Rusted Moss

June 23, 2023

Rusted Moss Review


A game called Rusted Moss came out in April of this year, and I was excited to play it leading up to its release. It's a Metroidvania built around a bouncy, elastic grappling hook. It's also a beautiful game with nice music that strikes and maintains a strong, melancholy tone. And it has guns that feel pretty good.

I found Rusted Moss refreshing: while it doesn't skimp on story it is a game that wants to challenge you, and it is all about its mechanics. It tries to blend two counter-intuitive styles: super difficult platformer and Metroidvania, and the game's plot and world also turn out to be a blend of contradictions.

On the whole I am a big fan of Rusted Moss. It's not without its problems, but its high points more than make up for the weaker sections.

Movement/First Hours

Character Design/Basic Mechanics

The game really shines in its opening hours. We start with just a rifle, and traversal on foot is precise and no-nonsense. There's not much momentum to your walk, so you can turn on a dime, and you have a lot of air control.

The player character, Fern, is designed to strongly communicate her state at any given time. She is fluidly animated but there are also a couple of elements that I think are procedural: her hair and arms seem to react organically to your movement with some kind of simulated gravity. That might seem like a purely aesthetic thing but in a hectic fight or during a grappling section these elements help to give us a feel for Fern's weight and momentum. They help us figure out where our character is going so we can adjust. It's also a very economical way to make Fern's motion feel smooth without creating a whole bunch of extra animations. And there's the added bonus that Fern's torso and head--our hitbox--keeps a fixed and easy-to-read shape.

That's a great start, but what really caught my eye was the aiming. You can click to fire the rifle, or hold left mouse to charge it up. Fern is animated to follow your cursor fluidly, which is very satisfying but also helps to remove ambiguity when you're aiming. Fern's entire body, and the muzzle of your gun, point toward the cursor and this makes it easier to line up shots while running or flying through the air.

The developers obviously put a lot of thought into readability and that pays off as the game gets more difficult. They also did it super economically: the player sprite is actually several pieces {== there are sprites in the game folder ==}. When aiming, for example, Fern's arm sprites are being rotated on the fly, but the hard-edged pixel graphics give the game a clean look that you could easily mistake for traditional animation. {== maybe mod Fern to be invisible except for the arms or something? ==}

All of these decisions make Fern's motion very fluid and they give us a stronger sense of control since the character is always offering visual feedback on our actions.

I usually know that I'll love a game if I can enjoy its mechanics in total isolation, and Rusted Moss is one of those games. Jumping around feels great, aiming weapons is pleasantly fluid and firing them sprays shell casings all over the place. They nailed it.

{-- The whole ensemble reminded me of Intrusion 2, which according to Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid is "one of the best side-scrolling shooters of all time" [1]. That's a pretty good base to build on. Rusted Moss is literally more grounded--the gravity is stronger, drawing attention to our character's weight--and it's also thematically more grounded: it features zero snowboarding sections. --}


The first few minutes are also packed with different places to go, each of which offers cash or upgrades. If you've never played a game like this, these sections teach you to explore the whole map but they also tell us that Rusted Moss is more focused on challenges than secrets. Upgrades are rarely hidden from you, they're instead gated by self-contained grappling hook challenges.

The upgrades are important, but since you can skip some of them, the developers have some leeway to explore more difficult or tricky level designs while still offering the player a useful reward for completing them. I went into it expecting the Metroid special of breakable walls everywhere, but Rusted Moss has just as much in common with a game like Celeste as it does Super Metroid.

Rusted Moss's challenges are much closer to the optional strawberries you can pick up in Celeste. The strawberries don't serve a practical purpose, but Celeste is a very linear game that's all about platforming so that's not a problem. The world of Rusted Moss is a maze, and progress through it is gated by enemies and gear. The challenges grow our power and abilities, so they give us a tangible sense of progression even as we backtrack through the game's tangle of different screens.


But the main event is the grappling hook, which you unlock after dispatching the first boss. You can latch onto this green faerie moss and fly through the air or, more likely, into spikes or a bottomless pit. The grapple mechanic is hard to get your head around at first, and that's one of the main complaints I've seen from players. I don't share that sentiment at all: instead it reminded me of Super Mario Brothers, as most things do. Mario handles strangely at first; but once the movement clicks it's easy to understand why Super Mario Brothers is designed the way it is.

