If there’s just one metroidvania you play this year, let it be Moonscars. This 2D hack and slash from developer Black Mermaid promises everything you’d want from a side-scrolling soulslike – bloody thrills, gloomy goths, and a mountain of challenge.
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Oh, and a confusing plot. Moonscars follows Grey Irma, a knight that must fight through clay constructs – unstable mockeries of human life – in search of the god-like Sculptor. This Sculptor is Irma’s boss, but he also happens to have created the same clay monsters that Irma hunts. The whole thing is admittedly a bit confusing – and kept deliberately vague – but the premise is compelling enough to hold your interest as you step into Irma’s boots.
Moonscars won’t give you long to process its ambiguity. Within seconds of taking control of Irma, you’re fired sword-first into a sidescrolling gorefest. Irma’s first opponents are shambling soldiers fit for bloody deaths, but it’s foolish to underestimate anything in Moonscars – thanks to Irma’s limited health, nearly any enemy in the game can prove lethal. However, Irma has some powerful tools of her own – landing your own hits restores her ichor bar, which can be used to either sling spells or heal up. It’s not the only time you’ll be forced to balance your offense and defence – heaps of spikes adorn much of the world’s architecture, and if you can avoid getting impaled in the heat of combat, you can knock enemies into them for gory one-hit kills.
Though Moonscars‘ combat is brutal, you’ll tackle each fight on (mostly) fair footing. Every single enemy is exquisitely telegraphed – they may hit like trains, but you’ll see each attack coming and have time to respond. This feeds into a fantastic parrying system, which clearly indicates with a red glint when an enemy is winding up for an attack that can be parried. Even though Moonscars makes it clear when to parry, it’s still up to you to stick the landing – success is rewarded with a hefty counter-attack, but fumbling the timing means taking a hit you can rarely afford. All of Moonscars‘ well-oiled combat mechanics add up to each brawl feeling gritty and textured – no matter how often you use them, a last-second dodge, bloody evisceration or daring riposte never stop feeling thrilling.
It’s not just with challenging combat that Moonscars taps into the soulslike vein – in fact, Black Mermaid understands the spirit behind FromSoftware‘s Souls series better than most. Anyone who played Elden Ring earlier in the year will know some of what to expect – dying in Moonscars will send you back to the last save point you rested at (with considerably emptier pockets), and you’ll need to get back to your grave to get your currency – Bone Powder – back.
But Moonscars takes things a step further, and is one of the few games to ask if Dark Souls could be…harder. Activating a Mirror – your save points to spend Bone Powder and grab upgrades – isn’t the respite you’re expecting, because to get it working you’ve first got to fight a doppelganger of yourself. Oh, and this doppelganger’s stolen your special weapon and witchery – good luck! After overcoming a new area’s nightmarish difficulty, a fight to the death with yourself is the last thing you want to see – it’s like letting a marathon runner cross the finish line, only to chuck them into a cage match – but it makes resting at each refuge feel well-earned.
Even worse – if you find yourself dying too often, you’ll be afflicted with Moonhunger and the game’s enemies will ramp up in difficulty – yes, up – until you make an offering to the moon goddess. You’re rewarded with extra Bone Powder for killing anything with moonhunger active, but if it all gets too much, you can sacrifice an item called Glands to restore the norm. I’m still torn on whether sacrificing a fairly rare item – which is also used to equip different special weapons – is a fair ask to stop the game’s mobs bulking up, especially because if you’re dying in the first place then you’re already likely to be struggling.
On the other hand, it can be very empowering to alleviate your moonhunger and suddenly tear through the enemies you’ve been bashing your head off. After bouncing off the game’s first real boss – which, no spoilers, is phenomenal – for a few too many tries, sacrificing a Gland ensured the next attempt was a roaring success and felt incredible.
Even in the throes of combat, Moonscars is a treat for the eyes. The art style resembles an oil painting, and gives everything from claustrophobic castle corridors to scenic overlooks a washed-out, gothic glimmer. Even in the throes of combat, every animation looks sublime – whether it’s using a powerful spell to burst an enemy into streaky red pixels or clambering up a castle’s stone platforms, Irma’s small sprite has an astounding physical presence for a 2D title.
Though Moonscars goes from strength to strength as you play, it can’t be defined by a single success. Besides grueling combat and environments painted with desolate beauty, Moonscars isn’t afraid to throw exciting new challenges at players – and as a result, it’s a must-play for anyone that delights in difficulty.
Moonscars is a triumph for Black Mermaid. The studio’s unique art style brings Moonscars‘ world to life with flourish, while challenging fights and perilous platforming mean you’ll move through this universe with your heart pumping the entire time.
- Combat’s high stakes ensure constant thrills
- Gorgeous art style and weighty animations
- Having to fight your doppelganger is a brilliant twist to the safety of Moonscars‘ save points
- The plot and background can be difficult to follow
- Moonhunger is a bold mechanic that won’t land with everyone