I had hoped to bring you a proper review of Moonscars today, the new 2D Soulslike from indie studio Black Mermaid. But alas, both time and its ferociously difficult combat have got the better of me, so you'll have to settle for some impressions instead. This isn’t simply a case of drinking the 'git gud' kool-aid either. While I'll hold my hands up now and say that Soulslikes have always been a bit of a challenge for me, I feel like I've been making some pretty good in-roads into the genre lately, and after falling in love with Moonscars' reveal trailer earlier in the year during the Humble Games Showcase, I really, really, really wanted to like this one. Sadly, it's become increasingly clear that Moonscars does not like me very much, and maybe even hates my guts a bit - which is ironic, considering how many organs I've chucked at its feet over the last week and a bit to appease its hungry dread moon.
I still absolutely adore the look of Moonscars. Its moody, dark apocalypse and ruined stone fortresses immediately call to mind the ornate detail of later Castlevania games, while its possessed knights and eldritch monsters are like the estranged 2D cousins of FromSoft's Eldenborne menagerie. The clay-borne warrior Grey Irma also cuts a striking figure as the game's main protagonist, too, with her long white hair creating a stark contrast to her gloomy surroundings.
Her enormous weapons also look like they should feel intensely satisfying under the thumbs, but the timing involved to get those screen-shaking wind-ups to actually land was something I was never quite able to master. Enemies were often too quick to launch counterattacks of their own, and while there's (thankfully) no stamina bar holding your very effective dodge-roll hostage, the sheer number of enemies in any given scene meant I was often just rolling straight into the attack of something else, resulting in another huge chunk being cleft out of my health bar. Instead, I always got the sense I should have been parrying these jabs and lunges, but the combination of Moonscars' seemingly miniscule parry window - available when enemy eyes flash red - and the speed at which some of them come at you meant I often struggled to pull off that move as well. Because by golly, these chumps hit hard, and a few careless stabs was often all it took to take Irma down.
You also have magical witchcraft abilities attached to the triggers, but these might as well not have existed for me, as your magic bar also governs how much you're able to heal - which I was doing a lot even early on. Landing hits will regenerate your magic bar, but it does so quite slowly, and the spells you acquire first require a surprisingly large chunk of magic available in order to use them. More often than not, I'd start fights with it completely empty (having used it all to heal myself at the end of the previous scrap) and then have to spend what little I did manage to claw back to heal myself again.
It's a similar, if rather less forgiving rhythm to yer Hollow Knights and the like, and it's probably something I'd have eventually found a groove with over time if it wasn't for Moonscars' damned blood moon. For whatever reason, the moon is a sentient being in Moonscars, and constantly demands demon blood to stay sated. Die too many times and the moon becomes starved, which in turn sends every single enemy into a frenzy that makes them that much harder to kill. It's like the game is deliberately punishing you for being bad at it, and it's this I found to be its most gruelling aspect. You can offer up 'glands' you find to appease the moon's insatiable hunger and turn the world back to normal again, but the moon bar at the top of the screen will always tick down faster than you'd like - even when you think you're doing well.
The last straw came when I tried to take down Moonscars' first main boss. There was a save point nearby, so getting to it unscathed wasn't a particular problem, but when I died during that fight, it resulted in pretty much an instant blood moon when I respawned. At first I used one of my three remaining glands to reset things and give me a fighting chance, but when I died again, it was back to blood moon time. I'd maybe come across a total of half a dozen glands by this point, and it quickly dawned on me that there simply weren't enough of them in the world for me to keep throwing them into the game's horrible difficulty hole. That's when I decided to throw in the towel instead, as I knew I simply couldn't continue. There's no way to make the game easier, either, as aren't even any difficulty options to be found in the game's main settings menu.
I'm sure some will relish the challenge posed by Moonscars, and I'd recommend giving it a go on Game Pass if you think you've got what it takes. For the rest of us mere mortals, however, I fear Black Mermaid's debut is just too punishing to be a remotely fun time. I'd love to revisit it if the devs ever added in a Moonscars kid gloves mode, but until they do, I'm afraid I'll have to resign Grey Irma to the dust from whence she came.