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7.5
                         

Developer

Hidden Fields

Genre

Action-Adventure

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NS, PC, PS4, PS5, XOne

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Mundaun (XS)

By Lee Mehr 02nd Aug 2023 | 2,790 views 

While it's impossible to paper over certain gameplay missteps, Mundaun nevertheless excels in crafting an authentic interactive folk horror.

Reviewer's Note: Though I try to remain as vague as possible, I'm compelled to bring up some SPOILERS (story & gameplay) that capture Mundaun's better qualities.  Read on at your own risk.

One of the most surprising announcements from Annapurna Interactive's latest conference didn't come from a new game announcement, but rather a current-gen upgrade to a title I'd previously missed.  Inspired by a Swiss town of the same name, Mundaun (pronounced moon-down) is the special type of indie game heavily intertwined with its culture; some real-life locations are Xeroxed into the game world and all dialogue is spoken in Romansh (roo-mawn-sh).  It's important context since that not only informs those specific choices but bleeds into every creative crevice, making Hidden Fields' freshmen effort a unique horror game.

After receiving a suspiciously-worded letter from his hometown's priest, Father Jeremias, over the allegedly accidental death of his grandfather, Curdin returns to his old village nestled in the Swiss Alps to investigate further.  After a modest bus trip establishes the premise – whilst marrying the tenor of Draugen and The Shining – it only takes a few short minutes before happening upon the place of death and getting assaulted by dark magic.  After somehow teleporting to the burning barn on that dreadful night, an old man grabs and sears Curdin's left hand, granting him abilities like peering into the past.  Armed with his trusty notebook, backpack, and a few extra tools, he's compelled to disinter what actually occurred and root out the mysterious evil that's befallen Mundaun.


Seconding the old man's dark arts is Director/Writer/Lead Artist/Lead Programmer Michel Ziegler's wholly pencil-drawn world.  Places, objects, and people all feel wrapped in roughly-hewn sketch paper, sometimes with noticeable eraser smears and hard-drawn lines.  It's yet another indie title that compelled me to learn more about his behind-the-scenes process: tracing out printed UV mappings with graphite pencils and then re-scanning that drawn piece back in for the 3D model work.  The execution gives every character this uncomfortable paper-mache texture, as though it's permanently settled on top of their original skin.  While coarse and grainy up close, the wider scenery often seems incredibly clear and distinctive.  Certain landmarks like a reflective snow-fed lake or the mirrored pitch-black spires at the mountain's peak look like picturesque postcards.

A number of technical tricks go behind this world that amount to more than sketch-paper textures, which also informs the narrative.  If you zoom out and capture the main idea – the ripple effect of a Faustian bargain upon one’s descendants – the story staples will be familiar.  It's not narratively unique; however, the creative ideas flexing its paper aesthetic to play with time, perspective, and more shows how integral that creative choice is to telling this twisted tale in a nuanced way.  Even the generic "protagonist lifting hand up to face" first-person pose hits different when seeing Curdin's paper-fingers bend in both directions.  Deciding to stick with Romansh voice acting and English subtitles keeps every character's mannerisms more appropriate to the setting as well, avoiding any Marvel-esque artifice.

That authenticity, tied with its art design, also captures a timeless quality for this folk legend.  Mundaun is mostly pastoral fields with quaint houses that only have the basic amenities: wood-fire stove, electricity, four walls, and a roof.  The only clear sign of post-industrialization is an antique, hay-collecting truck with an old radio.  Although anyone (myself included) would be quick to categorize it as a horror game, some advertising has likened it more to a dark folk tale, which works in its favor.  There's a greater reliance on surreal and creepy imagery, paired with Eric Lorenz's sedulous audio work and Michel Bareno's OST, than consistent jump scares found in streamer-bait contemporaries.  My favorite example would be the strange old man himself.  To use a familiar modern character, imagine the folk lore equivalent of Reverse Flash: perpetuating little mischiefs along with his grander evil schemes against the protagonist.  Curdin will be reminiscing about his youth while making rock figures of his long-deceased parents and this vindictive asshole will casually stalk you through the shadows to knock them over and leave.  I can't help but adore him.


