Moss

Moss

Written by Eric Hauter on 3/16/2018 for PS4   VR  
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When PlayStation VR first hit the market, I was excited to share the technology with everyone I knew. If anyone I knew wandered too close to my living room, they were immediately dragged to the “VR chair” and strapped into my PS VR for a run through a level or two of whatever game currently had my attention. “You have to try VR,” I would say, while physically forcing my father-in-law into the chair, cramming the rig onto his head.

While there have been many memorable experiences that I’ve had on PS VR since its release, there hasn’t been a particular game that made me say, “You have to try this game,” instead of, “You have to try VR.” I have my favorites, of course, particularly in the multiplayer space. But over the course of the year or so since the release of PS VR, no game has really bubbled up to embody VR and all of its potential as an entertainment medium. It has always been about the technology, with awesome games being secondary to experiencing the tech itself in my impromptu demo sessions. Until now.

Moss has arrived, and suddenly the bar for quality in VR games has been dramatically reset.

I won’t go so far as to say that Moss is a system seller. It is a little too short, and maybe a little too “indie” for that categorization. But I can say that Moss has the power to transport me more than any title in the past. The sense of place, the mood, the lighting, the animation, the music, the design; every aspect of this game combines to produce an effect that is simply breathtaking. This is a game that has to be experienced to be believed.

Moss takes place in a storybook forest, richly detailed and ripe with a sense of mystery. When the player first enters the game, they are seated in a gargantuan hall, flipping through the pages of a magical book. After a brief world-building history lesson, the book details the story of a young mouse, Quill, a delicate little creature with the heart of an adventurer. One day, while out exploring, Quill comes across an artifact with ties to danger from an ancient past. Quill’s uncle, seeking to protect her, runs off into the forest on a secret mission. When he fails to return, Quill decides to brave the danger and sets off on a mission of her own to rescue him.

The player then appears inside the world and becomes directly involved in this storybook setting, appearing to Quill as “The Reader,” a masked figure lurking at the edges of Quill’s world. The Reader is no passive observer, however, and Quill is well aware of your presence. As the Reader, you are capable of manipulating pieces of the environment, shifting platforms, removing barriers, and creating shields for Quill as she moves through the world. Quill often communicates directly with the player, offering thanks for a job well done, giving hints when you are moving too slowly, and showing irritation when things grind to a halt. Her little squeaks and gesticulations are delightful, and it doesn’t take long for the player to start feeling real affection for this tiny adventurer.

Each environment is represented as a series of carefully constructed dioramas, with the Reader and Quill coordinating their efforts to move forward to the next area. Players control Quill with the left stick on the DuelShock 4, while moving the controller itself to manipulate the Reader’s orb of influence in the environment. Through this dynamic, players can easily control two separate entities on the screen, moving in different directions at the same time. Once you get the hang of things, there is very little difficulty managing this seemingly “pat your head and rub your belly” dynamic. Working together, Quill and The Reader solve some very well-designed puzzles, and engage in some light (though sometimes frustrating) combat in order to keep moving forward in their quest.

Everything about Quill absolutely screams production value. The game world is richly designed, delivering what may be the best visuals I have seen on PS VR. There are details within the details, and the loving attention to each level becomes apparent very early in the experience. There are VR games that I play sitting, and VR games that I play standing. Moss is the first “sitting” VR game that actually made me stand up and look around. Every time I entered a new area, I would stand up and move around the room, peeking around corners and peering over rooftops. At one point, I dropped onto my hands and knees and stuck my head into an area that surely was never meant to be seen, only to find that the devs had anticipated my intrusion and placed something there for me to look at.

The entire game is like that. Every weird thing I decided to try was rewarded with some sort of result. Can I light the candles on that chandelier? No, but I can make it swing back and forth. Can I see what is over that wall behind the church? Oh, my goodness, it’s an entire little neighborhood. Can I smash the stuff in this little pub? Oh yes, I can smash all of it.

The animation of Quill herself is stellar. Having a three-dimensional representation of a character makes all the difference in the world in terms of making that character seem “real”. Quill feels like a living, breathing creature, sometimes filled with fear, but brave nonetheless. The character never strikes a false note, which makes this game seem less like a game, and more like a shared experience with a real being. That feeling contributes to the player’s need to keep Quill safe and raises the stakes in the game considerably. When I missed a jump, or failed in combat, and Quill died, I felt as though I had failed her.

The adventure itself is intriguing, and full of little story moments that I don’t want to spoil. I will say that even small moments like watching Quill climb aboard a tiny raft and sail away across a lake filled me with a longing and wonder that I don’t know if I have ever felt while playing a game before. The world is filled with teasing hints of a grand past, both for mouse and man, and it is clear that this game is just scratching the surface of what this universe has to offer.

Moss is highly original, but it does share some DNA with other games. Strangely, the game series that kept coming to mind while playing Moss was Uncharted. The stellar storytelling, the clever puzzles, the feeling of exploring some dusty old place that hasn’t been touched in many years, the sense of adventure and danger—all of it makes Moss feel like an Uncharted game distilled down into a potent concoction. Quill is a tiny, adorable Nathan Drake, jumping from platforms, shimmying along ledges, running across bridges that are crumbling beneath her. The entire time I was playing Moss, I kept thinking, “Oh, man, they should give these guys a crack at a VR Uncharted game.” The sense of scale just adds so much to the experience, and it is clear that this studio (Polyarc) understands how to deliver rich character and atmospheric mystery.

While I clearly love Moss, it is not a perfect game. The combat ramps in difficulty unexpectedly at a few points. There is nothing there that a little perseverance can’t overcome, but there were points where Quill was struggling to keep up with overwhelming numbers of enemies and her “slash-slash-dash” move was unable to compensate. This issue might have been mitigated by some help in combat from the Reader, who can take control of enemies one at a time and manipulate them around the level. However, the motion controls can be a bit finicky, which occasionally led to some frustratingly unintended results.

Overall, though, Moss is a beauty of a game. It is perfectly paced, and offers a feeling of excitement and exploration even within its static levels. The care and attention to detail in each environment are evident, from the floating motes of dust in the tomb-like castle to the busy and gorgeous mouse town nestled in the woods. This game creates a world that I wanted to live in for a while, just listening to its sounds and smelling its smells (my brain filled in that part for me). Screenshots do not do justice to the majesty on display in this game. Sure, it’s brief, but by the time it is done, players will want to dive back in for more and will be eagerly anticipating the next chapter. I can’t imagine this series not continuing, and I’m excited to see where Polyarc will be taking us next.

As a games writer, I almost never have the time to go back and play a game a second time. I will be revisiting Moss for sure, probably for years to come. And going forward, visitors to my home who wander too near the living room will be hustled once again into the VR chair. As I strap the PS VR on their heads, they will hear me say, “Forget everything I’ve already showed you. Cancel your plans for the rest of the day. I am about to put on Moss.”

Moss is a gorgeous game, with Disney-level animation (on Disney's best day), spectacular world building, and intriguing puzzles. Quill the mouse is a living creation, delicate but with real weight and personality. Like the way the best 3-D worlds incorporate 3-D organically, Moss avoids VR gimmicks and relies on wonder and story to produce the first essential title on PS VR.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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