Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane takes many small steps for man in Moon Runner.
It’s a universal truth that any premise can be reinvigorated by adding the words “in space”. Running a scrapyard sounds like a lot of difficult and tedious work, but add the words “in space” and you’ve just invented Hardspace: Shipbreaker, one of the best games released this year. Even ideas that were great to start with can be refreshed and renewed by those magic words. Resident Evil 4 is a game that needs no improvement, but I still very much enjoyed it when Visceral Games added “in space” to the concept.
This is essentially what Moon Runner does. This free game by developer Fractal Interactive takes the core of Kojima Productions’ hiking delivery sim Death Stranding, stuffs it into a spacesuit, and launches it on a mission to the Moon. The result is a thoroughly entertaining slice of space survivalism, one which is astonishingly well crafted considering that it costs absolutely zilch.
The (somewhat contrived) premise is that you are a lunar repairman charged with fixing ten mysterious monoliths scattered around Earth’s primary satellite. You do this by approaching them and then shooting them with a weird shoulder-mounted device. Which might seem straightforward enough, but you don’t know the exact location of these monoliths, and getting to each of them requires you to traverse the Moon’s rugged surface with an alarmingly small O2 supply. Oh, and there are robots that will try to murder you, but more on that later.
The core of the game revolves around a simplified set of Death Stranding’s primary mechanics. You need to hike between the monoliths before your air runs out, but much of the terrain is impassable by foot. Hence, you need to deploy ladders to climb hills and bridge gaps. You’ll find some ladders knocking around on the surface (presumably left by other Moon Runners), but the main way you acquire them is by buying them with credits. Said credits can be earned by delivering “packages” between specific monoliths, which also lets you upgrade your spacesuit to make more durable, more energy efficient, and so forth.
It sounds like a bunch of nonsense out of context (although one could argue the same for Death Stranding) but it fits together in play, not least because of the game’s production values. Not only does Moon Runner look great, traversal has the same pleasing physicality as Death Stranding. You really feel the thump of your Moon Runner’s weighted boots as he plods across the surface, while placing and climbing ladders feels just as tactile it does in Kojima’s game. Yet the lunar setting lends Moon Runner a personality of its own, not just its barren eeriness, but also in how the lower gravity affects the movement of your character.
Moon Runner also generates the same satisfaction in its route-finding. Every time you step away from a monolith, you’re on the clock, so you need to think carefully about where you’re going to go, and how you’re going to get there. Ladders are necessary for climbing sheer surfaces, but they also take a long time to ascend, so it’s important to only use them where needed. Meanwhile, alongside ladders and additional delivery packages, you can also bring with you extra “Energy packages” that will replenish your O2, but all of this adds to the weight on your spaceman’s shoulders, making movement more cumbersome and increasing damage dealt by falling.
The whole package is impressively slick. The only hard problem I encountered was that my Runner would occasionally get stuck in the environment, forcing a restart. Beyond that, my main complaint is that there aren’t more tools for creating routes. Moon Runner somewhat compensates for this with its strange collection of enemies and hazards, including spindly robots that shoot heat-seeking projectiles at you, and a purple skull-cloud that properly freaked me out the first time it descended on me. Nonetheless, the true joy of this game is in overcoming the challenges posed to you by the Moon itself, and I wish there were more ways to do that.
I think Moon Runner has the potential to be a much bigger game, but it doesn’t sound like Fractal Interactive’s plans lie in that direction. Currently, Moon Runner’s Early Access period is planned to last two-to-three months, with most of the focus on tweaking existing content. Fractal states that new features “may be added” in Early Access but “the scope and scale of the game will remain the same.”
Either way, I thoroughly recommend giving Moon Runner a go, especially if you’re on the fence about buying Death Stranding. Moon Runner will give you a good idea of what the core loop of Death Stranding is like, so you should know whether or not Kojima Productions’ game is for you by the end. Also, it’s a great little adventure in its own right, well worth the nonexistent price of entry.
Moon Runner is available now on Early Access via Steam – check it out here.
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