The grappling line behaves in ways that seem counter-intuitive at first, and a huge chunk of a first playthrough is devoted to trials by fire. I've touched on this concept before, but a difficult game is always going to be polarizing whether it's well made or not. You cannot just breeze through Rusted Moss, you have to sit with it and get acquainted with it, so some players will inevitably decide that it's not for them. And that's not a problem, that sort of response tells us that Rusted Moss's mechanics are interesting enough to have an opinion about.

A game isn't rewards and cutscenes, it's what you do on the way to those things. Rusted Moss's greatest success is that movement is fun, interesting, and puzzling for its entire playtime, and you will still be picking up new tricks at the end. Even with some issues that I will discuss later, Rusted Moss is carried by Fern's incredibly well-polished abilities.

The grappling line is sort of like a bungee cord: Fern's weight and momentum effect the way it stretches and snaps back and, consequently, the distance and height she can travel. It's very sensitive to Fern's state and you have to develop an intuition for how it works. Right after unlocking it there's a section that teaches the basics: I felt that the faerie telling me how to use the grapple was unnecessary, but the dialogues are brief and optional. Explicit tutorials like this might give people the wrong idea, because the grappling can't be boiled down to a list of procedures, it's more organic than that. The lines in the background strike a nice balance: both giving the player a rough idea of what to do and inviting them to experiment.

Grappling feels absolutely fantastic. While traversal can be frustrating, it's frustrating in a way that made me want to throw myself at it over and over. The idiosyncratic grappling mechanic is fun to watch, and it offers a built-in sense of progression, since your movement looks and feels more elegant as you get better.

The game also has some built-in dynamics; movement on foot is reassuringly heavy and precise, while grappling is fast and elegant.

The sheer number of possible movements gives Rusted Moss a very high skill ceiling, but it also has a deceptively high skill floor. That's a good thing, but I think that some of the systems that surround the grappling are unnecessarily punishing, and there's a sort of cleavage right where Metroidvania meets precision platformer.

Rusted Moss is a Game of Contrasts

Rusted Moss is a game of contrasts; its plot is a conflict between the technological forces of humanity and the magical forces of the fae. Fern is a changeling, half-human half-fairy, and the game begins after she bombs her human home and begins her quest to restore the Faerie Queen, Titania.

We learn over the course of the game that, at least in the popular imagination, the world goes through cycles of human and fae dominance, and the Age of Men has lasted far longer than it should. These ages are, or were, total shifts in the way the world works: the Ages of Man usually have no magic, while the ages of Fae are, presumably, free of human technology. Touching iron hurts the fae, and I assume that the fairy moss corrodes or damages steel.

But in Fern's time these two principles are blending together: many of the game's bosses are human witches who harness the power of Titania's Pieces {== exodia joke ==}. Meanwhile our representative of the fae, Fern, fights with an assault rifle. Pretty much every boss fight blends magic and technology in some way: the game has several mechanical bosses, but these are machines with fairies trapped inside as a source of power. {== Recording #2, 16:02. ==}

There's also cruelty on every side: Fern came from a lab where fae were imprisoned and experimented on, while the fae delight in kidnapping children and tricking people in horrific ways {== show the merchant who hears voices ==}. The game gets its concept of fairies from English and Norse folklore, so they're not very nice to humans. It's basically an accelerationist fairy tale {== nick land joke ==}.

The whole package also has a nice in medias res quality to it. There are some very strange exceptions, like the one time Fern speaks directly to the player, but in general all the characters know each other while we have to figure out what's going on through context clues.

{== I explained why I thought this did not work in Rain World Downpour, Fern is not a surrogate player and we don't have total control over her. In Rain World play is self-directed and we practically have total control of our character; my goals and my means to achieve them are in my control. Fern has her own goals and this fact is baked into the game's structure; what we can do at any point is what Fern would do. ==}

The game was much more grounded than I expected, and I was never quite sure whose side I was on while playing. Fern is very much with the fairies, but she's also acutely tied to the human world, through her surrogate sister, and recurring boss Maya. I was pleasantly surprised to see so much effort put into fleshing out the world, they definitely could have gotten away with a generic good vs. evil story but instead we get this interesting blend.

