Even before the team at Black Mermaid ever started working on their first game Moonscars, they knew exactly how it was going to look. In 2015, Ștefan Semionov painted a woman riding a horse into a dense forest. It’s a beautiful work of art, and Semionov realized that it was the perfect basis for the visuals of Moonscars.
There’s a lot of striking features about the game which impressed many players after the game’s launch earlier this fall. One of the most fascinating elements is the game’s art style, headed by Semionov. Inspired by a multitude of sources including old Dutch oil paintings, it presents the dark, bloody fantasy world of Moonscars with a beautiful coat of paint.
It’s something that immediately caught many players’ eyes when Moonscars was announced. As more and more gameplay was shown, the level of detail in the artwork and animations became all the more apparent. And it makes the game stand out as a graphically impressive title if nothing else.
How does Moonscars emulate the look of oil paintings and classical art through pixels? Let’s take a deeper look.
Inspiration from the old masters
One of the chief inspirations for the art style of Moonscars is the oil paintings of Dutch old masters. Painters from the Dutch Golden Age (roughly 1588 to 1672) sought to capture the real world rather than paint fantastical or religious subjects. Many noteworthy and celebrated artists are connected with this period of Dutch art, including Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals.
While not necessarily an artistic movement, their work symbolized a shift in the Netherlands away from the holy artworks of previous generations. Instead, it was a largely secular movement focused on realism and capturing a scene or moment. To many of them, there was just as must grandeur and dramatic impact in a view of nature then there was in an artwork depicting gods or angels.
As the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age are not a unified development, it can be tricky to nail down common threads and ideals. Yet many Dutch artists from this era chose simpler subjects and painting types, such as still life and landscapes.
We can observe a few shared techniques as well. Many Dutch old masters, especially when working with oil-based paints, adhered less to crafting rigid figures and lines in favor of broader, less contained strokes. Often, painters used slabs of wood as their canvas, which highlighted but also held in place the intentional imperfections in the brushwork. Color palettes often contained darker shades and more emphasis on shadow, detailing a richer mood than previous works.
Transferring paint to pixel
With such a unique art style to take inspiration from, replicating it was a tall order for the Moonscars art team. Doubly so when you realize they tasked themselves to imitate the same stylings via pixel art. But the artists pulled it off, and the result is absolutely stunning.
The resurgence of pixel art has given rise to a few misconceptions about the art style itself. Many might dismiss it as an easier way to draw than traditional 2D art, or view it as too crude to be worth talking about.
Yet many games have challenged that notion with beautifully-crafted artwork done with pixels. I’m thinking of games like Celeste, Eastward, and Octopath Traveler which make it clear that pixels aren’t a limitation. They’re simply a medium by which an artist can express themselves via a more minimalist and piecemeal approach to painting.
The pixel art of Moonscars isn’t simply rendering characters and environments via pixels and calling it a day. Specific attention to detail has been employed to imitate the brushwork and colors of a Dutch old master’s oil painting. The game’s world is drawn with broader, messier pixels that bring out unlevel terrain and shadowy figures. Everything looks like it blends together, just like the oil paintings of old.
It’s a unique art style for sure, but critically, it’s rendered in a way that aids gameplay. A lot of your screen is covered in shadows, but with only a few exceptions, you can navigate each screen with ease. That’s thanks to the detail in the interactable objects and the color choices making everything look distinct.
Putting everything into motion
Of course, with paintings, you’re dealing with a still depiction of the subject matter. Video games deal with rapid-fire imagery delivered to the player over a long period of time. Maintaining your intended visual style while also creating a game that looks fluid and communicates vital information is difficult.
But Moonscars pulls it off effortlessly. The in-game art not only looks grand, but displayed with a high level of speed and detail. The animations for attacking and moving around the screen have a sense of weight that makes it feel so satisfying to pull combat maneuvers off. Sprites feels like they’re a natural part of the background thanks to the imitation of an oil painter’s brushwork. Yet critically, you never feel like the enemies blend too much into the environments, since the latter are beautiful but mostly static.
What I found most visually impressive with Moonscars is the ways combos look. As you can see in the GIF above, the way Grey’s attacks flow into one another looks absolutely stunning. You may not fully be able to appreciate it when you’re playing — odds are, you’re focused on other things. (Like the difficult combat.) But seeing it in motion outside of that, it’s absolutely spectacular and eye-catching.
The art of Moonscars deserves to be admired
The team at Black Mermaid had quite a task ahead of them making a pixel art game feel like a moving oil painting. It’s especially daunting given the high-quality animations and the speed at which combat plays out. Yet it’s also a testament to the talent on display from the art team. They clearly had a dedication towards replicating the oil paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. With its inspirations on full display, Moonscars still manages to look unique — an impressive feat indeed.
Moonscars is developed by Black Mermaid and published by Humble Games. It is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam. It’s also available on Xbox and PC Game Pass.
What do you think of the art of Moonscars? What other painting-like pixel art games look absolutely beautiful? Let us know!