Moss Review — Never Underestimate a Pipsqueak
Polyarc's Moss introduces VR's first mascot, blowing away the competition thanks to enchanting storytelling, smart gameplay, and a terrific environment.
It’s that time of year where I’ve brought out my PS VR; I’ve picked up a few games in sales, I want to polish off some trophies, and I like performing regular quality-of-life checks to see how both the hardware and the software supporting it is growing. My first game on that to-do list was Moss, a game that released in early-2018 to little fanfare, despite the overwhelming praise it got from critics and those who have demoed it. With the recent media sprint for the physical release of the game alongside some beautiful new vinyl and CD offerings. After my five hour deep-dive into the game, one of my biggest regrets of 2018 is not playing Moss sooner.
For those who haven’t followed Moss, the game first launched in late-February 2018 exclusively for PlayStation VR, offering a second-wave VR experience. It is the freshman game from developer Polyarc Games, a 14-person team that draws expertise from prizefighting series like Destiny, Dragon Age, and Guild Wars. And their pedigree is apparent from the very start of Moss, with the game offering one of the most nuanced and well-delivered stories in VR.
Players will take on the role of a god-like being, The Reader, as you explore the world of Moss alongside series protagonist Quill. Just like any significant fantasy story, the game starts with a substantial conflict and a divided world. Mousekind have been driven from their kingdom after an invasion of demons and curses overrun the castle. In a last-ditch effort, the King abandons a Glass Relic that brings with it divine powers. Decades later, the smol heroine Quill finds that same Glass Relic and her world is turned upside down with you, The Reader, appearing before her.
The game straddles a few unusual design and concept choices. To an extent, the title is a puzzle platformer with a majority of your gameplay focusing on moving Quill around the stunning environment; however, at a drop of that hat, you will go through some action-based combat. Thanks to the atmosphere and the story that’s being told, none of it ever feels forced or compartmentalized — instead, both game types flow seamlessly into each other.
Puzzle platformers are nothing new to virtual reality — truth be told, it is often one of the better ways to make use of a shifting viewpoint and active camera. Taking on the role of Quill (via standard controls) and The Reader (via motion controls) adds notable depth to this, with a complex number of scenarios that never feel repeated. Each isometric location felt unique to every area and challenge before it, making the entire experience feel hand-crafted.
And while the gameplay is overall great, it’s actually the part I love least in this package. In my experience, great puzzle platformers can be found in multiple VR games. What makes Moss and developer Polyarc truly special is the quality of the story, the presentation of the storytelling, and just how endearing of a protagonist Quill is.
The entirety of Moss is told out of the perspective of a storybook, with a narrator providing voiceover for the actions of Quill and individual voices for the small (but varied) cast. While in the abstract it may sound cheesy, the entire game holds an almost magical property and atmosphere because of it. Think Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan, but with you in a starring role.
When I’m talking about you taking the spot of a starring role, I don’t mean it pedantically. Besides being a helpful figure, the galaxy-like Reader is a visible part of the game. If there is a reflective surface like a pond, you can look into it and see your starry eyes peering back. You can sneak up behind Quill when she has her back turned, making her jump. And there are some other fourth-wall breaking story points that I wouldn’t dare to spoil, but accentuate how VR technology can and should be used to bring players into the medium.
That other point of praise is Quill herself, a remarkably cute mascot that VR needs. Where PlayStation has their Nathan Drake and Kratos, and Nintendo has Mario and Pikachu, Quill should be the de facto mascot of all VR technology. Thanks to stunning animation, endearing interactivity (like being able to scratch behind her ears and high five her), and the fact she communicates to you via sign language, it’s almost impossible not to grow attached to her. And with other indie titles like Yooka Laylee and A Hat in Time striving their hardest to make a relatable mascot for their hopeful series, it’s incredible how much Quill and Moss as a whole outclass the bunch.
My whole playthrough of the game was mostly devoid of criticism; I scavaged every nook and cranny for collectibles, I fell in love with the characters and dynamic world, and I checked the nuance of the game’s mechanics. The only thing that did leave me wanting was the game’s length. The story resolves on a cliffhanger, one that opens Quill’s journey up to a much broader adventure. The $30 price tag may seem like a high bar for a five-hour adventure, but it is without a doubt some of the best money you will spend on your VR platform.
I’m not the only one who feels silly about spending so much on VR, given the somewhat slow integration the platform has received since launch. However, Moss has me believing that a second-wave of VR titles are on the horizons — games that are less bite-sized experiences, but ones that build off the lessons and tools those experiences introduced.
Moss is one of those games that will not only re-introduce your VR headset to your entertainment center, but makes the argument that it should be there permanently. With fantastic world building and an endearing protagonist, Moss hits way above its weight — creating one of the few captivating, must-play stories on VR.