I also really appreciate how simple the plot is: it's a straightforward collision of folklore with real life, and the game is driven by the situations that this creates. The lore isn't cryptic, and the text logs scattered around the world are often paired with a comment from Fern or Puck, our companion-slash-grappling hook. The lore actually feels relevant to the events of the game, because it fills in some of the question marks about Fern's life and because the characters actually have feelings about it.

I think a lot of people intuitively draw a line between mecahnical games and story games, but Rusted Moss is one of many examples of a game doing both. For me, a game's writing is all about creating an interesting, historical backdrop that gives our actions some larger meaning, while the events of the plot are better conveyed through gameplay: the way a boss fight feels is way more important than what the boss says. Just look at the fight with Gwyn in Dark Souls. Even without the music it's obvious that we're fighting somebody who has totally withered.

{++ RE-REC ++}
Rusted Moss is not the most complicated game in the world, but boss fights usually say something about the character you're fighting, which is then reinforced through dialogue.

If there's anything to criticize in Rusted Moss it's the mountain of text scattered around the world. There are logs, notes, and prophecies all over the place and sometimes they even take the place of a reward. The thing is, I didn't notice the extent of it until I started editing. While I was actually experiencing the game I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I think they're a really good fit for Rusted Moss.

The gameplay is very intense, and demands a lot of focus. At the same time, the game is not trying to be super immersive the way Rain World is. Rusted Moss's world is full of obvious puzzles and challenges; it's a game built around fun game mechanics and not a high-concept existential ecosystem simulator. Immersion might be the wrong word, but I felt invested in Rusted Moss's story because it gave some bigger stakes to an otherwise fun game.

Considering all of that, the frequent text logs work for Rusted Moss because they offer us a second to breathe; they are a few-seconds-long guarantee that nothing will ambush us and there won't be any impossible grappling. Placing a computer after a challenging section is a useful tool for pacing, and even if there's a lot of reading in absolute terms, an individual log will only have one or two screens worth of text.
{++ RE-REC ++}

The Healing Problem

Rusted Moss's design is also a counter-intuitive blend. I keep coming back to the Celeste comparison, and parts of Rusted Moss are in that vein of a difficult platformer with fast restarts. But it's also a Metroidvania, so it has mob enemies, an HP bar, and a fairly open world.

Neither Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night have very punishing or difficult platforming {== IN MY OPINION ==}, and there's a good reason for that: dying puts you back a long way. Movement upgrades in Super Metroid are usually keys to doors. You can move underwater, so you can go to Maridia. You have the sprint, so you can break down a wall. These aren't difficult maneuvers to actually pull off. Adventuring, searching for stuff, and fighting bosses is the focus.

I think Rusted Moss does a pretty good job blending the two styles but there are some jagged edges. First and foremost, if you want challenging platforming sections, you need to handle deaths very carefully. Making the player walk a long way after a death would be a waste of their time, so save points are generously sprinkled around. So far so good.

But there can't be save points every few feet because they show up on the map, and ideally they indicate important areas. There is going to be lots of endgame wandering, so having some points of interest on the map is good. Saves also defuse the tension, and you want the game to feel like it has stakes. So there are also mana recharge stations, and this is where the problem arises. Fern can heal at the cost of mana, which means a mana source is effectively a full heal.

This is a good idea in principle, it fits within the game's existing systems and allows it to switch gears between dangerous, health-based combat sections and giving the player infinite retries during platforming sections. It even opens up its own possibilities; multi-screen platforming sections can have a full heal at the beginning but force you to ration your health throughout, so the developers could predict and design around the player's mistake budget at any given time.

And they do this quite a bit. The Lab, for example, revolves around a single save point so it forces you to carefully consider your movement and, if you died as much as I did, develop your skills. Many other sections are broken up by little combat arenas. We don't know what comes after these arenas, so there is some pressure to not get hit. Shooting enemies restores mana, so you might even get some health back if you play well.

But the game is plagued by a tiny problem: you get the mana refill automatically but you have to heal manually, which wastes time and puts friction between the player and the game.

On average, I think it's fair to say that each section, broken up by a mana source, will take around ten attempts. Some areas many more, some areas many less. Since we don't know what is on the next screen, we always want our health and mana to be full if possible. Healing takes about a second, so that's a minimum of ten wasted seconds per mana recharge station. This is wasted time because we effectively have full health if we're standing on one of these mana sources, it's just a matter of pressing E and waiting for it.

