I’m starting to seriously wonder if it’s worth it to play these indie Metroidvania games close to their release dates. Moonscars is the second one this year where glitches have nearly destroyed my desire to finish the game, and have brought down what was already a mostly average experience.
The beginning hours of Moonscars are great. It opens with this awesome gothic cutscene, establishing its strong use of black, white and red visuals and establishing that haunted tone that so many games of this genre like to rely upon. Excellent sprite work and pretty solid voice acting really help to draw you in as a player (and the voice acting felt particularly good after the mess that was Tormented Souls).
Moonscars follows Grey Irma, a “Pristine,” which is some sort of soldier/champion that serves the kingdom? It’s left a bit ambiguous, and I feel like I may have blitzed past some details, as I was incredibly amped to play this one (I pounded a Monster energy drink and would have beaten the game in one sitting had it not been for glitches infuriating me to the point of rage-quitting). I do know that Irma serves the Sculptor, pictured above, and that she’s trying to find a perfect vessel to help gain freedom for those left in this shattered kingdom.
Yeah, yeah, we’re dealing with the almost cliche dark fantasy story here. The world is destroyed by forces beyond the player’s control, and now your character is tasked with saving whatever’s left only to discover that there’s only so much hope to go along. Dark Souls established this cliche, and since for some reason we’ve decided that the way to spice up metroidvania game is to make them emulate Dark Souls, we’ve seen countless iterations of that.
(Sidebar here: way too many metroidvanias rely on this. Even ones that are fairly bright and colorful, like the Ori duology are too often about dying worlds and sacrifice. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of that actively bucks this trend is Yoku’s Island Express, where the pinball controls are going to make or break things for players [broke them for me]. I mean, even Castlevania was more about this whole impressive Gothic structure, but the only games that feel like they’re emulating that are Bloodstained and a handful of others)
Basically Irma is traveling the land, finding out that her fellow Pristines have fallen into madness or corruption, and knows she has to put them down. See, in this world you can make copies of someone utilizing ichor, the substance inside all life (drawing on medieval science) and clay. The resulting clayborn functions more or less like an actual living lifeform. However, too much time away from a host or having corrupted ichor can seep into a being. Hence why everything you fight is a clayborn, and how you encounter various copies of characters. Some people die multiple times, others show up simultaneously in multiple places; it’s a bit of a hectic mess.
They do a brilliant job using it to explain how you have multiple “lives” though. Not long into the game, Irma, who is obviously wounded and feeling her ichor drain, crawls into a machine to produce a weaker clayborn, one who falls short of her usual powers. This being has an extension of her will, and when it dies, another is remade with a copy of the memories and so on.
The game does a great job setting up its world early on. It does start to feel like they’re a little too proud of what they’ve put together here, with just a few too many instances of characters appearing just to sort of talk at each other and delve into the philosophy of life and existence. I kinda love that sort of thing, but it did feel a bit clunky.
Irma controls almost identically to several other metroidvania characters, but that’s to be expected: there’s a lot of parity when it comes to these things. I couldn’t help but draw a direct comparison between Irma’s resting sprite and the one for the Penitent One, the player character of Blasphemous. This is one of the first of several hopefully unintentional comparisons to that game that Moonscars draws, from its lofty ambitions to its dark fantasy aesthetic to how Irma slashes.
What’s odd is that you start with a lot of the standard metroidvania abilities. Right out of the gate, Irma can dash (the game’s dodge), wall jump, and air dash. Those are all abilities that are often locked behind upgrades in most games of this genre. It feels like the designers were too desperate to make sure that you would control well to take growth and exploration into consideration. This is also where the game draws another unflattering comparison to Blasphemous: that game did essentially the same thing, but also included upgrades scattered throughout the world, some optional and some not, to help.
That’s part of the drag here: there really aren’t many of your standard upgrades. Irma never double-jumps; she doesn’t gain the ability to step into a shadow realm; she really only gets one: a super-dash that’s awkward to use to say the least. I ended up activating it by accident and hurling myself into enemies or spiked walls more often than I was able to hold it for various important jumps.
On top of that, the rewards for exploration feel a bit lacking. It felt like nearly every time I encountered a secret room or got into a unique spot, I was rewarded with a paltry amount of “bone dust.” This reads like it should be the standard currency/exp used in a game like this: it’s what gets lost when you die. However, it’s only used to buy “witchery” abilities, which are essentially special attacks that are essentially what you’ve seen in nearly every other game like this.
No, the only way to strengthen Irma is by finding these incredibly specific “clay tempering” spots. There are supposedly three per area, except for areas where there’s not for unexplained reasons. You have no way of knowing which one you’re picking up, and they’ll either upgrade your Ichor (what you use for both healing and spells), your health, or your attack power. This is incredibly frustrating, as literally the only way to grow legitimately stronger is by finding these very particular, unmarked upgrades. That means there’s long stretches of game where I grew frustrated with my lack of growth: I’d already unlocked the highest level of witchery for the two abilities I actually wanted (I used the same two through 90% of the game: an ability that adds poison to my sword, and the simple forward charge they give you in the beginning).
Even when you find an attack upgrade, it can be frustrating. I can vividly recall equipping an amulet (they’re the charms from Hollow Knight, which everyone copies) that was supposed to increase my attack. Thanks to floating numbers, I learned I upped my attack from 4 damage a hit… to 5.
