Sometimes a game falls through the cracks. Not because of problems with the game, but the general nature of games journalism. Smaller games get pushed aside for the triple A titles full of coverage and clicks. This isn’t to demonize journo work, it’s hard to make a living in it. This is the context that brings me to Moonrise Fall, a game from solo developer Christopher Mathes. This is a title that didn’t get the coverage that other games had, and we had the key for a month. That feels very appropriate for a game about being lost, so let’s shed some light on this indie game.
After a car crash kills his parents, a young boy finds himself alone in a mysterious forest. With a guidebook for the area, a lantern and a camera, his only option is to explore the woods. There are many interpretations you can make about why this kid is trapped here, but that’s not as vital to enjoying the game as you’d think. It’s less about a strict narrative and more about emotion. Negative emotions run deep, and while morbid content is never shown there is something dark about these woods. It’s beautiful in its sadness, and it soaks in those anxieties and fears. Yet, with that focus on more upsetting emotions, it’s cathartic. As if the game is telling you “Yes, let’s explore being sad. Nothing wrong with that”.
I am instantly reminded of Yume Nikki, both games having a child protagonist in a surreal and dreamlike world to explore. However, where Yume Nikki was more interested in surrealistic imagery moreso than gameplay, Moonrise Fall finds a happy medium. It has a complicated feeling in the world, like you don’t belong but are a natural part of the woods. It’s curious, full of uneasy melancholy. There are few games that attempt to be introspective, let alone ones that succeed. Moonrise Fall fits into the latter category. While it never becomes overwhelmingly sad, it can make you teary-eyed if you’re dealing with grief.
As a game, your two main goals are to explore and collect. Even if it’s not as long as most collectathons, there is a lot to grab. There are shrines to light, crystals to find, rules to transcribe, and (most importantly) creatures to photograph. In the guidebook are clues to find monsters. Since it tells you the landmarks they will be at alongside playing a jingle when you’re close, it’s not impossible to find them. Once you find them (shown as a dark orb in-game), you need to press the proper order of buttons before you can get a snap. What makes this special is the final touch as you shake the photo to see what the creature was. That small detail brings a ton of character to a mechanic that could have easily been a drag. It can feel weird without a gamepad, so make sure you have one before you go taking pictures
These photos grant you energy, which is necessary to get past guardians of the forest. Energy can also be found by lighting shrines with a flash of your camera or lying around the woods. Crystals are also found around the world, but their purpose is only shown close to the end and don’t feel particularly substantial. You are, in turn, granted a couple of items to help you on your journey. First, you can change the time of day, allowing you to find monsters that emerge at night or noon and open specific gates. You also get a kalimba you can play, letting you bring rain or wind to the forest like Ocarina of Time.
Taking photos isn’t the only part of the game, even if a spooky Pokemon Snap would be exceptional. Across the world are green tablets that have their own alphabet. While these aren’t vital to the main game, these letters can be found in glowing gates with untranslated messages. They don’t automatically translate, so you need to transcribe them yourself. I needed to bring out a pen and pad, and there’s something really engaging about figuring out these messages even if they only add a bit of context.
But if you want to actually beat the game instead of going on a spooky hike forever, you will need to go through three gates that only unlock with photographs. Each gate has an orb and all three unlock the last area of the game. These parts are generally the weakest as they are straightforward puzzle rooms. While they have a great atmosphere, the puzzles you complete are generally tedious. They add variety at first, but they go on for too long. It’s the big fault of the game, becoming very linear rather than the somewhat nonlinear experience that works best. Luckily, there’s only three of them, so they aren’t a huge focus of the game.
Moonrise Fall has some secrets built into it, and there’s a real joy in finding them. While snapping a picture at something to bring you some behind-the-scenes info breaks the immersion somewhat, it’s neat to show the care that was put into it. If anything, it shows Moonrise Fall as the ideal of classic indie development: a lone dev (with some help) putting together a game with heart and soul. This is a game that shows the type of experiences that can only come from an indie perspective.
Performance & Graphics
Minimum System Requirements:
OS: Vista or Later
Processor: 64bit Intel compatible Dual Core CPU
Memory: 4 GB RAM
Graphics: DX9 compliant graphics card or later
DirectX: Version 9.0
Storage: 600 MB available space
Like practically every other indie game out there, Moonrise Fall is all about pixel art. It works very well for the environment, making a world that feels pretty and lonely. I have a minor gripe with how simple the animation of the protagonist’s walk cycle, but that’s nothing that ruins the experience. There was a great focus on making this feel like a world rather than a game level, almost like it’s still going through its cycles when turned off. Obviously that’s not what happens, but the amount of care put into making this a world is really cool. It’s not perfect though, as the game does have a bit of stuttering at times. There are ways to alleviate this by changing it to alternate sync mode, but that requires going into the game’s files rather than an options menu.
MOONRISE FALL VERDICT
Playing this game made me somewhat existential. How many interesting games will fade into obscurity? How many will be lost in time? There are thousands of titles that won’t get a sliver of spotlight, and I know Moonrise Fall will be the same. The market has expanded in ways that are almost incomprehensible and it’s impossible to give them all a fair shake. I probably wouldn’t be thinking about this with other games, but Moonrise Fall’s focus on melancholy, loss, and death really brought that out in a way that was beautiful and tragic. Even if the game stutters at times and some puzzles drag on a bit too much, I enjoyed the time I spent in Moonrise Fall. It never outstayed its welcome, giving a game that’s on the shorter end without feeling rushed. This isn’t a game for everyone, but anyone who loves these sort of exploration games should give it a try.
TOP GAME MOMENT
When numerous nooses started appearing in a section of the forest. Simple, but chilling.
Neat camera mechanic
Melancholy in a good way.
Some tedious puzzle rooms.
Uneven framerate at points.
Crystals don’t matter as much compared to other collectables.
Awkward PC controls practically force you into using a gamepad.
About Gavin Herman
Gavin Herman is a critic with experience in editing, journalism and video game PR. He's still too afraid to ask what this Fortnite thing is all about.