Stuff like this really gets to me. Judging by the high level of difficulty, I have a feeling that the developers are very good at Rusted Moss and stuff like this was just overlooked because they didn't need it. These small speedbumps are incredibly frustrating, and not in a good way. You really want to be engaged, throwing yourself at a challenge over and over without any unnecessary waiting. A big part of Hotline Miami's success is in the quality of life department: you are never waiting for the game when you die, you can get back to the action within a few frames.

Rhythm is important, and Rusted Moss... interrupts it for no good reason. It's a small problem but an insistent one. I started to just... try my luck with low HP during difficult... challenges, but bottomless pits do more damage later in the game so I basically had to heal before every attempt.


### The Bad

Metroidvania is more of a structure than a genre unto itself, and you can fit a lot of stuff into that mold. Not only does Rusted Moss do away with traditional secrets, but it bills itself as a twin-stick shooter. The game's Twitter account even calls the combat "bullet helly". At first, I thought this was just an aesthetic thing because your bullets and enemies' bullets are definitely reminiscent of a shoot 'em up.

Since the game recommends keyboard and mouse, twin-stick shooter is kind of a misnomer, but it refers to you being able to move your character and aim your weapon independently. Doing it this way makes combat and grappling feel like two parts of the same system: they use the same cursor, and you don't switch between grappling and shooting, instead they're both context insensitive extensions of your character that you can use separately or together. An inferior game would make the grapple a weapon you have to switch to, clearly delineating fighting from platforming.

Rusted Moss opens the door to mixing grappling and combat together, which happens a little bit. Rusted Moss doesn't have the ubiquitous i-frame dodge, so the grapple is sometimes useful for avoiding attacks. However, I found that enemies kind of nullify the grapple, unless you just want to run away from them.

{--I think it's fair to say that bullet hells usually distinguish themselves from the earlier style of shoot 'em up with their tiny hitboxes and demands for precise movement. Sadly, --}The best description I have for Fern's hitbox is "confusing" {== rusted_moss_011.mp4 3:03 ==}. Parts of it seem too large, others too small. That's fine for a conventional Metroid game but it makes dodging feel inconsistent. Obviously it is consistent, Fern's hitbox does have a fixed shape, but parts of it feel more punishing than others.

From the very beginning something just felt off to me with the enemy encounters. At first they're all pushovers but the difficulty and damage ramp up quickly. They're also super aggressive and can command a lot of space. Taking damage feels appropriately bad; your grapple and momentum are broken--which can lead to taking even more damage--and control is taken away for a second as Fern flinches.

None of that is bad in and of itself, and the way enemies control space forces you to move and adapt. We're obviously supposed to use Fern's moveset to our advantage, either to run away from enemies or dodge them and counter-attack. But it just doesn't quite happen for me. There's never enough space, or the grappling hook is too imprecise, or the enemy attack is too large or fast or unpredictable. I ended up just running in close and blasting everything, taking damage as necessary.

It can be especially frustrating when you're locked in an arena, and three enemies suddenly spawn and the entire screen is covered in bullets.

I'm not confident enough to say that it's unfair, but it certainly feels like you have to take damage sometimes. It could be a skill issue, but I have 100% completion so if that's the case, then there must be some skill that the game isn't teaching me. It seems like Rusted Moss wants you to move to avoid damage, but often there's nowhere to go, or a little bounce in the grappling hook makes you eat a bullet anyway.

{== vo s1 ended here ==}

Fern's hitbox is a big part of the problem. You often can walk or even swing precisely to dodge bullets, but it takes a long time to learn where your hitbox is and what you can get away with. Learning it is just a matter of memorization and time, so it isn't engaging like learning to grapple is.

If you don't want to tank a lot of damage, then you have to master the game before you can handle enemies effectively. For a new player this creates brick walls of difficulty every few rooms, where nothing you try to do actually works. Rusted Moss's enemies are not those pushovers from Metroid.