Similar to the haziness of its timeline, Mundaun prides itself on avoiding slim genre constraints.  It's a four-day odyssey about venturing up the Alps whilst tackling different obstacles between daytime and nighttime.  Said challenges range from light puzzle-solving, to exploration, and – unfortunately – a slippery mix of stealth and combat.  First nightfall brings out the most notorious enemy: sentient hay-men roaming the fields.  They're an interesting foe in concept: the ghastly faces poking out of their odd cosplay, their pained way of sucking in air, and their means of psychically attacking from a distance.  It's almost like they have a magical musket where each successful hit temporarily enshrouds your vision and hinders your movement until you're finally possessed.  Again, they're a creative enemy in theory.

The problem is its first-person stealth-action ruleset is too… stultifying and uncoordinated.  To compensate for their lacking peripheral vision, their tightened vision cone enables them to see you almost 30+ yards away.  It gets especially annoying since there's no good detection feedback, be it a granular exposed/hidden gauge or special iconography to sort out the trouble you're in.  They also have a habit of quietly signaling their friends to help search, which makes weaving between scant hiding spots nearly impossible.  The first means of fighting them is with wooden hayforks, but they break so easily and there's hardly any spares.  You can also set fire traps by luring them through burning hay piles, but matches are also in short supply.  All of this is to say Mundaun's mismanagement with the first enemy leaves a tearable impression.  It's a shame too since other enemy types have more sensible rules and counters.  At least hay-men are manageable once Curdin gets more than sticks and matches in his arsenal.


Combat & stealth are the weakest aspects, but since each gameplay element feels evenly-spread it doesn’t knee-cap the experience either.  Exploration captures the low-key vibe of sauntering around modest hubs to find assorted items, be it new journal entries, keys to open optional rooms, or whatever else.  There's always another small trinket to hunt that makes it worth your while; moreover, finding certain breadcrumbs can be helpful with various puzzles.  No conundrum will break your brain in twain, but they're varied in scale and contribute to the atmosphere.  One minor drawback is – ironically – a Faustian bargain in a sense: removing glowing pickups for immersion's sake can occasionally lead to some items blending too well with the background.  It's not terribly difficult, but does compel you to unnecessarily scour certain areas with a fine-tooth comb.

Like the icing on top of a layered cake, the final gameplay piece is a modest upgrade system.  It's relatively simple: eating bread, drinking coffee, and reading weapon manuals improves your health, sanity, and gun handling respectively.  While there are a certain number of ingredients needed and specific instructions for making coffee, it makes practical sense and captures a vintage rhythm.  The most interesting upgrade in my eyes is improving Curdin's wildly exaggerated rifle sway.  It's reminiscent of a specific critique with The Last of Us' shooting: there's mechanical sense to make Joel’s gun handling an upgrade opportunity, but it's also odd to think he wouldn't be steadier than his default aim after surviving a post-apocalyptic world for 20 years.  Here, there's more contextual sense in establishing Curdin's noodle arms and softer adult life compared to the steady aim of his war-hardened grandpa. 


Unlike many recent horror indies, Mundaun does a bit better on numbers-crunching value.  For a $20 game with such humble origins, the 6-hour range (non-completionist) seems like a fine standard.  Some of that time relies on back-tracking, but it's typically done for sensible purposes.  What’s more important is how whole the world and story feel, which is tougher to parse.  It's less about a lack of unique ideas and more about wishing for one extra thing or mini-quest away from the campaign; then again, that's also a strong sign of wanting to remain on this mountainside a bit longer.

One of Mundaun's best habits is crafting concepts with multiple uses.  Sometimes it's simple, like a dual-purpose game mechanic; other times, it adds more meaning and texture.  The stenciled aesthetic isn't merely a pretty gimmick to advertise as Another Artistic Indie Game™, but also folds with the storytelling to make something unique out of the familiar.  It's a tightly-compacted folk horror that's also invested in examining a young man's return to his roots and his drive to right past wrongs.  Not every combination pays off, especially several stealth/action bits, but the accumulated successes make it worth seeing through to the end.


Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.


VGChartz Verdict


7.5
Good

This review is based on a digital copy of Mundaun for the XS


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