One of the joys of an Xbox Series X|S remaster is that you get to reappraise a game that passed you by the first time. The Mooseman launched in July 2018, and we (I, personally), missed the opportunity to give it a spin. It might not be the most likely game for a 4K re-release in 2021, but we’re happy for the excuse to play it.
So, let’s tackle the optimisation first. Switching between the two versions of the game, it’s hard to see much of a difference. The Mooseman was already deeply gorgeous, leaning heavily on a hand-crafted, pastel look, and the Series X|S version is equally so. This is not a game that will leverage the improved processing power with an increased frame-rate – in fact, some of the animations are deliberately flip-book like. So, what you’re getting is negligibly improved. Consider this release as a reminder that the game is available and worth consideration, rather than a transformative upgrade.
Outside of the Series X|S optimisation, there are a few different reasons to consider giving it a purchase. One is the budget price: The Mooseman is extremely cheap, perhaps in anticipation of how short it is. You’re getting just under a couple of hours of play for £5.59, and, in our view, that’s extremely reasonable. They aren’t a toss-away couple of hours, either – everything is very deliberately crafted and staged.
The biggest reason to play, in our view, is the subject matter. The Mooseman feels like an interactive myth, as you pad along, experiencing the three levels of existence of an ancient culture. What makes The Mooseman special – much like Röki and Black Book managed last year – is that it exposes a rich mythology that is under-represented in most media. In this case, it’s Chud and Parma myth, the folktales of a Baltic-Finnish people who were invaded in 1030AD.
It follows the titular Mooseman, as he moves from the Lower World to the Middle World of men, and then to the Upper World, the realm of the gods. On the way, he crosses paths with various Perm beasts, like Cheran, the spider of the Lower World, and the storm giant Voipel. These are all hulking beasts that The Mooseman can only hope to avoid on his way to the Sun at the end of his journey.
What makes The Mooseman’s world so rich is the dedication to authenticity. As we hiked along the three worlds, we found artefacts that are actually found in Perm museums, and totem-like statues unlocking fragments of written Chud stories. They can be on the abstract side, which makes piecing together the wider story a little challenging, but there’s a pervading sense that you are being allowed into a fading culture and experiencing its creation myths, among others.
The presentation only reinforces the feeling. As mentioned, The Mooseman feels like physical media. The scenery is all charcoals and pastels, like cave paintings come to life, and the animations are stuttered deliberately to make it feel like they are real objects coming to life. But it’s the music that’s the most effective. As The Mooseman climbs to the top of a mound in one sequence, and the sun crests over the horizon, the orchestral music soars. It does a fantastic job of underlining the beauty in moments.
When our own Gareth Brierley reviewed The Mooseman on Xbox One back in 2018, he gave it a 4/5, saying that it “is one you may well love, even though some of the gameplay aspects aren’t always as enjoyable as they should be”. It’s a perfect example of how reviewers are different people and – shock-horror – can hold differing opinions, as while I agree with Gareth’s statement about The Mooseman’s gameplay, I don’t feel he was anywhere near harsh enough. For all of its believability and wonderful craft, and all that Xbox Series X|S optimisation, The Mooseman is a bit of a pig to play.
Most of the problems stem with the tempo of The Mooseman. It’s not too far off being a 2D walking simulator, with very little to do beside walking forward. That would be fine if the walking speed wasn’t so slow. The Mooseman is a plodder, and we found ourselves urging him forward, or wishing for a run button. The intent is probably to leave you marveling at the scenery, but he moves so slowly that you don’t see much of it. And we can overstate the beauty: there is a simplicity to it, so you won’t be picking out much in the way of detail as you move through.
Then there’s the lack of gameplay. It’s a common criticism of walking simulators, but the limited speed makes the lack of interaction more glaring. We desperately wanted more to do. We found our attention wandering, which meant the odd swan-dive off a cliff or into a wolf’s mouth, as we forgot that we were meant to be doing anything.
And the gameplay, when it does happen, is both mundane and rough-edged. It’s not a great combo. There are memory games, where you repeat a pattern on lit up statues; there are shape games, where you turn rings to make a face; and there are basic exploration tasks, where you pick up collectibles to satisfy an objective. We’ve completed these more often than we’ve had hot dinners. None of them are exciting, and they’re all tarred with the same slow movement. That’s when they’re not introducing some odd little frustrations, like not being clear about how to interact with them.
The Mooseman has the edges of something interesting by playing with perception. You can wear a magical helmet that allows you to see – and be seen – by different beasts, or interact with locations differently. But it’s sparingly used, and it’s mostly a binary thing: wear the helmet to go through a white wall, and take it off to go through a black wall. At its worst, it can be unclear about what it wants from you. We’re still not sure how we muddled through a sequence with grasping zombies, and another with a god-barracuda.
There is undeniable love that has been put into The Mooseman. In its art, music and story, The Mooseman is a borderline work of art. It feels important in the way it preserves an ancient culture and its folklore. But having loved and played games like Roki, Never Alone and Black Book, we now know that gameplay stimulation doesn’t need to be sacrificed for authenticity. The Mooseman is too quick to sideline its own gameplay, and we would have welcomed it all having equal focus.
You can buy The Mooseman from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S