{--Even after focusing on using my mobility whenever I can, it took maybe twenty hours of play to start to get comfortable with the combat. That sounds like kind of a good thing--a high skill ceiling--but in my first playthrough and a half the only strategy I could come up with was loading up on damage upgrades and praying, which is not terribly satisfying.--}

{--If you really stop and handle a situation carefully you can often escape without taking damage, but doing that was never satisfying for me. I really wanted the enemy designs to encourage and reward using Fern's mobility. Rusted Moss does require bullet hell precision at times, but unfortunately that means players have to periodically ignore the most fun thing about it. Unlike a bullet hell, we can usually just sit behind cover and trivialize most encounters.--}

{--This compounds with another problem: enemies telegraph their attacks well, but if you're shooting them they usually thrash around and flash which makes them much harder to read. Shooting them feels good, but since Fern's arsenal has a very short range we need to read enemy attacks while attacking.--}

The best use of mob enemies is in some of the challenge rooms, where they are contained in boxes and you have to climb toward some reward while avoiding their attacks. Their position relative to Fern is less important, and you don't have to get up close and personal so you can just focus on efficient movement. {-- Once again, the Lab is a standout area in this regard. It's all about avoiding or cleverly dealing with invincible enemies. --}

Another good combination is weak enemies paired with other damage sources. There are a few rooms in the Ichor Refinery like this where small, not-very-dangerous drones are paired with moving blobs of ichor. The enemies force us to adapt a little bit while we tackle the very predictable challenge of dodging the ichor.

These are exceptions though. As the game progresses enemies generally get more health, aggression, and damage. They're harder to run past, and they represent a bigger threat so dodging is kind of off the table. In isolation, none of the elements on offer are bad. The guns are a lot of fun to use, and they have distinct uses even if I defaulted to the pistol or rifle most of the time. But there are enemies in most rooms, so for me they were constantly interrupting the game's main appeal, the grappling.

Pixel-perfect dodging just isn't on the menu if you have to use a bungee cord to do it.

The Bosses

However, when the combat really matters I think it works well. The game's bosses are all great. They are very aggressive like regular enemies, but the encounters strike a more satisfying balance between combat and evasion. These bosses are a kind of main course, they're not something you can decide to just damage-boost past. Combat is on our mind during these encounters, so it's not like they're "getting in the way" of the grappling. Boss arenas are also much more appropriate for combat: if you're paying attention you can always get away, while in normal play damage sometimes feels unavoidable.

Take this boss, Freia, for example. She removed her heart so she can't be damaged directly. Instead we have to run around the arena and take out pieces of her heart as she chases. These two ideas work well together, and they work well with Rusted Moss's movement. Freia is always on your tail, and fires long-range beams, so you need to be moving between pieces of cover, but you also need to snipe pieces of the heart. This creates a nice ebb and flow where you try to get an edge on Freia, to find an opening that lets you attack her.

The fight is tense, difficult to learn, and super satisfying once you finally get it. Unfortunately, the best strategy for bosses is often to ignore grappling altogether. It's easy to accidentally grab enemies and pull them toward you, and bossess are generally large and in-your-face, so trying to grapple can easily turn into taking contact damage. The fights still feel dynamic, but they fall back on your more foolproof movement options: walking and the charged jump.

{-- I was certain that at least one boss fight would involve running away, making a few tricky grapples as the boss chases, before turning the tables and fighting back. Instead, they're all pretty standard. Putting that aside, --} There are lots of fun boss ideas, and I think they live up to the bullet hell concept much more than the mob enemies do. They don't just have the aesthetic of a shoot 'em up, fighting them actually mimics the process of learning one: working out how you need to be moving during different phases, or when you need to adapt versus memorizing a pattern. The number of bullets is very much a stylistic thing: you're not going to be weaving in and out of these bullet patterns, they're effectively areas of damage, but they look great and they give Rusted Moss a strong identity--there's nothing else quite like it.

Lenore is another standout, and I think her fight does the best job integrating the grappling hook. Her attacks use ichor, which deals damage if you're immersed in it for too long. She can't be hurt normally, but if you use one of the generators in the room to turn the lights on, she will run from you and you can damage her. There are still pools of ichor you have to avoid, and grappling is the best way to do that, so it integrates into the fight organically.

To reduce all this to a rule, Rusted Moss's grappling shines when it fully commits to being about movement, and its combat shines when it fully commits to being about fighting. When they are mixed, the result is usually awkward, but in the few situations where they do come together it's awesome.

I have to say though, once you get through the long learning period, it comes together a lot more often, and the game manages to capture the miraculous feeling of dodging bullet hell patterns. Fights are tense, dynamic, and visually spectacular. You really can use the grappling hook to dodge, and the level of difficulty makes the game very replayable, so a good chunk of players will probably master it. It still feels like the combat and platforming have two completely different difficulty curves though.

