Developer: Vladimir Beletsky, Mikhail Shvachko Publisher: Sometimes You Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1, Switch Review code provided
I must admit that I have a bit of a knowledge gap when it comes to Finno-Ugric lore, which depicts shamanism in the regions now known as Northern Europe. Quite similarly to the recent Mulaka, The Mooseman hopes to educate players on an overlooked period in history and the people who lived during it, which is a quest it succeeds in.
As an out-and-out game, though, The Mooseman is more like an interactive encyclopaedia than something that will have you on the edge of your seat. Truthfully, you could probably play it with one hand and do other things at the same time, such is the languid pace of the game.
You only ever set off on a patient walk in The Mooseman; the developers were wise to allow you to auto-walk by double-tapping right on the D-buttons, though this doesn’t always register for one reason or another. It’s lucky that its environments, which look lifted straight from the walls of ancient caves, is so pleasant to look at. The Mooseman’s lo-fi aesthetics are sure to win it some fans and may even remind people of Playdead’s Limbo at first, though The Mooseman’s intentionally rough edge helps to create the distinction.
To keep the game as more than just a walking simulator, The Mooseman introduces puzzles which range from the simple to frustrating trial and error until you find the right pattern. The protagonist is able to switch between views, the real world and the ethereal, with the latter usually holding the key to progress. It’s a neat little twist to embolden what would have otherwise been a very tepid experience.
This special vision is used to “illuminate” hidden areas of the levels, such as a rock that turns into a caterpillar which can then follow you. If you see an unreachable ledge (honestly, there’s nothing apart from walking), you can then turn the creature back into a rock and climb up it to reach the high area. It’s a quirk that The Mooseman showcases often, perhaps too much. A large portion of the game is spent flitting between visions with A and figuring out the solution almost instantly.
However, towards the latter stages of the game, the puzzles begin to just feel cheap and intentionally obstructive for the sake of padding out the playtime. An upwards curve in difficulty is expected the deeper into any game you get, though The Mooseman’s understated method of translating information to the player just causes plenty of stumbling around in the dark. An underwater section featuring sticks and an overzealous fish is one that stuck in my craw the longest.
The Mooseman is, as a whole, an abstract time. Most of the narrative is implied rather than simply stated, which may mean that you will struggle to become invested in the protagonist’s pilgrimage. You can access lore to plug in the gaps (and will probably often accidentally do so thanks to the game’s clumsy controls) which is detailed and informative, though some more direct storytelling wouldn’t go amiss.
It seems like a bizarre decision to base your game on telling untold stories and then relegate most of the lore to unlockables, though The Mooseman’s relatively linear progression means that you’re never too far away from the next glyph. Accessing them, though, is somehow a chore. The menus in The Mooseman aren’t that user-friendly with only slightly accented colours to highlight the option you’re on, as well as not allowing you to simply unpause to jump back to the game. While playing handheld, you may also accidentally dip into the lore as it’s mapped to R for one reason or another.
Indie games have a tendency to focus on the gameplay over the story, to put across the kind of eccentricities they possess that AAA games simply wouldn’t dare to attempt. The Mooseman certainly does the same, but doesn’t really deliver in the gameplay department enough to warrant such a hands-off approach to storytelling. As things progress, you gain the ability to shine a light and cast a shield around you to ward of attacks, but the game never really evolves beyond its simple premise over its two hours of gameplay.
That’s not to say that The Mooseman is completely worth discrediting, however. Historians would no doubt disseminate the lore presented here, such is its depth and the lack of general knowledge on its subjects. It’s a fantastical tale worth sitting through, but a few irritations mean that you may want to use a bookmark to dip in and out of The Mooseman’s tale.
An interesting and widely untold story can’t do enough to gloss over The Mooseman’s gameplay pitfalls.