Discovered last March, Moonscars , with its look of illegitimate son of Blasphemous, was terribly enticing. Developed by the Black Mermaid studio, of which it is the first game, and published by Humble Games, the title had been able to attract attention in particular thanks to its singular aesthetics and its apparent approach between Souls-like and Metroidvania, very fashionable for a few years now.
Now that the game has been available on consoles and PC since September 27, what is it really about? Does Moonscars manage to emancipate itself from this image of offspring of Blasphemous? And above all, have the Black Mermaid teams managed to find a balance between a very “soulsesque” approach to 2D adventure and combat, and the exploratory aspect that Metroidvania requires?
From the first minutes, we are caught up in the universe that is offered to us. The artistic direction of Moonscars is undeniably one of its biggest strengths. The aesthetic, very oil painting, makes the environments sublime and we take a lot of pleasure, throughout the game, to discover the different regions created. There emerges from each decor a rather unique atmosphere, at the same time morbid, distressing but also sometimes melancholy. The color palette used may be limited, the details are numerous and the different architectural choices give the game an undeniable cachet.
And on this point, the different characters and enemies encountered are not left out, starting with Irma le Gris, our “heroine” whose animations are particularly well worked. Overall, we take a lot of pleasure to evolve in this emaciated world alongside Irma, to discover the equally neat design of our various opponents, and in particular the bosses, remarkably refined, which undoubtedly constitute the best moments of the game.
Even the premise of the plot is quite interesting. We therefore embody Irma le Grise, a clay woman, basically a being who can be copied in the form of clay and transfer her personality to it, who allies herself with her creator, subtly named “The Creator” in order to destroy her creations having escaped her control.
A bit like souls, the story is cryptic and it will take courage to discover and understand the different ins and outs. But you still have to want it because in the end, if the basis of the story is really interesting, very few elements, and even less the dialogues, generally tasteless, managed to make us want to know more, until a denouement that left us unmoved.
After an introduction acting as a tutorial, we begin to understand how the adventure will be articulated, and some excellent ideas point the tip of their nose. Thus, our first opponents allow us to familiarize ourselves with the mechanics of counter, essential to fight almost calmly against all types of enemies. Countering them by pushing them against the environmental traps, these killing them instantly is a real pleasure that will never weaken throughout the adventure.
There emerges from each movement, from each attack of our Irma la Grise, a lot of dynamism making the discovery of the universe of Moonscars particularly exhilarating. To accompany the classic physical attacks, we have spells to unlock via a skill tree. But beware, like a Hollow Knight for example, the gauge used to cast them is the same as to heal us.
We are now used to this kind of mechanism, but it remains very effective, controller in hand, and prevents magic from unbalancing the game a little too much by allowing the use and abuse of ranged attacks. Especially since most opponents here won’t really have any answers when faced with a ranged attack, which will ultimately prove useful in helping us move forward on many occasions.
One of the most interesting ideas implemented in Moonscars is the possibility of changing our avatar, albeit temporarily, without going through a level system . Indeed, a “malevolence” gauge fills up as we slay monsters without failing until, once full, we have the choice between three rather powerful improvements such as a 10% increase in critical damage or a 25% increase in healing.
A beautiful artistic direction, very well animated dynamic confrontations, ideas allowing to reward our good performances, what could go wrong for Moonscars ? So many things unfortunately…
Madame Irma, what is this game?
Before we put our hands on Moonscars , everything sold it to us as a cross between 2D souls-like and modern Metroidvania à la Blasphemous. And indeed, during the first hours of play, we feel the inspiration of FromSoftware’s games, with bitter fights, our bone powders (equivalent to the souls of a Dark Souls), especially useful from merchants, to be recovered at the location of our death and the altars (represented by a mirror here) acting as a checkpoint.
But overall, it doesn’t go any further. In the end, Moonscars is not a souls-like, it does not offer any permanent evolution of our character for example, beyond a few spells to unlock. He’s not even a Metroidvania, though he does attempt to ape some tried-and-true points in the genre’s references there too, but the game’s only real unlockable skill only comes on the last quarter of the adventure (and with the one of the most unreadable maps we have ever seen).
So we can obviously say that the problem comes from our ultimately misplaced expectations, however this “ass between two chairs” positioning encroaches on the overall experience. Because by chasing these two hares, the developers have completely destroyed the balance of their work, with in particular powerful enemies killing us in two or three blows, as we find in any good souls-like, placed in rooms by cluster of four or five, and this very regularly.
The result is an experience that quickly becomes extremely frustrating, even painful. Worse, the game insists on each of our deaths to make our task even more difficult with its bloody moon mechanic. Concretely, each time we die, the game takes place under a bloody moon making the monsters much more resistant and powerful.
Of course, it is always possible to use a lymph node, but this rare and limited resource also has other uses and we will most often prefer to continue to suffer and suffer by railing against this absurd concept.
The same goes for this idea of punishing us when, sometimes in pain, we finally reach a saving checkpoint. Upon activation, we are automatically teleported to our base where merchants and other friendly NPCs await us. This could come in handy, at least if the location of the previously discovered altar had not created a rather powerful copy of our avatar, waiting for our return to kill us… We’ve known better like reward.
Close to disaster
Impossible not to mention this point. If you play on console, as we did, beware. Moonscars suffers from many, many technical glitches, and even more so if you’re on Switch . Between the regular crashes (we suffered half a dozen of them over the ten hours it took us to complete the adventure), the softlocks (a door refusing to open despite the achievement of the objective by example), the visual bugs and many slowdowns, the title of Black Mermaid is on the verge of unacceptable .
Since the release, the development teams have been hard at work and a few patches have already been deployed, but the road is not over yet and we can only strongly advise you to wait if you ever want to discover the game, the until most of the concerns noted are, hopefully, resolved. In any case, it is possible to follow the evolutions and repairs planned directly on the Twitter account of the game
We still wonder in which direction the Black Mermaid teams wanted to go when they designed their game. Inspired by souls-like, Metroidvania and even hack & slash, Moonscars gets lost in these borrowings and regularly contradicts itself in its choice of mechanics. The experience then becomes, as one progresses, more and more unbalanced.
However, the developers have succeeded in creating a fascinating universe with a remarkable artistic direction, certainly close to what Blasphemous was able to offer, but with its own cachet, its own personality. And on the pure gameplay side, the whole thing is very successful, dynamic at will and the fights against the bosses can alone be worth embarking on the experience.
It is therefore all the more regrettable that the excellent bases of the game are ruined by several questionable choices making the game particularly frustrating and many bugs that will pursue us until the conclusion of the adventure . We hope that the teams of Black Mermaid will be able to decide on the genre of their next game because, it is well known, to run several hares, we do not catch any, and it is a little what happened to Moonscars .