Like it or not, the combat is important to Rusted Moss's identity; even at its silliest it never turns into some quirky wholesome indie game and a big part of that is that your character is toting an assault rifle. Even if they didn't stick the landing, the best parts of Rusted Moss carry the weaker parts. And really, at worst a death will put you a few screens back. The annoying stuff is insistent, but it's worth looking past the problems.

Level Design

Rusted Moss is beholden to its level design to make everything work. That's kind of obvious for the grappling sections, but it's even more true when you add enemies into the mix. Some enemies are a lot to deal with even on flat ground, and more often than not they're situated over some pit that you have to cross.

Each screen feels gamey, but that's not a bad thing. Immersion in Rusted Moss is driven by its mechanics: I cared about it because the movement feels good and I wanted to overcome its challenges. The game's very intentionally laid out screens are a way of giving the mechanics the spotlight, and the fantastic art keeps them from feeling too much like game-designerly puzzles. The haziness of the game's lore works to its advantage here as well: the world is dotted with labs and facilities, so there may be a very good reason that all of these creatures are in little boxes.

There's a good balance of function and beauty, like in this room where the background gives you a hint that you should climb upward.

{~~ One thing that I found a bit cheap was the number of gates that are locked from one side. {== edit many of these ==} Opening these is like kicking down a ladder in Dark Souls, but even within Rusted Moss's video gamey world they felt sort of lazy and out of place. Some kind of shortcut is necessary: the developers want to force you to take the long way your first time through an area, but they recognize that this would be annoying every subsequent time.
Red skull blocks that disappear work well for the factory-esque areas but not for somewhere like the Living Quarters, which is a sort of sanctuary for the fae. It's more a problem of their prevalence than how well they work. At times it feels like you're getting one of these shortcuts every five minutes, which forces you to keep thinking about their obvious game designerly function. Sprinkling in some other shortcut type, or even making the gates less obvious would make it a non-issue for me.

It's not a big problem, but this is another way that the Metroidvania concept is rubbing up against the Difficult Platformer concept. If the game were linear, you could just put save points at either end and be totally fine. ~> who cares ~~}

{++ comment on screen transition problems ++}

{== flag girl challenge is a good demo ==}
Screen transitions are another issue. Changing screens breaks your grappling line, which makes sense: whatever object you were attached to got unloaded. This puts vertical climbing in an awkward spot, though: you usually want to maximize your speed, and a good way to do that is by jumping away from a wall and grappling to redirect your momentum. As you can see in this footage, doing that put me in danger of falling all the way down this timed climbing challenge.
While it's not hard to avoid, this feels like an arbitrary punishment sometimes; there's nothing about the world that would cause my grappling line to break in these spots, it's purely because the game

The level design gets a lot out of the grappling hook by combining a few simple elements: usually just spikes, pits, faerie moss, moving grapple points, grapple resets, and switches {++update if you missed any++}.

Fern's movement gets a number of upgrades--you get a charged jump early on, later you can tighten the bungee for a quick boost in momentum, and a shotgun and rocket launcher complete the package. Something I really like about Rusted Moss is that it always answers the question "can I do that" in the affirmative. The basic grapple has a lot of capabilities, but once you're fully upgraded you can do some mind-bending stuff, because all of your abilities can modify all the others.

Charged rocket jumping is an obvious one, and you can also use the shotgun or rocket launcher to build up momentum and slingshot yourself. The tightening mechanic can give you even more speed. Beyond obvious tricks, these are all tools to modify your movement while tethered or while in the air and you can do pretty much anything with them. It starts to feel miraculous once you're good at it, and you need to be good at it to complete some of the harder challenges.

The upgrades are also a built-in difficulty option. You can use the basic grapple to go almost anywhere if you work out the tricks, but areas are designed so that first-time players can still go through them in the intended order. So the answer to the question "can I go there" is also yes. This is one of the most appealing aspects of a good Metroidvania, and the ability to sequence break and complete the game in interesting ways will give Rusted Moss extra longevity.

Doing things this way is also a commitment to internal consistency: if you are good enough to go somewhere, you can go there, no exceptions. It naturally builds immersion because, like real life, everything is consistent. You aren't going to find any invisible walls. It's always nice to play a game that doesn't yell at me for playing it wrong, and Rusted Moss kind of encourages you to break it just because the grapple is so open-ended and fun.

