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The debut outing from indie game studio Made From Strings looks like a retro-styled RPG, so I really didn’t know what to expect from Moonrise Fall going in. It turns out that not only is it very much an adventure game after all, it’s an unusual and highly compelling mystery that starts with a car crash, two dead parents, and a surviving but unconscious small boy. The story only gets deeper and more intriguing from there.
The gameplay picks up in the aftermath of the accident. Awaking alone in a dark and unfamiliar setting, you find yourself playing as the newly-orphaned boy. You soon stumble across a crow mask that when put on not only makes you look more like the E.T. alien than a human child, it also reveals that you’re in a strange forest. Able to see clearly now, you're able to begin your journey to discover a way out and hopefully find some answers along the way.
It’s hard to discuss the plot of Moonrise Fall without giving anything away. Controlling the nameless young protagonist, you set out to explore the surreal forest and discover what lies within. Along the way you’ll slowly decipher its mysteries, investigating its (literal) ghosts and illusions in search of an answer to the main questions driving the story: what happened to you and how did you end up here? It’s a simple premise and a simple narrative, but it works within the confines of this nearly wordless world that emphasizes exploration over exposition.
The gameplay is what makes this a really engaging adventure. The tools at your disposal are a camera, a journal left behind by the previous explorer before you, a lantern and a clock, which may sound limiting but prove to be exactly what you need. The camera can take pictures of ghosts and can be used to reveal what is and isn’t really there. For example, there are certain patches of trees and brush that vanish once you mouse over them with the camera lens, allowing you to move further into the forest. The journal keeps track of what you photograph and the lantern is, well, a lantern. The clock allows you to change time at will, which will reveal certain objects and things that only appear – or disappear – at certain times of day.
The presentation uses a third-person bird’s-eye perspective, and when you first start out you’re given a short tutorial on the controls. A gamepad is recommended, but the mechanics are simple and straightforward so I found the mouse to interact and keyboard to move were perfectly acceptable alternatives.
There are gates throughout the game that require photographs of a certain number of creatures to advance through, but you’ll probably be searching for them as you go along anyway. The puzzles in Moonrise Fall are, for the most part, built right into the environment as you continually figure out a way to get from point A to point B, which is all fairly intuitive with really no moon logic at play. Does that mean they’re easy? No, definitely not. In particular, photographing some of the ghosts based only on hints provided in the journal is quite tricky. There are also a couple other unique puzzles best left to discover for yourself.
The striking pixel art aesthetic of Moonrise Fall immediately appealed to me at first glance. The visual design is simple yet expressive, and the muted color palette fits the mood perfectly. While the whole game takes place within the mysterious forest, you’ll pass through different areas with unique styles as you progress. From a hidden temple to underground mines to a cemetery, each has its own distinct touch. My personal favorite was the waterfall area, which was calming and relaxing enough to make me slow down and really appreciate all the little details.
The game’s minimalist look is nicely complemented by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, and it’s no surprise that the instrumental score been released as a separate OST with extended tracks. The music continually strikes the right atmospheric chord, managing to be both light and suitable for exploring while also instilling a rather dark overtone as you’re never sure where you are or what’s going on. The ongoing accompaniment enhances the air of mystery in a subtle way without going overboard like a bad ‘40s noir movie daring you to figure it all out.
Strangely, the mystery itself was actually one of the weaker elements by the time I finished. You’ll get answers as to your identity and most of the other important issues, but several key points are left out relating to the ghosts you’re photographing, the previous owner of the journal, and why the camera works the way it does. While these questions aren’t part of the central core of the story and don’t necessarily need to be addressed, it felt like there were still a lot of questions left up in the air by the time the credits rolled. Given that there is barely any text in the game and no voice acting at all, I understand why it might be hard to convey information like this, but its omission still felt frustrating.
Taking about eight hours to complete, Moonrise Fall is one of the most interesting games I’ve played in a long time. While it leaves a few loose ends and could explain more of the mystery, it cleverly touches on themes of life and death without so much as a spoken word. Beautifully understated and mysterious, it's all wrapped up in a charmingly pixelized, melodious bundle. A fun adventure with just a touch of sadness, it’s absolutely a journey I recommend.