Moonscars PC Review

A challenging soulslike metroidvania with some pacing issues

By LCLupus, Posted 27 Sep 2022

Moonscars is the first game by Black Mermaid, and it is a soulslike metroidvania with a gorgeous pixel art style that always manages to make everything simultaneously darkly detailed but also strangely hazy as if something isn’t quite right. The overall vibe is absolutely perfect for the game as the setting, and general narrative are far creepier than your average soulslike game.

You are Grey Irma, a mysterious warrior and one of several clay-oriented beings seemingly created by the enigmatic Sculptor, and he is your sole desire. Who is he, who are you, what are these monsters around you? The usual sorts of questions you may expect in a soulslike game. The narrative is presented by cryptic characters who speak as if you already know what’s going on, so expect what you would ordinarily find in one of these games narrative-wise.
 

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Moonscars is a challenging game, as its soulslike ancestry would indicate. The game has a strong focus on death as a central feature, as death leaves behind a mirage of yourself that has all the bone powder, the game’s upgrade currency, you acquired up until your death, and if you can’t retrieve that, then you lose all your bone powder. So, it’s your usual fare there—standard stuff. However, here’s actually where some of the issues come to the fore.

Moonscars is a slow game. Your character is not necessarily all that slow, and the responsiveness of your dodge is impeccable, even allowing you to dodge in the middle of slow, heavy attacks, provided you dodge towards charging enemies and not away from them. A charging enemy will hit you as soon as your invincibility frames are done. So, it isn’t necessarily slow in terms of combat, although there are slow, more powerful attacks, but instead in its execution in other areas.


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Whenever you die and leave a piece of yourself behind, you need to get back to your body. This is the thing you always see in these kinds of games, right? Get back to your body and retrieve all those upgrade points, but Moonscars does it differently to most. Most games in this genre allow you to automatically retrieve your old points with a single click of a button, but this game forces you to wait. You have to hold down a button for a few seconds to get it back. This effectively means that even if, for instance, you’re struggling with a particular area, you can’t just run in, grab your points, and try and level up before returning. The enemies in that area will probably kill you before you’re able to retrieve your points. So you’re incentivized against holding too many points at once, especially if you’re going into areas that may be harder.

This, in turn, leads to something of a chain effect. Because you’re too afraid to be carrying around points, you may end up trying to farm for points, and farming for points is extremely slow. The upgrades require massive amounts of bone powder, and you take forever to get that amount, so you’ll likely play several hours before you can upgrade at all.

This is one aspect of the slowness in the game, and another aspect is that Moonscars is a game with magic. But that magic is tied to the same energy bar as your healing ability. So, if you get hit, you have to heal, and if you have to heal, then you can’t use the powerful magic that will help you survive. Most soulslike games have magic and healing tied to separate items or bars, such as the estus flask system. But Moonscars doesn’t go for that, and this inflates the difficulty more than it probably should be.


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You’re relegated to using your main weapons and never the stronger magic. It also doesn’t help that the healing/magic bar replenishes by hitting enemies and replenishes slowly. So, if you jump into a battle with a strong enemy or group of enemies and want to use some magic, well then, you’re going to be without any way to heal for a while. Hopefully, you don’t get hit by the enemy you used magic against because they’re tough. That shouldn’t cause any issues!

So, Moonscars is slow in terms of getting upgrades, building up your magic/healing bar, and, sadly, many enemies are quite spongey too. Many take many hits to kill, and you’ll have to be dodging around their very telegraphed attacks while you hit them a few times, dodge, hit, repeat. There simply isn’t much nuance to the enemies and their attacks. This also isn’t helped by the fact that whenever you die, you become afflicted by a status effect that makes them even stronger! You can parry them, though, and the enemies glow red when they can be parried, but if you’re someone who plays soulslike games without parrying, you’re not in much luck here. Moonscars may not be for you if that is the case.


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The checkpoint system further complicates the game. Every checkpoint, which is in the form of mirrors, allows you to go to the Mould Workshop, a place with expensive upgrades and narrative exposition can be found. Ordinary stuff for many soulslike games. It’s your little hub world that can be supplemented with people you meet along the way. However, whenever you find a mirror and therefore save your progress, well, you also lose all the upgrades you acquired from the last mirror.

It works like this. Every mirror has certain special upgrades that apply only to that mirror, so as soon as you touch another mirror, you lose those particular upgrades until you return to that mirror. These upgrades use a different, quite rare upgrade item called ichor glands, and you may end up holding those ichor glands because certain mirror areas will be harder than others. So, why waste them?


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But that’s not all, Moonscars wants to hurt you whenever you think you reach safety. In most soulslike games, a checkpoint is a place to rest. Well, as soon as you reach a mirror, you have your special attack taken from you, and these are the slower, more powerful attacks mentioned before, and you’re forced to fight a doppelganger version of yourself who does have special attacks. Once you’ve killed them, you get to have a special attack again. So, you’re effectively punished for finding a safe haven. And this, if you have points, because remember, if you die, you lose all your points, which may lead you to ignore a checkpoint because you don’t have enough points to upgrade, but you don’t want to lose the thousands of points that took thirty minutes to accumulate. So, you trudge back to the old mirror and don’t get to proceed as quickly as you’d want to.

Moonscars is a game that takes some getting used to, but all of this stuff built on top of it creates a harsher world than necessary. You get stuck with the same weapons for long tracts of time with no real way to strengthen your character and better face the world. It doesn’t really allow farming or any attempts to improve as the upgrades are so slow to acquire that you may often end up heading deeper and deeper into the world without any upgrades.


 

This is not to say that Moonscars is a lousy game. Much of this review has been spent on the issues it has. However, it has a fluid combat system, well-telegraphed enemies, challenging bosses, a gorgeous world reminiscent of something like Blasphemous or, to a degree, like the recent Thymesia, and it is fun to play. Still, the issues of the slowness of progression make it harder to recommend than it likely deserves. Simply increasing how much bone powder you receive or having a separate bar for magic and healing would have made a world of difference, but as it stands, that is not the game as it was presented.

However, if you are interested in a tough soulslike game where you do, very gradually, become stronger, a soulslike where you really don’t want to be hit because you’ll be pummeled within seconds, and that healing ability also makes you weaker! Then Moonscars is a game for you. It’s tough, it’s bleak, but don’t expect it to be nice to you.
 

Justin van Huyssteen (@LC_Lupus)
Senior Editor, NoobFeed

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General Information

Moonscars

70/100

Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC
Publisher(s): Humble Bundle
Developer(s): Black Mermaid
Genres: 2D Platformer
Themes: Adventure, Fighting
Release Date: 2022-09-27

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