The escort mission is one of the most reviled of videogame tropes, but solo-developed platformer Moons Of Darsalon boldly leans into it as its whole deal. Darsalon is a puzzle-platformer in the vein of Lemmings, tasking you with hunting down hapless "Darsonauts" in its sprawling levels, then shepherding them to safety.
It's a concept that inherently stresses me out—having to keep these little goobers alive—but thankfully they have some pretty smart pathfinding, always being just hapless enough to be a worthy navigational challenge, but never quite feeling like a millstone. Darsalon also shines by letting you set your own pace with difficulty. "Normal" mode would be what I usually go for: one star out of four, minimum Darsonauts rescued, and no optional objectives. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good.
A more daring player can hunt out level secrets, make sure every last Darsonaut makes it out alive, and also adhere to those secondary objectives I mentioned. Those secondary conditions in particular really strike me as a clever way to add difficulty, non-lateral thinking on the part of developer Dr. Kucho that dovetails nicely with the game's own puzzle-solving. There are pretty standard objectives like beating the level in a time limit or taking no damage, but I really dig the curve balls such as forgoing the use of the terrain generating gun in a level where it seems essential, or otherwise tying your hand behind your back as you go through your mission.
That's right by the way, I said "terrain generating gun." Like Pizza Tower or the best Mario games, Moons of Darsalon is brimming with ideas that could each be the core of their own respective platformer. The standard laser gun can destroy terrain, punching new paths through the levels, while that ground maker builds it back and can even construct bridges across vast chasms. The jetpack lets you soar through levels and combat flying enemies, but you can't take Darsonauts with you up there and have to find alternate paths for them. Later levels hold the promise of a big ole' space truck and even a dropship to ferry your Darsonauts through the unfriendly skies.
Each level presents as a discrete puzzle to solve, and that coupled with the high tension of caring for my Darsonauts leaves Moons Of Darsalon a perfect sessionable game by my reckoning: quick 10-20 minute play sessions to beat an individual level. Luckily, it runs great on Steam Deck right out of the box, even without a shiny green verified badge. It's a supreme lunch break game, and I think it particularly sings on the go.
I'm also still enchanted by Darsalon's presentation, especially all the Silicon Graphics-looking spritework evoking the heyday of early 3D rendering condensed into a form digestible by '90s home electronics. Darsalon has all this shiny, ray guns and UFOs Forbidden Planet tech on mossy, mountainous backdrops that remind me of the matte painting backgrounds of classic sci-fi.
It's also very whimsical and playful, with your Darsonauts' cheeky little speech bubbles and wiggly animations conferring an undue amount of character. "I hope nobody is watching…" My character intones after beefing it into a wall with his jetpack, while one time he announced "I'm not a bad player, the difficulty curve is just wrong. I learned this from a random kid on YouTube," after a particularly undignified series of deaths.
Moons of Darsalon is a real delight, an inventive, memorable platformer that's perfect in quick bursts of vexing puzzle-solving. It's currently on sale for $17 (down from a typical $20) on Steam, and you can also try out its free demo before fully committing to a trip to the Moons of Darsalon to rescue its goonishly lovable little inhabitants.