When Subnautica developer Unknown Worlds announced that it would reveal its latest game at Gamescom, fans probably weren’t expecting Moonbreaker. Rather than diving back into the ocean for another undersea survival game, the studio’s latest project is a turn-based strategy title that replicates the feeling of miniature-focused tabletop games. It’s so dedicated to that experience that the game even includes a robust figure painting suite. On top of all that, the game features lore written by Mistborn author Brandon Sanderson.
That may seem like a big left turn for a studio that was head down in the world of Subnautica for a decade, but Moonbreaker is a passion project for the developers involved, one that allows them to digitize their love of games like Warhammer 40,000. In an interview with Digital Trends at Gamescom, Unknown Worlds co-founder Charlie Clevland explained the philosophical ties that bind Subnautica and Moonbreaker.
“We want our games to take players on a journey to the unknown,” Cleveland tells Digital Trends. “That unknown can be a new genre, it can be a possibility space, it can be a real journey into the unknown like Subnautica was. With Moonbreaker, it’s really an unknown possibility space. As we add more units, this game is going to explode.”
I went hands-on with Moonbreaker at the show, learning much more about the title ahead of its early access launch. Between tactile strategy play and an incredibly powerful figure customization suite, Moonbreaker is a game built for imaginative players willing to give in to their inner child.
With Moonbreaker, Cleveland says that Unknown Worlds set out to make “the best miniatures game.” To accomplish that, the studio would need to pay close attention to what makes that genre work so well. That starts with the story. Cleveland notes that tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000 excel at delivering dense lore and worldbuilding, but strategy video games don’t always deliver those same heights.
“I think of it like The Canterbury Tales in space,” Cleveland says. “We’re telling the story of 10 different captains. We have three to start and we’re dripping them out one by one as we get them done. You’re going to see how their backstories interweave with each other in surprising ways. We want these to be big moments. Like Game of Thrones … ‘New episode came out! Can you believe what just happened!?” That’s what we want.”
Cleveland describes the game’s story as a “mystery box” that’ll be doled out to players over years. To help create that, the studio teamed up with Brandon Sanderson, who wrote the game’s lore bible. Cleveland describes Sanderson as “basically a game designer,” explaining that the author thinks in terms of game rules in his novels. Cleveland hopes that Sanderson’s stamp on Moonbreaker will be apparent, which is exciting news for those who questioned the extent of George R.R. Martin’s contributions to Elden Ring.
“From day one, we wanted to make a game that was going to last a generation.”
Cleveland is tight-lipped on the story for now, noting that it takes place in a space system called The Reaches, where 50-100 moons orbit around a red dwarf. Some of that will be delivered through in-game lore. Moonbreaker is taking a totally atypical approach to video game storytelling: It’s going to have its own podcast. The game will operate in seasons and each one will bring a 30-minute audio drama that’ll be available to listen to both in the game and on platforms like Spotify. Theoretically, someone could follow the story of Moonbreaker without even playing it.
My demoist mentioned that the game is looking to have around three seasons a year and Unknown Worlds is fully committed to treating the title like a true live service game to get that done. Cleveland has some ambitious plans for the game’s lifespan as long as players seem willing to go along with the ride.
“To make a game like this, you have to plan months and years in advance. I’m working on units for season six right now. That’s a year and a half from now,” Cleveland says. “From day one, we wanted to make a game that was going to last a generation. We wanted to do like a Magic, or Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Pokemon. We don’t want to do a sequel; we want to do a live service game that’s just going to go. There is no end date; it’s going to be years. We have stories for years. We have cultures for years. We have everything we need to set this up for decades.”
The core gameplay hook centers around turn-based strategy in a system inspired by Warhammer, XCOM, and Hearthstone, just to name a few. All units look like tabletop figurines, which hop around the arena as if an invisible hand is plopping them along. Troops are earned from booster packs that players will get by playing (though there will also be an option to buy them outright). At the start of a battle, players drop their captain on the field. Three troops from their “deck” appear on the player’s bench and can be summoned as the battle goes on. Wipe out your opponent and you’ll be victorious.
“It feels really lo-fi.”
