Move over Returnal, Luna Abyss is your next favourite bullet hell shooter
Keep several eyes out for this one
Take one look at Luna Abyss and you'll probably go, 'Wait a minute, this looks like first-person Returnal!' And having played the first mission of the game at GDC, I can confirm that yes, this is very much in the vein of first-person Returnal. It's a fast-paced, bullet hell shooter set on a strange alien moon where everything's out to get you, but the shift in perspective makes everything in its titular abyss feel closer and more intimate, calling to mind the frantic, confined gun fights of Doom and Quake more than Housemarque's seminal roguelike - games that creative director Benni Hill tells me were formative experiences for him growing up.
There's also a greater emphasis on story-telling in Luna Abyss, with Hill also citing Nier: Automata and Bioshock as other key influences. It's a compelling mix, based on the first chunk I played, and arguably one of my surprise GDC favourite demos alongside The Thaumaturge and The Lamplighters League. Indeed, Hill tells me they started working on Luna Abyss a year before Returnal was even announced, and when they first saw it during Sony's PlayStation 5 reveal stream in the summer of 2020, he and his team did a collective double-take.
"It is a little 'Oh, no,' because you automatically start comparing what you're building to someone else," Hill tells me. "At that point, you stop working through the natural iterative processes of building a game, and you're starting to see how somebody else is maybe doing those kinds of systems."
Ultimately, though, the reveal of Returnal ended up being a positive thing for the Bonsai Collective team. "I mean, if that game is successful, then there's an audience that exists then," Hill continues. "You know that what you're building, people want to play that type of experience."
In case you missed its initial reveal, Luna Abyss puts you in the shoes of Fawkes, a prisoner who's been sent to a strange, red alien moon that appeared above the Earth 250 years prior to the events of the game. The reason for your confinement is unknown, Hill tells me, but when you get there, you're tasked with exploring the mysterious abyss inside it, with every task you complete knocking extra days and weeks off your 9000-odd day sentence.
However, Fawkes themselves never actually does the exploring in person. Instead, they take control of biomechanical androids, and pilot them from the comforts of their cell, all under the careful watch of a giant mechanical head known as Aylin. Aylin acts as both your guide and your prison warden during these missions, speaking with you over comms to help direct your progress. During my demo, she mainly left you alone, only cropping up during key story moments when you discovered something new and weird, so she shouldn't fall foul of being too chatty while you're hopping and dashing.
The abyss itself is a mostly linear space, although Hill does mention later that you'll eventually unlock a hub area that you'll return to between missions that connects everything together. But this initial trip inside the moon is a much more straightforward affair, with Fawkes following an unknown energy spike through a series of rooms and corridors separated by Metroid-style doors that you have to shoot to open. Hill admits, "I just wanted to be able to shoot doors!" when I bring this up after the end of my demo, and as a long-time fan of Metroid Prime, I have to agree it's a welcome touch of nostalgia.
But the rest of the abyss is nothing like the surface of Talon IV. Slabs of brutalist architecture jut out of its monochromatic rock at all angles here, with large pipes and cables snaking around its edges and spilling out over yawning, dark canyons. Flashes of red light draw the eye forward, but there's just enough left to the imagination here to wonder what the heck this place is and who originally built it. It's an intriguing, if foreboding space, and one whose obsession with triangles and geometric shapes makes it feel like the otherworldly cousin of games such as Echo, Control and Scorn.
For Hill, Destiny, the work of Junji Ito and the manga Blame were all big inspirations in creating the mood and atmosphere for Luna Abyss, but he's keen to stress that while they were certainly going for a particular kind of oppressive creepiness in the game, there's no actual horror or jump scares to be found here. "We just really wanted to nail that atmosphere," he says. "We wanted the mood to feel alien, but similar at the same time," and from what I've played that's absolutely spot on. Luna Abyss is not a scary game, but it's weird as hell and all the more interesting for it.
That's especially true when you start encountering other residents of this enigmatic abyss. Its mix of meaty, sightless grunts and aggressive, mechanical machines doesn't hold back down here, and each presents you with a series of bullet hell patterns to learn and counter. It's fast, frenetic stuff, and I gradually felt my Doom Eternal muscle memory kicking back in as I settled into a rhythm of swapping between weapons, going in for finishers to replenish my health, and keeping an eye on my arsenal-wide cooldown meter to make sure my crop of guns don't overheat at the worst possible moment.
We can also thank Returnal here for convincing the team to re-evaluate their enemy bullet patterns. When they first saw what kind of fresh bullet hell Selene was dealing with on the alien planet of Atropos, Hill says they felt Housemarque had raised the bar in this respect, and that they needed to step up and meet it if Luna Abyss was ever going to break out of Returnal's shadow.
"Our bullet patterns were really nice," Hill explains. "But we wanted to get more variety in there, and seeing the amount of variety that was in Returnal, [we knew] players are definitely going to want more of those kinds of bullet patterns. So we went back into the system we built to make it more complex, and gave more control to the designers."
Hill admits that he actually struggled with Doom Eternal when it came out in 2020, but one of his goals throughout Luna Abyss' development has been to create "the idea of being good at those [kinds of] games again, or at least that feeling [of being good]". He tells me he grew up playing FPS games such as Doom and Quake on his dad's PC, and a key question he wanted to answer was "'How do you get that feeling without the skill level being that high?'," he says. "One of our goals was to create something that feels like it has a little edge to it, and there's still the skill gap, but it's maybe not quite as steep as an entry point."
Based on what I've played, I reckon their hard work has paid off, as even this first mission feels tough, but fair. It doesn't ease you in gently, but it's also not as daunting or hostile as Returnal, either. For me, it struck just the right balance with its difficulty, and if you enjoyed Doom Eternal and Nier: Automata, you'll likely feel right at home here.
Alas, I didn't see evidence of a Doom Eternal-style meat hook during my demo, but my demo session did culminate in finding a shotgun-like gun called the Shieldbreaker, which (whisper it) felt pretty darn special. There are other guns Fawkes will discover as they dig deeper in the abyss as well, including the delicious-sounding concoction of a sniper rifle that's also a railgun that can lock onto enemies from afar. Hill doesn't want to spoil too much more about that weapon just yet, but I'm excited to find out for myself when Luna Abyss eventually comes out in full.
Fawkes will also be upgrading their biomechanical drones with extra abilities over time as well, such as a dash, strafe and other evasion techniques. Despite its shooty doors, it doesn't seem like Luna Abyss is drawing on any other Metroid DNA in this respect - I certainly didn't see any evidence of a Metroid-like structure in my demo session - but I am intrigued to find out how its hub structure functions, and whether later levels will hold extra obstacles to return to further down the line. I don't think it will, but we'll have to wait and see.
All in all, I came away impressed from Luna Abyss. Despite its myriad influences, Bonsai Collective seem to have twisted them all into something that's uniquely theirs, similar yet alien, just as Hill described. I want to find out more about Fawkes and their connection to this strange, red moon, but more importantly I just want another crack at that Shieldbreaker. It's a fantastic shotgun, and you know how much I love a good shotgun. There's no word on an official release date just yet, but you can find out more on Steam.