger the next ability-unlocking boss fight, but it was way, way too many.
I don't think I liked Moonscars. My first few hours with it I hated it until I really got the counter system under control. Then I spent a few hours trudging through a fairly linear environment before I more or less fell off of the game. After loving Elderand, though, I decided to go back, and it turns out I was right on the cusp of opening up to a more traditional Metroidvania type of level design, and I started to dig it again. Then I ran into that boss who wouldn't fight me and a bunch of enemies who were immune to physical damage, and I started playing the game out of spite.
I finished it, and it was cool, and it felt like a triumph to make it through… but I can't come up with many things I actually like about the game. Certainly not more than things that really bothered me about it.
If you want a tough-as-nails Metroidvania, though, this game is sitting right there waiting for you.