If you want to get the most out of Rusted Moss, try to exploit the grappling hook to do weird stuff. The Metroidvania structure works in the game's favour here; late game backtracking is actually fun. Trying to retread old areas as quickly as possible is fun by itself, and there are also structured challenges all over the place.

There are a ton of one or two-screen secrets that give you trinkets or upgrades, but there are also six climbing sections that reward you with flags. A couple of them are tricky, one being probably the hardest section of the game, but I also got some of them without even knowing that I was completing a challenge. The earliest one, for example, seems to be gated behind a tricky vertical climb, but if you wait until after the first fight with Maya, which ends with Fern in prison, you can just get it from the other side for free.

Finally, there are a few self-contained, timed climbing challenges. These go even further in exploring the game's mechanics, and it was fun to work out viable routes through them even if they weren't very clean or fast. I imagine some people will get totally hooked on these and beat all of them in ten seconds.

In fact, that seems to be happening already. The game really encourages speedrunning, even offering a special difficulty option that adds a timer and skips all dialogue. While I'm more of a "pick up all the stuff" kind of guy I think Rusted Moss is a great fit for speedrunning, and the developers have shown a lot of enthusiasm for that aspect of it.

Hollow Knight Inspiration / Trinkets

Which brings me to the obvious and inevitable Hollow Knight comparison. I only bring it up because the similarities are interesting. There may be other games that did these things first but, call it a hunch, I think the developers were inspired by Hollow Knight. Fast travel from set areas, the way money scatters when you kill something, the way you get mana from enemies, the way the player heals, and the way trinkets work are very similar in both games. {~~ Saving the game and equipping trinkets happens much faster in Rusted Moss, which I really appreciated. As much as I like the little bench animation, Hollow Knight is a big game and it got old when I was hunting for secrets. If I have to do something 300 times per playthrough, please make it fast. ~> dunno what I was thinking of, it's pretty fast in HK ~~}

The trinkets themselves are mostly focused on combat. I imagine Rusted Moss would be truly impossible to balance if it had any more twists on movement, and it's nice to have a clearly delimited set of movement options anyway. Heavy ammo and the wing clipper expand your movement a bit, but they are never required.

There's a surprising breadth to the trinkets, but by their nature they don't change the game's feel very much. Getting a shield when healing is nice, since I got punished for healing pretty often, but I mainly used trinkets that increased my weapons' range and damage.

A couple are also great for the endgame; the Ruby Slippers increases Fern's walking speed, and the Cracked Monocle gives her a particle effect when there is a secret nearby. A lot of Metroidvanias are ambivalent toward people who wants to collect everything, and as a sucker for incrementing numbers I appreciated that these trinkets speed up exploration. With that said, I would appreciate the ability to mark my map, or at least some extra icons for NPCs and challenges.

The only real issue I had with getting 100% completion was the Lab. Once you defeat the boss, a monster gets released that reduces your health to one if it shoots you. The upshot is that this also opens new parts of the lab, so you have to dodge the monster while exploring. It's a great concept, but it punishes players who did not get all of the items before fighting the boss. I was missing this piece of fae silver and one room that was not filled out on my map and it took around an hour of attempts and punching holes in my wall to finally finish up the area.

These parts of the Lab are possible with the monster, but they really weren't designed around it. I do like the tonal shift after the monster gets released, though: the Lab suddenly gets red emergency lighting and hectic music, while this formless white thing is constantly pursuing you. It's one of the only enemies that can follow you across screens, and paired with its damage output this makes it feel like a real threat.

The Endgame

Rusted Moss's final area, Elfame, can be accessed very early on. I did everything, like I said, but you can actually fight the final boss with only a few pieces of Titania, which gives you some funny dialogue.

The area introduces another twist to movement: Fern can float around freely, but these beams of light pull her up and down. Changing up the game's movement is a great idea here: Elfame is the homeland of the fairies if you didn't guess and it feels like a genuinely different, alien place because movement is completely different. Even Barrow's Ceiling, where the buildings are all upside-down, still feels like earth.

Navigating these sections can be a bit slow, but Elfame is a small area so the new gravity mechanic doesn't overstay its welcome. It's mostly a place for wrapping up the story, with a climactic shift in movement, visuals, and music. The recurring characters Nell and Eli have their final battle here if you've visited them everywhere they show up. Eli is a human deserter, and Nell hates traitors so they aren't the best of friends.

