Version tested: PlayStation 3
You all know the drill by now. Whenever you go to space, especially if you live in a resource-starved future universe, and find an almost limitless supply of metal/gems/food/adorable fluffies, you're probably about 24 hours away from having a vicious, multi-limbed alien monstrosity clawing your face off.
It should be no surprise then that the titular moons of this PSN effort are very, very savage indeed. The thin smear of narrative horseradish on the gaming beef is that you're out in the cold reaches of space, mining precious resources from rocky, inhospitable moons. Said moons are also home to hordes of furious, suspiciously well-organised alien bastards who want nothing more than for humans to pack up and bugger off. However, in true colonialist style, it's your job to subjugate these uppity natives in order to ease the progress of resource-stripping. This is done via the medium of tower placement, defending your precious mineshafts from the advances of the hungry Insectivores.
Much like PSN compatriot PixelJunk Monsters (which will crop up rather a lot, I'm afraid), Savage Moon is based on the venerable tower defence genre, which consist of a maze-like environment, with multiple paths towards whichever goal you're defending and a source of enemies at the other end. Limited resources are granted to the player in order to construct a network of towers along the path, shooting stuff at the bad things to stop them getting to your base.
It might not sound particularly appealing on paper, but as a genre, tower defence has been responsible for more lost man-hours than the brown acid at Woodstock. It's a popular business, and PixelJunk Monsters is widely regarded as one of the PSN store's better offerings.
Savage Moon's take has a surprising level of depth. More RTS-lite than tower defence-extreme, players control a very functional cursor - navigating around rocky moon maps with a flexible camera, zooming in and out and placing towers in strategically advantageous positions. This can be on top of rocks, where ground-based enemies will be unable to attack them, or right on the ground where they can. Safe space is limited, and often towers have to be unceremoniously dumped directly in the path of the alien advance.
Initially there's only one tower available, the slightly wimpish machinegun turret, and two additional upgrade levels with which to beef it up. Earn a bit of cash by exterminating a few of the very Starship Troopersy bugs and you'll be ready for the research screen. Research allows you to develop new weapon types or increase the upgrade cap. Eventually you'll have a wide range of armaments to choose from, as well as blocking towers and repair units. Slap down increasingly powerful turrets to swat the increasingly tough Insectivores until the 13 waves of beasties which infect each level have exhausted themselves, then move on to a new moon.
And that's it. Rinse and repeat.
But it's the thoughtful little extras that make Savage Moon a potential long-term partner. First and foremost is the command priorities system, in which one of three aspects - cash, defence and attack - can be boosted at the cost of the others. More flexible than it sounds, the command priorities are usually an early grab for cash followed by a push for damage late on as you desperately fight off the tough and numerous end-waves. Once enemies start shooting back later in the game, like the cowardly scumbags they are, defence becomes a priority. It all helps to fine-tune strategy no end, without the hassle of selling and repositioning turrets placed without due care and attention.
The interface for all of this - as well as upgrades, research and the useful 'hurry next wave' button - is all accessed by a press of the X button and a quick poke around the d-pad, which is simple and intuitive and doesn't complicate the heat of battle unnecessarily. As solutions to the problem of RTS-style controls on consoles go, developer Fuzzylogic has hit upon something elegant and functional, although scope for use in anything more complex is perhaps limited.
In fact, despite the massively hectic nature of a great deal of the gameplay, the clean-cut menus ensure that you never feel swamped, lost or out of control. Placing and upgrading turrets is generally a quick, accurate process and uncomplicated HUD bars tell you when research is complete or when a new wave will begin. It's slick and crisp, contrasting nicely with the swarms of beasts being disgorged in the background.
Graphics all round are relatively functional, and, although pretty enough up close, strategy dictates that you won't be making the most of them if you want to know what's going on in the bigger picture. There are some nice animations though, especially during tower upgrades. The sound also deserves a mention for its hoarse squeals, techy whines and satisfying booms, but you'll not be overwhelmed.
Inevitably though, there are some niggles. Target-selection is ruthlessly automatic, and very nearly dead enemies are sometimes abandoned by turrets in favour of a healthier, more distant bug less likely to sneak into your mine. It only causes real problems a few times, but is enough to frustrate during tougher sections. Towers exhibit idiocy in other ways, too. Mine-laying towers often spend time deploying on the rocky outcrops, where the mines explode instantly and harmlessly, and other towers go into 'sleep' unless constantly stimulated by attackers, and will waste a precious second or two warming up and aiming again.
The occasional 'boss' enemies are also something of a bugbear. They'll follow unpredictable paths toward your mine, completely ignoring the routes taken by the rank-and-file, and therefore avoid most of your defences. Annoyingly, if they then destroy your base it's game over. If you don't take note of their route when you first encounter them, and defend appropriately, you'll end up repeating the same level more than once.
Repetition is a factor throughout. There are only so many mindless chitin monsters you can mow down before you start to not care, and there's certainly less incentive to defend the game's faceless planet-rapers than the cute-faced villagers of PixelJunk Monsters. Each moon, whilst being slightly different in colour and having different arrangements of paths, is also pretty similar to the last, and drab with it. Even the wide array of weaponry doesn't really alleviate the duplication; simply adopting a shock-and-awe strategy with a huge number of mortars is more effective than spending the time and resources researching the more esoteric turrets.
Replay value is increased at least by the punishing Vengeance mode, where the waves keep crashing against you no matter how many you destroy. It's unlikely to rekindle the flame of your interest if you get bored before you finish the worlds available, however, and only the most obsessive will find long-term pleasure in racking up high scores, despite the online leaderboards.
Still, on the whole Savage Moon is a well-executed and polished example of what tower defence has to offer, and for GBP 6.29 offers a great play-for-pound ratio. If you're not a fan of the genre, it's unlikely to convert you - especially considering the tough love you'll be shown early on - but PS3 owners looking for a gritty alternative to PixelJunk Monsters might well be in their element.
7 / 10