Review – Mothmen 1966
There is mystery and terror in that which we do not understand. From the vast reaches of space comes ideas and concepts that the human mind cannot grapple with, and, as a result, can go mad with the attempt to slot it into something familiar or logical. We are surrounded by energies and beasts that predate mankind and will still live in the shadows long after our own annihilation. It is a world of the mystic, the weird, the eldritch and the cryptids, one that few believe and even fewer experience. It is a promise and a threat of the thing just outside our vision, of the movement in the night that isn’t explained away, of something that knows of secrets that demand sacrifice and blood.
Inexplicably, it’s also the world of pithy little puzzles and entirely too short storylines.
Mothmen 1966 is the first in a promised trilogy of “pixel pulp” games by LCB Game Studio, which is looking to blend the idea of the pulp novel with the throwback art styling of pixel graphics. Paying homage to both the fast paced storylines of the last century and the graphics of the 80s, what you end up with is a visual novel with small choices and minimal additional gameplay, which presents as either puzzles, narrative choices or, in one bizarre moment, a seemingly-endless minigame. Mothmen 1966 is specifically a tale set against the Leonids of 1966, which seems to summon a host of unearthly creatures to the very real land of…somewhere.
Each chapter puts you in the shoes of one of three protagonists; Holt, the gas station worker plagued with strange dreams; Victoria, the pregnant teenager who needs to believe in something; and Lee, the pretty boy with a dark past and something deeply wrong inside. The three work together to unravel and survive their fateful night in 1966.
Out the gate, before diving into anything else, players should set their sights and expectations accordingly with Mothmen 1966. I was able to get through the whole thing in an hour, maybe less, and that’s with failing one of the puzzles multiple times. Not only pulp in content but also in length, this is something that you can burn through effortlessly and doesn’t leave a lot of room for replay. There are achievements to unlock by choosing certain paths (that will kill you) and playing “impossible solitaire” (which I didn’t do), but you need to know that you’re getting a quick bang out of this, nothing more or less: don’t come expecting STEINS;Gate or any other expansive sci-fi visual novels. This is an afternoon, if not a train ride.
Having gotten that out of the way, I really liked what LCB Game Studio was trying to do with Mothmen 1966. The visual and aural presentation for the homage factor of pixel past was perfect. The use of blackness and rough edges to help give an additionally eerie feeling to locations and elements within the game was perfect, and I loved how everyone, even the “normal” humans, had a bit of that sickly green look that came from the monochromatic era.
This is a time in gaming where people will say pixel but cheat and use ridiculous density or a wider range of colors than was available at the time of pixel classic, but that’s not an issue here. Mothmen 1966 looks and feels like it could have been on a Spectrum ZX81 or an Apple IIE, but maybe a bit more colorful. When the story is displayed in multiple panels, like a comic book opening up to showcase a rapidly progressing scene, I got really into it.
The sound matches that, with distorted, almost upsetting levels of music and dissonance throughout. It’s got the right match of purposeful distortion with crafted tracks to try and get that Tales from the Crypt backing that suits the tone so very well. When the game delivers a “Game over” sting, it pierces through your eardrum like an arrow, both painful and profound. As an experiment in throwback design, I’d say that it hits the mark beautifully.
Also, the storyline for Mothmen 1966 is enjoyable, even given all the loose ends that’ll never be tied up. Bringing in classic cryptids like Mothmen, Men in Black, ghosts, goat babies and more keeps the tone sufficiently fast paced and engaging. You’re not here for high literature or to read something that gets dissected at book club, you’re under the sheets with a flashlight, half reading and half listening for footsteps so that you can pretend to be asleep. The characters of Holt and Victoria are both likable and believable in their roles, while Lee is a bit too angry and temperamental to be redeemed, even after he goes through a bit of a metamorphosis. The presence of both Holt’s bizarre grandmother and Lou, the local writer just trying to get the scoop on the weirdness of the small town and who will almost assuredly end up in future chapters of this series.
Having said that, it’s the “game” of Mothmen 1966 that I really didn’t care for, which is a shame since that’s what keeps it from just being a visual novel. The puzzles set throughout the story are arbitrary at best, and frustratingly insane at worst. You have things where you’re putting items on a shelf, lining up gunshots, and trying to work out the order in which to scare wolves, which all get resolved easily enough (though you can get your bad endings fill with the latter two puzzles).
The act of trying to focus a set of binoculars on a distant beast was incredibly annoying, as there were only two choices on how to focus and it seemed to just change the required action without any reasoning behind it. Worst of all was a rotation puzzle that had to be done, like the others, completely textually. So you choose “TOP ROW” then “MIDDLE BLOCK” then “ROTATE LEFT” and continue until you’ve arranged nine blocks perfectly. Thankfully, even the devs knew this was bullshit, and they have an option for Lou to just speed assemble it for you. I don’t know if admitting defeat in your own game is a win or a loss, but it kept me from giving up, so there’s that.
Yet I didn’t really remember the puzzles of Mothmen 1966 until I went back through the screenshots and recalled my annoyance. The low points didn’t stick with me: the design and the storytelling did, which I feel is a plus. I was entranced by what it was doing, and what message was trying to be spread. This was a return to form in terms of pulp novellas, and I really enjoyed myself. The ending was…well, the ending was disjointed and seemingly out of left field, but so was every single Tales From Beyond and things like that. I just blazed through it, totally on board with Civil War ghosts and centrifugal force machine guns and rabbit mothmen and all that jazz. It wasn’t stupid, it was mindless, and I really enjoyed it as a result.
This might be a piece that’s worth picking up immediately, or it might be worth waiting to see if LCB Game Studio decides to do an anthology release later on down the line. Mothmen 1966 is a brilliantly bold stab at artistic game design, and I think that it wildly succeeds. It’s by no means a perfect game, but it is entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with being entertained for a while. If you really want to, dive in, unlock all the achievements and do your thing, or just do what the rest of us do: forget about the world around us for a while, travel back to 1966, and see what happens when the stars dance and the demons come out.
Wonderfully dirty pixel composition, the effect perfectly captures what some of the murkiest titles of the 70s and 80s were like.
Read read read read AWFUL PUZZLE, read read read INSULT LOU, read read….
Also pitch perfect with the era, the result is a soundscape that I can appreciate as authentic, but not necessarily enjoy.
For the brief ride that I had, Mothmen 1966 was a romp and a roll with a book that I’d pass along to my friends when I was done.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Mothmen 1966 is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Mothmen 1966 was provided by the publisher.