You can interfere, indirectly, while they're fighting to help one or the other. The Cricket Bone Whip, a trinket you get for collecting all six flags and beating a difficult timed challenge, lets your grappling hook cancel bullets. I actually had some trouble with this encounter but it's not too hard to just cancel the bullets for whoever you want to lose. As a freedom lover, I helped Eli.

Which just leaves the final boss, a fight that has everything I liked about the game's combat. The Seer is Titania's sister and our quest giver. Rusted Moss does a lot with very little writing, and I clocked her as weirdly malevolent from the beginning, both from her character portrait and dialogue. So I wasn't too surprised to find that she was the final boss.

The fight again stresses mobility, and the Seer will teleport right on top of you if you're standing still. She also uses some fantastic looking bullet hell patterns to force you into cover. Instead of the ebb and flow of earlier bosses, we're constantly evading and shooting backwards, so the Seer feels really threatening. In phases 3 and 5 she also teleports us to earlier areas, which is a kind of closing by return but also allows for different geometry and attack patterns.

I have to say that, despite the five phases, this is the only point in the game where the difficulty was underwhelming. I went in with all the upgrades and a nice set of damage-increasing trinkets so that's kind of to be expected.

I'm only going to talk about the first ending. There are three others but they just wrap up the story in different ways. If you decide to restore Titania, you're in for a lot of dialogue and another boss. The writing is good but it explains a lot of things that are pretty easy to figure out through context clues:

There's a prophecy or story that's introduced early on and slowly fleshed out, that a Beloved Child will come and extend the Age of Man potentially forever. There are five tablets right at the beginning of Elfame that explain it. In that case it's told in past tense, but Maya, Fern's adoptive sister, believes the Beloved Child is part of a prophecy and she wants to extend humanity's reign by finding this kid {== vid 002 09:19 ==}.

As we play through the game there's also obviously something going on with Puck, and the big reveal is that he is Fern's real brother. A lot of the Beloved Child story gets retold, but the details are pretty brutal: Robin kept the Age of Men going by giving Fern away to the Fairies, and she never forgave him. The grand irony here is that Fern's plan is basically an inversion of Robin's: she is willing to sacrifice Maya to bring back the fae. {--, although depending on the person a quick death is probably better than being a prisoner for centuries. --}

And then there's this goofy turn to camera {== my grappling hook is even stronger than before!!! ==}.

It's all appropriately Shakespearean, and against this backdrop Fern makes her way to a final confrontation with Robin, who took the pieces of Titania and is now super powerful. We get a better grappling hook, and all we can do is hold on as Robin tries to stop Fern.

So that's Rusted Moss, and its true ending is as ambiguous as you'd expect. I can't imagine Maya is too happy about this situation, but we never get her perspective on it. Is she a hypnotized puppet? Who knows. Every other wish in the game has some kind of horrible curse attached to it, including one of the other endings.

I really enjoyed how understated the game's story was, except for the solid five minutes of dialogue right at the end. Most conflicts are good vs. evil, but Fern is just a character who feels so completely betrayed that nothing can stop her from carrying out her mission. It's not like the Age of Men would keep going without her, either, the writing is on the wall for humanity. Even if you don't agree with her, you can understand why she does what she does. So too for Maya and Robin; the conflicts in Rusted Moss are a clash of incompatible values and interests. Even simpler characters like the witches never become cartoon enemies, they have motivations.

And of course the thing that makes all of this work is the gameplay. It sounds a bit silly, but the realism of the movement, the sense of gravity and momentum, help to ground the game's plot. These mechanics keep our attention on the space and layout of the world and make us acutely aware of our place in it. The Metroidvania elements again give us a sense of a continuous world, whereas in a linear game the last level ceases to exist once we beat it {== running left in SMB 3-1 or something ==}.

But I still think the most important piece is the guns: you can get shot to death in Rusted Moss and that's very different from falling into a pit and waking up near a statue. There's a dash of real violence in there that means the events of the game have stakes.

While Rusted Moss involves some frustration and some visual jank that you've no doubt noticed by now, it's definitely more than the sum of its parts. The game is criminally underrated right now so please give it a shot if you think it looks fun.