There’s something to be said about a truly unique experience. Doesn’t matter whether your knowledge of the subject is adept or amateur, there’s always the pleasing “Huh.” to think about. The gazes, the smiles as it all begins to click in their heads. You’ve created something no other mind thought to do first, or at the very least, as well as you’ve done.
Enter Hidden Fields, a Swiss game developer studio headed by one Michel Ziegler, who released the horror adventure Mundaun this year to mild critical acclaim thus far. You play as Curdin, a young man who returns to the valleys of the Alps that he roamed during his childhood. Unfortunately, it’s not the holiday he dreamed of, as his grandfather has passed away in a grim barn fire, the context of which now leading Curdin down a path of survival and exploration of his old fears and memories.
That’s all you’re getting in this review 一 or should need 一 in terms of a story, since Mundaun has its hands in various other factors of design to fully flesh out the world. Between bolstered levels rooted in progression, Central European fairy tales, folklore inspiration, and a beautifully unique aesthetic, it’s more than just a bad dream. It’s bliss provided by fear of a higher sanction, and the known becoming unknown.
Mundaun’s visual design is where the game will immediately hook you, as it’s entirely black-and-white, made to look like childhood scribblings made with charcoal. Michael Ziegler drew textures onto paper before mapping them onto a 3D space, like the Swiss Alps or the creepy monsters you’ll eventually end up facing. When paired with the jittery and stiff animations, it’s like a KoRn music video for the higher class.
Even then, the game does manage to provide an unmatched sense of beauty, and this is thanks to a skybox that perfectly lights up the valleys and caverns of the Swiss Alps. Whether it’s the beginning of a new day or the dusk punctuated by scintillating stars, it shines wonderfully, providing plenty of screenshot fodder and backgrounds. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s how Mundaun looks that would motivate the average player to continue playing it.
It’s a good thing then that progression is fairly unique for a horror game of this calibre, providing plenty of different mechanics that are all exceptionally robust. Whether it’s collecting several pre-war items for a cranky veteran holed up in a creepy bunker with his pet goats, or making a cup of coffee in a rustic cottage, nothing smacks of padding. It all feels well thought-out and given strong context through story beats and association.
It’s all surprisingly open and forward with how it delivers gameplay to the player, even handing you a hay-loader to get around these treacherous mountains quicker. One could call it monotonous (maybe even Mundane?), but it’s about the imagination. Sure, you’re merely loading hay up with no musical accompaniment 一 not even a companion by your side 一 so what’s stopping you from thinking there’s a monster in the hay?
This is a horror game, after all, and that aspect of Mundaun provides the spooks in spades. It’s established pretty early on that the foe Curdin faces is one with no true depiction, a beast with many tongues, the words it speaks lined with small print and asterisks. Resistance is considered pointless, yet despite that, they line the path well-travelled with minions… many, many minions, destined to stop you, either through fear or blunt force.
It’s got all the makings of a kids’ film that’s way too dark for the intended audience 一 a Swiss version of The Gate or Labyrinth, if you will. The monsters are varied, almost childish renditions of beekeepers, hay monsters, and zombies, all with a rustic flair. Some require stealthy maneuvers to get around, but for the more brutish beasts that are prone to rampage after you, there are ways to get rid of them.
Unfortunately, this is where the aesthetic and level design can get in the way sometimes. Threats can be disposed of in a fairly hefty risk/reward manner, using Curdin’s limited supplies of WW1 weaponry, fire, and pitchforks to get them out of the way. Later on however, the maps can become too large with eagle-eyed zombies that tend to force combat, and aiming into the snowy wonderland while it’s in a black-and-white colour scheme is a chore on the eyes.
On the flipside, one of the game’s more creepy highlights is let down by how packed its claustrophobic halls can be. A constantly twisting and maddening complex of bunker hallways stuffed with creatures to avoid. The enemies that show up here have unpredictable paths, which can be a blessing in the right type of area, but here, it can cause unnecessary delays that don’t add a lot to proceedings. The fear can quickly be replaced by mere irritation.
Thankfully the AI chooses to root itself in simplicity rather than thinking about how to outsmart the player. Because of this, a lot of these problems could be subjective, depending on how you approach them. There is still a fear factor present which is magnified wonderfully by the narrative and its writing, which retains the straightforward tension you’d see in general gameplay.
It’s the smaller details that really make the descriptives used to explain Mundaun so special. There’s no English VA option, instead opting to be entirely in Romansch, a predominantly Swiss language, with subtitles attached. It helps tie into just how foreign this land is, not only visually to Curdin in adulthood but for the player’s overall experience as well.
The writing is especially curt because of this, brief but with a small layer of unintentional camaraderie behind it. There’s one NPC in particular who, in response to “I will see you soon,” responds with “You will.” It’s both a warm farewell and a sinister promise. Good intentions, and an evil gesture. A two-toned reply, black and white in its delivery, and an achievement in its accessibility.
In the broadest comparison possible, Mundaun is to its peers what Twin Peaks is to theirs. A stunning solo work that still relishes ease of access that others stray from, and doing so with a unique flair. In the valley of its contemporaries, it’s beautiful to watch and fun to play, while still being terrifying and unnerving in its own way.
Mundaun (Reviewed on Xbox One S)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
One of the more distinctive horror games to be released in the past few years, Mundaun tells childhood stories with an adult filter, a foreign narrative in a universal core, and hosts gameplay that, while occasionally obtuse, is a hop, skip, and a jump away from other titles in the same vein.