Developer: Vladimir Beletsky, Mikhail Shvachko
Publisher: Sometimes You
Played on: PS4
Release Date: July 18, 2018
Played with: DualShock 4
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
“Edutainment” is a term that’s gotten a bad rap over time, conjuring up memories of Mario Teaches Typing, Carmen Sandiego, and even the dreaded Mavis Beacon titles. However, the genre has evolved recently, to the point where the gameplay component is frequently fleshed out and enjoyable, rather than being a mere afterthought. Take a title like Mulaka, which exists as both an educational piece and a highly entertaining video game. Developers are realizing that – to keep people engaged with the game’s subject matter – they have to keep them interested in the game. Plus, even if the inclusion of so much gameplay (the horror!) results in some topics being omitted, getting a taste of a new subject in an exciting atmosphere can whet one’s appetite for knowledge, leading to further research and learning being done outside of the context of the game.
The Mooseman seeks to be yet another experience that straddles the line between game and textbook, with its gameplay taking cues from the less interactive (but oft engaging nonetheless) walking simulator genre. As a lone shaman (the titular Mooseman), the player travels through the Lower, Middle, and Upper World (from the Finno-Ugric myths the game is based on) while solving puzzles, collecting artifacts, and meeting all manner of spirits. It’s a straightforward enough premise, and the game makes no bones about its focus on telling a story; one of the first things you’re taught is that double-tapping in a direction will make your character auto-move.
That’s probably a good thing, as the gameplay that’s present is simplistic and frequently inconsistent. Some areas will allow you to peacefully meander across the plains while occasionally tapping a button to throw up a shield or swap into the spirit realm (or back to reality). Others (especially boss fights) require quick thinking and quicker reflexes to make it through. Even some of the puzzles seem to place more focus on timing than on reasoning out a solution.
In a longer game, this variety would be incredibly welcome. However, over the course of The Mooseman’s two- to three-hour runtime, it simply feels scatterbrained. Half of the game is trying desperately to be a thought-provoking, almost Zen-like experience, while the other is throwing in frantic chase scenes and epic battles that the cumbersome movement frequently feels ill-equipped for.
When it comes to those two conflicting halves, I must say that The Mooseman succeeds far more as an interactive textbook than it does as a game. The narrative is intriguing – albeit alienating at the start – dropping you into a mysterious land full of strange terminology. As you collect artifacts and the story progresses, you’ll find yourself becoming more familiar with the game’s goings-ons, to the point where terms like “Perm Krai” and “Shondi’s flame” actually have some semblance of meaning to you. By the end, I felt like I had learned something new that deserved further research, even if several details were a bit fuzzy.
This learning experience is accompanied by a truly atmospheric presentation; while the game is by no means a horror title, its surreal cave painting-inspired art style, hollow sound effects, and haunting music give the proceedings an ominous feel. I found myself frequently switching between reality and the spirit world, simply because it was fascinating to see the ways in which ordinary objects in nature morphed into mysterious, often unsettling beings. The only blight on the game’s immersive presentation is its questionable decision to display in widescreen; i.e. with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Not only does it condense visuals that deserve as much monitor real estate as they can get, it doesn’t apply to effects and filters. As a result, you end up with lens flares and snowfall bleeding over the edges of the game’s space like an image someone forgot to crop.
I’m not sure what to make of The Mooseman. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t spark some level of interest in me to investigate the stories and art that inspired it. And really, maybe that’s all The Mooseman needs to do? To introduce its audience to previously unheard-of myths and legends in the hopes of igniting some real-life passion in the subject matter? Then again, when I compare my time with it to other games that had a similar effect on me (e.g. Terroir), The Mooseman pales in comparison. No matter where you look, there’s almost nothing to grab onto. Its inoffensive runtime and low price make The Mooseman an interesting enough curio, but don’t expect to find anything more exciting beneath the surface; even if you phase into the spirit realm.