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Friday, August 11, 2023

‘Lifeless Moon’ Video Game Review – Dark, Thoughtful Sci-fi Adventure Takes You On a Memorable Trip

I first saw Lifeless Moon at the Seattle Indies Expo in 2022. At a glance, the game’s got a great visual hook: an astronaut exploring the surface of the moon crests a hill, and is suddenly confronted by a well-lit American diner. My first thought was that I really wanted to know what was happening there.

My second was that the whole thing better not turn out to be the protagonist’s coma dream. If I play one more surreal indie adventure/puzzle game where the ending reveals the whole thing was only happening in the player character’s head, somebody owes me a free sandwich.

The good news, without further spoilers, is that Lifeless Moon is not that. It’s a short, minimalist, mildly unsettling science-fiction adventure. Veterans of the genre will tear through it in a few hours or less, but it’s an interesting, memorable trip.

You play Lifeless Moon as a nameless, faceless American astronaut, who’s part of a two-person team on a manned mission to the moon. While exploring, you interact with an anomaly on the lunar surface and end up somewhere else.

Soon, you’re up to your helmet in a mystery that involves the remnants of an old military test project, the sudden reappearance of long-dead friends, your co-pilot coming unstuck in time, and a few square blocks of a small town that’s somehow ended up in a lunar crater.

It’s hard to discuss Lifeless Moon any further without ruining some of its surprises. This is one of those games that starts weird and gets weirder, where part of the challenge is to figure out what’s happening and why. It’s not just being surreal for the sake of doing so; everything in the story has happened for a reason, and it’s up to you to discover it.

Naturally, that means you end up collecting a lot of journals and audio logs, but Lifeless Moon handles that better than most. It’s undeniably one of those games, where you’re constantly one step behind a bunch of compulsive diarists, and they all keep tearing pages out of their journals and leaving them in random locations. It’s at least a well-written and executed run at the concept, with a bit more in-universe justification.

The rest of the game is light enough on gameplay that I’d imagine a number of people will try to write it off as a “walking simulator,” in the vein of Layers of Fear or the original Amnesia. Lifeless Moon does have a couple of tricky puzzles, however, and you eventually get a jetpack that lets you handle some light platforming. It’s not a difficult game by any means, but it’s not a question of simply getting from point A to B to roll the credits, either.

It’s also not a particularly scary game, particularly after its halfway point. Lifeless Moon is aimed to unsettle rather than scare, it’s only mildly violent, and it starts in a creepier place than it eventually ends up. If you’re a big fan of Ray Bradbury, there’s probably something for you here.

The real reason to show up for this one is its broad, surreal vistas. After an initial sequence where you’re just creeping around a desolate lunar landscape, Lifeless Moon opens up into a series of interactive landscape paintings that range from mundane to insane. There’s real craft in how it unfolds, and it’s just hands-on enough to keep you moving forward without making you feel like you’re on rails. More importantly, it genuinely keeps you guessing throughout its 3-hour run time.

More negatively, Lifeless Moon is distinctly slow-paced, with a minimalist UI that occasionally works against it, and has a few weird plot twists that it doesn’t entirely earn.

As an accessibility note, if you’re red-green color-blind like me, you’ll want to have a friend’s help for Lifeless Moon. The game uses a particular shade of fluorescent green to mark important objects and locations, and there are areas where it’s difficult for me to make it out against the background. In a year that’s actually been pretty good for color-blindness options, Lifeless Moon’s an inadvertent standout for not having any.

I’d also argue that the silent-protagonist approach doesn’t really work for the sort of story that Lifeless Moon is trying to tell. Your astronaut is clearly a character in their own right, with their own experiences and memories, both of which play into the plot early on. It’d make more sense thematically if you played as someone with a firmly established name and history, rather than a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto.

Even so, if you’re in the mood to spend an evening with some dark, thoughtful sci-fi, Lifeless Moon is a decent use of your time. It’s short, just difficult enough to occupy your mind, and keeps both its environments and challenges nicely varied until the end. If anything, it could stand to be longer and a little more complicated.

4 out of 5 skulls

The post ‘Lifeless Moon’ Video Game Review – Dark, Thoughtful Sci-fi Adventure Takes You On a Memorable Trip appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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