The game isn’t grid-based, so each unit can move freely within a certain radius by clicking and dragging the mouse. Like XCOM, there’s hard and soft cover that troops can hide behind to reduce damage or avoid it altogether. In addition to basic attacks, players also choose two assists at the top of a round, which have cooldowns. In my game, a ship hovering above the playing field could shoot space junk down at an enemy to hit them for one additional damage (every once and a while, a fish from Subnautica would get pelted at an enemy instead).
Every turn, players gain one tick of cinder, a valuable resource in the universe that operates like mana in Hearthstone. Cinder is used to summon units or execute a character’s special actions. For instance, I used three cinder to summon a long-range troop during battle. Two turns later, I spent two ticks so I could lob a grenade attack at two enemies that were clustered up. Three pips of unused cinder will carry over from turn to turn, so players have to choose when to conserve resources and when to burn them.
What I notice most when playing is how tactile it all feels, like I’m moving Warhammer figures across a board. Figures aren’t articulated like a normal video game character, so my imagination fills in the gaps like a kid playing with action figures. That’s the exact design philosophy Unknown Worlds was going for here, with imagination as the core goal.
“That was principal number one and it was so hard to get the whole team on board with that because it’s such a different way of working,” Cleveland says. “It feels really lo-fi. We thought maybe it would be really crappy, and it was really crappy for a long time! When the game is early, you just need to put your foot down and say, ‘I’m doing this. I don’t care! This is our design constraint.’”
As for modes, Moonbreaker will have two core ones to start. While there’s no story campaign, the core experience is a roguelike mode where players fight through a series of battles to gain rewards. That mode has permadeath, so when a troop goes down, it can’t be used for the rest of the run. The game will also feature a 1v1 multiplayer mode so players can compete against one another. Cleveland notes that they’ve already heard requests for ranked play and a 2v2 mode and that the team is open to exploring ideas like that during the early access period.
The most impressive part of my entire demo came when I got to toy around with the game’s troop customization tool. For tabletop players, miniature painting is a serious task. Go to a Warhammer convention and you’ll find the most careful and intricately painted figures you’ve ever seen. Moonbreaker looks to replicate that experience with an easy-to-use but astonishingly powerful tool.
When players load a troop in, they’ll have a blank gray canvas. From there, they can select different painting options, including washes, stippling, and airbrushing. Brush size can be adjusted with a slider, as can the opacity. There’s a whole bunch of colors to choose from as well and a little well where players can mix paints and select a new color through an eyedropper tool.
Within seconds, I could feel how incredibly satisfying and deep the experience was. In my session, I worked on a horse-like unit with a flaming mane and scaly sides. As I applied paint, I could see all the details pop out. I painted the sides with a darker brown wash, allowing the paint to seep into the cracks. I went back over it with a brush, adding blue on top of it while maintaining those brown accents. There’s also a togglable mask tool, which would allow me to focus in on something like an eyeball without paint spilling outside the lines.
Moonbreaker is off to an impressive start.
It was a zen experience and that’s something the developers intend – the game was even codenamed Project Bob Ross initially. To add to that experience, players have the option to turn off the UI entirely and just get into a zone if they know the controls by heart. Cleveland thinks painting offers a uniquely perfect time to catch up on the game’s podcasts. All of that goes back to the core idea of imagination. Unknown Worlds wants players to connect with the game’s universe on the same deep level that Warhammer players do.
“It’s a hook for imagination,” Cleveland says. “You see a little statue, you think about who they are. Why are they here? You start painting them and you zone in on them. You’re imagining their world. That’s the whole idea of the game.”
Though the game will be shaped by early access, Moonbreaker is off to an impressive start. It promises a richly detailed story, tight strategy play, and a level of customization that players might end up sinking most of their time into. From here, it’s just a matter of how it can sustain itself as a live service game, but Clevland makes it clear that Unknown Worlds is better prepared for that task than it was with Subnautica. The only thing the studio isn’t sure about just yet is whether or not it’ll allow players to buy real-life versions of their figures.
“The plastic is the only issue,” Cleveland says. “I just don’t want to create plastic. Especially after Subnautica, we don’t want plastic in the ocean!”
Moonbreaker goes into Steam early access on September 29.
- Every summer 2023 gaming showcase: full schedule of live streams
- Tekken 8 will kick off 2024; January release date revealed
- Half-Life 2 is getting Nvidia’s RTX treatment with DLSS 3
- Overwatch 2’s story missions are the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel
- Enshrouded is a survival melting pot with shades of Minecraft, Valheim, and Rust