Moons of Madness: Cthulhu on Mars

This game is insane. Literally.
This game is insane. Literally. Screengrab from Moons of Madness
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

H.P. Lovecraft has been going through a renaissance in video games lately thanks to titles like Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City. None of them are as good as Moons of Madness, now out on PS4 and Xbox One.

The game focuses on a technician aboard a super secret scientific research project on Mars. What starts off as a walking sim in the vein of Firewatch quickly turns into a parade of cosmic horror. Though not overtly drawing from the Lovecraft mythos, the tentacle marks of the Old Ones are felt everywhere.

It’s incredible just how quickly the games moves into, well, madness. The members of the research station have all been having dreams about a witch figure who hunts them. You encounter bizarre plant monstrosities that hunt you through the station. Then things get truly weird as you discover what appears to be a rotting Victorian mansion filled with empty-but-animated space suits in a cave under the communications array.

What truly sets Moons of Madness apart from a dozen other Amnesia clones is the loving detail put into the gameplay. A lot of titles sacrifice fine tuning their core mechanics in the name of gore and style, but Moons of Madness has really gone the extra mile.

Navigating the station and even the surrealist settings feels very real. Your player has to carefully monitor the environment or die (I forgot to properly adjust an air lock and ended up a corpse), and the puzzle elements are surprisingly deep despite their seeming simplicity. There’s something really beautiful about its obsessive attention to your character’s ability to adjust solar arrays or solve fuse puzzles. Unlike a lot of titles, it never feels contrived or obligatory here. I actually felt like a space mechanic doing my rounds until the horror begins.

The monster design is…. Woo boy. It’s been a while since I had nightmares about a video game, but this one gave them to me. The witch figure is truly terrifying, as are the space suit zombies. The one that really unnerved me, though, was a kind of rock snake that only retreats when you stare at it. I never was able to figure out if it could sneak up on you when you’re reading notes left in the environment, but it added a sense of panic to the game I could still feel hours after putting it down. You just never knew when the thing was creeping up on you.

On top of everything else, the game is gorgeous. The Martian landscape is breathtaking and the internal environments are haunting. There just aren’t a lot of games that look and feel as real as this while still adhering to a high quality of actual play.

Moons of Madness is the best horror game of 2020. You will be instantly sucked into its world and repulsed by the horrors it hides. I cannot recommend it enough if you’d like to stare into the void and feel it hungrily stare back.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner