Platforms: PC | OUYA version incoming
Have you ever looked up at the stars in the night sky and wished that, perhaps, you could go there one day? It's a cliché, but I certainly used to as a child, at least before the practical reality of global politics and the economy relegated that dream to the realms of science fiction. You made your own fun back then. However, a surreal and experimetal indie title has managed to capture that entire ideal in a single inexpensive package.
MirrorMoon EP is an experience built entirely around revelling in the lonely beauty of space, the thrill of seeking out new stars and making them your own. As an abstract exploration of exploration itself, it gives little away, forcing you to stumble as you come to terms with the infinite yet minimalist universe just out of your reach... before you realise that you can move the heavens themselves. You wouldn't believe the things I've seen out there in the wild black yonder, totally alone, yet connected to hundreds of other intrepid souls on a fundamental level.
And that, I'm afraid, is all I should tell you with a clear conscience.
See, MirrorMoon EP is a game predicated on discovery; not just in terms of exploration, but working out the mechanics and the underlying systems for yourself. How they work, what they mean. The more you know about it, the less effective and impactful it becomes, and thus we can't discuss how Santa Ragione's ambitious project succeeds and occasionally stumbles in any meaningful way without somehow lessening it and robbing you of that sense of achievement. As such, if you want the full experience, I urge you to not read this review beyond a quick scan down to the spoiler-free bulletpoints and very high score. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Hello, you naughty impatient reader. You shouldn't really be here, but since you are, we should probably talk shop. MirrorMoon EP functions a little like an experimental hybrid between Noctis and Antichamber (though pidgeonholing is arguably futile here), offering both a gigantic universe to explore and abstract puzzles to solve through trial, error and a bit of lateral thinking. Rather than cutscenes and text, MirrorMoon EP brings its galaxy to life with a sumptuously colourful if very minimalist aesthetic and soundtrack, hammering home that you are alone in the vast infinity of creation. And letting you simply sit back, slack-jawed, and marvel in its alien beauty.
Starting out on a mysterious red planet armed with nothing save a few lines of odd introductory dialogue and a useless tool grasped in your right hand, you'll walk around the small spherical body with no idea of why you're there or what your supposed to be doing. As the horizon slips past you and the moon reappears, you'll probably realise that you've walked around the entire equator. However, a little directionless exploration suddenly reveals a temple holding an upgrade for your gizmo. What does it do? Wait... is the moon itself rotating? Is it... a minimap?! What do the other glowing symbols near my facing icon represent? Further exploration reveals more tools, letting you shoot markers into the Mirror Moon (for that it what it is), which appear on the ground and lead you to your next destination like a breadcrumb trail. Eventually, you'll realise that the moon itself can be yanked out of orbit and moved as well, eclipsing the sun to throw the entire world into darkness, revealing even more inexplicable secrets.
Using little more than subtle audio clues and your own intuition, you'll blunder through it, gradually coming to understand each new gameplay element in turn with no handholding or patronisation.
After what can only be described as something really weird happens (2001 fans will be in their element), you'll end up facing a bizarre machine impossibly suspended in the blackness of space. An impentrable jumble of buttons, levers, dials and inexplicable numbers, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Once again, however, you've simply got to experiment with it. One switch turns the lights on. Another causes constellations to appear on a large central screen. Ooh, this one changes the numbers on the monitor, or causes a cassette tape to swap position. I wonder what this one does...
... oh, it quits back to the main menu. I won't press that again.
Gradually, over the course of several frustrating and confusing minutes, you'll realise that it's nothing less than a spaceship console, allowing you to manually set course for any star in an enormous procedurally-generated universe. As the realisation sets in, the galaxy unfolds before you, countless stars just itching to be explored. Once you've laid in a heading and chosen a speed, you'll eventually arrive and set foot on a brave new world, each of which is unique, contains different puzzle elements and a 'completion orb' to discover.
The sheer joy of standing alone on an unexplored planet and gazing up at the accurately-mapped stars is a joy in and of itself, as is the thrill of getting there. However, MirrorMoon EP goes one step further by networking players into the same game, able to name and claim unmapped star systems once they've located an unclaimed completion orb. Though you can't directly interact with players beyond taking to the Steam forums, it's an instantly compelling and satisfying draw, especially when multiple players start to compete for nearby systems. Syncronous multiplayer would have scuppered the sense of loneliness and isolation, but this setup provides a little competition without ever compromising the feeling of being a lone pioneer.
Santa Ragione has fulfilled their promise of releasing new galaxies ("seasons") whenever players name more than 50% of the previous star systems, though you can return to any season at will. There really is an infinite universe out there, just waiting for you to claim it. Be sure to swing by "LESTER" in season 2 if you want to visit the first planet I ever visited under my own power.
Unfortunately, this means that MirrorMoon EP falls into the same trap as any number of procedurally-generated games: the lack of level curation. Many planets are barren, empty and totally sparse, whereas others can plonk you directly in front of the completion orb, with no exploration or puzzle solving necessary. Others still just resemble a jumble of familiar mechanics thrown together in a haphazard way. An occasional bug sometimes makes completion orbs fail to appear, rendering them pointless, though this is apparently going to be addressed in an upcoming patch [UPDATE: this has now occurred - Ed]. Much like actual space exploration, sometimes a rock is just a rock.
Downtime is also an important concern when it comes to real-life space travel, and MirrorMoon EP is full of it. Travelling between stars can take upwards of twenty minutes depending on your fuel reserves and speed (sometimes well over an hour or more), leading to lots of waiting and impatiently Alt-Tabbing to kill the time.
But that doesn't really matter, because every once in a while, you'll find something truly wonderful. I've seen neon rain beat down upon translucent temples that wink into existence over an infinite sea of stars. I've charted bizarre ancient rock formations and impossible intangible runes thrust out of the ground, I've moved the moons themselves to reveal wonders beyond imagining. And every time, I've claimed them, I've made them my own.
The feeling of real discovery is utterly intoxicating, and enough to grab you for countless sleepless nights if you possess a pioneering spirit.
— Jonathan Lester (@jon_dealspwn) September 5, 2013
There's also something else going on just under the surface. The brusque storyline makes reference to an anomaly. Strange headaches. A navigator. Sometimes I glimpse a circled star out of the corner of my eye, telling me that there's something worth finding there if only I can align the star map correctly. I can't put my finger on exactly what it is, but I'm determined to find out. The developers are certainly keen that I do. The Steam community will likely become a hub for players keen to pool their resources (thanks to the ever-helpful F12 key), likely requiring a meeting of minds to finally crack the ultimate mystery.
Like the best adventures, however, it's the journey that matters.
- An infinite procedurally-generated universe to explore - mysteries await
- Abstract, awe-inspiring, lonely and beautiful
- Imaginative mechanics decyphered through gameplay
- Captures the thrill of space exploration, discovery and space itself
- Procedural generation can make for some dull, boring or broken star systems
- Long periods of unavoidable downtime
- Many players will find it directionless, pointless and frustrating
The Short Version: MirrorMoon EP is a uniquely compelling take on space exploration, a gorgeous lonely infinity of brave new worlds and stars to discover for yourself. Like real space travel, some frustration and tedium is to be expected, and it's certainly not for everyone. But if this abstract masterpiece grabs you, there really is nothing else quite like it out there.
My God. It's full of stars.