Everybody up for yet another Soulslike? Yeah, we thought as much. However, Black Mermaid’s Moonscars has been turning heads since it was first announced due to its rather exquisitely detailed pixel art style. This is a deliciously dark 2D slasher with Metroidvania elements that reminds us a little of Motion Twin’s dazzling Dead Cells, albeit with much starker environments housing its meticulously animated combat. But how does all of this lovely-looking murder actually play?
Well, it’s a bit of a banger all things told, an attractive marriage of excellent presentation and punchy combat. However, there are some pretty persistent frame rate issues present in this Switch port that have put the brakes on us scoring it exactly as we’d have liked to. Let’s keep our collective fingers crossed that Black Mermaid can get this stuff patched up ASAP because, if these problems can be ironed out, you’re looking at a super slick and stylish action game that looks fantastic and has some very clever gameplay wrinkles tucked up its blood-soaked sleeves.
In Moonscars you assume the role of Clayborne warrior Grey Irma, a seemingly unstoppable force of nature, who’s on a hyper-violent mission to locate a mysterious character known only as The Sculptor, in order to ascertain what happened to both herself and her now missing band of warrior comrades. The action here is set in a grimdark world where flesh and clay intertwine, giving its inhabitants the power to shape and shift their bodies, to possess their foes, and to resurrect from death continuously. Which is handy when you’re making a Soulslike, innit.
Yes, to be perfectly honest, the story here is mostly total bobbins. We weren’t entirely sure what half of the cryptic conversations between characters meant as we blitzed a grisly trail through the campaign, but it has got some interesting ideas packed in there at points. It’s no worse than the impenetrable guff that is Dark Souls itself, and the whole thing does a perfectly serviceable job in giving you a suitably grim canvas on which to paint a very bloody picture indeed.
Like any other game in this now overstuffed genre, you’ll die then resurrect in a never-ending cycle of death, rest up at bonfires (or mirrors) in order to level up or fast-travel to other locations, and spend time hanging around the game’s Nexus-style Mould Workshop hub area. Death sees you lose all of the souls (bone powder) that you’ve currently collected from foes, meaning you’ll need to return to your last place of death in order to retrieve them, and the various areas you traverse are suitably labyrinthine mazes full of shortcuts and secrets that twist and turn before pitting you against a hard-as-nails boss who’ll test your combat skills and patience to their absolute limit. All Soulslike boxes ticked, then.
However, if you find yourself starting to doze off reading through the details of these now fairly overused gameplay mechanics, you might want to give yourself a little bit of a shake, as Moonscars adds plenty of excitement back into the mix through a few new additions to gameplay and some superbly gruesome combat that looks and feels fantastic thanks to some of the most detailed pixel art we’ve ever seen. Seriously, there’s a stunning amount of detail in every little movement and action here, you can even see Grey Irma’s warm breath on the cold night air as she stomps across levels, slashing and hacking a menagerie of weird and wonderful ghouls to absolute shreds. It’s all very satisfying to get to grips with as a result, the kind of bloody combat that’s very hard to stop returning to for one just more shot.
As you make desperate runs through enemy-infested areas — the game’s wonderfully bleak orchestral soundtrack accompanying you through the darkness — you’ll fill up a Spite gauge with every foe you defeat. Fill the gauge to the top and you can open up a menu and choose a Spite-based boon from a random selection of three. Maybe you want your health to refill 15% faster, give your attacks more bite or have the cost of using your magic cut down a little. These boons can be stacked and you can keep piling them on until you perish and lose the lot. It’s a system that, once again, reminds us a little of Dead Cells (even though this is not a roguelike) and it gives you lots of agency in how you flesh out your character build for every attempt to make it to the next mirror save point or boss battle.
The core combat differentiates itself from the norm in other ways too. There are no Estus flasks here, instead you have an Ichor gauge above your health bar that refills as you do damage, then you simply hold in the left shoulder button to drain it and top your life back up again as needed. Complicating this further is the fact your magic attacks also use Ichor, so you need to constantly choose whether you want to get some health back or wail on a foe with great big spikes, explosive ground pounds, chain boulders, magic bursts, projectile spikes, and a ton more besides. You can have any two of these magic attacks equipped at once and they all have their own advantages depending on the type of fight you’re mixed up in.
