Comic Riffs | Review
March 8, 2018 at 12:10 PM
Developed by: Polyarc
Published by: Polyarc
Available on: PlayStation VR
Anyone who has had the good fortune to have spent their childhood or early adolescence reading books probably retains a sense of nostalgia for the ways stories used to dissolve the world around them in a comprehensive fashion. “Moss,” the new standard-bearer for PlayStation VR, courts this feeling by creating a game that unfolds within the pages of an illustrated book. The world of “Moss” is snug and encompassing. It takes the puzzle-platformer and tries to narrow the gap between the observer and the observed, or the player and avatar, by capitalizing on VR’s unique ability to make you feel like you’re a part of the world. Playing “Moss” is like living inside a diorama where you can manipulate bits of the scenery.
At the beginning of the game you find yourself seated at a long wooden table in a high-vaulted library. In front of you is the book of “Moss” — volume one, apparently. Opening the book, you hear the voice of the narrator who addresses you as the Reader and introduces you to the historical plight of an animal kingdom which was subject to an invasion by arcane forces whose legion includes a humongous snake and mechanical-looking creatures whose carapaces are made of steel. After toppling the king the invaders cause the residents of the kingdom to take flight. Sir Argus, one of the murdered king’s champions, leads the refugees into a forest where they establish a community.
Events kick into high gear after Sir Argus’s niece, an anthropomorphized mouse named Quill, discovers a magic glass while out exploring the forest. The glass makes Quill aware of you, the Reader, who looms over the environment like a spectral presence. In a nice touch, if you look down into the water running along the edge of the grass you’ll see a reflection of yourself in the guise of a masked figure.
Back home, Quill shows her uncle her discovery and tells him of the presence she senses by gesturing in your direction. Recognizing the glass as a source of great power, Argus laments the burden that has befallen her but resigns himself to the fact that the Reader has chosen Quill to watch over. Still, he bids her to stay at home while he ventures out to see what trouble might be brewing elsewhere. After waiting around for some time, Quill senses that he is in trouble so, with the encouragement of a sprite-like critter who pays her a visit and tells her to make haste, she sets off in search of her uncle. Quill’s journey takes her from the forest to caverns, to ruins, and eventually the castle that was once her ancestors’ home.
Guiding Quill is a manner of thumbsticks and face buttons just as one might expect of a game on a flat screen television. But the designers take advantage of the added depth in the VR environments so there are ample incentives to make Quill weave back and forth between the foreground and background. Occasionally, I found myself looking around objects, peering down corridors or, during one vivid moment, craning my neck backward as Quill crested a rock face to see where she should go next. The game’s overall animation quality coupled with its refined use of spatial depth often made me feel like I was the spectator at an animated theater.
“Moss’s” 3-D environments are distinct, meaning that when you exit the screen it takes a moment for the next area to load. Fittingly, given that the events take place in a book that bursts into life in a library, one hears the sound of a page turning in between area loads. Other VR platformers such as “Lucky’s Tale” and “Edge of Nowhere” could not hold my attention for more than a few hours. What grabbed me about “Moss” was that as the Reader you can reach into the world and manipulate objects, like platforms or doors, by aiming the controller in the appropriate direction and squeezing a trigger. Thus, swiveling a platform to position Quill in a different spot might require pulling the controller to the side like you were snapping a bedsheet.
Even more interesting is the way that numerous puzzles require the Reader to grab hold of enemies and position them on top of power buttons, or use their projectile capabilities to hit other kinds of switches. Conveniently, you can also hold enemies in place so that’s it’s easier for Quill to get rid of them with a few whacks from her sword. If she should take damage, you can tug on the magic glass that Quill wears on her back and heal her after a small amount of time has passed. By causing the player to act as both Quill and the Reader, the game shuttles the player’s attention around the depths of its environment in a hypnotizing fashion. (Curiously, the narrator of the game voices various roles so the juggling of identities is mirrored in both the narrative and the gameplay.)
“Moss” creates another model for a successful VR game.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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