Any time we are lucky enough to get review codes, they are always requested with the intention of becoming the subject of a podcast episode. Anyone who has listened to The Monster Closet will be well aware that we can (and frequently do) talk ad nauseum about whatever is occupying our grubby paws at the time. However, that doesn’t seem appropriate for The Mooseman, simply because it’s not a video game in the traditional sense.
To use today’s gaming parlance, The Mooseman is a walking simulator. Thanks to critically acclaimed games such as Gone Home and Firewatch, that genre is better thought of than that clearly pejorative term would suggest, but while Mooseman has many of the features you would expect from this type of game (basic mechanics with an emphasis on story), it falls into a deeper niche genre: the educational walking simulator.
By now, dear reader, you’re probably starting to grasp why three semi-literate and frequently rude men would struggle to get mileage out of this in an hour-long podcast episode. There are no deep combat mechanics to praise, no revelatory AI behaviour, no breathtaking graphics to gush over.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t merits to discuss.
A JOURNEY AS OLD AS TIME
Opening with a sombre disclaimer, the developers use ‘artistic reconstruction’ to depict the myths, lore and artifacts of the ancient Russian tribes of Perm Krai. The player assumes the role of the titular Mooseman, a shaman-like figure who is chosen to embark on a journey, carrying the sun to the Three Worlds: the world of humans, the underworld and the upper world. Throughout the course of this journey, the game imparts Permian lore via text through the collection of artifacts and by activating totems along the way.
The Mooseman can best be loosely described as a side-scrolling adventure game with some light problem solving and occasional basic combat. The purpose of the game is to continuously move the player from left to right, recounting lore as they travel. Your ability to complete the game is never in doubt, although it does occasionally fall foul of some clunky UI that hinders your progress – more on that later.
As the player makes their way through the three worlds towards their goal, the journey is narrated in Russian (with English captions) as well as with a text log, explaining the mythology, nomenclature and beliefs of the culture as you encounter new environments and characters along the way.
Unlike the majority of video games, there’s no real progression in The Mooseman, the few abilities on offer are available early on and do not require any great skill to wield, but again that’s not the point. This is an interactive story and the goal is the sharing of information: the progression lies in the unfolding of the hero’s journey, if you will.
The main mechanic of the game is the ability to swap between the real world and that of the spirits, an understandably simple process given the educational nature of the game. With a click of a button, the landscape, creatures and enemies take on different characteristics (both visually and mechanically), and this will form much of the ‘conflict’ throughout the journey of the game: working out which realm is best to approach obstacles and opponents.
Soon enough, the second player-character ability is unlocked: the Mooseman’s staff is infused with part of the sun and this can be used to destroy enemies in your path. Again, this mechanic is designed to be as simple as possible.
Enemies are generally evil spirits scattered throughout the levels that move in set patterns. Early on the player must time their traversal to avoid contact with these spirits (and avoid returning to a generous checkpoint) but once they carry the infused staff, enemies will be dispelled if they collide with its power. Disposing of an enemy will snuff out the sun fragment from your staff but luckily the charges are unlimited so it can be re-ignited again with a button press.
Armed with this limited repertoire, the Mooseman makes their way through the various levels of the game, which should take around 2-4 hours. With progression taken care of early on, the developers take steps to change up the gameplay and keep things interesting, adding flying and an underwater area to the puzzles and occasional ‘boss fight’. Although you’re still pushing right on the joypad continuously, these additions do help to stop things going stale.
A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
The presentation of the game is a big draw, immediately evoking an ancient tribal feel with the serpentine animal shapes entwining the logo on the main splash page. The landscapes of the levels favour a muted palette, course shapes etched in blues, grays and blacks. Transitioning to the spirit world will infuse the scenery and evil spirits with splashes of dazzling white and ruby red creating a striking contrast and the whole game looks like a cave-painting come to life. The animation reflects this, crude but intentionally so. It feels like frames are being finger-painted as you move the character and the lack of HUD adds to this feeling of moving through a piece of ancient artwork.
The music is similarly understated, haunting low key vocals and acoustic instrumental for the most part that is injected with bombast when you encounter some of the larger characters of the story and during the battles.
The game runs well as you might expect from something that isn’t hugely demanding. Load times are minimal and the Xbox One X didn’t struggle at any point during the short play-time. The controls handled well for the most part but would occasionally feel the slightest bit imprecise during some of the puzzles. Adding to this, the game controls would remain active while the pause menu was up, meaning that pressing the A and B buttons while navigating between your collected artifacts and story fragments would toggle your powers when you returned to the game proper. Neither of these issues pose any great problems as such but it did add a few rough edges to what is otherwise a very polished game.
The puzzles would arguably be the thing I would criticise most about The Mooseman. While they are a welcome addition to the gameplay and aren’t particularly difficult, they are often presented in an abstract way, with no real explanation of how they work. This resulted in a trial and error approach that often times feels at odds with the educational nature of the game. There were some localisation issues however (mostly with voice-over sequences not containing English-language subtitles) and some of the puzzle solutions related to the lore of the area they appeared in, so this could be a by-product of this.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
So. Here we are. At the verdict.
And, I have to say, it’s not an easy one. So please allow me to take the coward’s way out?
I hope that I’ve portrayed The Mooseman in a positive light, I really do. It sets its goals out clearly from the moment you load it up, tries to inform in a way that seems honest and respectful to the source material and I think it meets those goals perfectly.
However, this game isn’t for me and I have to be honest about that.
To temper that statement: I’m on record as saying that I enjoyed Gone Home but I have literally no inclination to ever play it again. Further evidence for the defence would be my chequered back catalogue of Telltale games that I’ve played once and then never returned to
To be clear: this is not a failing of these games, or The Mooseman. It’s just a preference on my part.
I do love that games like these are out in the world, however, and they are the antithesis of the majority of people’s expectations of what a video game is. I love that developers can take something smaller, more intimate and craft it to fit into a medium traditionally defined by the grandiose and hyper-real. Games like this are important because they promote diversity in the gaming ecosystem.
So who is The Mooseman for?
I think if you’ve enjoyed something like Abzu, The Mooseman could be in your wheelhouse. The two certainly share a visual flair and use basic gaming mechanics to educate the player. If you enjoy a more passive experience, something closer to an interactive story or documentary, then this game is definitely something that should interest you.
Last but certainly not least, younger players (I think) would enjoy The Mooseman. It isn’t difficult to play, doesn’t overstay its welcome and has an interesting visual hook that could appeal to young minds. The game is modestly priced at around £6 on Xbox One, PS4, PC and Switch, so parents don’t have to break the bank. It’s inoffensive and informative while still being ‘gamey’ enough to be engaging.
And that has to be better than listening to your kids screaming at their friends and dropping buildings on them in Fortnite, right?
I’m a little out of touch, perhaps.