Most virtual reality games are first-person, and why wouldn’t they be? The whole point of the technology is to transport you to new worlds, to make you feel like you’re actually somewhere completely different, and first-person experiences are perfect for that.
And then along comes Moss, a fantasy exploration/adventure game that happens to be first-person, but also not. It’s creative in how it plays around with the idea of you, the player, being thrust into a world where your presence is real, but forces you to experience everything through the lens of a separate character in the world.
In Moss, you are a Reader, a nebulous being that bonds with one of the characters, named Quill, in a story as it unfolds. Through this bond, you control Quill, who interacts with the world and fights enemies with a sword—yet you, the Reader, can also interact with the very same world that Quill lives in. It’s this combination of first-person/third-person gameplay that makes Moss so uniquely compelling.
Disclaimer: My copy of Moss was provided by Polyarc Games. However, my opinions in this review are solely my own and have not been influenced by Polyarc Games in any way.
Moss exists to tell a story, first and foremost. This isn’t a video game with strong narrative elements; rather, it’s a proper story with some interactive gameplay elements. You play the entire game while sitting down (no virtual reality motion sickness, yay!). You move Quill using the joysticks and buttons, while you yourself interact with the environment using the controller triggers. But Moss is more interested in establishing moods, building worlds, and telling a story.
The most striking things about Moss are the breathtaking environments. It’s a lot like Final Fantasy VII where you move from scene to scene, where each scene is its own standalone area with fixed camera locations, connected to other scenes via doorways, hallways, elevators, etc. But whereas the environments in Final Fantasy VII were all pre-rendered, the environments in Moss are true 3D with real depth. There’s so much detail packed into every corner of every scene, and the animations and artwork are gorgeous. I’ve yet to see another Oculus Quest game that looks this good or feels this immersive. It honestly feels like an interactive Pixar film.
And the environments in Moss are cleverly designed to make full use of virtual reality. When Quill walks behind a building, you can actually stand up and peek behind that building to see what’s there. When Quill walks up stairs to the second floor, you can peek inside the window and see what’s in there. Not only that, but Moss has collectible scrolls scattered around the world that are tucked away and hidden, which encourages you to actually look around everywhere and explore the lush environments.
And the music is phenomenal. The Moss soundtrack has the essence of a feature film, and there are often times when it actually feels like I’m listening to the score of Harry Potter or something similar—magical, ethereal, full of wonder, but also tense and riveting when conflict arises. The music carries a lot of the weight in getting you immersed.
So, what’s the gameplay like in Moss? It’s mostly puzzle-solving with a bit of light combat thrown in. You press A to jump, B to slash, and A+B to evade. Quill can hang off the edge of platforms and shimmy across ledges. You, the player, can pull and twist and turn objects in the environment to open new pathways for Quill to explore, and you can grab and move enemies to various effects. I don’t want to spoil anything, so we’ll leave that at that.
The puzzles in Moss start off easy, especially if you’re a seasoned gamer, but the ones in the latter half of the game can get quite challenging. You really need to remember you’re in virtual reality and you have to be observant, otherwise even the simplest answers will escape you. However, the puzzles are never so challenging as to be frustrating. The pieces are always laid out right in front of you, and the answers are always obvious in hindsight. I haven’t run into a single red herring from start to finish; the developers aren’t interested in playing “Gotcha!” here. And in this sense, the puzzles feel a lot like Zelda dungeons.
Speaking of difficulty, I appreciate that Moss has no gameover screen. If you ever die, you just respawn at the start of the current room and continue from where you died. I’ve died during boss fights, and even then the boss fights don’t start over; you simply respawn and keep fighting.
All in all, Moss is certainly a worthy experience. It’s emotionally stirring and mentally stimulating, with just enough challenge to keep you on the edge of your seat without frustration.
The biggest minus against Moss is the price tag. As of this writing, it retails for $30 USD, and that’s too much for what it offers. The main story takes about four hours to complete, although you could stretch that to about six hours if you hit all of the non-essential beats along the way. I don’t want to talk about Moss in terms of dollar-per-hour value because it’s above that. However, as beautiful and enthralling as it was, I don’t feel like I got a full $30 worth from the experience. For me, it felt more like a $15 or possibly $20 experience.
It also hurts that Moss has little replayability. Once you’ve gone through the story, you know all there is to know. Of course, some people like to re-read books and re-watch movies, so obviously you could play through Moss multiple times—but that’s not really what we mean by replayability, is it? At the end of the day, Moss is a linear story that pretty much plays out exactly the same no matter who’s playing. There are no real decisions that you have to make as a player. Truly, it’s narrative first, gameplay second.
There’s another issue I had with the narrative-heavy focus of the game: I found the overall writing and the narrator’s voice acting to be largely awkward. Whereas the visuals and music worked to suck me into the world, I was kicked right out any time the narrator came on to comment on whatever I’d just completed. Wholly unnecessary, and it added nothing to the immersion. Note, however, that I have a background in creative writing so I may have been noticing things that most players don’t care about.
I’m also befuddled by Moss’s inclusion of an equipment system. Throughout the course of the game, you can find two weapon upgrades and two armor upgrades, but it’s not like they change much at all. It could’ve been a lot of fun to have a fully fleshed-out equipment system, but with Moss being as short as it is, there’s really no point—and it’s disappointing because it just makes you more aware of how much deeper the gameplay could’ve been. Instead, we get two linear equipment upgrades that do nothing.
Lastly, Moss is huge. It takes up over 2.6GB of space on the Oculus Quest, which is a hefty amount if you purchased the 64GB version like I did. Sure, you can uninstall it when you’re done, but that’s still a long download to sit through. Admittedly, this is a very minor point.
I think Moss is the kind of game that anyone can enjoy, but it might be a tad difficult for those who have no background in gaming. That might sound a bit weird given that the game is so narrative-driven, but the later puzzles and challenges might be roadblocks even with the lack of a gameover screen.
And even for those that might enjoy the game, the $30 price tag is a bit hard to swallow. I already mentioned this, but I don’t think I’d be completely satisfied if I paid for this game with my own wallet. If you’re thinking of getting Moss and you have rock-solid patience, you may just want to add it to your wishlist and see if it ever goes on sale. There’s nothing urgent about it so you don’t have to play it right away—but you should play it eventually.
Pricing aside, Polyarc has achieved something monumental with Moss, and I commend them for attempting a game that clearly took a lot of time and effort to make. This could be a great sign for VR games diversity in the future.
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