Another nice little wrinkle is that there’s no stamina bar, giving the combat a very fast pace and allowing you to dash and parry and get ripped into beasties with gusto, something you’ll really need to be doing if you want to keep that Ichor gauge topped up and ready to use. It’s all rather fantastic stuff and it’s complemented by some surprisingly decent platforming, excellent level design across the board, and a brilliant selection of enemies who’ve been well-placed to make each new area a properly tough and interesting gauntlet to run.
The unlockable tree of skills in Moonscars is also impressively expansive, with tons of opportunity to build very different versions of Grey Irma on later playthroughs, and this is added to with a vast array of Amulet Stones that do stuff like refill your life when you successfully parry an attack, increase your attack power, or make you more resilient to projectiles. You can equip three of these amulets at any one time, so again there’s lots of opportunity to mess with your build here and to adjust your approach to whatever difficulty you’re currently trying to overcome.
On top of all this, Grey Irma also has a selection of special weapons that she can deploy with the ‘X’ button; great big slashing wheels, spears, hammers and the like, and each of these give you various boons and perks as you use them. You can only own one special weapon at a time and you don’t just get to keep it either. Every time you unlock a new mirror you’ll travel back to the game’s hub area where NPCs you’ve met will chat a little and sell you trinkets, but when you return to your last location in the overworld you’ll need to do vicious battle with a doppelganger of yourself who’ll use all of your weapons, tricks and skills to try to take you down. Best her and you get to choose a new special weapon, and these all level up automatically as your make it further into the game. It’s a very cool but slightly controversial mechanic, perhaps, not one we minded personally, but these doppelganger face-offs can certainly be tough, and doing them so often will be off-putting to some.
Indeed, it’s the toughness of this game that is perhaps its biggest downfall in the end. In order to make an already hard fight that little bit more punishing, the developer has added in a mechanic that sees the world state shift every time you die, meaning enemies get quite noticeably tougher. The issue with this is that you need to pay a fee of one Ichor Gland every time you want to reverse the blood moon and reset the world to normal. Every single time you die. We had sections of the game — and one really tough boss fight in particular — where we were struggling to locate any more Ichor Glands, leaving us with a seriously tough battle on our hands that, honestly, you’ll need a lot of patience to stick at without launching your controller into the air.
Even though we eventually got over this hump, and the game settled into a much better rhythm thereafter, this difficulty spike was a sticking point and could do with a little adjustment. Moreover, there aren’t any easier difficulty modes or accessibility tweaks available, so you really do need to be prepared to die, as it were, in order to see this one through to the bitter end.
Apart from these difficulty issues, though, what Moonscars offers up overall is some super-stylish and challenging action full of atmospheric locations, excellent enemy designs, some terrifying boss battles (bloody duel against a floating haunted baby, anyone?), and combat that’s punchy and exquisitely animated. It’s the kind of tough old game you’ll want to push through just to see what horrors are headed your way next. It also noticeably improves as it goes on, with enemy variety and level design becoming much more satisfying as you make progress and start to link areas together and get a better sense of how carefully everything is connected and constructed.
And so, we arrive at the score. We would have been awarding Moonscars a more generous number here — despite a few issues with difficulty and a game-breaking launch bug only recently resolved — had it not been for some frame rate issues with this Switch version that we just can’t overlook. The stuttering is very minimal early on, and a lot of the time it’s absolutely fine when you’re just darting about or engaging smaller groups of foes, but it begins to worsen noticeably once multiple foes are onscreen and during some of the bigger boss fights.
In short, the frame rate starts to impede the flow of combat, and therefore takes the shine off a game we very much enjoyed otherwise. Naturally, your mileage will vary on this, and it’s not game-destroying, to be clear — we pushed through and evidently enjoyed the experience regardless — but it makes our desire to see this addressed with a patch all the stronger.