What is one type of game that you think is very hard to get right? Platformers? Shooters? For me, it’s Souls-likes. Souls-likes require the right balance of grueling difficulty and fairness to get that feeling of conquering an insurmountable task just right. Moonscars, developed by Black Mermaid and published by Humble Games, got close but heavily misses the mark in its second half.
Moonscars takes place in a decrepit kingdom, fallen into chaos. Humans have all but disappeared, and worthy warriors use clay bodies for combat. What they leave behind, though, become shells, possessed by those that have been lost and want to fight for their chance at life again. You play as one of these clay warriors—immune to the permanent clutches of death but cursed to fight forever. It is your mission to find out why your precious kingdom has sunk so low and put an end to this curse.
When I started Moonscars, I thought this game was more approachable than most other Souls-likes. It had an interesting level system mixed with rogue-like progression and Metroidvania exploration. That’s one hell of a kitchen sink cookie to bite into. And for my first five to six hours, it tasted great! The fast and brutal combat was smooth, looking into every nook and cranny was fun, and the bosses felt tough but fair. Then it all came crashing down at (figuratively) 6 hours, 0 minutes, and 1 second.
Before I get into how it crashed, I want to rave about what worked up until that point. Moonscars uses several key features taken from rouge-likes and Metroidvanias. Specifically, as you work your way through the world, you gain temporary bonuses that boost your magic, healing, etc. You can also find permanent health and magic pick-ups hidden in crevices or hard-to-reach areas. The former gets lost on death and at save points.
There are lots of risks and rewards to balance, and they all work! On top of all that, every save point you activate triggers a mini-boss fight against the you that survived up to that point. You need to literally overcome yourself to continue your journey and regain your special weapon. I love this melancholic storytelling that slowly adds to the overall narrative of “what exactly makes us human?”
And I love how all the pieces of magic (called witchery), special attacks, mini levels, unlocking new abilities, trinkets, and so much more just all fit together. Plus, each fight and each boss forced me to change how I played. I could never get comfortable! I could never settle for how I was doing up to that point, which required me to keep growing and improving each skill set thrown at me to overcome the next challenge or find the right mix to push through.
Now we are one second past midnight, and that all came crashing down around me. Up to this point, I fought challenging bosses. But the boss I reached felt beyond inhuman because of its expectations. This particular boss requires the use of witchery to exploit its weakness and expose its weak point, which is fine. Like I’ve said before, each boss required me to fight in a way I wasn’t used to. But up till now, I rarely used witchery because I valued my magic just for healing. I mean, if I know I can deal more damage with melee more accurately, why waste the mana on witchery?
For some context, healing requires using your witchery. But witchery is also required to cast spells. which becomes a problem if you’ve prioritized healing up to this point in the game. Additionally, melee weapons do absolutely nothing to everything except the boss’s weak point. The only way to expose its weak point and not take hours on this stressful fight is to use witchery. So, to use witchery, you need to basically not heal, especially if you have been upgrading your spells up to this point, which comes with an increased magic cost (and no, you can’t downgrade your spells after unlocking its upgrade and use a weaker/cheaper version). To make matters worse, there is an even more stressful second phase that I only saw once in my three to four hours of attempts.
What made this fight unbelievably unfair was three equal parts: this boss hit like a freaking truck, there was very little room to regain magic, and the boss’s mechanics carried through its weakness being exposed. It wasn’t just a truck; it was a double-wide semi-truck carrying Acme anchors and safes on its way to Wily-E-Coyote’s next prank. Two hits and I was dead even with every health upgrade up to that point.
Now I’ll be upfront—I am not that great at Souls-like games. But I push through, and they’re some of the most fun games I’ve played in my 25 years of gaming (man, I feel old just typing that out). I say this because I can tell if I can’t get through something just because I lack the skill. But this boss fight felt like something that required just pure dumb luck to make it through. I never got to experience the thrill of finally putting this boss in the grave, though, because of a much graver issue beyond severe balancing needs.
While trying to grind out some temporary upgrades, I ran into a game-breaking bug. I jumped up an elevator and warped through a wall, unable to escape. With no reset or warp, my character’s stuck there forever. Even resetting the game didn’t pull my character out and put her at the closest save point. Moonscars is now unplayable for me, and I hope that changes soon after bug fixes and updates. For further information, I am waiting to hear back on whether this will be fixed, beyond the developers looking into it.
Moonscars is a deep, dark tale about what makes us human in our darkest times and how we persevere. When it works, it really works and was some of the most fun I had playing 2-D souls-like in recent memory. But it is riddled with balancing issues and loses touch on what makes Souls-likes fun in the name of difficulty. To top it off, there are still game-breaking bugs in the game that can bring your progress to a screeching halt and require a hard reset of all your progress to keep playing. After some patches, I can see Moonscars being considered in the upper echelon on Souls-likes, but it is not there yet in its current state.
Moonscars is available on September 27th on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch.
Moonscars is a deep, dark tale about what makes us human in our darkest times and how we persevere. When it works, it really works and was some of the most fun I had playing 2-D souls-like in recent memory. But it is riddled with balancing issues and loses touch on what makes Souls-likes fun in the name of difficulty.