Moonscars, from indie developer Black Mermaid, is a challenging 2D adventure rooted firmly in the traditions of Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. It’s a somber, elegant game, with intricate pixel art awash in blacks, grays, and reds, and if you’re drawn to the Soulslike tropes of punishing combat, cryptic lore, and incremental, yet satisfying progress, you’ll find much to enjoy.
For all its merits, however, the game is encumbered by a variety of issues that could lead many to find it confusing, ponderous, and even technically unplayable. While Moonscars has a lot of good ideas under its dark hood, but here are several suggestions for how it could truly shine.
5/5 Strengthen The Power And Utility Of Witcheries
Witcheries are spells that protagonist Gray Irma can learn and upgrade using the bone powder received from defeated enemies. The diverse skill tree of possible spells is a big part of the game’s progression system, but rather strangely, there isn’t much incentive to use most of them. The Doppelganger spell, which summons a double of Irma to fight alongside her, is the best one, and it’s good to keep a spell that can hit flying enemies, like the stone pillars or chain boulder, in your back pocket.
But witcheries consume such a huge chunk — and in some cases, all — of Irma’s magic meter (called ichor), and the damage they do isn’t usually worth the cost. Rather than spending your ichor on a single strong projectile, it’s much better to just summon a second Irma who can attack repeatedly and potentially survive multiple battles. If witcheries cost less ichor and did more damage, that would give these powers — some of which are quite creative, like poisoning enemies or sending exploding babies at them — much more value than they currently have.
4/5 Further Develop Moonhunger
Another issue that isn’t game-breaking but feels underutilized is the Moonhunger mechanic. As soon as Irma dies once, the moon enters its “Ravenous” state, and the game becomes harder. Enemies give and take more damage when the moon is hungry, but they also drop more bone powder. Given how often death occurs, especially in the beginning, you will likely spend most of the time under the more oppressive moon, making it feel almost unnecessary that there’s even an alternative. There are also certain items that only appear under the Ravenous Moon, making it feel like this is actually the default way to play, rather than the other way around.
Irma can spend one gland — a rarer item with a variety of uses — to satiate the moon and turn it to normal again, but it’s generally better to just get used to the higher difficulty. It’s a shame that, for being such a core part of Moonscars’s design, these moon phases don’t contribute more interesting shifts to the gameplay. It’d be great if, instead of the single on-off mechanic, there was a deeper wager system, in which you could decide what kinds of buffs you wanted to give to enemies in exchange for different perks. This could create more complex risk-and-reward situations, while still preserving the spirit of how Moonhunger currently functions.
3/5 Improve The Visibility Of Traps And Enemy Attacks
One of Moonscars’ greatest strengths is clearly its art direction. Its environments have a grim majesty, and the pixelated characters, faceless and dreamlike, are carefully animated with billowing clothes, subtle hand gestures, and swords that cut through the air in silky white streaks. It’s a shame these tiny details sometimes make for frustrating moments, where hazards onscreen feel vague or harder to see than they should be. From wizardlike beings shooting white spikes along the floor that are just a few pixels in size, to venomous creatures poisoning Irma with faint clouds of red specs, there are a lot of ways for these miniature monsters to score cheap hits, especially during the early phases of the game. Irma can also parry enemy attacks, but doing the parry motion involves connecting Irma’s tiny fist with the attack right at the moment of contact.
Learning the timing for this on the slowest or most predictable enemies isn’t bad, but figuring out how to connect the pixels of her hand with the strongest enemies’ huge slashing or leaping attacks can take a lot of trial and error, and the risks often outweigh the benefits. All these visibility issues could be overlooked, however, if it weren’t for the spike traps. Many of Moonscars’ areas are littered with dangerous floors that, when stepped on, cause spikes to come out, and they are indicated by a certain red pattern on the floor. Given that almost everything in the game is already a different shade of gray and red, you’ll have to keep an eye out for these spikes, and by the time you get to the even-more-monochromatic Depths, the spikes become almost invisible. Even when you can see the spikes, sometimes the game will hide them at the bottom of pathways you’re supposed to jump down.
2/5 Provide Better Navigation And Clarity On How To Progress
Navigation in Moonscars can also be perplexing, and you may find yourself unsure at times of where to go next. The biggest offender here is the map. Somewhat bafflingly, while the map will show areas you’ve uncovered, it will not show walls. So when you are trying to figure out where to go next, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a dead end, a path that was gated off, or a path you may have started down but have yet to explore.
Given that the story in this game is somewhat impenetrable, and the characters’ instructions on where to go can be unclear, it can take a bit of guesswork and wandering to figure out the path forward. Fortunately, the game is quite linear, so there won’t be too many moments like this. But when you’re already traversing a lot of similar-looking pathways and corridors, having more differentiated spaces and a more detailed map could go a long way in making navigation more accessible, while still leaving it up to you to figure out your next steps.
1/5 Fix Bugs And Technical Issues
Lastly, while Moonscars has received several patches at this point to address critical concerns, the game continues to have bugs and stability problems. It crashes unexpectedly at times, and the frame rate can get choppy, especially when there are a lot of enemies on the screen. You may also encounter odd, yet rare issues with enemy AI — such as one weird moment where two flying enemies stayed in the air and ignored Irma, out of range of her attacks, even though they needed to be defeated in order to raise a gate to the next area.
These bugs, and the other items on this list, may make the game sound like something to avoid, but that certainly isn’t the case. Moonscars is a good game, one Souls fans should check out, and one that could even be an introductory point for players interested in the genre but reluctant to take on something as sprawling as FromSoftware’s titles. Perhaps future updates will continue to iron out the game’s technical issues and further develop its various systems. For now, just be prepared for some setbacks if you decide to jump into its enchanting, if confusing world. And watch out for those spikes.