It's a game of inches.
Moonscars, a Souls-like sidescrolling action game from Black Mermaid, is one of the more daunting games I’ve encountered during my long tenure at this humble website. Brutally difficult, Moonscars demands perfection to progress—anything less is mercilessly punished. This is a game of contradictions: a beautiful game that looks rather bland, impressive combat that feels limited, systems that encourage engagement but also punish you for partaking in them. Moonscars feels like it’s made for a subset of a subset of combat-platformer fans, and thus is not my cup of tea, but others may embrace it.
Moonscars tells the story of Gray Irma, a warrior woman searching for a mysterious sculptor, but the brutality of the world necessitates her soul being separated from her mortal body and placed in a clay automaton. The story is difficult to parse at times, but Irma will find various NPCs to talk to and slowly unravel more of the narrative, though it’s not always clear what is being discussed or why it’s important. It’s also not the most pressing matter in the game.
Instead, it’s survival.
The world of Moonscars is a haunting, hellish landscape of blacks and greys, with some orange and red for contrast. The environments, as well as the various enemies that fill them, are mesmerizing to watch while simultaneously being hard to make out given the muted palette and fuzzy character designs. Even Gray Irma herself is somewhat out of focus—understandable given her artificial nature but I found myself longing for stronger character designs. While traversing this dark place, Irma will come across countless opponents, each of which presents a specific challenge. This is not a game you can button mash your way through—I would liken it to the challenging combat of Hollow Knight. Even the smallest enemy can really mess you up if you’re not careful.
Thankfully, Irma has a few tricks up her sleeve. In addition to her large broadsword, Irma has an invincibility dash, spells, a parry, and the ability to auto-heal. She also quickly acquires a secondary weapon, although more on that later. Combat can get hairy quickly, especially if you’re facing several enemies at a time, and parrying becomes the key to your survival. Unfortunately, the success window is exceedingly short, and each enemy attacks with different timing. You can parry any attack that leads with a flash of red, but you’ll have to wait for the right moment to parry once the flash goes off.
Thankfully, a successful parry auto-hits and often shoves the opponent backwards—sometimes into a wall or bed of insta-kill spikes. New enemy types show up with some regularity, so you’ll be learning on the go the entire time. As Irma kills monsters, she gains “Ichor,” which is Moonscars’ way of saying “MP.” Irma expends MP by using magic attacks or auto-healing. Enemies drop “Bone Powder,” which you can also find in the environment, which is Moonscars’ way of saying “experience points.” You’ll use Bone Powder to buy certain items in the Workshop (home base) area as well as learning new magic attacks (“Witchery”).
But Moonscars is a Souls-like, with all that implies. Death—which will come often—drops all of your stuff where you fell while Irma resurrects at the last save point she hit. The often lengthy trek back to your lost Bone Powder comes with the risk of dying en route and losing everything you’d gained. Death also has a perhaps more detrimental cost—the game gets harder.
At any time, you can spend “Glands,” which are exceedingly rare pickups, to satiate the Moon and drop the difficulty down from “FFS” to “Almost Manageable.” Enemies take fewer hits to kill and don’t hurt Irma quite as much. However, they also drop less Bone Powder. When the Sculptor opens a window, he closes a door. Death, however, resets the Moon’s temperament, and since Glands are extremely rare (and can be used for other things), satiating the Moon is rarely a good idea. It might help you during a boss fight, but if and when the boss kills you, your sacrifice will be in vain.
This is the first big problem I have with Moonscars: you’re encouraged to drop the difficulty down whenever you want, but not really as Glands are rare commodities and death—which is inevitable—resets the difficulty back to “This Seems Cruel.”
Whenever Gray Irma comes across a save point, she must activate it by traveling to the area where her mortal body is held, the Workshop, where she can talk to NPCs and purchase or sell items. However–and this is my second big problem with Moonscars–activating save points creates an enemy clone of Irma (for some reason) who will attack her as soon as she goes back to the world.
These fights are always absolute hell. Clone Irma has access to all of Gray Irma’s attacks and healing ability, and because the Moon probably isn’t satiated, she is insanely hard to kill. She hits much harder than Gray Irma does and her attacks are very often hard to parry because she travels forward while attacking, often crossing through Gray Irma’s character sprite, past the direction of your parry, but still doing damage on the other side. Magic attacks only work if Clone Irma doesn’t dodge them—which she often does. You can just ignore Clone Irma, but doing so means that you will lose Gray Irma’s secondary weapon, because Clone Irma—for some reason—stole it when Gray Irma traveled through the mirror.
And that sucks, because the secondary weapons are often very helpful in combat. Not only are they more powerful than Irma’s default broadsword, but they all have different debuff effects.
Punishing the player for just creating a checkpoint is hard to forgive.
One more combat ability I should touch on is Spite. After killing so many monsters in a row, you’re given the option to choose a “Spite” reward, which buffs Irma in some way, be it reduced MP cost, better healing ability, or a better critical hit change. She can have up to five Spite buffs at any one time, which is a huge advantage in combat. However, dying casts them all aside, as does using a mirror.
Irma will find various items throughout the environment, including MP and health upgrades and amulets, three of which can be equipped at a time, which provide extra benefits. She’ll also sometimes find piles of Bone Powder here and there. Learning new magic attacks is an expensive proposition—Moonscars has an enormous skill tree, but the cost to learn new attacks, or upgraded versions of learned attacks, increases exponentially so you won’t be learning new magic attacks at a steady pace.
I said that Moonscars is a game of inches and I mean it—you’ll fight for every inch of progress. Personally, the game presented too many challenges for my enjoyment. If the difficulty didn’t go up every time I died or I could activate checkpoints without having to fight a clone afterwards, it might be a different story, but I don’t appreciate being punished for doing inevitable things (dying, saving). Did you find Hollow Knight and Blasphemous too easy? If so, Moonscars may give you the challenge you crave. For the rest of us? It has limited utility.