Review: Moss

It’s been just under a year and a half since PlayStation VR was released, and though many great experiences for it have come and gone, not all feel like fully-fleshed out video games in their own right. Luckily, Moss from up and coming developer Polyarc, is a solid example of how a virtual reality game can stand toe-to-toe with traditional video games on a mechanical level, but still feel like a unique VR experience at the same time. Though it’s a bit too short for its own good, Moss is fun, charming, beautiful and worth a go around for anyone with a PSVR unit dying to see how an action/adventure/puzzle game plays out in virtual reality.

Moss stars Quill, an adorable young mouse who is desperate to save her uncle. She’s assisted by the Reader, a character assumed by the player who appears as a massive, helpful spirit, looking down from the player’s perspective. The tale is partially told inside an old library, where the narrator fills the Reader in on information happening between the seven playable chapters via an animated storybook of sorts. This back and forth between gameplay and exposition gives players unique lore to parse through, though it does slow down the pacing of the game too often.

The simple but effective storytelling in Moss is mirrored by its gameplay, which is boiled down to just a few controller inputs – this combination wonderfully playing to the strengths of virtual reality. Quill is controlled with the left stick, swings her sword with one button, jumps with another and dodges attacks by pressing both. The Reader is controlled simultaneously using the DualShock 4’s light bar, which acts as a 1:1 motion control input. A blue sphere of light represents the Reader’s touch and can be reached into the scene to interact with objects using the shoulder buttons. One of the few gameplay hiccups comes with the imprecise nature of moving the controller around in a three-dimensional space. The game often feels like it isn’t directly reading these motions, which can frustrate while trying to solve its intricate puzzles.

Quill and the Reader must work in tandem to overcome obstacles and defeat enemies. The PSVR is put to full use here, as physically moving your head to peer around corners or to look into every nook and cranny yields solutions to puzzles, necessary routes to move forward and can often unveil hidden collectables in the process. The Reader can grab onto certain platforms and move them towards Quill to create a path or to elevate her while she’s standing on one to get her to where she needs to go. These mechanics can be used to block enemies from attacking Quill and are integral to certain puzzles where the Reader needs to grab onto enemies and either use them as weights for environmental switches or even use their own projectiles to trigger switches unreachable by Quill. There are a lot of moving parts here and they all work in harmony for a unique gameplay experience.

It only takes a few attacks for Quill to get knocked out, but by grabbing onto her for a few seconds, the Reader can heal her so she can go back in for more action. There are only a few enemy types, but they’re executed wonderfully, and when encountered in different arrangements, add various wrinkles to the combat to keep things interesting. There are red crab-like enemies that take a few hits to knock out but hit back hard with their own swift melee attacks. Then there’s a gold variation that shoots energy blasts towards Quill relentlessly – though if controlled correctly by the Reader, these can be used against their former allies effectively. Lastly there are tall, green, insectoid creatures that balloon up and will burst with harmful poison if Quill isn’t careful. Thankfully they can be knocked towards other enemies to harm them instead, even causing a chain reaction of poisonous explosions if they harm other enemies of their type. Other environmental hazards like thorns or bodies of water must be avoided by Quill as well, sometimes in the middle of battle.

While the simple control scheme makes combat feel slight and overly easy at first, it doesn’t take long for players to be overwhelmed with a veritable flood of enemies at the same time, often making it challenging to defeat everything put in Quill’s path. If the player can get the hang of controlling both Quill and the Reader at the same time, however, encounters become a unique, active dance to master – one that’s quick to get the hang of, but tricky to handle completely without a fair bit of effort. In short, Moss feels like a proper action-adventure game, not just a good action-adventure game for virtual reality.

The environments are more detailed than perhaps any other PlayStation VR game released thus far. Light filters through leaves, large animals graze lazily in the background and every object feels meticulously handcrafted – no matter how big or small. Even though PSVR’s display is generally lesser in quality to most other major VR units on the market, Polyarc has done a magnificent job tailoring their game to the hardware and it runs beautifully throughout. The true star here, however, is Quill. Her animations are adorably precise. She can be seen begging for high-fives from the Reader, absently scratching behind her ears or stretching aimlessly as she wakes up by a campfire, ready for the next stretch of her adventure. If there’s anything players remember from Moss, it will be Quill herself.

There’s a surprising sense of grandiosity throughout Moss, with cinematic angles showing off structures or large creatures roaming off in the distance. Each screen in the game is built like a diorama of sorts, begging the player to dip their head in and out of it to see every little detail that can be seen. These screens are typically chained together one after another, and with every exit way Quill uses, the resulting screen feels like a natural progression. Difficulty, both for puzzles and combat, ramp up nicely, and by the end every gameplay mechanic feels fleshed out and worthy of the player’s time. Each screen feels like a little snapshot and an intricate one at that. Unfortunately, all the kinetic effort on the player’s part to look closer at these details can begin to strain neck muscles if they aren’t careful, but a quick body readjustment here or there can ease the tension and recalibrating the headset only takes a couple of button presses.

There are collectables scattered throughout Moss for players to discover and it’s unlikely they’ll manage to find each one in a single playthrough. Some can be scoped out if the player stands up and takes stock of the environment before them, revealing that a collectable scroll is just behind a wall or that a breakable barrel is tucked away in some tall grass. Many of the collectables are in plain sight, but considerable platforming or an advanced understanding of a room’s puzzles are required to reach them, making spending just a little more time in Moss’ world that much more worth it. Achieving a platinum trophy in Moss doesn’t take much time, but the game begs to be played around in long after the story is through.

Unfortunately, that’s where Moss comes up short – it only takes a few hours to get through the entire game. While brevity can be conducive to excellent game design, and all of the puzzles and set pieces here feel well conceived and entertaining, there’s no denying that Moss doesn’t feel like a complete thought. Just as you reach what feels like an epic final stretch of the game, it’s over. That’s it: no ascent up a dark tower, no further mysteries to be solved, nothing. You’re informed that this is simply the first chapter in a larger story, and while we can’t wait to get our hands on a follow up, we do feel robbed of a proper ending. What exists in Moss is wonderful, but there’s simply not enough of it to go around.

Closing Comments:

Moss is an exceptionally thoughtful, beautiful and unique experience. It’s deceptively simple, but surprisingly deep in unexpected ways. While $29.99 USD is a steep asking price for an experience that feels unfinished, if you have a PlayStation VR and are dying to try out something fresh, you’d be remiss not to give Moss a go. It’s a game that wouldn’t feel right without VR, yet doesn’t rely on the technology as a lazy gimmick in lieu of proper game design. We haven’t seen the last of our little pal Quill and something tells us that her next adventure will take virtual reality to new heights.