There seems to be an ongoing argument within the world of gaming about visuals. One camp, one I hope is simply a vocal minority, insists that the way forward solely depends on photorealism and visual fidelity. They argue that the more lifelike our interactive experiences, the more poignant their stories are and the greater the empathy we feel for their characters. On the other hand, choosing to utilise retro or stylised visual aesthetics is a big gimmick, serving to keep the video game medium in the dark ages.
This argument is, of course, foolish. Games that utilise unique visual styles are not less worthy of our attention than photorealistic titles such as The Last of Us. Some of the strongest game experiences of the last decade include thatgamecompany’s Journey and Playdead’s Limbo, two platformers that both rely on visual storytelling to carry their narratives forward and evoke sympathy from their players. Indie developer Morteshka’s The Mooseman doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of those titles, but its glacial colour palette and jagged hand-drawn aesthetic has a similar confidence and appeal that oozes style.
The Mooseman is a 2D exploration title based on Finno-Ugric culture and mythology; specifically, the Komi Permians and other local peoples. If you’re interested in learning about a different culture’s creation myth (and you should be), this game is the perfect entry into a fascinating tale about gods and monsters. You play as the Mooseman, one of seven brothers and sons of the creator god Yen. You can see above the base reality and into a mystical realm, seeing entities and monsters that can both help and harm your progress through the world.
At first glance, The Mooseman does share a lot in common with Limbo. In addition to a striking, monochromatic visual style, you must use a limited skillset (at first, the ability to phase between realities by pressing the A button) to solve environmental problems and outsmart monstrous creatures. However, the game never quite approaches the challenge of Limbo. Nor is it ever as emotionally affecting, though at times it does come close.
As you progress through the game’s few levels, you’ll encounter idols. Pass by them and their eyes will light up, and you’ll get another text entry explaining more about the game’s story and mythic influences, revealing how the world was created. If you don’t want to read text entries to understand more about what you’re experiencing, this game might not be for you. Maybe this exposition could have been included more naturally and fluidly; additional narration, perhaps, from the wonderful Mariya Ludchenko, as you walk through the levels. Instead, you’re forced to navigate menus that are cumbersome and, at times, suffer from slowdown. Additionally, exiting the pause menus would sometimes trigger the phase shift mechanic, causing the Mooseman to fall from a platform that only existed in the prior plane of reality.
The soundtrack is sparse and ambient, for the most part, but occasionally the game’s tone requires an incredible choir and orchestral score. These moments are as close as the game comes to being truly awesome and transcendental.
I look forward to future work from Morteshka. I hope that, in their forthcoming projects, they continue to experiment with visually engaging art styles and fascinating subject matter. I also hope that they find ways to include information in the game itself, rather than relying on external menus and buggy UI.
If you sneer at ‘walking simulators’ or other types of interactive experiences focusing on story and tone rather than gameplay, this might not be for you. For everyone else, though, this title will provide a great journey through strange lore. The Mooseman doesn’t quite reach the heights of Limbo, Inside or Journey, but it comes impressively close, and is worth a playthrough.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.