Review: Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider

Raker? Runner? Rider.

This is Joymasher's fourth major game, following Oniken, Odallus and Blazing Chrome. It would be dishonest to call any of those games original, rather they were loving homages to the likes of Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Contra. I've seen this latest effort, Moonrider, described as a Hagane-like; I'm relatively unfamiliar with that late-era SNES title so Moonrider became a journey I'd be taking alone, unburdened by comparison. And, while I had fun, I found it a little wanting compared to all its predecessors.

Taking control of the Moonrider itself, a samurai-esque mech armour armed with a powerful sword and the capacity to utilise Mega Man style special attacks, you select a stage (as per Blazing Chrome) and head out into the world to kick everything's head in. Visually, it's all quite gorgeous, if perhaps a little lacking in variety. You'll see a lot of rusty red/brown metal, but such is life in a twisted metropolis. There's superb, Nazca-level detail in the enemy sprites as well as your own attack animation, but I felt that at times I didn't quite sync with the game. Moonrider controls smoothly, with a run that's activated via a double-tap on the D-pad or holding the right trigger (I used an Xbox Series controller for review), but there were occasions where I felt like control was given over to the game; I'd hit jump and the lad just wouldn't jump. Perhaps a side-effect of my getting hit, because enemies here are hyper-aggressive. And that's okay, it's not a "git gud" situation, but losing a life because you can't jump so you take an additional hit and fall into a fit losing another chunk of life only to respawn in harm's way and immediately die? It don't feel good.

That's okay though, because by coincidence the first stage I beat gifted me a ridiculously useful weapon that hits over and over again on a single shot, which I then used to make absolute chumps out of the remaining bosses. It's actually a bit of a shame, because said bosses can be fun if you actually fight them properly, but with limited lives and the risk of being kicked back to the start of a level, what's my incentive to do anything other than utilise all the tools the game has to offer?

Hidden items crop up in each stage, though I ran into the occasional annoyance of discovering things I wasn't yet able to actually get. A pet peeve, but also possibly just me being stupid, so maybe a non-factor. These secrets offer you upgrades akin to Mega Man X, of which any two can be equipped at a time. I spent most of the game with a double-jump and a chip that revived me at half health if I died, which to be honest I rarely did once I got the first boss weapon. It seems, to my dismay, that balance has taken a bit of a vacation here; not an issue I've had with Joymasher before, but a troubling outcome. I'd blitz through much of the game only to suffer at sticking points, such as a particular mid-air mini-boss with rather too missable tells on its attacks, so I'd get into a loop of taking hits and falling to my doom. Of course, I got over it and made progress, but these kinds of things leave a bad taste in the mouth. You know what it reminded me of? Mega Man X5 and X6, right down to some borrowed mechanics from the latter. If you're taking inspiration from Mega Man X6, you're doing something wrong.

Yet, I'm being far too negative - it is a good game, and can be lots of fun when you get into the groove of it. The problem is that it's by turns wanting you to be trepidatious and expecting you to be slick and fast and to move, move, move. Enemies take barely an instant to lock onto you, and will suck up more than a full combo's worth of sword attacks. Yeah, you can dodge 'em, but it feels wrong. You managed to avoid an onslaught and counterattack, your reward should be progress, not repetition. I feel like I'm whining about difficulty, but that's not it - the problem here is rhythm. It's just not quite right, where Oniken and Odallus absolutely nailed their pacing.

It is enjoyable - and the bike level is a cute change of pace - but Moonrider is, to my hands and brain, Joymasher's weakest game. You may enjoy it far more than I thanks to a familiarity with what it's trying to do, what it's mimicking, but I think it's a nudge and a wink too far, bypassing accessibility in favour of spectacle. It showcases what a fine balancing act it takes to homage the past without falling into familiarity.