Moonscars (Switch) Review: Stick With It

  • Bleakly gorgeous art style and animations
  • Somewhat complex but enjoyable combat system
  • Surreal but interesting story
  • Clever twists on a familiar gameplay loop
  • Much of the early game isn’t fun
  • Takes a long time to find its groove
  • Extreme performance issues at times
  • Unnecessarily annoying checkpoint placement

I was so excited to jump into "Moonscars" when I first started it up. A 2D action-platformer that encourages exploration, with steady character progression, a weird story, some great animation, and a bleakly surreal art style? Sign me up! And then I started playing it and felt bad that I'd have to say so many negative things about it. I'm talking about the kind of first impression that would have had me put the controller down within the first hour and never look back if I wasn't playing it specifically so I could write about it later.

The thing about "Moonscars" is that, yes, it has its flaws (many, many flaws), but it's the kind of game that shows improvement the longer you play — not unlike my own ability to survive longer. Regrettably, that does mean some may bounce off of it in short order due to a lack of patience or feeling like the game (at least the early game) doesn't respect their time. I know that's how I felt at first.

And I don't necessarily think that's unfair. "Moonscars" never really stops being just a bit disappointing in a few key areas, and it definitely never stops being frustrating at times. But I also think that, if you're willing to push through the game's rough start, there's a pretty interesting and rewarding experience waiting for you.

Obvious inspirations

If you've ever played "Dark Souls" (or other similar FromSoftware titles), some elements of "Moonscars" will probably feel familiar. Granted, the story here is presented more overtly in comparison, but it's a similarly surreal tale of a doomed world, madness, suffering, and so forth.

A warrior named Grey Irma is compelled to find an entity named "The Sculptor," who acts as both her creator and possibly the reason for the world being thrown into so much chaos. It's one of those types of stories where the protagonist doesn't remember everything clearly, allies may be enemies, enemies may be allies, allies that may be enemies may actually be allies, and so on. Blood, viscera, the moon, maybe Irma is the real bad guy — if you've played these kinds of games before you know the drill.

That's not to say the story in "Moonscars" is completely derivative, though. A particularly interesting wrinkle is the consistent theme of clay and molding. Some of the beings you encounter are made of clay (which itself may have used human bones as part of its chemical makeup), others are made of flesh, and some might just be a bit of both. Humans were supposedly using these clay vessels as surrogate selves, like a kind of temporary clone, but then things went wrong somehow.

Are these clay beings really monsters intentionally unleashed by the Sculptor? Did the vessels tire of being used as tools despite possessing a sense of self? Why does Irma really want to find the Sculptor, and does she even know?

It's not the most fascinating story, but it's enough to get me to keep pushing forward.

Some standout elements

Another similarity is the idea of building up a sort of in-game currency (in this case, bone powder) via fights, but dropping said currency when you die and then having to go back and retrieve it or risk losing it forever. Though in the case of "Moonscars," bone powder isn't quite as essential as something like souls or blood echos. You need it to learn new magic or improve spells you already have, and it can be used to buy items in a few specific instances, but it's not tied to Irma's health or ichor growth.

Then there are Dark Mirrors (basically the bonfire stand-ins) where Irma can spend bone powder on spells, fast travel to other unlocked mirrors, and perform a few other functions. Though some of the mirrors you encounter are corrupted (they have a somewhat bloody and "infected" look to them), and when you use them for the first time Irma will leave a doppelganger behind. Once you return to that mirror, you'll then have to fight the doppelganger — and she retains all of the abilities and buffs Irma had when you originally used it.

Though what's really interesting is how killing enough enemies will grant Irma a choice between one of three randomly-presented buffs (better healing rate, improved critical hit chance, etc) as a sort of level-up. You can stack effects, or acquire an assortment, with each "level" making Irma a bit more sturdy and effective in combat. The catch is that when you die, all of those buffs are gone.

So, yes, "Moonscars" is a bit like "Dark Souls" and the subgenre it spawned, but it adds enough of its own ideas to stand out.

A (very) rough start

"Moonscars" immediately grabbed me with its dark, ever-so-slightly twisted visuals that (with a few exceptions) rely on a very limited color palette of black, white, grey, and red. Once I was given direct control over Irma, I also found that movement and combat felt pretty quick and responsive. But then, slowly at first, doubt began to creep in.

Enemies were kind of spongy, with fights dragging on a little too long for my liking. Some enemies are more of an irritating nuisance than a satisfying challenge. Parrying feels wonderful to pull off, but wouldn't always succeed despite my being sure I hit the button at the right time. Some of the many mechanics used to improve Irma's combat prowess aren't explained very well (or explanations are given too late to be helpful). Many of the environments look identical. Checkpoints by bosses or other challenging areas are often just far enough away to make running back to try again extremely annoying after a third or fourth attempt.

