Having been released after the likes of The Lighthouse, Twin Peaks: The Return and Midsommar, you would quickly label these as inspirations for Mundaun. However, the original machinations for Mundaun date back to 2014 when it was designed to be a graphic novel. And despite these similarities, Mundaun is a highly original indie game; one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other indie pioneers such as What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch and Gone Home.
What is immediately striking about Mundaun is the black and white shade of it all, hence the references to The Lighthouse and Twin Peaks. In actuality, everything in Mundaun has been hand-drawn in pencil. This is impressive in itself, but the ‘making of’ documentary goes into detail to just how impressive this really is. It is well worth a watch.
But whilst it is instantly striking, spend some time within Mundaun and there is an excellent story to uncover as well. After receiving a letter informing of his grandfather’s death in a barn fire, a young man named Curdin must return to the mountain village of Mundaun where he grew up. However, after being sucked through a portal in a painting of said barn fire to then relive the events, Curdin quickly realises things aren’t quite what they seem and must get to the bottom of the mystery on the top of the mountain.
Curdin luckily escapes the fire, but his hand has been viciously scarred as a result. This does have its uses though…
Mundaun is first-and-foremost a horror game. But unusually for a horror game, there is a distinct lack of jump scares. That’s not to say there aren’t any altogether, but Mundaun instead focuses on atmospheric horror. And it piles it on you from the very beginning; early on the concept of a strange old man is introduced to you and you can feel his effects everywhere. Every building you enter feels like it holds a secret, and you never feel completely safe when outside.
Horror is such a broad term, but Mundaun focuses on the folk horror subgenre. Mundaun – the name of the village as well as the game title – is up in the Swiss Alps in a secluded village but all characters speak in Romansh. It is a language that at times can sound French, German and Italian – if subtitles typically put you off, Mundaun will not be the game for you.
It is fair to say that Mundaun is split into three different areas that unlock as you progress through the tale. Each area is fully explorable and you are encouraged to search off the beaten track. There is plenty more to discover away from the main areas, and you will find it to your advantage to do so. Curdin can find food items that increase his overall health or extra weapons to help defend himself with. He will also find more things to be afraid of.
Mundaun does feature combat but it can be avoided. And it is recommended to do so in most situations. During your first evening back on the mountain you encounter strange beings that are dressed entirely in hay. These are the most basic of enemies in Mundaun. If they see Curdin they will hunt him down, and you will know one of them has you in their sights as your movement will slow down severely. Unfortunately for Curdin, the fear these enemies generate can freeze him in his place. You can break free with perseverance, but it is typically touch and go. If you can find coffee canisters and prepare a cup using the kitchens throughout the game, your overall resilience will be bolstered.
Some enemies cannot be defeated but Mundaun will tell you rather than leave you guessing. And if you are struggling with this clunky aspect of the game, the difficulty can be changed in the Settings menu.
Curdin has access to an inventory and a journal. Inventory items can be used to solve puzzles and progress up the mountain, but the journal is a terrific resource. Much like the hand-drawn game itself, Curdin can find vistas to sit down at, drawing maps of his surroundings. The journal will also keep hold of any pieces of paper Curdin finds, as well as keep track of objectives. If you are struggling at any point, the answer can usually be found in there.
Even without consulting the journal, Mundaun does an excellent job nudging you in the right direction. Road signs and other clues dot the landscape informing you of what is up ahead, and even what is back down the mountain should you desire returning. Mundaun never holds your hand on what to do next, but it gives you all the tools to help deduce it for yourself.
Despite being drawn in pencil, lighting plays a huge part and is done very effectively. There is a lack of natural light on an evening, so Curdin will need to use light switches in buildings and his lantern when out and about just to see where he is going. In one particular section in some tunnels you can see how well the lighting works in Mundaun, not only on the shadows from the walls, but also on some unusual shadows that seem to emanate from nothing at all.
Sadly, when it is daytime, there is an awful lot of texture pop in and out. It can occur with absolutely anything as well; it isn’t limited to a specific item or location.
Further negatives revolve around the fact that several times I have had to load a previous save too. There are frequent occasions where you are required to travel by car or by sledge, and at times the method of transport simply stutters along, getting nowhere fast. During the third act it is crucial to move at speed and this bug prevents that from happening, losing any built-up tension in the first place.
It is also during this third act that Mundaun begins to feel slightly elongated. It is not long by any means – a first playthrough lasts about six hours – but the ending can suffer from pacing issues. You can reach the climax of the tale but then there is another section after this that does feel a bit tacked on.
There are multiple endings to unlock – five in total – and these can branch off during crucial decisions that you need to make. The ending however isn’t truncated depending on which decisions you make; it will feel slightly too long each time.
It feels counter-intuitive to admit this in a review of a video game, but the most disappointing factors of Mundaun are the parts that have been gamified. The combat and stealth sections are very clunky and interacting with items in the environment may take more than one attempt to find the right object you are looking for. For example, opening oven doors can take several attempts as you open the incorrect doors before the right one.
But all this feels disappointing because everything else about Mundaun on Xbox is so good. The storytelling, the heightened tension and the unfolding mystery will have you on tenterhooks throughout. I have only mentioned the pencil drawings once, but this is an astonishing feat in itself; visually the game is risky but works, fantastically married up with the disturbing events that unfold. Mundaun is exactly the type of indie game that needs to be talked about in years to come with features being written about it and how it became one of the seminal indie titles.
All this and I never mentioned the fact you carry the head of a talking goat around with you for most of the game.