A lot of these complaints wouldn’t likely stand out to me as much if I’d written this in the early hours of playing the game. It starts so incredibly well, with that great thematic opening, the overall aesthetic, and crisp combat. I want to reiterate that the combat here is pretty well done. It feels smooth and polished, like a lot of time and effort went into making it as engaging as possible. Sure, it’s almost a copy-paste of Blasphemous’, but that game did combat brilliantly, so it’s worth copying.
Moonscars does bring something I like to the table (in addition to a great in-world exploration for revival). Whenever you kill an enemy, your “spite” meter goes up. When it increases to a certain threshold, it levels up, and you gain a new ability. These are relatively small: +10% crit chance or +25% healing. But they stack as you get more and more, rewarding you for going on kill streaks.
These vanish either when Grey Irma dies, or when you enter a save mirror for the first time, making creating a checkpoint a bit of a risk/reward. I always dumped for the checkpoint, because there are cruel difficulty spikes here, but it’s still an option.
The difficulty spikes come with the “moon curse.” See, whenever Irma dies, the moon turns red and everything in the map gets tougher. I let that happen the first time, and took the added reward that comes from it. I’m pretty confident in my abilities to play games like these, so I figured it wasn’t that big a deal. Then I got to the first boss, died repeatedly and miserably, and released that for a sacrifice of a “gland” (yet another level up currency) I could reset the moon to normal.
The game became so much easier then. The red moon ups the difficulty to an insane degree, and the game does a poor job conveying just how much to the player. That’s hardly surprising: the game doesn’t convey a whole lot to players. I wasted 3 of those glands “tempering my weapon” only to find that it just let me pick a different almost useless sub-weapon to wield.
This almost feels odd, as through most of my time with this game, I really enjoyed it. Yeah, it wasn’t adding much that was original, but I play these games because I like what metroidvanias are about. I also like the whole challenge of those Dark Souls inspired games; Hollow Knight is my favorite metroidvania and one of my all time favorite games, to the extent that I actually have its map on a cloth poster on my wall to the direct right of where I’m writing now. I bought Moonscars because I wanted to play a game like Moonscars, and it gave me a lot of what I wanted.
Right up until the glitches.
The first one that happened was a stuttering that I haven’t seen before. The game would sort of chug, almost skipping to keep up with the character. These were slight jerks, and they’d start piling up really fast, as I of course opted to play a dodging, highly mobile character. It started to grate on me after about an hour, and I suppose it may be because I played it in a large chunk. It was annoying, particularly as the game’s other flaws started to wear on me (lack of really rewarding exploration and growth), but not game breaking.
No, those would really start to hit in the final level.
For starters, the last area of the game is a huge disappointment visually. I want to compare it. First, there’s the depths, a sort of mid-late game area:
Now that is gorgeous. The pallet is washed out and sepia toned. There’s actual light here, as opposed to a lot of areas. There’s that ripple in the water. It feels unique, though it overstays its welcome just a bit. I’ve seen things a bit like this, but nothing quite like it, and it mixed in some fun ideas too.
Compare this to the final area:
That’s a generic dark fantasy castle. More specifically, I’m standing in front of one of the all too prevalent breakable walls in a generic dark fantasy castle. The last area should feel monumental, should feel like you’ve achieved something just by reaching it. Ender Lilies’ dark, pulsating, biological horror comes to mind, or even Super Metroid’s metroid filled final labs. They feel unique, adding more to games that already have great final areas.
Not so much here.
On top of that, the glitches got worse. I continually got a “this game refused to operate” glitch that closed out the game mid-play and dumped me on the Switch’s home screen. This happened four times in the last area alone! Twice in the same out of the way area I had to platform to in order to get an upgrade (it turned out to be ichor and not attack of health, so I nearly snapped my controller in half).
On top of that, an enemy glitched out:
See that guy with the red health bar floating directly above my character (and a doppleganger)? He froze in the air out of sword’s reach. I had already expended all my witchery powers, and both are more focused on increasing my abilities to deal damage over time on the ground anyway. I tried leaving the area, leveling up my spite and using new spells, but I couldn’t kill him (and he apparently could heal himself?).
I had to literally throw myself onto the spikes, die, and come back to try again. oh, and the game glitched when I did, so I lost that 35,000 bone powder you see in the upper right corner, not that I needed it at the time (I almost bought every witchery in the game without really trying, and with losing both this massive amount and a smaller one earlier).
It’s impossible not to feel angry at a game for something like that. It feels like it was poorly tested, or this port wasn’t optimized. I shouldn’t be dealing with dragging in a sprite based game, and I really shouldn’t have glitches that send me back to the main menu and force me to lose what I worked so hard for. It wasn’t quite as bad as 8Doors’ save deletion glitch, but it comes a really close second.
And it’s a shame. This game had a lot of promise going in. It felt like it had some neat ideas, with this whole concept of clay figures and who is actually real and what all that entails. Sure, it was done better in other games: the story in Axiom Verge 2, the gameplay in Blasphemous, the leveling system in Bloodstained, the charms in Hollow Knight; the exploration rewards in literally every other game in this genre, but it was still pretty good. When I thought I could more naturally upgrade my character, when there was a map of interesting possibilities ahead, I was enjoying it, really grooving and proud of myself for paying the full price of admission: $19.99.
After several hours of grey scale castle areas, glitches that broke my game, and a lack of satisfying character growth, I wanted nothing to do with Moonscars, and found myself wishing there was a refund policy for digital games.
3 game breaking glitches drag a just above average game several notches; this feels like some serious patching or updates might fix it ,but for now, it’s something to avoid