Balancing in particular feels very skewed from the beginning, with magical abilities requiring a bit too much "ichor" (sort of like all-purpose magic points) to use. Especially when ichor is also needed to heal (a-la "Hollow Knight"). Since I was just starting out, I took a fair number of hits so I had to heal up, but healing up prevented me from being able to use magic, then when I was able to build up enough ichor (via hitting enemies) I inevitably had to heal again.

I get that games don't want to make you too powerful from the start, but this was too extreme for my liking.

It does get better

Fortunately, things did start to improve. It was a little after fleeing the first boss that I began finding more permanent ichor and health upgrades, so I didn't have to heal as often and had more juice in the tank for using magic. The damage Irma was doing to enemies, even when they had increased health due to being in later areas, was more substantial and made fights less arduous. The map finally started to branch out in meaningful ways, with some forks leading to entirely new locations or even doubling back to new areas in places I'd already been.

That first boss was a frustrating roadblock for me that required a whole lot of attempts to get past. The second one was also difficult and a little irritating, but between general upgrades and some ability and equipment fiddling it didn't take me anywhere near as long to deal with. Heck, boss number three only took one attempt, which was a genuine surprise. All of this tells me that the balance is there, but it takes too much time and effort to get there.

I can't overstate just how much better "Moonscars" feels to play now that Irma's been a bit more powered up and I've opened up more of the map. It's still challenging, to be sure, and I've died more than once thanks to getting a little overconfident or mismanaging my healing windows, but it's finally fun. Post-early game "Moonscars" is what I was expecting the game to be throughout, basically, and it bums me out knowing that someone might give up on the game before they reach that point where things start to improve.

Around the world

I mentioned before that I found the environments in "Moonscars" to be fairly repetitious. The shift from ruins on the outskirts of whatever land this takes place in, to a decrepit castle, to the catacombs beyond the old structure can be difficult to tell apart from one another. A few specific areas and rooms do stand out, but overall I found myself getting bored with the world fairly quickly.

That said, much like the game itself the backgrounds start to improve. It's just that the much-needed variety takes what I'd consider a bit too long to show itself. I'm very glad it's there, and finally having some slightly yellow-ish forests and blue-hued caves to explore is a welcome shift. But front-loading so many locations that look similar, before the map truly starts to branch out, may not have been the best approach.

It doesn't help that some of these areas (even a couple in the early game) are riddled with performance issues. And not the kind of mild frame-stuttering that I can usually shrug off. I'm talking about some pretty ridiculous dips in framerate — to the point where a few chaotic fights started to look like a slideshow. A slow slideshow. Not something you want in an action-heavy game that requires good timing for attacking, dodging, and parrying.

And yet

What's funny is that I still find myself compelled to keep playing. Even with so many problems (some technical, some built-in), "Moonscars" continues to be fun and satisfying to play. Each new area offers new traversal puzzles, maybe some new kinds of enemies, and hopefully new and interesting backdrops. Non-aggressive characters may appear further along the path and they can offer interesting tidbits about Irma's past, or maybe give you a new item.

Dispatching bosses sometimes grants Irma more power, other times it can provide new tools that can be used for traversal. Some paths are inaccessible for a time but will open up (or at least be reachable) on a return trip. Or you may even stumble upon an NPC that gives you a new collection-based sidequest several hours in, giving you a reason to revisit past locations. Maybe said sidequest also only works when the moon is in a certain phase, prompting you to let the game world get more difficult in order to find what you're looking for.

There have also been some plot developments that I won't spoil here that have me genuinely curious to see where they go. That, and I really want to know if a choice I made previously is what caused something to happen. And was I supposed to do that thing I did in the forest in order to progress or was there another way I could've approached the situation? Is that going to come back to bite me later?

Moonscars verdict

I wish I could recommend "Moonscars" without any caveats, but there are so many problems of varying sizes that I really can't. As I've reiterated a few times now, there's a challenging, satisfying, enjoyable game here — after you sink a fair bit of time and effort into a game that's not very satisfying, and is challenging in a way that's not very enjoyable.

Those performance issues are also a big disappointment as it seems they've been around since this game's original launch in late September 2022. My hope was that the patches that have been released since may have cleaned all of that up, and maybe to an extent they have, and performance problems used to be even worse. But it's not the kind of issue you want to persist in a game like this. I mean, massive framerate hiccups in any game aren't great, but they're particularly bad when you need to see what's going on in order to react quickly.

As much as I wanted to love "Moonscars" — and as much as I still want to — there are other, better games out there that provide a similar experience. In some cases, they're actually more affordable than this game's already-affordable (and I think worthwhile, even with my gripes) $19.99 price tag. This doesn't mean you should avoid "Moonscars," particularly if you're still interested after learning about its issues, but if you haven't played some of those other games yet it might be better to start there instead.